Indonesia — Pressure on UN negotiators to develop a means of offering incentives to tropical countries to protect rainforests under any post-Kyoto deal stepped up several notches this week as Indonesia lifted its ban on palm oil plantations and new research showed tropical forests are an even-more significant carbon sink than previously thought.
The Indonesian government confirmed yesterday that it has lifted a year-long ban on the use of peat land for palm oil plantations and would begin issuing permits for new plantations.
The agricultural ministry said that new plantations would have to adhere to new tighter environmental rules that would mean only two million of the country’s 25 million hectares of peat land would be developed.
But environmental groups slammed the move as potentially disastrous, arguing that the peat lands hold up to 37.8 billon tonnes of carbon dioxide, and that the felling and draining of land to make way for palm oil plantations will lead to huge increases in emissions.
Studies have found that the carbon emissions that result from clearing peat land mean that biofuels made from crops grown on that land can have a carbon footprintthat is more than 400 times larger than the fossil fuels they replace.
Environmental campaigners have long called for a global ban on the practice, while the palm oil industry last yearlaunched a certification scheme designed to help purchasers to distinguish between sustainably produced palm oil and that from plantations that have led to deforestation.
The news came as research was published in Nature suggesting that rainforest trees are getting larger and storing more carbon than previously thought.
An international team of scientists studied 70,000 trees in rainforests across Africa and found that many of the large trees are growing and soaking up more carbon. It had been previously believed that mature rainforests were carbon neutral as carbon dioxide soaked up by growing trees was replaced by that released by dying trees.
But according to the research, the fact that the trees are getting bigger means that each hectare of intact African rainforest is soaking up 0.6 tonnes of extra carbon a year. The scientists calculated that globally, rainforests are absorbing nearly a fifth of the CO2 released each year from burning fossil fuels, soaking up 4.8 billion tonnes of emissions.
However, Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds, was quick to warn that while “we are receiving a free subsidy from nature ” the trees could not go on getting bigger indefinitely.
“It can’t go on forever,” he said in an interview with BusinessGreen.com. “We don’t know for sure why the trees are growing bigger, the simplest answer is that because there is more CO2 in the atmosphere they are growing more, but this carbon sink will flatten off eventually.”
He added that at this point the forests would become carbon neutral and could even become emitters of carbon if, as predicted, climate change leads to an increased incidence of forest fires and faster rates of degradation.
Lewis said that findings would increase pressure on governments to find a more-effective mechanism for protecting tropical forests.
“We need to find an approach that ensures the forests have more value standing up than cut down, while providing alternative employment for those communities reliant on logging and ranching,” he said.
International negotiators are currently exploring mechanisms that could see forestry projects issue carbon credits and join the global carbon market as part of the post-Kyoto deal scheduled to be agreed in Copenhagen at the end of this year.
However, Lewis expressed scepticism at the effectiveness of such an approach. “If you include forestry in the carbon market there is a risk that all the carbon credits that result will drive down the price of carbon,” he warned. ” Funding forest protection schemes direct appears a more-effective approach.”