27 January 2014

IIASA tackles the tropics

Options Magazine, Winter 2013/2014
With its National Member Organizations in Brazil and Indonesia, IIASA will launch a multi-year flagship project for the Tropics

 © Arand/iStockphoto.com

With its National Member Organizations of Brazil and Indonesia, IIASA is launching a multi-year flagship project for the Tropics, the Tropical Flagship Initiative. Malaysia and Vietnam may come on board, as funds permit. Furthermore, Australia, Japan, the USA, and some European countries, already active in the area of avoiding deforestation, have indicated interest in very specific and case study-related cooperation under IIASA’s initiative. The initial project emphasis on reducing tropical deforestation will expand to cover GHG emissions, air pollution, agriculture, water, and related industries and markets. Although the Tropics cover only 6% of land surface, our earthly “waistband” harbors most of global biodiversity—from the world’s tallest known tree to the tiny organisms that contribute in ways still unknown to the web of life.

Felling tropical rainforests for animal pasture, palm oil plantations, or pulp and paper businesses, is reducing biodiversity that has evolved over thousands of years. Moreover, the peatlands that cradle many tropical swamp forests have accumulated huge soil carbon that, when disturbed, particularly through large-scale drainage and slash-and-burn land clearances, switch from being a carbon sink to a carbon source. According to WWF, deforestation
worldwide is responsible for around 15% of all greenhouse gases (GHGs), equal to the global transport sector. Over half of this (51%) is generated by Brazil and Indonesia, home to the biggest rainforests in South America and southeast Asia, respectively.

To stop deforestation and for long-term social and economic prosperity, it is crucial that tropical countries move toward sustainable forest management through a UN process known
as Reducing Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). The REDD process, recognized at COP13 in Bali, added a “+” factor in 2010 to signify the addition of forest sustainability
criteria to the original aims.

IIASA’s new Tropical Flagship Project will begin with a focus on tropical deforestation and will expand to cover emissions, air pollution, agriculture, and water. The first step is a quantitative
global, regional, and national REDD+ assessment for Brazil and Indonesia. Researchers will assess policy options, mitigation potentials, investment costs in forestry and agriculture, linkages to the different carbon markets, and synergies as well as trade‑offs with other environmental policies and the bio-economy in general. IIASA models such as the global economic land use model (GLOBIOM) and the global biophysical forestry model (G4M) will be used to support high-resolution policy planning for avoiding deforestation, as well as promoting REDD+ and biodiversity protection.

Some 75 countries are now ready to implement a national REDD architecture based on

  • the generation of measurable, reportable and verifiable (MRV) REDD+ credits, and
  • the sustainable and efficient provision of emission reductions under a robust financing regime.

The next step in this informal process will be a close link between the Tropical Flagship Project and IIASA’s REDD+ Policy Assessment Centre (REDD-PAC), a project launched in 2011 that is funded by the German International Climate Initiative (IKI). This will help to solidify gains already made, add more technical know-how, and provide a global forum for sharing and improving data.

Brazil and Indonesia have been involved in avoiding deforestation and in REDD activities at the subnational level. Through REDD efforts to date, Brazil has been able to establish more than 200,000 square kilometers of protected areas in the Amazon rainforest, bringing deforestation down “by a whopping 78% from its recent high in 2004,” according to Nature (486:5). “If Brazil can maintain that progress,” the journal continues, “it would be the biggest environmental success story in decades, and would set an example to other countries that want to protect their tropical forests.” Indonesia is also in the process of substantially slashing deforestation rates. Through IIASA’s new project, the successes of Brazil can be transferred to Indonesia. The latter can then put itself on the world map of climate mitigation giants, while developing a new export industry of ecosystem services.

“This project is uniquely positioned to generate key elements of transformational change,” says Dr. Michael Obersteiner, Leader of IIASA’s Ecosystems Services and Management (ESM)
Program, which will head up the new project, including liaison with in‑country organizations and international partners. "A key enabling mechanism will be a research school to build in‑situ quantitative assessment capacity and provide active technology transfer among project partners.”

A second step will be to refine research to the province level. The Indonesian provinces of Central Kalimantan, East Kalimantan, and Jambi in south-central Sumatra are early front runners for inclusion in the project. Here, natural forests have been felled to make way for development in the form of new jobs, residential areas, and industrial and agricultural initiatives, with associated emissions of carbon dioxide and the loss of forest carbon sinks and
biodiversity. Research is already under way to find a sustainable way of producing palm oil, a mainstay of tropical economies given its worldwide use—some 50% of supermarket products,
from food to soaps, contain palm oil.

The younger generation of Indonesia worry about their tropical future. Ade, Desy, and Yulina—eighth graders at a Central Kalimantan school, Bina Cita Utama—write in their environmental blog:

“The world would die without trees, just like a person would die without lungs. Burning forests and illegal loggings also could narrow the forest as a habitat of the animals in the forest. It could kill the animals and make them extinct, [and] also cause an imbalance in the forest ecosystem.”

In the coming years, IIASA and its partners in the Tropical Flagship Project will be helping to meet the aspirations of those children and of many more people whose wellbeing and livelihoods depend on the health of the Tropics.

Text by Kathryn Platzer

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Last edited: 09 October 2014


Florian Kraxner

Research Group Leader

Agriculture, Forestry, and Ecosystem Services Research Group

Biodiversity and Natural Resources Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 233

Michael Obersteiner

Senior Research Scholar

Exploratory Modeling of Human-natural Systems Research Group

Advancing Systems Analysis Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 460

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