The world’s peatlands are believed to store at least 42 billion tonnes of soil carbon. This would usually remain in the soil. However, human activity can result in it being released. Dutch research institute Wetlands International estimates that nearly half of Southeast Asian peatlands have been drained, causing them to decompose and releasing the carbon. This is aggravated by fires that can rage for months and add to a choking smog or haze that is a health menace to millions of people in the region.
This process known as severe peat soil degradation, is currently responsible for about 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, close to 8% of global CO2 emissions, despite the fact that degraded peatlands in Southeast Asia cover less than 0.1% of the global land surface.
Emissions from peat account for 85% of total emissions from Southeast Asia, and environmentalists say the problem is most acute in Indonesia, home to 60% of the world’s threatened peatlands. As we reported recently, Indonesia’s habitats are being destroyed rapidly to make way for palm oil plantations to feed global demand for biofuel.
Indonesia has also lost a large area of peat under a Government project to convert about 1 million hectares of peat swamp forests into rice fields in the mid 90s. Former President Suharto’s “Mega Rice Project” deforested and drained massive amounts of peatland in Central Kalimantan, only to find the acidic soil underneath was unsuitable for rice farming.
The area has become a giant wasteland, with the dry peat releasing enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. The highly combustible material catches fire in the dry season, choking the area in thick haze for a couple of months a year, and releasing “carbon-dioxide, methane and a cocktail of other gases, some of them toxic,” according to Professor Jack Rieley, a peat expert at the University of Nottingham.
Following decades of mismanagement of the peatlands, resulting in rapid environmental damage, Indonesia is pushing to capitalise on the area. At the UN climate talks in Bali in December, Indonesia will be pitching an idea enabling them to use peatlands to make a profit through carbon trading. They want to make emission cuts from preserving peatlands eligible for trade for companies seeking to offset business-related carbon emissions with emission reductions achieved elsewhere.
Whilst obviously any attempts to “clean up” the area and reduce carbon emissions from peatlands are welcomed, it seems dangerous to reward countries for such unscrupulous destruction of their environment. Additionally, carbon trading schemes have been criticised as enabling industry to buy impunity by financing reductions elsewhere in the world, rather than researching ways to make their activities less damaging altogether.