Indonesian peatlands seen playing key climate role
YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia (Reuters) - To the average person, they are just ordinary swamps or bogs.
But peatlands across the world are more than just simple marsh land: they are one of the largest carbon stores on earth and play a significant role in the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change.
Not for long, perhaps.
In recent years, experts say peat bogs have been stoking global warming through increasing greenhouse gas emissions because of massive deforestation and conversion into agricultural land and palm oil plantations, especially in Southeast Asia which accounts for a huge chunk of the world's marshes.
"When you clear land, the easiest way is by burning. But that emits sequestered carbon into the atmosphere," Bostang Radjagukguk, an Indonesian peat expert, told Reuters at a conference on peatlands in the historic city of Yogyakarta.
"In Indonesia, some 5 percent of 20 million hectares (49 million acres) of peatland has already been converted into agricultural land."
Peat is created by dead plant matter compressed over time in wet conditions preventing decay. Peat can hold about 30 times as much carbon as in forests above ground.
The world's peatlands -- a rich and fragile ecosystem formed over thousands of years -- are estimated to contain 2 trillion tonnes of sequestered carbon.
When drained, peat starts to decompose on contact with air and carbon is released, often aggravated by fires that can rage for months and add to a choking smog or haze that is an annual health menace to millions of people in the region.
Dutch research institute Wetlands International estimates peatlands in Southeast Asia store at least 42 billion tonnes of soil carbon or peat carbon.
Wetlands senior program manager Marcel Silvius estimates about 13 million of 27.1 million hectares of Southeast Asia peatlands have been drained causing severe peat soil degradation.
Although degraded peatlands in Southeast Asia cover less than 0.1 percent of the global land surface, they are responsible for about 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, or close to 8 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.
"By 2025, peatland emissions will decrease because easily degradable peatlands would have disappeared altogether," Silvius told Reuters. "In Indonesia alone, 3 million hectares of shallow peatland have already disappeared."
As concerns about global warming increase, environmentalists say the problem is more acute in Indonesia where emissions from peat, when drained or burnt, account for some 85 percent of total emissions from Southeast Asia.
Indonesia is home to 60 percent of the world's threatened peatlands, but its marshes are being destroyed at an unprecedented pace because of massive conversion into pulp wood and palm oil plantations to feed global demand for biofuel.
"Palm oil production on peatlands requires drainage, leading to substantial emissions of carbon dioxide. This renders it unsuitable as a biofuel, as biofuels should by international standards at least be carbon neutral," said Silvius.
MEGA RICE PROJECT
Indonesia has also lost a huge chunk of peat under a project to convert about 1 million hectares of peat swamp forests into rice fields in the mid 90s, dubbed the Mega Rice Project.
The project deforested and drained massive amounts of peatland in Central Kalimantan, only to find the acidic soil underneath was unsuitable for rice farming.
Today, it's a giant wasteland, a spread of dry black peat releasing enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. The highly combustible material lights up in the dry season, choking the area in thick haze for a couple of months a year.
"It releases carbon-dioxide, methane and a cocktail of other gases, some of them toxic," Professor Jack Rieley, a peat expert at the University of Nottingham, told Reuters.
Now, as the world battles global warming, Indonesia's peatlands are being seen as a hot investment ticket, as keeping its vast peatlands intact could be a huge opportunity for companies seeking to trade off business-related carbon emissions for emissions reductions achieved elsewhere.
Indonesia is pushing to make emission cuts from preserving peatlands eligible for trade in a new deal on fighting global warming at U.N.-led climate talks in Bali in December.
(Additional reporting by Adhityani Arga)