UK Spin on COP26 Declaration Angers Indonesia

Social media and the environmental press went into overdrive at the weekend with the news that Indonesia had taken issue with the way the UK had presented the Glasgow Declaration on Climate and Land Use.

More specifically, Indonesian officials objected to a piece by UK international climate minister Zac Goldsmith in The Guardian that stated “The UK has built a coalition of countries all committed to ending deforestation by the end of this decade.”

So, what is the problem?

This isn’t actually what Glasgow Declaration signatories signed up to. The Glasgow Declaration states that countries “commit to working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.”

There’s a significant qualitative difference here.

The general understanding – particularly under Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) definitions – is that ‘deforestation’ takes place when forests are permanently converted: “Conversion of forest to non-forest.”

But forest loss or forest area loss can take place when, for example, forest cover is lost and is subsequently regrown within a forest area. Net zero forest loss – like net zero emissions – is when forest area remains stable, regardless of whether different areas are being lost or gained.

These definitions matter, particularly in countries where food still needs to be grown for a rising population.

It’s no surprise, then, that two Indonesian ministers were somewhat incensed by what they saw as Western officials moving the goalposts.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mahendra Siregar said, “Indonesia is willing to engage on forest management at the global level to address climate change … It is important to move beyond mere narrative, rhetoric, arbitrary targets and sound bites.”

Siregar’s point seemed to be that Goldsmith wanted to announce to his UK audience an ‘end’ to deforestation, even though no such commitment existed under the terms of the Agreement.

Environment and Forests Minister Siti Nurabaya laid out the case in more technical terms. She stated on a lengthy Twitter post that “FoLU net carbon sink 2030 should not be interpreted as zero deforestation. This needs to be understood by all parties for the national interest.”

To understand how big a deal this was to Indonesia, she even evoked the spirit of Indonesian independence, stating:

“The massive development of President Jokowi’s era must not stop in the name of carbon emissions or in the name of deforestation … Stopping development in the name of zero deforestation is the same as going against the mandate of the 1945 Constitution for values and goals establishment, building national goals for social and economic welfare of the people.”

Over the past decade, it has become quite clear that Indonesia’s senior officials have felt slighted by the ‘Western climate establishment’, for lack of a better term. Whether it was Norway’s recent delays and nitpicking on deforestation payments, the banning of palm oil under the EU RED, or ongoing duties on Indonesian goods in the US.

In this context, any seasoned observer could see that this script deviation by Goldsmith was bound to raise ire – even if to a casual observer it may not look like much of a difference.

Much of the news media clearly fall into the latter category, and have ignored the nuance and spent the past few days declaring Indonesia’s response to be an ‘about face’.

At the same time, though, there were a large number of environmental groups that took issue with the Glasgow Declaration in the first place. Greenpeace, for example, called it “a green light for another decade of forest destruction.”

In both cases what is missed is that Indonesia is taking its commitment here seriously. The point of Indonesia signing up to the Glasgow Declaration and to a net zero target was because Indonesia’s forest estate as a net sink would make this target achievable: both go hand in hand. As Minister Surabaya said:

“Through the FoLU net carbon sink agenda, Indonesia affirms its commitment to control emissions from the forestry sector and land use so that carbon neutrality occurs in the forestry sector by 2030 … Even in that year and so on, it could become negative, or there would be carbon sequestration/storage in the forestry sector.”

Having this commitment ‘misinterpreted’ by Goldsmith was therefore unfortunate, and has taken the sheen off what should have been a triumph for both countries.

The lesson to be learned should probably be in Goldsmith’s press office, and it’s simple: the technical aspects matter to your partners. Next time, don’t sacrifice technical accuracy in the name of a good write up in The Guardian.