Chapter 2.1 Managing climate change
Indonesia's peatlands store about 57 gigatons of carbon, or 20 times the normal mineral soil carbon as tropical rainforests. In fact, peat holds about 30% of the world's carbon reserves. If peatland is drained or converted, these huge reserves of carbon will be released into the atmosphere.
Although peatlands cover only 3% of the global land area, their ability to absorb carbon is enormous. Peatlands store as much as 550 gigatons of carbon or the equivalent of 30% of the carbon stored in soil throughout the world.
In Indonesia, peatlands store 57 gigatons of carbon – 20 times more than regular tropical rainforests or mineralized soils.
Peat contains large carbon stocks so that when peatlands are drained or dried out, the carbon stores in the peat are released into the air. An analysis by the World Resources Institute (WRI) shows that draining one hectare of peatland in the tropics will produce an average of 55 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year which is equivalent to burning more than 6,000 gallons of gas.
In a dry state, peat is combustible. When peat is already burning, the fire can reach a depth of 4 meters as the peatlands consist of grass, branches and decaying tree matter rather than compact soil.
Even if the fire on the ground is extinguished, it may persist in the peat layer underneath. Such subsoil fires can last for months and even spread afar. As a result, peatland fires can be catastrophic.
In 1967 for instance, Indonesia experienced the first smog in Palembang and in the 1970s smog engulfed South Kalimantan. In 1996, 1 million hectares of peatlands were opened up and converted to agricultural land in Central Kalimantan. In 1997, severe forest fires followed, releasing up to 2,57 gigatons of carbon – the equivalent of a year’s worth of carbon dioxide emissions from 2,488 coal-fired power plants.
Fires not only emit carbon dioxide but also methane, which is considered to be 21 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. Peat fires can release up to 10 times more methane than fires on other types of soil. This is why the impact of peatland forest fires on global warming can be up to 200 times higher than other forest fires.
The worst among the series of forest and land fires across Indonesia occurred in 2015. The total area burned was equivalent to 32 times the size of Jakarta, with peat comprising 53% of the total land area. The fire released greenhouse gases with as much as 1.636 million tons of carbon dioxide, or more than the total daily greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. This destruction incurred state losses of nearly 220 trillion rupiah.