In these climate conscious times, new ideas and initiatives for “saving the planet” are coming thick and fast.

In news this week from Australia, the Environment Minister, former investment banker and Australian Republican Movement heavyweight Malcolm Turnbull, has announced that Australia will “lead the world” through “a material advance in the global effort to tackle climate change and protect the world’s forests”. The target of the Australian program will be stopping deforestation “particularly, but not exclusively, in the South-East Asia and Pacific regions”.

The Australian government’s scheme, called the “Global Initiative on Forests and Climate”, was announced with the backing of the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister (the video of their statements is available from Malcolm Turnbull’s site). According to reports, it will be managed by AusAID. In material terms, Australia has pledged A$200 million to “support new forest planting; limit destruction of the world’s remaining forests; promote sustainable forest management; and encourage contributions from other countries”.

The announcement states (my emphasis added):

In relation to the provision of incentives to developing countries for sustainable forestry practices and reducing net forest loss, we expect to explore a range of approaches that reflect the differing needs and circumstances of different countries. However, a common element of any incentives is that they will be provided only on the achievement of pre-agreed forest sustainability milestones (e.g. agreed reductions in national deforestation rates). Measurement of achievement of these milestones will be underpinned by the investment in the technology and systems to robustly monitor forest resources.

This new government program comes in a week when visiting global climate guru Sir Nicholas Stern‘s condemnation of Australia’s climate policy is still on many minds. In this context, Senator Bob Brown, of the Australian Greens, has many critical things to say. On ABC radio he declared:

Our Prime Minister is a forest fool. He believes the Australian people will be satisfied with him putting $200 million into south-east Asia while he licenses massive damage to the atmosphere through his own forest burning regime, authorised in southern Australia. It just doesn’t make sense.

But – right now, at least – I’m far more interested in the mechanics of any such scheme (whether funded by Australia or other countries) to stop deforestation in Southeast Asia.

One would imagine that much of this money will be spent in Indonesia but there other Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma, which could also be beneficiaries. In any of these countries there are a plethora of forest management issues. The question is – will more money and better technology help to solve them?

In November 2006 I wrote, somewhat skeptically, of a proposal to increase Burma’s GDP by paying that country to stop cutting down trees. Such schemes are usually referred to as “avoided deforestation“. I imagine, although there are yet no real details, that the Australian government is now planning to “incentivize” Southeast Asian trees along similiar lines.

Back in November, I suggested that “big and unfathomable questions remain”. For the Burmese case, I asked:

  • Will the junta share any newfound carbon wealth with ceasefire groups?
  • Will it make payments so that its sworn enemies, like the KNU, can profitably disavow logging as a way of making money?
  • Who will be responsible for ensuring that the desired “trickle-down” actually occurs?
  • Can the Burmese junta legitimately negotiate on behalf of all of the people and firms who actually cause deforestation?

While the details of the Australian government’s new plans are still vague, I do wonder whether these kinds of political and economic questions are being pondered at all.

In Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia or Laos, any effort to reduce deforestation is likely to become tangled in all manner of “unexpected” local interactions. Announcing that Australia will become a player in the netherworlds of Southeast Asian logging is a confident move. However, on the ground – as even a small selection of relevant New Mandala posts demonstrate – “avoiding deforestation” is not as easy (or as clear) as some politicians might lead us to believe.

What do New Mandala readers think? What will come of Australian investment targeted at stopping deforestation in Southeast Asia? What impact can this kind of program have? Is this a step in the right direction or simply ill-informed meddling?

As always, your ideas, comments and anecdotes are very welcome here.

And, finally, a big thanks to Paul – Asian Studies scholar and long-time New Mandala reader – for drawing my attention to this emerging issue.