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East Timor and Climate Change: Security and Sustainable Development


Summary of full paper[1]

Merrilyn Wasson

Australian National University

International Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Program: UNESCO/ICSU


1.    Introduction: Sustainable Development in Changing Climatic Conditions

It is a reality of the 21st Century that planning for sustainable development must take into account the changes to the Earth’s climate and ecosystems that are the result of non-sustainable emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The projections are stark.  Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent and problematic of the greenhouse gases. It has now reached a concentration in the earth’s atmosphere that is approximately 66% higher than at any time during the existence of humans on the planet. Much smaller increases in CO2 in the past historical record have resulted in significant disturbances to the planet’s climate systems.


The international and scientific consensus is that climate change is a reality, which is already making an impact is supported by observable and predicted trends.


Accordingly, almost every nation has ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change  (UNFCCC) and accepted that:

§         climate change is a reality and its effects are already noticeable and profound, and

§         climate change is a serious threat to food and water security, and therefore to human health and security, and

§         it is therefore a hazard to economic growth and sustainable livelihoods.


Despite this international consensus, the negotiation of the Protocol to the Convention, which will commit industrialised nations to an average 6% reduction on 1990 levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, broke down in November, 2000. Negotiations will resume in mid 2001, in an attempt to resolve the disputed details of the Kyoto Protocol.


This delay in the negotiations gives East Timor the chance to contribute to the debate on the controversial issues of the Protocol, an opportunity that should be seized. For East Timor not only faces serious problems from climate change, but the nation has much to gain from a strategy that simultaneously promotes sustainable development and assists the island to adapt to the impacts of climate change.


Funding for sustainable development is an integral part of the Convention on Climate Change and its Protocol. One financial provision of the Protocol, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), is dedicated to promoting sustainable growth and reducing greenhouse emissions in developing nations. A second provision, the ‘Adaptation and Mitigation Fund’ is for nations that are especially vulnerable to the impact of climate change. East Timor will benefit from both sources of funding.


2.0 The Vulnerability of East Timor to Climate Change

2.1 Coastal Impacts: Rising Sea Level: Reduction in Fish Habitats:

East Timor shares the vulnerability of all island nations to sea level rise that accompanies the melting of the ice cover of Antarctica and the Arctic Polar ice cap. That melting is underway.


One early effect for East Timor will therefore be a shifting coastline and a partial loss of the tidal ecosystems that are essential for fish breeding habitats, most notably mangroves and seagrasses (Fox, Applegate and Wasson, 2000).


This will be compounded by disintegration of coral ecosystems. Climate change is a major factor in the stress and rapid decline of coral ecosystems throughout the globe.

The coral ecosystems of the Arafura and Timor Seas and the Sunda Shelf are no exception, and since the El Nino episode of 1997/98 have experienced some of the worst bleaching and decline of all tropical coral reefs (Wilkinson et al 2000).


Mangroves, seagrasses and corals are important for another reason, they have the ability to ‘sink’ or reduce the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. (Ayukai (ed.) 1998) When stressed or destroyed, however, they emit that carbon back into the atmosphere.


2.2 Climate Variability, Crops and Vegetation:

A longer term impact of concern is the effect that climate variations will have on agriculture.


As climate variability is a feature of climate change, the global impact on food security is of such concern that it is a major motivating factor in the international acceptance of the need to reduce emissions and slow the pace of Climate Change.


Where the national or regional climate relies on a monsoon, the risk is greatest. East Timor is one nation affected by monsoonal patterns.


It is feared that in a time span of less that fifty years, the inability of flora and fauna and crops to cope with climate variability will be a major problem, and as a consequence, there will be a significant loss of forests and crops.


2.3 Increase in El Nino Frequency

In common with Southeast Asia and the Pacific, East Timor and its closest neighbours are affected by the droughts that accompany El Nino events. It is now thought that the frequency and severity of El Nino events may be increased by climate change. (CSIRO 1999).


Unfortunately for all the nations affected by El Nino events, this may mean that the failure of some tree and crop species to adapt to climate change may occur earlier than predicted. As with the impact on the coastal ecosystems, the predicted changes to the crops, tree species and biodiversity of East Timor is grim one.


Together, these projections present a bleak outlook for food and water security, health and sustainable livelihoods of the East Timorese population, unless strategies for sustainable development are found which also assist the nation to adapt to increased climate variations.


2.4 East Timor’s Contribution to Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

East Timor’s contribution to global GHG emissions has almost certainly been negligible.

However, this is about to change, as East Timor rightfully takes control of fossil fuel sources in the area of the Timor gap and the Arafura that falls within the nations Exclusive Economic Zone.


Production and export of petroleum and liquid gas will increase East Timor’s national GHG emissions. However, it also presents an opportunity to promote sustainable development which also reduces carbon emissions, at least where the export of liquid gas is concerned.


3.0 The Kyoto Protocol and its Mechanisms for funding Sustainable Development

The Climate Change Convention has two objectives: one is to reduce GHG emissions into the atmosphere, the other is the promotion of Sustainable Development (Art. 2 UNFCCC, Preamble to the Kyoto Protocol).


It was at the behest of the G77 bloc of developing nations that assistance with sustainable economic growth became embedded in the Convention and its Protocol, as the price for cooperation with GHG emission reduction. The Clean Development Mechanism (Art. 12 of the Kyoto Protocol) is the means by which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Protocol achieve the dual objectives of reducing GHG emissions and promoting sustainable development.


3.1 The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in Summary

The CDM is an investment by a private or public enterprise from an Annex 1 nation, in a project in the host developing nation that provides the service of GHG emission reduction. The host nation, company or community maintains full or part ownership of the project and the profits from it, while the investor receives credits for the GHG reductions.


CDM investment:  Advantages for Developing Nations

§         As foreign direct investment, CDM funding does not increase national debt, a fact that makes it very acceptable form of investment for developing nations.

§         Approval for the CDM project is at the discretion of the host nation, which is expected to be able to direct investment into national priority areas.

§         The CDM project must meet the criterion of sustainability and it is expected to provide collateral socio-economic or ecological benefits.


 3.3 The Adaptation Fund and East Timor

The Kyoto Protocol envisages a tax on its ‘flexibility mechanisms’, including the CDM, Emissions Trading and the Joint Implementation Mechanism. The purpose of this tax is to establish the “Adaptation Fund” which will be used to assist developing nations 'particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change to meet the costs of adaptation'. East Timor is clearly in the category of being particularly vulnerable to adverse affects.


4.0 Sustainable Development Strategies for Climate change adaptation

The options for sustainable development briefly outlined here are based on concepts which have been applied in tropical developing island nations facing similar risks and with some similarities in ecosystems. But there will be options unique to the nation, and the CDM encourages each nation to work out its priorities.


4.1 Liquid Gas Resources

As discussed above, liquid gas is a source of CO2 emissions, but it is a form of energy which emits much less than either coal or petroleum. Therefore, replacing either coal or petroleum with liquid gas counts as an emission reduction. Assuming that the Timor gap yields liquid gas as well as petroleum, then East Timor will be benefiting both its own economy and security and that of the globe by promoting the export of the liquid gas.


There is a growing demand for liquid gas in the Asia Pacific region, driven by climate concerns and by economic efficiency, so this strategy is certain to yield positive results.


4.2 Sustainable Energy from Tides

 East Timor may wish to pursue non-fossil fuel energy sources, through either CDM investment in a sustainable energy project or by the Adaptation fund. Tidal energy has long been an attractive option for nations with substantial tidal variations; new technology makes this an even more attractive, low costs and emission free energy option for islands.


4.3 Mangrove Reforestation: CDM Investment with outstanding Socio-economic and Ecological Collateral Benefits

Over 50% of the world's mangrove forests have been destroyed, (WRI 2000), and with them a fish breeding habitat, a filter of soil carbon and a protector of other habitats, notably sea grasses and coral reefs [Ayukai (ed.), 1998]. Without the filter of mangroves, sediment from the coasts contribute to fish habitat destruction, to the impoverishment of coastal communities, the poorest and most vulnerable of socio-economic groups. Mangroves are essential to reversing fish habitat loss, and to restoring the coastal fishing industries. Mangroves are now regarded as a 'keystone species' for tropical coastal ecosystems. [Fox, Applegate and Wasson (ed) 2000].


Of special significance to an island nation like East Timor is the ability of mangroves to store coastal sediment. There is now evidence that mangroves may also have a role in slowing and assisting coasts to adapt to sea level rise.


 4.3.1 Carbon sequestration in mangrove ecosystems, seagrasses and corals

The carbon stock per unit area of the mangrove ecosystem is enormous, as the entire mangrove ecosystem that acts as a carbon sink.  Permanent mangrove reforestation probably qualifies among the highest yield form of sink sequestration.


4.3.2 Socio-economic Collateral Benefits from Mangrove Regeneration

The ecological benefits discussed above will result in the restoration of the livelihood of coastal fishing communities. This can occur immediately with the employment of villages in the establishment phase of the mangrove reforestation project. It will also contribute to the long term survival of the fishing industry.


4.3 Reforestation

The area available for reforestation and sustainable production forestry may be limited in East Timor but is worth investigating as an option. Reforestation and rehabilitation of degraded forests has the effect of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.


4.3.1 Rehabilitation of Degraded Forests: Ecological and Economic Benefits

There are differences between the ecological and socio-economic benefits from the rehabilitation of severely degraded forest for selective, low impact logging and the establishment of industrial plantations on afforested areas. In general, the former provides more ecological collateral benefits including:

* Improvement in water quality as a consequence of regrowth. This is one reason why China is directing CDM investment into rehabilitation and reforestation around river catchments. 

* Soil stabilisation and improved nutrient quality of soil biomass.

* Qualified restoration of biodiversity. Since ecosystems are dynamic, it is unlikely that the recovery of a forest will result in identical flora composition, but it is likely to support an increase in both flora and fauna biodiversity.


4.3.2 Plantations, Soil Conservation and Full Carbon Accounting

Single species plantations produce less ecological side benefits, but have many socio-economic benefits, in the form of employment and timber products for domestic and global markets.


With single species plantations, loss of soil can reduce the carbon sequestered by the growing trees. As tropical soils are generally low in nutrients, repeated growth cycles followed by heavy impact harvesting have had negative impacts on soil quality, in addition to exacerbating the problem of soil run-off. Where burning has been used to clear land for plantations, soil run-off increases tenfold and the water retention capacity of the soil is reduced (Schweithelm, 1999).


As a consequence of these problems, it is probable that assessing the certified emission reductions (CER) of plantation sink projects will require the use of 'full carbon accounting', which offsets emissions from soils disturbed during harvesting as against the sequestration and storage of the trees.


This will encourage the use of soil conservation techniques at sensitive stages of the project cycle, including mulching litter and placing it over the soil to maintain organic carbon and other nutrients and re-planting the stock in the mulch. The result is reduced run-off, little need for fertilizer and a net reduction in soil emissions to complement the atmospheric emissions reductions (Bruenig 1996).


In summary, the contribution of CDM project investment to the long term sustainability of forest ecosystems and to forest products for both the domestic market and for exports has both ecological and socio-economic benefits for East Timor, benefits that will be maximized if what is exported has value added in the nation. However, controversy has surrounded CDM investment in sustainable forestry, because of the ‘reversibility’ of forest projects (they can become sources of emissions unless sustainable forestry is carefully practiced) Uncertainty over the capacity of some species to adapt adds to the debate.  Mangrove ecosystem rehabilitation is much less controversial, as mangroves will usually be planted as the basis for other commercial activities such as the restoration of fishing grounds and mariculture.



East Timor is in a unique position to base its economy on sustainable economic growth that enables the island nation to adapt to and minimise the impact of climate change. As a nation whose food, water and human security is very vulnerable to the risks of sea level rise and extreme climate variability, East Timor should be able to attract significant funding from the provisions in the Protocol to the Climate Change Convention for greenhouse gas emission reducing sustainable development.


The existence of petroleum and liquid gas in the Timor gap may well make East Timor a net emitter of carbon, but it also gives future governments of Timor a unique opportunity to put pressure on the Energy companies to maximise the use of liquid gas, as fossil fuel with the lowest emissions per energy unit.


It also places the nation in an excellent position to negotiate Clean Development Projects in other sectors including mangrove and fish habitat rehabilitation, reforestation, plantations, climate variation resistant crops and new tidal energy technologies. The essential theme of all sustainable development is that it must take into account, and minimise the impact of climate change.






Ayukai, T. (ed) 1998 ‘Carbon Fixation and Storage in Mangroves’ Mangroves and Salt Marshes  Vol. 2, No. 4. December 1998.


CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research 1999 El Nino Frequency and Elevated CO2 .







[1] Summarised by organising committee