in Indonesia

Are Indonesia’s peatland fires worse than burning coal?

Harold Tjiptadjaja is Managing Director and Chief Investment Officer of Indonesia Infrastructure Finance, an institution created by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and Indonesia’s Ministry of Finance. IIF funds oil and gas projects, airports, toll roads, seaports, and power generation, among other things.

This week Eco-Business reported Tjiptadjaja as saying that “Deforestation poses a bigger problem for the climate than burning coal in Indonesia”.

Obviously, this is an absurd comment. While burning coal and burning peatland will both exacerbate climate change, the reality is that in a warming climate, Indonesia’s peatlands are ever more likely to burn. The burning of coal (and other fossil fuels) is a double whammy for the climate.

We need to stop emissions from deforestation and peatland burning as well as dramatically reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels, preferably by leaving them underground.

Coal in Indonesia

Indonesia has the tenth largest coal reserve on the planet. The country is currently the fifth largest coal producer, and the second largest coal exporter, in the world, according to the International Energy Agency.

Coal production in Indonesia has increased by 50% since 2010. Coal accounts for more than half of Indonesia’s electricity production. Indonesia has plans to more than double the energy produced in the country from coal-fired power plants.

Indonesia’s Nationally Determined Contribution submitted to the UNFCCC sees a rosy future for the fossil fuels industry. By 2050, Indonesia aims to generate only 31% of its energy from renewable sources. The remaining 69% will come from fossil fuels.

Burning peatlands

Every year, Indonesia’s forests and peatlands burn. During the dry season, from about June to October, large areas of Southeast Asia are covered in smoke. Many of the fires are set deliberately to establish oil palm plantations, or industrial tree plantations for the pulp and paper industry.

According to Indonesia’s NDC, 63% of the country’s emissions come from land use change and peat and forest fires.

The fires Indonesia in 2015 were “almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century – so far”, George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian.

The 2015 fires cost Indonesia US$16 billion, and more than 500,000 people suffered respiratory ailments. A Harvard and Columbia university study estimates that the 2015 fires resulted in more than 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

In 2016, the government set up a Peatland Restoration Agency, headed by Nazir Foead. Here’s how Nazir described the mission of the Agency in November 2016:

After the massive fires we had in 2015, we realised that it’s almost impossible to put out fires on peatland. So the best strategy is of course to prevent the fires happening in the first place on peatland. And that would mean that we need to recognise that a lot of peatlands have been drained and degraded, so we have to restore the functions of their ecological and hydrological functions of peatland to keep it wet, moist, even during dry seasons, so it will not be easy to burn. To prevent the fires. The task of the Peat Agency is to restore the drained peatland.

Some success, but this year the fires are back

The following two years saw fewer fires. In 2016, the government imposed sanctions against 30 companies, and Siti Nurbaya, Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry threatened to suspend or permanently revoke companies found guilty of burning forests.

While there were still some fires, things seemed to be going well. Or at least a bit better.

But this year, the fires are back. Last week, Greenpeace put out a press release highlighting fires that have broken out inside palm oil concessions in West Kalimantan. The concessions belong to companies supplying palm oil to major brands, including Mondelez, Nestlé and Unilever.

Some of the companies involved are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Almost 9,819 fire hotspots have been identified so far this year in West Kalimantan – almost three times the total for 2017. Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) has warned that the dry weather could result in yet more fires in September.

Four people have died in West Kalimantan as a result of the fires.

Annisa Rahmawati, Forest Campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, says,

“People in Indonesia are sick and tired. The Indonesian government promised to crack down on rogue companies but the palm oil industry still isn’t listening. It’s early days yet and we hope the fires don’t get worse, but the haze is already shutting down schools and putting people’s lives at risk.”

On 25 August 2018, Palangkaraya High Court found Indonesia’s president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo guilty of negligence during the 2015 forest fires. The government has lodged an appeal against the decision with the Supreme Court.

Arie Rompas, one of the plaintiffs, and forest campaign team leader at Greenpeace Indonesia argues that President Jokowi should “take charge of the situation and enforce the law against companies that don’t protect their land from fire”.

PHOTO Credits: Greenpeace – Forest fire, coal barge, canal digging in Riau province (Ulet Ifansasti).

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  1. @Carol Mantasoot – Thanks for this comment. WRI’s article is based on data from Global Forest Watch, which is probably the most accurate data we have on tree cover loss. Indonesia’s tree cover loss was less in 2017 than it was in 2016. Here’s the graph of tree cover loss in Indonesia from 2002 to 2017 on the Global Forest Watch website:

    WRI’s headline is referring to a 60% drop in “tree cover loss in primary forests compared with 2016”. But Indonesia is still losing around 1.3 million hectares of tree cover in 2017. (Some of this area is plantations – Global Forest Watch notes that Indonesia lost 1.01 million hectares of tree cover in “natural forest”.)

    Greenpeace’s press release is about fires in oil palm concessions in West Kalimantan in 2018. So it’s not contradicting WRI’s data.

    WRI also compares emissions from forest loss with emissions from burning coal, stating that the reduced loss of primary forest is “the difference in carbon dioxide emissions from primary forest loss equivalent to 0.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide, or about the same emissions released from burning over 199 billion pounds of coal.”

    It’s a very small step from that statement to Harold Tjiptadjaja’s comment that, “Deforestation poses a bigger problem for the climate than burning coal in Indonesia.”