Is Indonesia the third largest greenhouse gas polluter?

Is Indonesia the third largest greenhouse gas polluter?

3 November 2006

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Is Indonesia the world’s third largest producer of greenhouse gases? A new study by Wetlands International says it is, if the country’s destruction of peat bogs is taken into account.

A report released Thursday by Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, a Dutch research institute, estimates that emissions from Indonesia’s destruction of its extensive peat bogs releases 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year — about ten percent of world greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. For comparison, the United States, the world’s largest emitter of heat-trapping gases, produces about 7.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year.

70 percent of emissions result from the burning of peatlands, while 30 percent result from drainage, according to the report, titled Peatland degradation fuels climate change.

Peatlands in Indonesia

Peatlands, formed by organic deposits comprised of partially decayed plant matter that accumulates over time, cover more than 400 million hectares of land worldwide. Most of these exist in permafrost in the far north, though some are found in the lowlands of tropical Asia, especially in the swampy forests of Indonesia and Malaysia.

Destroyed peat swamp forest in Indonesia. Image courtesy of Wetlands International.

The report estimates that production of one metric ton of palm oil will result in an average emission of 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide from peat decomposition alone, not including emissions resulting from production or combustion.

Peatlands, formed over hundreds of years and sometimes more than 66 feet (20 meters) deep, are giant reservoirs of carbon, storing around 2,000,000 million tons of carbon dioxide globally. However, when peatlands are drained, cut, or burned this stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate warming.

Each year hundreds of thousands of hectares of peatlands are drained and cleared for oil palm and timber plantations. Generally, developers dig a canal to drain the land, extract valuable timber, then clear the vegetation using fire. In dry years these fires can burn for months, contributing to the “haze” that plagues southeast Asian on a regular basis. Fires in peatlands are especially persistent, since they can continue to smolder underground for years even after surface fires on extinguished by monsoon rains.

While burning releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, merely draining peatlands also contributes to global warming — upon exposure to air, peat rapidly oxidizes, decomposes, and releases carbon dioxide. Further carbon — about 70 percent of emissions — is released when peatlands are burned.

Beyond contributing to climate change, destruction of peatlands in Indonesia puts local populations at greater risk of flooding. Peatlands are a natural means of flood control, acting like a sponge to absorb large amounts of rainfall and runoff, while reducing the threat of erosion.


The report urges policymakers meeting next week that the climate summit in Nairobi to consider legislation addresses peatland destruction by curtaining imports of products from vulnerable peatland areas, including timber from illegal logging, biofuel derived from oil palm plantations on peatlands, and pulp wood from pulp plantations on peatlands. Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics also say that carbon dioxide emissions from peatland degradation most be taken into account in climate change mitigation strategies. Avoided deforestation, a concept whereby poor countries are paid to conserve forests that would otherwise be cleared, could be one mechanism to encourage conservation of these carbon sinks. By someestimates, Indonesia could net some $5 in additional income per year under such a carbon financeprogram.

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