Dorjee Sun: Rockin’ for REDD!

Cameron Walker

When not raiding illegal Indonesian logging operations with the Governor of Aceh or hanging ten off the Australian coast, Dorjee Sun is cutting carbon offset deals – among them the world’s largest avoided deforestation project to date. The Ecosystem Marketplace talks to one of the environmental movement’s true mavericks.

When not raiding illegal Indonesian logging operations with the Governor of Aceh or hanging ten off the Australian coast, Dorjee Sun is cutting carbon offset deals – among them the world’s largest avoided deforestation project to date. The Ecosystem Marketplace talks to one of the environmental movement’s true mavericks.

20 June 2008 | It was March, 2007, and Dorjee Sun was trying to crash a party. The CEO of carbon offset project developer Carbon Conservation, Sun had applied to get into a workshop on reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) in Cairns, Australia, only to be turned down five times.

So he bought a plane ticket and checked himself into the Cairns Hilton. “I sat in the lobby at the coffee store, grabbing delegates as they went to the toilet,” he says. He nabbed delegates from Costa Rica, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea before a security guard latched onto him.

Not to be deterred, he showed up to schmooze over canapés and drinks at a conference reception.   Again, the security guards… along with the Australian delegate to the conference.

Getting Results

But this time they told the protesting Sun that he could attend the conference – if he could have a fax sent from the Australian environment minister by eight the next morning.

“7:45 AM, baby,” Sun says, laughing — that’s when the fax machine started whirring.

Sun’s persistence — and enthusiasm — has fueled an unprecedented agreement with the Indonesian province of Aceh to protect 1.9 million-acre Ulu Masen forest, avoiding 100 million tons of CO2 emissions over 30 years.

In February, the project was validated under the Climate, Community & Biodiversity (CCB) standards; and in April, Merrill Lynch signed a $9 million deal with Carbon Conservation to finance it.

“As far as we know,” says John-O Niles, Carbon Conservation’s chief scientific officer, “this is the largest single climate mitigation project in the history of the world that’s actually going to market.”

Niles was an advisor to the Coalition of Rainforest Nations when he met Sun as he tried to sneak into the March, 2007, meeting.

“He said, ‘I’ve been studying this, and I want to stop deforestation this year, and I’m kind of sick of everyone just talking about it so I came to do something,'” Niles recalls.

The next day, Sun took him snorkeling, and then to dinner — a dinner at which Sun handed over his Blackberry and told Niles to contact anyone he wanted, so that he’d know how serious this party-crasher was.

Starting out in Sydney

Sun has always charged into what interests him.

After studying law and finance at the University of New South Wales, and studying Chinese and law on scholarship at Beijing University for a diploma of Asian Studies, he jumped into the dot-com boom: starting a recruitment software company, an education company, and a creative agency that focused on animation and viral marketing, among others.

Sun’s parents immigrated to Australia from near Darjeeling, India, but are of Chinese Tibetan origin and, once they’d gotten citizenship, started a small business.

“As a good migrant child, I was a student in tennis, and swimming, and all of the stuff that you do to try to be the overachieving eldest son,” he says.

Along with being the “typical” eldest son, he was infected by typical Australian outdoors obsessions — whether setting out into the bush for a day or surfing the northern beaches of Sydney.

Man on a Mission

Sun, 31, says he wanted to pair his entrepreneurial urges with something that he cared about. Each time he started up a new venture, he says, “I never felt fulfilled, and I felt that just being in front of a computer didn’t really satisfy the urges that I had. I couldn’t explain what they were. All I knew was that I wanted adventure and I wanted passion and I wanted to go out and change the world.”

By 2006, Sun had started learning more about Kyoto and what he calls the “rabbit hole” of avoided deforestation that emerged during the 2001 Marrakesh Accord.

“Once you get into avoided deforestation and you see the insanity of the multilateral negotiations and the total obliviousness to the science; and the deeper you dig past carbon, you get to all the amazing roles from pollination through to biodiversity the forests provide,” he says.

Surfing for Solutions

Sun kept surfing — this time on the web — to find out who was taking the lead in avoided deforestation. He tracked down a company in Lismore, Australia, and did what he always seems to do when he wants to get involved in something: he just showed up.

“I went knocking and I found this office, and there were a bunch of these ‘hippie-greenies’ that were trying to do this, and I was there in my suit,” Sun says. “And I kind of sat there until they let me buy the company.”

The Carbon Pool had been known for its Minding the Carbon Store project, which protects 12,000 acres of native Australian vegetation. Part of this project included Australia’s largest sale of verified emissions — one million tons – to mining company Rio Tinto.

While Sun calls the Rio Tinto deal “fantastic,” he wanted to up the stakes.

“Every day we lose 71,000 football fields of pristine rainforest by rapacious forestry companies which are unsustainably destroying the world,” he says. “Do you want to continue to kick around on the fringe of irrelevancy, or do you want to actually step up to the plate and make a real difference?”

With the blessing of the Carbon Pool (now under the umbrella of Carbon Conservation), he hopped on another plane—this time to Aceh, Indonesia.

Indonesia’s Forests

LeRoy Hollenbeck, an advisor to the governor of Aceh, recounts that Governor Irwandi Yusuf likes saying that only about 35 percent of the forest cover in the whole island of Sumatra is intact — and 65 percent of that is in Aceh, a province on the northern tip of Sumatra.

“That’s why we’re really keen on Aceh,” Hollenbeck says. “It has probably the largest tract of natural forest in all of Sumatra, and Irwandi is a green governor. He wants to do what can be done so that the forest doesn’t disappear. And if he can get paid for it, even better.”

In late 2006, Hollenbeck proposed the idea of linking Aceh and the province of Papua in a REDD program to the World Bank, but got nowhere. A few months later, Hollenbeck hopped a plane back to Aceh and talked with Scott Stanley of conservation organization Fauna & Flora International; Stanley told him there was a guy named Dorjee Sun in Aceh that he should meet.

In late January, 2007, the two men had dinner with Sun, and, Hollenbeck says, “The rest is history.”

For the Thirteenth Conference to the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-13) held in December in Bali, Indonesia, Carbon Conservation organized a Green Governors’ Gala; here, the Indonesian governors of Aceh, Papua, Papua Barat, and Amazonas, in Brazil agreed to protect their forests and work toward developing carbon credits for voluntary markets.

Sun, whose company is working on the nuts and bolts of bringing the governors’ carbon to market, says his main work is as the cheerleader of the deal.

The Ultimate Rah-Rah

“That’s all I really do: I just keep rah-rah-ing,” he says, although the plan did take some negotiation on his part. “I actually said to the governors, I said look, if I actually tried to get away with the behaviors [that traditional resource extraction companies have participated in], I invite you to put a spear in my chest, or in my eye, or my leg.”

As of yet, he’s had no close encounters with the business end of a spear. (“Despite my wide girth, I’m amazingly dexterous,” the less-than-portly Sun says).

Riding Shotgun

And he seems to have found a place to use that dexterity in Aceh: riding shotgun with the governor as he performs raids on small illegal logging operations, with heavy metal band Deep Purple playing in the background.

Sun compares those chopping down forests to the Dark Side in the Star Wars series: Darth Vader, the Emperor, and their minions.

“If you imagine the economy is a runaway train, and the rules of finance and investment are just off the chain, basically, that’s the evil empire,” he says. “Without any type of change to fundamental infrastructure or market constructs, you don’t really get the runaway train being redirected, and we’ll eat our way all the way through the Earth.”

On the other side are Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and the protectors of the world’s forests: “The people who choose to stand up on the [forest moon] of Endor are essentially fighting the good fight,” he says. “We’re far outnumbered, and far outgunned.”

But while Sun talks about his work with a mixture of humor and zaniness, he’s serious when it comes to protecting Indonesia’s forests.

The Financial Incentive

Sun considers himself a “pragmatic conservationist,” and would like to make money on the project, but if he really wanted a windfall, “holy s**t, there’s a lot of other better ways to do that,” he says.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to protect the rainforests forever, we’re trying to alleviate [Aceh’s] poverty, and provide alternative non-timber livelihoods which will result in a viable protection scheme,” he says.

In Aceh, the work is going at high-speed — and perhaps a pace that isn’t always comfortable.

“If you look at the old phonograph records, Dorjee’s probably moving at 78 speed and we’re probably moving at 45 or 33 1/3,” says Hollenbeck. “And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Even at warp speed, Sun’s enthusiasm seems contagious. “No matter who he meets, it’s the same thing,” Niles says. “He’s usually got his rainforest ranger shirt on – a khaki short-sleeve shirt – and he goes into every meeting the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s the president of Starbucks or former president of the World Bank. He’s like, ‘High five! How you doing! Alright, here we go! Are you with me?'”

The Merrill Lynch Deal

One of Sun’s full-speed-ahead efforts has been finding investors for the project.

He began pursuing Merrill Lynch last year, and the company’s managing director and global head of carbon emissions, Abyd Karmali, started working with Sun once they focused in on the Aceh project in October 2007.

“I’ve never chased a girl as hard and as fast as I have Abyd Karmali,” Sun says.

Interest in the Aceh project was mutual, Karmali says. Merrill Lynch then did its own assessment of the proposed program, meeting with the governor, local NGOs and others involved.

“Merrill Lynch wanted to be an early mover in the forestry carbon area.” The deal was an excellent fit with Merrill Lynch’s new Environmental Sustainability Framework and a company green initiative, Karmali says, and along with the commercial potential, the project could help shape REDD policy. “And then of course, Dorjee himself is someone who was able to represent his project very eloquently, and was able to transmit the broader vision that the governor of Aceh had for his region.”

Karmali says the deal is structured in such a way that the project itself will benefit, along with its investors. And while, as a first-of-its kind project that carries risks, he says, “the potential for this project is very significant, because if we can achieve greater sales, then that’s obviously going to deliver far more than $9 million in terms of value to the actual project.”

Merrill Lynch’s participation is groundbreaking, Sun says, because instead of investing philanthropic or conservation money in the deal, they’re pulling money from their commodities trading fund.

“When Merrill Lynch stepped forward and put their name to this, it wasn’t just the money; it was the fact that an investment bank, for the first time was deploying its money, thinking they’re going to make more money by helping us save (the forest) than they are by helping us tearing it down,'” Niles says.

Sharing the Risk

Sun has taken on much of the uncertainty himself.

While there are many who talk about doing projects like this, Sun has actually poured his own money into his work, a step many haven’t taken, says Martijn Wilder, a partner at the Sydney office of Baker & McKenzie, a law firm that advises Carbon Conservation.

“He’s put everything he has at risk,” Wilder says. “You’ve got to credit him with that.”

Next Steps

One of Sun’s goals is to turn Aceh into an exemplary project to show off at the COP 15 conference to be held in Copenhagen at the end of 2009. Early reports indicate that Aceh’s forests are already improving: Niles says trails that were logging roads a year and a half ago are overgrown, and this summer they’ll conduct remote sensing surveys and calculate the actual emissions reductions accomplished.

Meanwhile, Sun’s company is lobbying for emerging carbon markets to include the project’s carbon credits, and working on convincing other financial institutions that this project is only the beginning in terms of where carbon markets — and projects — could go.

“We’re easing people into what could eventually turn out to be a significant market,” he says. “They just have to change their valuations from short term finance to long-term total economic value.”

And Sun has a lot more he wants to bring to the table. Having worked in the fashion industry, he compares labels like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger – which he says promote an image without meaning – to the plans he has for creating a global “brand” based on protecting forests.

“I haven’t started really using my marketing,” he says. “I haven’t started really using my viral stuff, but I will absolutely tie it together for one campaign, and it’s the campaign that I think is going to pretty much cover the rest of my life, and that’s going to be the appropriate valuation and protection of the most important resource in the world, which is our only home.”

Cameron Walker is a regular contributor to the Ecosystem Marketplace. She may be reached at [email protected].

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