Tuesday, 11 December 2007

For peat’s sake

Tuesday December 11, 2007 The Star Online, Malaysia

For peat’s sake

Peatland is increasingly making way for oil palm plantations. But with climate change being linked with the destruction of this vital carbon sink, rehabilitation of the land is in order.

INITIALLY, there was vehement denial. But, increasingly there is gradual admission. The facts that peat is a vital carbon sink and that disturbed peat is a significant source of carbon emission are being accepted by the oil palm industry.

Expansion of landbank by major industry players is the order of the day. More land – forested or degraded – is being converted into plantations. Spurred by escalating crude palm oil (CPO) prices and the hype over biofuel, oil palm ventures are spreading rapidly across Sarawak, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Peat swamp forests, a feature of lowland forests, especially in Sarawak and the Riau, Jambi and Kalimantan provinces of Indonesia, are prime targets.

Although the industry has set up the voluntary compliance body called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to tackle the harmful effects of their activities which include clearing, burning and draining of the water-logged forest that spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, there remain some quarters within the industry that are reluctant to assume responsibility for their actions.

At a recent workshop addressing the sustainability issue of oil palm plantations, certain parties – notably plantation companies from Sarawak, such as Sarawak Oil Palm Bhd (SOPB) – questioned the accuracy of a widely referred study associating peatland destruction with climate change.

The Wetlands International report entitled Peat-CO2: Assessment of CO2 emissions from drained peatlands in South-East Asia estimates that 1,400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) were emitted by peatland fires across the region each year between 1997 and 2006, with an additional 600 million tonnes per year being emitted from peatland decomposition caused by drainage.

Detractors were sceptical of the 632 tonnes per ha per year used as the emission average, considering it “too high”. The researchers reckoned the figure was “fairly conservative”, given that the emission range was between 355 tonnes and 874 tonnes in 2006.

There is also dispute over the rate of oxidisation according to different peat types. But the basic conclusion that disturbed peat is an emission source is no longer doubted.

Sarawak is expected to attract the bulk of oil palm plantation investment over the next decade and, already, one million hectares have been earmarked to produce the priced commodity for the next three years.

Towards this end, the RSPO executive board has commissioned a detailed study on carbon emission rates from degraded peatland that will likely result in another criterion for minimising greenhouse gas (GHG) emission. Already, one of its 39 criteria forbids development of oil palm on peat soil from November 2005, taking into account that both virgin and degraded peat swamp forests have high conservation value.

Others criticised the so-called unfair and disproportioned attention on oil palm in the light of emerging information that temperate peatlands were also developed for soyabean, the commodity’s arch-rival in the global edible oil market.

Until indisputable data is obtained, some suggested that the industry should go ahead with conversion of peatland to accommodate expansion plans.

Peat expert Faizal Parish of Global Environment Centre acknowledged that all over the world, the valuable carbon store is being threatened by drainage and fire – the largest single source of carbon emission from the land use sector (3.5 billion tonnes per annum) – but it has been most dramatic in this region in the last decade.

The Mega Rice Project in Central Kalimantan continues to release carbon through its network of 4,600km of drainage canals and frequent peat fires.

Parish noted that cultivation of corn for ethanol production in the United States and soyabean plantations in China are the culprits of peat destruction and carbon emitters too. Soya is much less efficient in terms of land use compared with oil palm – to produce one tonne of soya oil requires at least five times more land area than palm oil.

Redemptive role
Far from being doomed, Parish said the industry is in a unique position to play a key role in combating global warming.

Threat to the environment: A worker watering seedlings at an oil palm nursery in Kasongan regency in Kalimantan. Booming world demand for palm oil for food and biofuels has led, and continues to lead, to forests being cleared, peat wetland exposed and carbon released.“We should not take the findings negatively. We should focus on opportunities arising from the findings instead. Imagine the Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) transforming into the Malaysian Peatland Offset Association 30 years from now,” envisioned Parish of the carbon-offset potential of companies operating on peat.

He said oil palm growers possess the labour skills and resources to rehabilitate degraded peatlands. ”Instead of digging ditches, block them. Instead of cutting, replant.”
So, instead of trading in CPO, the future for oil palm growers could be trading in carbon instead.
MPOA head of research and development Chew Jit Seng said the industry needs time for the carbon offset business idea to sink in.

Under the right hydrological conditions, peat swamp forests that cover a mere 3% of the earth’s surface can continue to act as net carbon sinks. It is estimated that the forests store 42,000 mega tonnes of carbon, equivalent to 70 times the current annual global emissions from fossil fuel burning.

“We encourage those plantations on peat to adopt best management practices already applied by some companies. This includes a good water management regime, for a start,” Parish urged, adding that plantations should implement the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria (P&C) towards sustainable palm oil production as soon as possible.

The RSPO P&C was rolled out in 2005 and underwent a two-year trial by various companies in Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Colombia and Ghana. The implementation is paving the way for certification of sustainable palm oil.

Avoided deforestation is the buzzword in the current battle to curb further carbon emission that is contributing to climate change. The World Bank has announced a US$250mil (RM850mil) investment fund to reward countries that keep their forests intact, hence trading in carbon credits earned from peatland rehabilitation is on the cards.

Developing countries, especially Indonesia, which has 25 million ha of tropical peat forests, is eyeing the huge carbon offset potential. Deforestation, peatland degradation and forest fires have put Indonesia among the world’s top three largest emitters of GHG.

Carbon release from peatland in Indonesia represents 58% of global peatland emission and is almost twice the emission from fossil fuel burning in the country. Oil palm cultivation is the major culprit for the conversion of peatland in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

In Malaysia, about 10% of the 4.2 million ha planted with oil palm is currently on peat soil, while the rest are grown on mineral soils. Of the 400,000ha, the largest area or 75% is in Sarawak.