Deforestation: Indonesia’s best practice and European ambiguitiesBY LUCA BELLARDINI

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When it comes to sustainability, the gap between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’ is well-known and recurring. However, there is no shortage of virtuous examples: for example, Indonesia, Congo and Brazil recently renewed their commitment against deforestation, signing an important declaration of intent on the subject – on the sidelines of the COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh. Many commentators have emphasised the window-dressing value of the event, which will certainly have to be followed by concrete actions; yet, to assess the credibility of the signatories, it would suffice to carefully read the available data. 

Indonesia is an example. There, with a population of 276 million in 2021 (+30 in the previous decade), much of the deforestation is due to the expansion of urban areas: a trend that is shared with various parts of South-East Asia. But not everyone emphasises another, equally important element: the fact that urbanisation, in turn, may be the answer to the perverse effects of climate change. The most obvious proof of this is the construction of the new capital in the Kalimantan region, now that Jakarta is threatened by rising sea levels.

Beyond this, the numbers say that – despite the need to cope with a significant increase in population while continuing to grow – Indonesia remains among the most advanced countries in the fight against deforestation. Not only: as a testimony to its nature as an emerging economy, it has also managed to make vegetable oils – such as palm oil – a very important component of the national production system, with a value chain that originates locally but extends globally. What is taken away from wild deforestation is thus the basis of a sustainable and certified supply chain, of high utility in many sectors. The figures of Global Forest Watch (link) show that deforestation has come to a decisive halt in the five-year period 2017-21: both due to the reduced extent of forest areas sacrificed and the reduced impact of fires. If we consider the highest level of ‘vegetation cover’ – hence a more restrictive definition of forest – among the conventional ones (75 per cent), we note that the amount lost year by year has significantly decreased compared to the peak reached in 2012, when it had exceeded 2.1 million hectares (more than 1 per cent of the forest area in 2000). In 2020, it was below 800,000 hectares: over that time, on average, deforestation has receded by 11.4% each year. Apparently, however, Europe is experiencing the opposite trend: an important study published in Nature (Ceccherini et al., 2020; link) reports that, comparing the three-year period 2016-18 with the period 2011-15, satellite data would show a significant acceleration in the expansion of cultivated areas to the detriment of forests (+49%) and also in the loss of biomass (+69%). As summarised in a paper by Mary S. Booth (link) for the Partnership for Policy Integrity, the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] data show not only the extent of deforestation but, inevitably, also the depletion of carbon stocks in the soil (which in itself is perhaps even more dangerous).

Surprising as the gap between the EU’s bombastic environmentalist pronouncements and the reality of things may be, what is happening is no accident. First of all, it is linked to the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, which is both cause and consequence of the surge in energy commodity prices: respectively due to the regulatory push towards renewables on the supply side and the ‘substitution effect’ brought about by relative prices of alternative consumption on the demand side. 

This phenomenon pushes EU Member States to reorient their strategies in favour of natural heaters (e.g. wood harvested in forests), in defiance of the most elementary objectives of protecting the ecological heritage: as is well known, burning biomass is a conspicuous emitter of CO2. In 2020, moreover, the volumes of use were about 2.4 times those of 1990: an expansion driven, yes, by the boom in energy production, which weighs in at around 30% of the total; but also by the still very sustained increase in the industrial sector (just over a fifth of the total) and, to a notable but lesser extent, also in the residential and commercial sectors (almost half of the total volumes). The result is that, with the progressive impoverishment of forestry land, and in the face of strongly growing demand, timber production is now insufficient to cover requirements: in the end, therefore, many European countries are net importers of biomass.

In light of this, it goes without saying that net zero targets not only in 2030 but also in 2050 are now unrealistic. Therefore, the age-old dichotomy of Brussels reappears in this context: committed to ultra-regulation of the most minute aspects such as domestic technologies, incapable of expressing a coherent vision on major strategic issues of international scope. In the policy sphere, there is still a long way to go: from regulatory harmonisation to a more effective definition of disclosure obligations on this type of activity, to the redefinition of objectives to avoid them being pursued by highly questionable means.

The deforestation of tropical areas is certainly not a ‘mote’, but we cannot ignore the ‘beam’ in Europe’s eye: especially looking at the best practices of countries like Indonesia, which has many more virgin areas and far more pressing development needs than ours. 

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