Indonesia — It used to be malaria that gave people fevers in Indonesia’sremote, mosquito-infested peatlands.
Now it is carbon.
Investors around the world are dreaming of the billions the festeringcarbon-rich bogs could bring in as the world battles global warming. Peat bogs are the new black gold, some say. Science has long known thatIndonesia’s 20 million hectares (50 million acres) of dense, black tropical peatswamps, formed when trees, roots and leaves rot, are natural carbon stores,explained University of Nottingham peat expert Professor Jack Rieley.
“They are 50 to 60 percent carbon. Peat stores more carbon than all of theplanet’s vegetation combined,” he said.
Now the dots have been joined between peatlands and the massive amounts ofclimate change-related carbon emissions they release when burnt or drained toplant crops such as palm oil.
Peat is a potential gold-mine, said Marcel Silvius, Senior Program Manager ofWetlands International NGO.
“This science was not available before,” said Silvius, the co-authorof a November 2006 report that found Indonesia’s peatlands emit two billion tonsof carbon dioxide each year — more than the annual greenhouse gas emissions ofJapan or Germany.
Years of lucrative deforestation for timber and palm oil plantations hasentrenched the practice of burning vast areas of Indonesian land, smotheringneighboring Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei in annual choking smoke clouds, knownas haze.
Now, in a sudden reversal, keeping Indonesia’s forest cover intact is a hotinvestment ticket in a warming world, said Silvius.
“(The world’s peatlands) emit eight percent of global carbon dioxideemissions, equal to what all the Annex One (industrialized) countries need todecrease (under the Kyoto Protocol). Tens of billions could be invested toachieve this,” said Silvius.
Around $30.4 billion of carbon credits — representing 1.6 billion tons of CO2– were bought and sold last year in Europe by companies seeking to trade off business-related carbon emissions for emissions reductions achievedelsewhere.
Already, investors are knocking on doors in towns close to peat swamps, such asPalangkaraya, in Central Kalimantan.
Within the million hectares of the nearby ex-Mega Rice Project peatlands,Rieley’s scientists have been offered funding from Climate Care for treeplanting and fire-fighting. Shell Canada is bank- rolling NGO-led peatrehydration and the Dutch government has invested 5 million euros ($6.7 million)in dam-building.
“They are all coming to visit the same people in Palangkaraya,” saidDaniel Murdiyarso of the Bogor-based Centre for International Forestry Research.
“There’s so much interest – we are in the eye of the hurricane.”
Emissions cuts from forest areas such as peatlands are not yet eligible fortrade, because they were excluded from the Kyoto Protocol’s first, 2008-2012,round. But many predict they will be in six months’ time, after the UN climatemeeting in Bali hears a report on Reduced Emissions from Deforestation (RED).
“It has to enter the agenda so that developing nations such as Indonesiacan benefit,” Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar told Reuters.
“We are ready. We have a grand plan to identify and restore or conserve ourforest areas. We have also prepared the financial side of the deal,” he said.
Meanwhile, the voluntary market is “developing rapidly”, as investorshope carbon futures will evolve into tradable credits said Jorund Buen, the director of Point Carbon analysis group.
“Discussions on including avoided deforestation are among the most advancedwith regards to post-Kyoto commitments,” he said.
As home to 60 percent of the world’s threatened tropical peatlands, and amongthe world’s top three carbon emitters when peat emissions are added in,Indonesia is in the spotlight.
“While the details are still in the works, the ‘big story’ is becoming moreclear,” said Meine van Noordwijk, principal scientist for the World Agroforestry Centre.
“If this stays outside of the international discussions a huge opportunitywill be missed… If accepted in principle, this will become part of the2012-2017 international regime,” van Noordwijk, who is based in Indonesia,said.
However, speculators descending on Indonesia’s peat-towns are finding localsless up to speed on the intricacies of carbon trading and peatlands protection,said Murdiyarso.
“It’s not easily understood by people — the confusion is overwhelming. Thepapers here say, ‘Central Kalimantan is clearing upthe air of Canada’,” helaughed. “The publicity from the local media is appalling.”
PEOPLE VS. PEATLANDS?
While RED’s exact stakeholders are murky, its plan to help save the planet bymaking conservation profitable is likely to be nationally based, rather thanproject-based, and to involve governments, the private sector and NGOs, analystssay.
But stitching up peat swamp carbon deals without involving local communitiesrisks raising real tensions, said Jutta Kill of FERN, the Forests and theEuropean Union Resource Network.
“Because the focus is narrowly on keeping the carbon stored, the incentiveto police is increased,” she said from Britain. “In Uganda, peoplehave been shot at by forest rangers to defend carbon forestry projects.”
This kind of market-led carbon trading is not the only way to safeguard forestcarbon, she said.
“Northern countries could do a lot by not pushing deforestation through (expanding)palm oil and biodiesel (developments)”.
“It certainly is a big policy incoherence if one part of the climatediscussion is to reduce emissions from deforestation, and the other leads to anincentive to deforestation,” she said.
Whatever eventuates, if perennial peat land problems such as poverty and firesaren’t tackled, Indonesia’s forests could go up in smoke, taking carbon tradersdreams with them, Rieley said.
“A lot of things are supposed to happen at a high level. The problem is thelow level — how are you going to stop fires on the ground?”
“None of these schemes will work if the fires aren’t stopped,” he said.”You’ll not only lose your forest, you’ll lose your peat and its ability tofunction as a carbon store.”