In June last year, as part of its A$200 million Global Initiative on Forests and Climate, the Howard Government set Australia up as a regional leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from tropical deforestation and forest degradation. He did this by committing to establish a new global system to monitor changes in forest cover and forest carbon levels.

The Coalition Government also pledged A$11.7 million to the World Bank’s new Global Forest Alliance to “help protect the world’s remaining great forests from deforestation and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”. The Rudd Government is continuing down Howard’s tropical forest protection road with the PNG-Australia Forest Carbon Partnership.

Last month, Australia and PNG agreed, among other things, to cooperate on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation under the PNG-Australia Forest Carbon Partnership. The Partnership is designed to deliver revenue to PNG on the basis of engaging in programs to reduce deforestation by taking advantage of international carbon markets for the post-2012 commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the two governments held a ministerial forum in the town of Madang in PNG, where the governments were expected to make announcements regarding the next stages of the Partnership.

While this program should be broadly applauded, there are underlying concerns about the nature of the agreement and the political will of the PNG Government to address illegal and destructive logging activities.

For the Partnership to progress, PNG must make some hard decisions over how it will deal with its 33 million hectare tropical forest estate. While PNG has some of the best forest management laws in the world, it has done little to enforce compliance by the predominantly Malaysian logging companies, many of who provide significant funds to the electoral campaign coffers of the main PNG political parties.

With up to 90% of PNG logging illegal and few resources provided for biodiversity assessments and resource inventories, PNG’s reputation as a forest manager is poor. As such, it will be difficult for PNG to convince global carbon trading markets that they have the capacity and willingness to monitor and enforce forest protection without independent monitoring and verification of emissions reductions, as well as strict compliance and permanence of forest protection.

While Australia has an appalling record in reducing carbon emissions, it does have expertise in carbon accounting for its land-use and land-use change and forestry sector. Indeed, such expertise allowed Australia to avoid reducing its fossil fuel emissions during the first Kyoto commitment period by taking the soft option and instead tackling land clearing.

It does not take a great deal of insight to see that Australia may want to double dip from land-use change and forestry emissions; this time from tackling tropical forest destruction in PNG. Australia has to commit to significantly reducing its greenhouse gas emissions but must not seek to diminish this burden by buying its way out through regional tropical forest protection.

Carbon is not stored permanently in forests. Wildfires, pests, disease and drought effect forests and the carbon stored within them and climate change is leading to these effects increasing in frequency and severity. To trade quantifiable carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use in Australia with unknown and impermanent forest carbon sinks in PNG cannot adequately address Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, if we are going to prevent dangerous climate change, we must have a global effort to end the destruction of forests as well as a revolution in the way we produce and use energy.

A successful PNG-Australia Forest Carbon Partnership will need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, improve livelihoods for forest-dependent communities, and protect biodiversity but also see Australia make deep cuts to its greenhouse gas emissions at home.