The timing is accidental but impeccable. Just as governments are about to launch an unprecedented effort to curb global greenhouse-gas emissions, one of the biggest carbon-dioxide gushers ever known has erupted with record force. At times during the past several weeks, fires in Indonesia have released as much carbon as the entire U.S. economy, even as they destroyed millions of acres of tropical forest, a natural carbon sink. Neighboring countries, along with economic giants such as the U.S., China and Europe, have to join forces to turn off this tap.
Indonesia, which contains the third most tropical rainforest on earth, has long suffered from devastating rates of deforestation, losing more than 15 million acres from 2000 to 2012. After a brief decline, fires have flared during this year’s dry season, fed by an El Nino weather pattern, as companies and small cultivators burn to clear land on Sumatra and Borneo.
The blazes have charred more than 4 million acres of forest and farmland and spread a choking haze as far as the Philippines and Thailand.
While the Indonesian government has renewed a moratorium on clearing forests and peatlands, local officials continue to profit from looking the other way. Such enforcement problems can be overcome, however, as Brazil demonstrated when it reduced deforestation by 76 percent from 2004 to 2012. The world has good reason to help Indonesia do the same.
Money isn’t the main need. In 2011, Norway set up a $1 billion fund to reward Indonesia’s efforts to save its forests. Yet only $50 million has been disbursed so far, because the Indonesian government hasn’t made enough progress against deforestation to unlock the money. More important in the long run, aid and technical assistance could help small- scale farmers raise their yields, making it unnecessary for them to clear-cut more land.
Above all, the U.S., the European Union and China should commit to buying carbon credits from Indonesia if the government reduces emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.