Under natural circumstances, peatlands act as carbon-sinks, accumulating huge amounts of carbon in the soil. However, degradation of Indonesia's peatlands, leading to fires and oxidation causes emission of increasing quantities of greenhouse gases. It requires significant investments to restore peatswamp forest functioning and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from these areas, but such investments are relatively low if compared to the huge investments made in the industrialized countries to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gasses.
In December 2006, CKPP consortium partner Wetlands International presented at the UN-FCCC summit in Nairobi the outcomes of a study by Wetlands International, WL/Delft Hydraulics and Alterra, regarding the carbon dioxide emissions from degraded peatlands in South-east Asia. This report shows that degradation and loss of peatswamp forests causes emissions of a magnitude equal to 8% of all global emissions. It also asks for attention for the role of expansion of palm oil plantations in these peatlands which is currently one of the main triggers of peatland degradation.
Although peatlands cover only three per cent of the world's land surface, they store as much carbon as would result from 100 years of current levels of fossil-fuel emission. As such they perform an important role in global climate change mitigation. Appropriate management of tropical peatlands is of particular importance as these areas are even more vulnerable to drainage and fires then peats in the temperate and arctic zones. They reach considerable depths and (compared to temperate peats) have high rates of emissions in dry state.
Unfortunately, fires and land degradation reversed the pattern of carbon sequestration in many Indonesian peatlands. Instead of being sinks, they act as sources emitting large quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Much carbon dioxide is emitted to the atmosphere as a result of fires. Oxidation as a result of peatland drainage significantly contributes to emission as well.
Indonesian CO2 emissions were highest during the 1997/98 fires. An estimated total of 3000-9400 million tons of carbon dioxide were emitted to the atmosphere, contributing to 15-45 per cent of that year's global greenhouse gas emission. Emission as a result of fires and oxidation in subsequent years averages an estimated total of 1480 million tons of CO2 per year. This is more than two times the amount targeted to be reduced within the first implementation period of the Kyoto protocol.
The huge amounts of carbon dioxide emitted from Indonesian peatlands, places greenhouse gas reduction initiatives in the western world into an interesting perspective. Large oil companies invested 1.5 billion USD to reduce Norway's annual carbon dioxide emission by 2.5 million ton per year. Several billion USD investments in Germany resulted in a reduction of annual carbon dioxide emission of 50 million tons per year. It would require a much smaller investment to reach similar results in Indonesia's peatlands. Hopefully governments, NGOs and the private sector will be prepared to commit themselves for a long-term investment in this vulnerable region. Using only a small proportion of their resources for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, they could contribute to spectacular results.