Cambodia Pledges Forest Protection, Coal Reduction at Open of COP26

6 min read
A patchwork of clearings dot the southerns parts of the Prey Preak Roka Wildlife Sanctuary in September 2021. (Heng Vichet/VOD)
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As the world heads into the global climate conference with a goal toward reaching net zero emissions, Cambodian officials have promised an end to future coal-fired power plants and to grow forest protection projects to neutralize emissions.  

Sunday marked the start of the U.N.’s global climate change conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, and pressure is growing globally for the world’s highest-emitting countries like the United States and China to drop fossil fuels from their energy requirements and move toward net zero emissions, especially as climate disasters grow more devastating. 

Country delegates promised to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius when they met for the same conference five years ago, but emissions continue to rise, even as the Covid-19 pandemic hindered industries and air travel throughout last and this year. 

The conference generally pitches wealthy, high-emitting and highly-industrialized nations against low-emitting and less-industrial countries, especially those in the Pacific Islands that first feel the strain of rising water levels and temperatures. 

With emissions of 69.18 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, Cambodia is considered among the least developed countries, emitting about 0.02 percent of global annual emissions and 0.5 percent of the 11,705.81 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent that China produced in 2018, according to emissions as measured by the World Resources Institute. 

According to data published by the World Bank, which appears to vary from the WRI emissions data, Cambodia had 0.7 metric tons per capita in 2018, which is dwarfed by emissions in the U.S and Canada, which were 15.2 and 15.5 metric tons per capita in the same year. While China emits the most emissions globally, it had 7.4 metric tons of CO2 per capita. 

Ahead of the conference, Choup Paris, director general for environmental knowledge and information department in the Environment Ministry, told VOD that the country’s biggest concern is to see developed countries make significant contributions toward reducing their emissions. 

“Cambodia is not the one who’s damaging the atmosphere,” he said. “We’re a low emitting country, we’re hit by climate change. … We insist or ask the countries to do their commitments through the carbon neutralizing mechanisms.” 

Paris continued that Cambodia’s raw emissions released into the environment would increase in order for the country to develop further as energy demand grows, but the country pledged this year to reduce net emissions from what they otherwise would have through forest protection projects, as dense forests can effectively absorb carbon dioxide emissions and convert them to oxygen. 

In its updated pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Cambodia promised to reduce its estimated 2030 net emissions to 90.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, down from the 155 million metric tons of emissions estimated if the country took no actions. Cambodia believes it can do this mostly through REDD+, a program where the country protects forests in order to neutralize emissions. 

Cambodia has previously earned income for protecting its forest under REDD+ schemes — bought voluntarily as carbon credits by companies including Disney, Shell and Gucci so they can report smaller net emissions — but Cambodia would need to set aside some carbon credits to use for its own emissions reduction under that scheme. 

Paris also called for higher prices for carbon credits on the voluntary market so Cambodia and other developing countries better protect forests. 

“If the carbon [credits] can be raised to a higher price, it’s a big encouragement for the developing countries to protect the forests of the world and for the benefit of the world.”

When asked whether Cambodia’s high rates of deforestation and the government’s crackdown on forest defenders would discourage other countries and companies from buying Cambodia’s carbon credits, Paris claimed deforestation was still low in Cambodia. 

“We’re a developing country so we still have that [deforestation] but at a very small scale, so its not impacting to the big forest, because if you’re talking about Prey Lang [Wildlife Sanctuary], they’re saying the fake information, somebody is just attacking … but if you look at the whole of the country, it’s rich in the forest.”

When asked about USAID’s decision to move money away from government-supported forest patrols under the Greening Prey Lang because the country is “not adequately” stopping illegal logging in Prey Lang, Paris said he didn’t work with the project, but noted that $21 million aid project was not completely canceled, just shifted. 

Paris could not answer specific questions as to how Cambodia would finance other emissions reduction techniques, such as updating building infrastructure and onboarding public transportation — likely requiring aid money or loans from other nations. However, he said his department in the Environment Ministry looks to protect the environment to the best of its abilities on a low budget. 

“Talking about resources and finance, there’s never enough, it is the nature, everybody wishes to have more and more budget,” Paris said. “That’s why my side is looking only at how to protect the forests with limited resources, because we have to make use of our resources available to protect the forests as good as possible.” 

Karolien Casaer-Diez, country director for the Global Green Growth Institute, told VOD that “it’s a race against the clock” for countries to move away from fossil fuels, noting that we’re already experiencing severe impacts of climate change in Cambodia and around the world. However, she emphasized that it’s primarily the U.S., China and other high-emitting countries that “have a lot of homework to do” in terms of reducing emissions. 

She noted that Cambodia’s decision to build new coal-fired power plants is not ideal, but the country also is still developing, and at a much smaller rate than the world’s massive economies.  

“When you’re looking at the bigger scheme of things, Cambodia emits very little, 0.02 percent of the global share,” she said. “We have better things to do than lecture Cambodia about emissions.” 

Casaer-Diez indicated that Environment Minister Say Samal, who is attending the conference for Cambodia, is also working on a plan to reach net zero emissions in the future, suggesting it could be announced before the end of COP26, though announcing this plan before the conference ends on November 12 would be a tight deadline, she said. 

Over the weekend, Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem announced the government would not approve new coal-fired power plants that were approved after 2019, according to a report from Fresh News. However, it wasn’t immediately clear whether two coal-fired power plants, approved by the Council of Ministers in 2020, would be affected by this proclamation. 

Weeks before the conference, China announced it would drop funding for coal-fired power projects from its international investments after the nation was criticized for financing dirty energy abroad while cleaning up its image at home. As recipient of Chinese development finance, it’s still unclear how this would affect Cambodia’s existing coal-powered projects in Preah Sihanouk, Koh Kong and Oddar Meanchey provinces, Casaer-Diez hopes this signals a shift in global development priorities. 

“My hope is that now with China’s announcement, the economic viability of coal becomes even less good, and there’s a push for more renewable energy,” she said. 

Correction: Countries’ total emissions are measured in million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, not metric tons as originally reported. Cambodia’s emissions are 0.02 percent of the global share of emissions.

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