The bog barons: Indonesia's carbon catastrophe (Part 1)

EoF News / 05 December 2007

By Fred Pearce, New Scientist -- 1 December 2007 (part 1)

I AM standing in the heart of the world's second largest tropical peat swamp, the Kampar bog in central Sumatra, watching the swamp's water drain away along a small canal. Across the western side of the bog there are dozens more drains. The peat bog is bleeding to death before me.

Until five years ago, Kampar was a true bog with water at the surface, and it was covered by a rich rainforest in which Sumatran tigers roamed. A huge dome of peat, up to 15 metres deep, had built up over the past 6000 years as woody debris fell into the swamp. It contains several billion tonnes of carbon. Now this part of the Kampar bog has been clear-felled, and the canals have been installed to turn it into plantations. As water levels fall beneath the blackened and treeless wasteland, the peat is drying and decomposing, releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per square kilometre than do many cities.

I watched as workers planted acacia trees for paper and palm oil trees destined to make biofuels to help reduce Europe's CO2 emissions. Yet draining the peat will release 30 times more CO2 than will be saved by replacing fossil fuels with biofuels - an irony that is hard to stomach. The fact that European countries can meet their Kyoto protocol obligations by sponsoring activities that have helped turn Indonesia, of which the giant island of Sumatra is a part, into the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases is a savage indictment of the perverse incentives created by the protocol.

Next week, the world's governments will assemble on the Indonesian island of Bali to discuss what should follow Kyoto. The fate of peatlands like Kampar will be an important topic. The Indonesian government is expected to argue that the very companies destroying the bogs should be awarded carbon credits for stopping the haemorrhaging of even more carbon. But can the region's great despoilers really become its saviours?

The destruction of tropical peatland forests is a disaster for many reasons, not least its global impact. Peat holds many times more carbon than the forest above it. Marcel Silvius, a tropical ecologist at Wetlands International, estimates that in south-east Asia, 130,000 square kilometres of peatland forests have already been cut down and partially drained. As a result, an average of 2 gigatonnes of CO2 is being released each year through burning and decomposition. That's equal to 8 per cent of the total annual global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels - and 90 per cent of it comes from Indonesia alone.

Here, forests are being cut and the peat drained to make way for two crops: palm oil trees for food and biofuels, and acacia to make pulp for paper. This is happening fastest on Sumatra, and most intensively of all in the central Sumatran province of Riau. Until the late 1980s, Riau was 80 per cent jungle. Today it's just 30 per cent. Palm oil is used for cooking and as an ingredient in everything from shampoo to biscuits. Global production has been soaring and Indonesia now produces a third of the global crop. In Riau, palm oil plantations already cover more than 15,000 square kilometres - a fifth of the province - with another 5000 square kilometres planned to meet the expected demand for biofuels. Local politicians see this as boosting both industrial and rural development.

That may be true, but in climate terms, razing rainforests to grow palm oil for biofuels is madness. Clearing a hectare of tropical forest releases between 500 and 900 tonnes of CO2. Since turning a hectare's worth of palm oil into biodiesel saves approximately 6 tonnes of fossil CO2 emissions a year, it will take 80 to 150 years of production to offset the one-off emissions from trashing the forest.

That is bad enough. If the forest is growing on a peat bog, however, the CO2 losses are far greater and continue far longer.

During a drought in 1997, when fires set by farmers in Sumatra burned out of control, the peat bogs produced most of the smoke that blanketed vast swathes of south-east Asia. Later studies suggest that the burning peat accounted for as much as 40 per cent of human CO2 emissions that year.

What is only now becoming clear is that burning is not the only threat. With or without fires, the draining of peatlands is causing massive emissions of CO2.

The critical process here is oxidation. As long as peat stays wet, the acidity and lack of oxygen preserve organic matter, allowing the peat to build up. But when water levels fall and the peat begins to dry, the organic matter starts to break down. The loss of forest accelerates the process by exposing bare peat to the tropical sun. Emissions continue until any peat above the water table is gone.

Where water is drained to a depth of a metre, typical for many palm oil plantations, about 10 centimetres of peat disappears every year. This emits between 130 and 180 tonnes of CO2 per hectare each year. So, including the one-off releases from deforestation, each hectare of peatland drained for palm oil will emit between 3750 and 5400 tonnes over the next 25 years, according to Jack Rieley, a tropical peatlands specialist at the University of Nottingham, UK. Even if the palm oil is used as biofuel, a hectare's output will save only 150 tonnes in vehicle emissions over the period, meaning 25 to 36 times as much carbon will be emitted as is saved.
Yet when I went to see Ang Boon Beng, head of a research station run by palm oil company Asian Agri, he suggested that the peatland plantations absorb carbon. This ignorance extends to the authorities. At the plantation department in the provincial capital of Pekanbaru, they told me that peat less than 3 metres thick does not emit CO2 when drained.
During my travels, however, it became clear that palm oil is not the biggest problem. The main driver of deforestation and peat-bog draining here is the voracious appetite for timber, and the big players are two giant pulp mill owners. One company is Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL), part of RGM International, an empire owned by Singapore-based magnate Sukanto Tanoto. APRIL's rival is the Sinar Mas Group dynasty founded by Eka Tjipta Widjaja, which owns Asia Paper and Pulp (APP). (to be continued)
part 2

part 3