For peat’s sake

For peat’s sake

12 June 2007

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A ready-made solution to reverse the adverse effects of climate change can be found in peatforests.

by Hilary Chiew

Malaysia — An immediate and relatively cheap way of mitigating climate change may lie in this region, in its deforested, drained and charred peat swamps. 

A new report revealed that degraded tropical peatlands is responsible for 8% of the current annual global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, a disproportionately high amount given that this wetland covers a mere 0.2% of global land surfaces. But it also said the desecrated wetlands presented an opportunity to curb emissions immediately andcheaply. 

Canals drain and dry up peat forests, causing the soil to degrade and release stored carbon.

The figures compelled the foremost scientific panel on climate change to acknowledge the huge impact of degraded peatlands on climate change at its meeting last month in Bonn. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) subsequently concluded that “restoration of drained and degraded peatlands is one of the key low-cost greenhouse gases mitigation strategies”. 

Global Environment Centre director Faizal Parish said if left without intervention, the disturbed peat swamps of the region would continue to emit CO2 for the next 285 years even if clearing is stopped. GEC is a partner in a project to quantify present and future emissions from drained peatlands in South-East Asia. 

Drainage of peatlands leads to aeration and decomposition of the peat material and hence to oxidation that triggers CO2 emission. 

“Peatland is like concentrated carbon. It is the most efficient climate regulator, sequestering billions of tonnes of carbon for the last 8,000 years. Besides the release of stored carbon when it is cleared, drainage of every hectare of peat soil will emit 100 tonnes of CO2 per year and continues until the peat thickness is eroded. And then, there is the fire,” he said. 

It is estimated that two billion tonnes of CO2 (8% of the global figure) is released annually into the atmosphere from these areas. Over 90% of this emission originates from Kalimantan and Sumatra of Indonesia, which puts the country in the third place (after the United States and China) in the global CO2 emission ranking. 

Out of the over 27 million ha of peatlands in the region, 12 million ha (45%) are currently deforested and mostly drained. Peatlands make up 12% of South-East Asia’s land area. Some 25 million ha of peatlands are in Indonesia and the remaining two million ha in Malaysia. 

Forested tropical peatlands in South-East Asia store at least 42,000 megatonnes of soil carbon that is increasingly being released to the atmosphere due to drainage and fires associated with plantation development and logging. 

Parish said the recognition from IPCC could lead to further prioritisation of conservation and restoration of peatlands. 

“South-East Asia can offer the world an almost immediate solution as there are millions of peatlands being drained. It is easy to contain and it doesn’t cost much. It has been a liability for the region (with the haze problem) but we can turn it to our advantage by rehabilitating these scourged lands,” said Parish. 

He said there is urgent need for a new financing mechanism as prevention of emissions from peatlands is not included under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and new funding arrangements would only be negotiated after 2012 when the Protocol sets new emission reduction targets. 

(CDM allows developed nations to fund emission reduction projects in developing countries to assist the former in meeting its emission targets. Most CDM projects focus on development of renewable energy.) 

“That’s five years away and in the meantime more forests will be cleared and a significant amount of stored carbon will be released. (Getting recognised by) IPCC is just the first step, we need to get the convention to acknowledge the importance and make allocation for peatlands rehabilitation,” added Parish. 

Together with Wetlands International, GEC has been involved in peatlands research and restoration projects. 

Currently, there are four pilot sites in Kalimantan where the Suharto-era mega rice project had dug 4,600km of channels, and in Sumatra where peatlands have been illegally logged. 

GEC and Wetlands International are developing simple technologies to block the draining and maintain a high water level in the peat soil to keep it moist, effectively putting a lid on carbon emission and preventing fire caused by dried peat. 

Parish said Malaysia could do its part to curb greenhouse gas emissions from its degraded peatland in Selangor, Pahang and Sarawak. 

“There are 500km of abandoned logging canals in the northeast region of Selangor. We have tested three blocking methods there with the co-operation of the state Forestry Department. However, the project is not moving fast enough due to funding shortage,” he laments. 

He cautioned that the rapid clearing of peatswamp forests in Sarawak would accelerate Malaysia’s CO2 emission. It has been reported that Sarawak had cleared one million hectares of peatlands, mostly for growing oil palm.

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