Stopping the Burning Season

Can carbon trading save Indonesia’s forests?

May 8, 2009
Indonesian orangutans are losing their habitat to palm oil farms.  Some researchers believe that carbon <br> trading could slow the deforestation [Credit: Stéfan, flickr.com].
Indonesian orangutans are losing their habitat to palm oil farms. Some researchers believe that carbon
trading could slow the deforestation [Credit: Stéfan, flickr.com].

Fires scorch the forests in the Aceh province in Northwest Indonesia, fires started by palm oil farmers so they can plant their crops on the cleared land. Amid the smoldering ash, a spot of orange fur flickers behind the smoke clouds. When the smoke clears, a lone orangutan scours the debris for any semblance of its former home.

“I remember seeing the smoke plume just come across Southeast Asia and I thought [that] this couldn’t be good for the planet,’” said Cathy Henkel, whose newest film, Burning Season, opens with this scene of burnt forests and homeless orangutans and debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which ran from April 22 to May 3.

For most Indonesian farmers, harvesting palm oil is the only way to make a living from their land. Indonesian palm oil exports topped $7.8 billion in 2007. As a result, local forests are disappearing at a rate of 300 football fields every hour. Palm oil is an ingredient in many supermarket mainstays – from frozen dinners and ice cream to soap and make-up.

Orangutans are the face of deforestation, much the way polar bears are the face of melting ice caps. Deforestation leads to the killing of over 3,000 orangutans in Indonesia every year, according to The Nature Conservancy, an environmental protection group. Aside from affecting biodiversity, 20 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – a major contributor to global climate change – is from deforestation. Until recently, policymakers have focused on coal-burning power plants and SUVs as global warming culprits, but in 2007, for the first time, the United Nations Framework Commission on Climate Change included forests as official sources of carbon emissions—and targets for action. As a result, entrepreneurs are building businesses that save forests by making them worth more standing than torched.

“Now is the time for entrepreneurs to do good and do it well,” said Dorjee Sun, founder of Carbon Conservation, a carbon trading company, and the subject of Henkel’s film. Henkel and Sun spoke in a panel discussion after the film’s debut last week at the School of Visual Arts Theater in New York City.

Carbon trading is one way to protect forests and help the locals earn a living, explained Henkel. As governments begin to put carbon emission limits on factories, those that exceed these limits must pay to offset their emissions, for example, by planting one tree for every two pounds of carbon emitted, or by protecting carbon-soaking forests, like those in Indonesia. If a large percentage of the payments go to the locals that live in the forests, then they have a financial incentive to not burn down their trees. Dorjee Sun’s company is one of the first to put this idea into practice, attracting investors like Bank of America.

“I said, ‘Hey, if it’s not going to be me, who’s going to do it?’” said Sun.

Not everyone thinks carbon trading is ethical. Some environmental groups are concerned this might be a way for big companies to buy their way out of being green, since those that exceed their carbon limit aren’t actually reducing emissions, they’re simply paying someone else to clean up their carbon. These environmentalists want to tax carbon or simply boycott products from deforested areas.

“But if you have a boycott, the villagers will starve,” said Henkel.

Sun is also skeptical of boycotts, since environmentalists have suggested them for years, with no result. He sees carbon trading as a clever way to convince companies to fund green projects until lawmakers pass more stringent carbon limits.

Until now, companies have used forests as free septic tanks to store their carbon waste. Determining whether carbon trading can help clean up that waste, and save the forests, will have to wait until companies like Carbon Conservation actually start trading carbon credits in the near future.

Related on Scienceline:

Are old forests carbon neutral?

A new frontier of ocean carbon storage.

Climate changes are pushing rain forests to the point of no return.

About the Author

Brett Israel

Brett moved from the ATL to the Big Apple and joined the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) at NYU to refine his science writing skills and to learn how to earn a paycheck as a science journalist. Brett Israel graduated with a B.S. in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Georgia and then spent time in the biochemistry Ph.D. program at Emory University. While looking for something to keep him busy outside of lab, he started covering science for the Emory student newspaper and discovered a greater passion for writing about the work of others than performing his own experiments. In his free time, Brett enjoys cheering for the Georgia Bulldogs and any pro sports team from Atlanta, and riding Greyhound buses up and down the east coast.

Brett lives in Brooklyn, New York with his pit bull Hanks.


1 Comment

Maria Kalimantan says:

What a terrible piece. This doesn’t explain the serious shortcomings of carbon trading that have ALREADY been experienced.

Without reduced GHG emissions by you people in the west (that is, without a shut down of your coal, “natural” gas, and oil plants) climate change will accelerate and forests will die ANYHOW. This carbon deal to ENRICH people like DORJEE and this DECEPTIVE movie ignore that basic fact.

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