JAKARTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Forest fires that ravaged parts of Indonesia in mid-2013 and caused regional tensions have made it harder for the government to meet its goals for reducing carbon emissions, according to a report by climate scientists – and experts and activists are warning that further fires are likely without better government regulation of land clearance in forest and peatland areas.
Indonesia made international headlines last year after massive fires in forest and peatland areas in Riau province on Sumatra caused smoke to spread to neighbouring countries, especially Malaysia and Singapore. Air quality in Singapore reached its worst level in 16 years, prompting Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to issue a formal apology.
The Indonesian National Council on Climate Change and the Japan International Cooperation Agency have published a preliminary assessment report on greenhouse gas emissions from the forest fires. The report estimates that the July 2013 fires in Riau emitted between 36 million and 49 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e).
The figures are based on the assumption that the proportion of the area burned that was peatland was between 50 percent and 75 percent.
Indonesia aims to reduce its carbon emissions by 26 percent, or 700 MtCO2e, by 2020. Farhan Helmy, manager of the Indonesia Climate Change Centre, a think-tank in Jakarta, said that while the emissions caused by the Riau fires were small in comparison to the country’s total emissions, they are clearly a problem and fires in other areas also need to be taken into account.
The report estimates that peat fires in Sumatra as a whole led to the emission of 183 MtCO2e in 2013, while fires in Kalimantan were responsible for a further 55 MtCO2e.
Rico Kurniawan, executive director of the Riau chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, or Walhi, said that the emissions targets are unlikely to reduce the problem of Riau’s annual forest fires.
“The commitment is a good policy but it should be also applied in the field. It’s a national target, which makes Riau a part of it. However, the aim for REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation) seems to be focusing on Central Kalimantan province,” he said.
But “you cannot just pay attention to one province and ignore the others,” Kurniawan said.
YEARS OF FIRES
Indonesia has suffered large-scale forest fires at least half a dozen times in the past 30 years. The worst were in 1997-98, when an estimated 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of forest and 5 million hectares (12.4 million acres) of non-forested areas burned. Smoke affected 75 million people, and economic losses totalled $5 billion.
Clearing land by burning is favoured in much of Indonesia because it is cheap and fast. However, due to the country’s vast peatland forest areas, slash and burn clearing often results in massive fires because peat fires spread easily and are very hard to put out. Riau has Indonesia’s largest peatland, at about 2 million hectares.
Better data should help control fires in the future, Helmy said, as would cost-benefit analyses before forests are cleared and improved restoration efforts. He also called for stricter law enforcement, given that some fires occur year after year in areas where companies have logging permits.
“If (fires) happened in that same spot for many years (and) if it’s coming from bad practices (for land clearing), then why should we need to continue (to giving permits to companies)? Law enforcement should be strict and the moratorium (on logging) needs to be expanded,” he said.
Kurniawan said that the government’s emissions reduction target had brought no reduction in land clearances and fires in Riau. Walhi, his organisation, reported that hotspots in last year’s fires were located in 117 areas under company concessions.
The emissions target is not having “any effect on industries in Riau, especially timber and palm oil plantations. They are still opening lands, particularly peatlands, resulting in massive fires like in 2013,” he said.
“It seems that the government does not want to solve Riau’s problem. If they do, they would just stop opening peatlands in the province,” he added.
Agus Purnomo, a presidential special staff member on climate change, dismissed the idea that Riau was not included in the government’s aim to cut emissions and deal with deforestation.
“There are no new logging permits issued in Riau since the moratorium (on logging) imposed in 2011. However, there are still illegal activities in these areas and this is the government’s responsibility to deal with,” he said.
Purnomo said that emissions from last year’s fires were not as high as from the fires in 1997-98 and would not set back the country’s efforts to meets its emissions reduction target.
“The [numbers of] hotspots in 2013 were declining compare to previous years, and (the) rate of deforestation (is) also improving from at least 1.1 million hectares per year down to 600,000 hectares per year for the past few years. If we can stay or even improve this condition then the target will be achieved in 2020,” he said.
“We can’t think that there will be zero burning. It’s true that fires and haze happens every year [in Riau] so we still need to improve more,” he said. He called for companies and local governments in Riau to monitor fire hotspots and prepare better for fires during the dry season.
Kurniawan remains unconvinced, however, pointing out the ongoing destruction of peatland in Riau. So far about half have disappeared he said.
“If we don’t do something about it then all peatlands in Riau will be gone by 2017,” he predicted.
Fidelis E. Satriastanti is a Jakarta-based writer with an interest in climate change issues.