For Peat’s Sake

For Peat’s Sake

12 June 2007

published by The Star

South East Asia — A ready-made solution to reverse the adverse effectsof climate change can be found in peat forests. An immediate and relativelycheap 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% ofthe current annual global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, a disproportionatelyhigh 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 curbemissions immediately and cheaply.

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

Global Environment Centre director Faizal Parish said if left withoutintervention, the disturbed peat swamps of the region would continue to emit CO2for the next 285 years even if clearing is stopped. GEC is a partner in aproject to quantify present and future emissions from drained peatlands inSouth-East Asia.

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

“Peatland is like concentrated carbon. It is the most efficient climateregulator, sequestering billions of tonnes of carbon for the last 8,000 years.Besides the release of stored carbon when it is cleared, drainage of everyhectare of peat soil will emit 100 tonnes of CO2 per year and continues untilthe 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) isreleased annually into the atmosphere from these areas. Over 90% of thisemission originates from Kalimantan and Sumatra of Indonesia, which puts thecountry in the third place (after the United States and China) in the global CO2emission 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-EastAsia’s land area. Some 25 million ha of peatlands are in Indonesia and theremaining two million ha in Malaysia.

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

Parish said the recognition from IPCC could lead to further prioritisation ofconservation and restoration of peatlands. “South-East Asia can offer theworld an almost immediate solution as there are millions of peatlands beingdrained. It is easy to contain and it doesn’t cost much. It has been aliability for the region (with the haze problem) but we can turn it to ouradvantage by rehabilitating these scourged lands,” said Parish.

He said there is urgent need for a new financing mechanism as prevention ofemissions from peatlands is not included under the Kyoto Protocol’s CleanDevelopment Mechanism (CDM) and new funding arrangements would only benegotiated after 2012 when the Protocol sets new emission reduction targets. (CDM allows developed nations to fund emission reduction projects in developingcountries to assist the former in meeting its emission targets. Most CDMprojects focus on development of renewable energy.)

“That’s five years away and in the meantime more forests will be cleared anda 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 theimportance and make allocation for peatlands rehabilitation,” added Parish.

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

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

GEC and Wetlands International are developing simple technologies to block thedraining 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 driedpeat.

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

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

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

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