Indonesia’s peat fires make it the 4th-largest carbon emitter in the world

Indonesia’s peat fires make it the 4th-largest carbon emitter in the world

30 October 2015

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Indonesia– Indonesia’s peat fires have spewed so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during the past several months that Indonesia now ranks fourth on the list of top global emitters.

The World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington think tank that operates a real-time fire monitoring platform known as Global Forest Watch, revealed Thursday that emissions from Indonesia’s fires alone, at about 1.62 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, have eclipsed Russia and are now approaching the total emissions of Brazil, which is the world’s third-largest emitter.

This promotion from the sixth-largest emitter to fourth-largest happened in just the span of six weeks, during which the country and surrounding nations in Southeast Asia were plunged into a haze crisis that is leading to untold premature deaths from respiratory ailments.

The fires, many of which are burning in peatlands, are set by humans for “slash and burn” agricultural practices. They’ve spread out of control in part because of a drought related to the Niño climate phenomenon that has promoted drought conditions in the western Pacific.

According to WRI, Indonesia’s current total emissions are nearly 760 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, excluding the emissions from land-use change. This means that the fires have single-handedly tripled the country’s annual emissions in 2015.

Even more shocking is the fact that during 38 of the past 56 days (through Oct. 26), WRI says, the fires have emitted more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire U.S. economy on those days.

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that the fires have even eclipsed the greenhouse gas emissions from China, the world’s leading emitter, a figure that both WRI and another expert source said appears credible.

Emissions from the fires vary significantly from day-to-day, depending on precipitation and difficulties in detecting fires using satellite sensors, Guido van der Werf of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam told Mashable in an email.

“There is a lot of variability in emissions from day to day,” he said. “I am not surprised that on some days it exceeds those from China.”

Van der Werf said the variability from day to day may have more to do with satellite observations than the fire emissions, since clouds and other factors can interfere with a satellite’s ability to detect fires on the Earth’s surface.

Van der Werf’s data shows that there have been nearly 118,000 fire detections across Indonesia so far this year, higher than in 2006, but lower than the worst fire year on record in 1997, when there was an even more intense El Niño than there is now.

Peat is soil comprised of partly decayed plant material formed in wetlands, and it burns extremely easily when it is dry, as it has been during the past several weeks.

The fires, most of which are burning in peatlands that tend to produce long-lasting, smoky, underground blazes, are having widespread public health impacts, contributing to respiratory ailments and premature deaths in the region.

Peat fires can emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases that have been deposited there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years back into the atmosphere, where they warm the climate.

According to WRI, draining and burning peatlands for agricultural expansion, including conversion to palm oil plantations or pulpwood plantations, leads to huge spikes in greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the impacts of peat fires on the global climate might be up to 200-times greater than fires on other lands, WRI reported.

The fires are so severe, and causing such a regional crisis, that it is likely they will be on the agenda at the U.N. Climate Summit in Paris in early December, where Indonesia may need to assure other nations that it will finally grapple with its poor land use practices. Indonesia’s government has pledged to cut its annual emissions by 29% compared to business as usual levels by 2030, which it cannot achieve unless it prevents fire outbreaks like the current one.

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