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Once majestic low-lying rainforests, Indonesia’s peatlands now emit around 1 billion tonnes of CO2 a year. H Dragon/flickr

Indonesia sets a carbon time-bomb

One of the world’s major terrestrial carbon pools is rapidly deteriorating as large parts of Indonesia’s peatlands are deforested and converted to oil palm and paper plantations. No longer a carbon sink, Indonesia’s peatlands are now a globally significant source of emissions.

The June fires in Sumatra once again drew international attention to Indonesia’s forests. At the fires’ peak, 140,000 hectares were burnt in just one week.

Most fires were in peatland, much of it on land destined to become oil palm, or Acacia plantations for the paper industry. Fire remains the instrument of choice for low-cost land-clearing.

The fires were a reminder of the unsolved problem of peatland protection in Indonesia, and of the need for urgent action against the toxic combination of plantations, fire and poor governance that is destroying one of the world’s major carbon pools.

What exactly is peatland?

Indonesia’s peatlands are (or were) low-lying rainforests located close to coastal areas. Under the forest lies the peat itself, a below-ground accumulation of carbon-rich decayed vegetation. Formed in swampy conditions where plant material fails to fully decay, peat can build up to a depth of 10 meters or more over thousands of years.

The greenhouse significance of Indonesia’s peatlands lies in the fact they can store up to 20 times as much carbon as tropical rainforests on normal mineral soils, 90% of it below ground. Peatlands release carbon for decades after deforestation as the underlying peat decomposes or is burnt.

Indonesia has by far the largest area of tropical peatland in the world: 22 million hectares. Sumatra, the Kalimantan provinces on the island of Borneo, and Papua have about a third each.

Global significance of Indonesia’s peatlands

Indonesia’s peatlands hold at least 57 billion tonnes (Gigatonnes or Gt) of carbon, making them a globally significant terrestrial carbon pool. The pool is comparable to the Amazonian rainforest, which holds about 86 billion tonnes.

To limit the world to 2 degrees of warming, we can emit no more than 600 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases between now and 2050. Indonesia’s peatland carbon alone, if released as CO2 in the atmosphere, is equivalent to one-third of the remaining carbon budget.

What then are the chances of Indonesia losing its entire peatland carbon stock?

Indonesia’s peatland in a downward spiral

Indonesia became a leading raw material supplier in the timber, paper and oil palm industries in the 1970s. Deforestation and degradation of Indonesia’s forests took place on an epic scale, and Indonesia lost more than half its peat forest cover. Just over 10 million hectares remained forested by 2010. Only Papua retained large areas of pristine peat swamp forest.

This downward spiral won’t end any time soon. Each year Sumatra loses another 5% of its lowland forests; the situation is similar in the Kalimantan provinces. In all this, Papua is the new frontier. With logging on the rise, pulp mills planned and large areas of land under concessions, it is poised to go the way of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The extent of forest degradation is another sign of trouble ahead. Where peatland has been deforested, fragmented or drained, it is transformed from an unburnable resource into a tinder-box.

A detailed study which analysed over 10 million hectares of peatland in Sumatra and Kalimantan found that most was degraded. Less than 4% was covered by pristine peatswamp forests and just 11% or 1 million hectares were covered by relatively intact forests. The remainder is on a trajectory of fire and conversion into plantations, as the recent events in Sumatra demonstrate.

Climate change itself is working against peatlands. In what is termed a “positive feedback cycle”, climate change is expected to produce more prolonged El Niño dry periods in Indonesia, leading to more intense fires, which in turn cause further climate change. During the 2006 El Niño, there were 40,000 fire hotspots on Indonesia’s peatlands.

The peatlands of Sumatra and Kalimantan are headed for collapse. Major question marks surround Papua’s peatlands.

What does it mean for Indonesia’s greenhouse emissions?

The peatlands of Sumatra and Kalimantan are no longer a carbon sink but a carbon source. With steadily increasing emissions from decomposition of peatland combined with large contributions from fires during El Niño years, peatland emissions are now in the order of 1 Gt of CO2 a year on average and rising.

If Indonesia’s peatlands were a country, they would be the world’s 7th or 8th largest emitter. Over the coming decades, almost all of Sumatra and Kalimantan’s peatland carbon could be released.

More alarmingly, with half of Indonesia’s peatland deforested or degraded, around 100 Gt of CO2 or about 150 times Australia’s annual emissions could be released into the atmosphere over the coming decades.

With this situation Indonesia has little hope of achieving its pledge to cut its emissions by 26% or 41% by 2020, which relies heavily on reducing forests and peatland emissions.

What can be done about it?

Indonesia has fought hard to address the problems of deforestation and peatland loss. It has launched major campaigns to stamp out illegal logging. It has established a Commission Against Corruption, whose clashes with the Indonesian Police are watched with fascination locally, and portrayed as the struggle of the plucky gecko versus the crocodile.

Indonesia has attempted without much success to enforce the law banning plantations on deep peat, impose due process in issuing forest concessions, and prevent fires on peatland. It has implemented a moratorium against deforestation with the strong encouragement of Norway, established a national REDD agency (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), and issued regulations to protect remaining forests.

But in a country notorious for its entrenched political economy of korupsi, kollusi and nepotisme (hardly needing translation) these efforts have shown few results to date.

The solutions are well-known and have been aired extensively. Converting peatland to plantations has to stop, but this doesn’t mean that the oil palm industry has to end.

It does mean that existing concessions on peatland need to be transferred to degraded lands elsewhere. This is something Indonesia’s national development planning agency has long called for.

Laws protecting peat and banning fires need to be enforced vigorously. And critically, Papua’s peatlands needs protection to ensure they do not go the way of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

None of these things are happening. A better understanding of the global significance of Indonesia’s peatlands is needed to spur Indonesian and international policy-makers into action.

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