From The Straits Times Archives: When forests start leaking carbon

Thick haze shrouds a local port in Malahayati, in the city of Banda Aceh on Indonesia's Sumatra island on Sept 19, 2015. Southeast Asia has been enveloped in choking haze from agricultural fires in Indonesia over the past fortnight, prompting flight
Thick haze shrouds a local port in Malahayati, in the city of Banda Aceh on Indonesia's Sumatra island on Sept 19, 2015. Southeast Asia has been enveloped in choking haze from agricultural fires in Indonesia over the past fortnight, prompting flight cancellations and closing schools.PHOTO: AFP

This article appeared in The Straits Times on Dec 9, 2009.

JAKARTA -  From the air, the Kampar Peninsula in Indonesia is a stretch of dense scrub and trees that goes on mile after mile, interrupted occasionally only by canals and creeks.

Here lies one of the world’s largest peat swamp forests, a nearly one million acre peat bog that Sumatran tigers, bears, monkeys, crocodiles and other wildlife call home.

Apart from some small fishing camps, there is virtually no sign of man. The peninsula is one of the last tracts of green left in central Sumatra, where forests have been cleared for palm oil plantations and industrial tree plantations. It is also one of its biggest vaults of carbon dioxide, storing billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide the trees absorbed from the air.

Unfortunately, the vault is leaking.

Canals extend from rivers into the peninsula’s impenetrable core, slowly draining and drying the peat land – and the carbon stored over countless years.

“I can tell the peat land’s leaking because the water here is getting browner and more acidic,” said fisherman Amiruddin, 31, from the village of Teluk Meranti.

Every year, Indonesia loses some one million ha of rainforests to illegal logging and clearing of land for commercial crops and building of infrastructure.

The result: one million tonnes of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere, making up the bulk of Indonesia’s total emissions of 1.4 million tonnes.

And the same story is taking place across Asia, Africa and South America. Forest fires, deforestation and pollution are degreening the Earth’s surface at the rate of 13 million ha a year.

Now, however, they are at the centre of a global effort to hammer out a new climate treaty. As deforestation is said to produce 20 per cent of man-made carbon emissions, reducing it is widely seen as a cheap, simple way to curb emissions.

Saving the forests also brings other benefits, like biodiversity. Though they cover just 2 per cent of the earth’s land surface, tropical rainforests house two-thirds of all living animal and plant species. 

No less than 150,000 endemic plant species and 11,980 terrestrial vertebrates can be found in 34 known biodiversity hot spots, mostly in South-east Asia, Madagascar and West Africa.

“It’s important that these endemic species do not go extinct as once this happens, they will be wiped off the biodiversity map,” said Professor Navjot Sodhi of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

But how can the world save its forests?

Many heavily-forested nations rely on urbanisation, agriculture and industrial development to grow, which often needs forests to be cleared. 

So who will pay them to stop it? One answer being discussed is a carbon-payment scheme called Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), which gets richer nations to pay poorer ones to preserve their forests. 

Richer nations can pay poorer nations to reduce deforestation by a specific amount, or earn carbon credits that they can use to offset their own emissions. 

The scheme could see forest-rich developing nations receive up to US$25 billion (S$35 billion) a year to preserve their forests, and countries like Indonesia are pushing for its adoption at the summit.

“We are keen to use it as it will help us with better forestry management,” Mr Agus Purnomo, the head of Indonesia’s National Council for Climate Change secretariat told The Straits Times.

REDD, however may not be the silver bullet its proponents sometimes make it out to be. Among other things, critics say it is difficult to gauge how much carbon specific forests can absorb, and how to verify if credits sold are real. There is also some doubt about how effective it can be. 

Because of the way funding is structured, rich nations could gravitate towards forests that are “cheaper” to protect, such as those in South America, at the expense of those in Asia, where competing demands for land for palm oil and other crops make REDD more expensive. 

Biologists also fear that REDD, which focuses on carbon-rich forests, will underplay the need to protect endangered biodiversity. “The basic problem is that REDD will supply money to protect carbon, not biodiversity,” said Professor Richard Corlett from NUS.