Peat bog destruction emissions reached 40pc of global total
By Thomas Bell in Central Borneo
Last Updated: 7:01pm GMT 28/11/2007
The destruction of peat bogs in Indonesia, partly to grow supposedly "green" bio-fuels, releases more carbon dioxide every year than all of India or Russia, and three times as much as Germany.
According to recent research by Wetlands International, a conservation group, "the emissions in 1997 alone, which was a particularly bad year, were estimated to have reached 40pc of global CO2 emissions."
When Indonesia hosts a United Nation climate conference in Bali next week to prepare a successor to the Kyoto Treaty, the focus will be on halting the destruction of peat bogs and forests, and on the bio-fuel craze which is driving the problem.
Peat is made up of ancient plant material which never fully decomposed in wet conditions, forming a global carbon bank equivalent to 70 years of emissions at today's rates. But vast tracts of tropical bog on Borneo and the neigbouring island of Sumatra are being cleared, drained and burnt to grow palm oil.
Palm oil prices are at record highs, and future demand seems guaranteed.
European legislation requires that 2pc of all diesel must be biofuels, rising to 5.7pc in 2010 and 10pc by 2020. Elsewhere, governments including America's are promoting bio-fuels.
With so much money involved politicians have latched onto the industry as a source of economic growth and, critics allege, of big kickbacks. Indonesia hopes to add 24 million hectares of palm oil plantations to the six million already developed by 2015.
One of the biggest environmental disasters on Borneo is the Mega-Rice Project, a 3,860 square mile area of former peat bog once covered with tropical forest that was felled and drained for rice cultivation in the mid-1990s.
Where there were forests abundant in orangutans and other wildlife there is now a grid of canals, dusty earth and charred stumps.
Rice never grew here. The government had ignored scientific advice that the crop would fail in acidic soil. Environmentalists want to re-flood to preserve the peat, but the district government has drawn up plans to plant 440 square miles of oil palms here.
The Bali conference may offer a partial solution. Indonesia, and other countries with big tropical forests, are pushing hard for a scheme that would create a market in carbon safely stored in natural banks such as forests and bogs.
Under Kyoto, which expires in 2012, only carbon that has already been emitted by industry can be traded. Economists say the scheme would be a relatively cheap way to reduce global warming, costing the developed world GBP50bn a year to -in theory at least- end the destruction all together.
That would cut global greenhouse emissions by 20pc at a stroke.
"They don't have forests, but we do, so if we all want this one Earth of ours to survive, please share [the burden]", Indonesia's president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said this week.
Scheptics say such a scheme would be hard to design, or to implement in countries with widespread corruption.
But Indonesia has every reason to confront the problem - rising sea levels threaten to drown many of the coutry's 17 000 islands.