Actually, this saving-the-planet business is going to be a lot harder than we thought

In the coming weeks and months, news items and missives will start to trickle through about year-end climate change negotiations in Durban, South Africa – the 2011 version of 2009’s Copenhagen and 2010’s Cancun summits, and with them, exhortations about being in the last-chance climate saloon (one such campaign action is here). These summits are crucial in establishing a global vision about what to do and who’s going to do what on climate change (of course I would say that, wouldn’t I – after all, my academic existence depends on it).

But after the cliffhanger, all-night huddles, comes the real work.

In a rather sobering piece on a flagship forest project in Indonesia, a Reuters investigation vividly depicts the challenges that remain after agreements have been dotted and sealed – the problem of how stuff actually gets implemented. The picture is one of bureaucratic battles between ministries, the political influence of private interests, and the interplay of international certification and standard-setting agencies that serves to stymie the best-laid plans – all of which add up to a thorny illustration of how to actually design and implement a system that does what it says on the tin. And a loudly-trumpeted project has failed to get off the ground.

“The Rimba Raya project, on the island of Borneo, is part of a United Nations-backed scheme designed to reward poorer nations that protect their carbon-rich jungles.

“Deep peat in some of Indonesia’s rainforests stores billions of tonnes of carbon so preserving those forests is regarded as crucial in the fight against climate change.

“By putting a value on the carbon, the 90,000-hectare (225,000 acre) project would help prove that investors can turn a profit from the world’s jungles in ways that do not involve cutting them down.

“After three years of work, more than $2 million in development costs, and what seemed like the green light from Jakarta, the project is proof that saving the world’s tropical rainforests will be far more complicated than simply setting up a framework to allow market forces to function…

“Internal forestry ministry documents that Reuters obtained show how the ministry reversed its support for the project after a new minister came in, and a large chunk of the project’s land was turned over to a palm oil firm.

“The case illustrates how growing demand for land, bureaucratic hurdles and powerful vested interests are major obstacles to conservation projects in Indonesia and elsewhere in the developing world.

“That makes it hard for these projects to compete and navigate through multiple layers of government with the potential for interference and delay.

“We have systematically not been able to demonstrate that we can complete the loop to turn projects into dollar investments,” said Andrew Wardell, programme director, forests and governance, at the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia.

“Which is why the palm oil industry is winning hands down every time.”

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here – countries with large carbon sinks are going to want to lever maximum value out of any preservation of these sinks, and their threshold for a negotiated agreement probably is closely related to the overall number promised in terms of finance to protect such forests; donors, and private sector investors, are going to want assurances that investments are credible and do what they say on the tin, without which pledges will be cautious and commitments made conditional.

Sorry tales such as this one, are only going to hinder the pace of such financial flows to heavily forested developing countries. Even after any bit of institutional architecture is agreed on how funds are going to be channeled, agencies organized, and oversight ensured, will be an even-longer process of actually getting the system to work in the way it was meant to, as it confronts the thorny, messy, facts on the ground.

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