Fires raging across the forests and peatlands of Indonesia are on track to pump out more carbon emissions than the UK’s entire annual output, Greenpeace has warned.
As well as fuelling global warming, the thick smoke choking cities in the region is likely to cause the premature deaths of more than 100,000 people in the region and is also destroying vital habitats for endangered orangutans and clouded leopards.
New drone video footage from Greenpeace from around the Gunung Palung national park in Kalimantan shows the peat fires smouldering underground, as well as flames burning down trees, and the thick haze they produce.
There have been almost 10,000 fires in the last month across Kalimantan(Indonesian Borneo) and Sumatra, with the drifting smoke also provoking protests from neighbouring Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
The fires, mostly started deliberately and illegally to clear forest for paper and palm oil production, are on track to match the worst ever year of 1997. As in that year, the region is currently experiencing a strong El Niño climate phenomenon. This creates drought conditions in Indonesia, exacerbating years of draining of peatlands, and creating tinderbox conditions.
“As governments prepare to meet in Paris to save the world from catastrophic warming, the earth in Indonesia is already on fire,” said Greenpeace’s Indonesian forest project leader Bustar Maita.
“Companies destroying forests and draining peatland have made Indonesia’s landscape into a huge carbon bomb, and the drought has given it a thousand fuses. The Indonesian government can no longer turn a blind eye to this destruction when half of Asia is living with the consequences.”
Indonesia’s pledge to the UN on climate action has been criticised for being vague on how it will halt the fires.
The record forest and peat fires of 1997 produced huge carbon emissions, estimated by scientists at between 0.81 and 2.57 gigatonnes (Gt), equivalent to 13-40% of the entire world’s annual fossil fuel emissions. It lead to the biggest annual jump in CO2 ever recorded. By comparison, the UK’s carbon emissions for the whole of 2014 were 0.52Gt.
The health impact of the forest and peat fires is also expected to be large, with the resulting premature deaths across south-east Asia estimated at 110,000 deaths in an average year. More than 75,000 people are already suffering from upper respiratory infections as a result of the haze, according to media reports.
Raffles Brotestes Panjaitan, director of forest fire control in Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, explained why so many fires are started deliberately:“Burning the forest is the fastest, cheapest and most profitable method, instead of clearing with heavy equipment,” he told Associated Press.
“Our regulation is clear: no burning of forests. But [big corporations] violate the law for the sake of profits.” He described the burning peatlands as a vast smouldering stove, burning up to 10 metres (33 feet) deep.
“Ironically, intact peatlands are actually very fire resistant, as they are protected by a high water table,” said Professor Susan Page, an expert on Indonesia’s peatlands at the University of Leicester, UK. “The problem arises when peatlands are drained. Dry peat ignites very easily and can burn for days or weeks, even smouldering underground and re-emerging away from the initial source. This makes them incredibly difficult to extinguish.”
The threat to wildlife is extreme, according to Mark Harrison, of the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop). “Tropical peat-swamp forests are one of the world’s most important ecosystems. They are home to globally threatened wildlife, including the orangutan, southern Bornean gibbon and clouded leopard,” he said.
“OuTrop’s main research site in the Sabangau forest, Kalimantan, is a peat-swamp that is home to the world’s largest orangutan population,” said Harrison. “Fire here not only burns the surface vegetation, but also the peat soil that has taken thousands of years to form. This makes fire the biggest threat to Sabangau’s orangutans and many other species that call this forest home.”
The Indonesian government has deployed more than 22,000 soldiers, policemen and fire personnel to fight the fires, with aircraft conducting water-bombing and cloud-seeding operations. Another 6,000 soldiers are expected to be deployed soon.
But peatland fires are very difficult to extinguish and the only permanent solution is to restore and protect rainforests and peatlands. Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, has pleaded for the patience, saying the haze is “not a problem that you can solve quickly.” He said: “You will see results soon, and in three years, we will have solved this.”
Indonesia’s government estimates that 63% of its greenhouse gas emissions are the result of forest and peatland fires and land use change, but others say the proportion is as high as 80%.
In May, the government extended a moratorium on deforestation, but activists have called for it to be strengthened as it currently excludes secondary forests and areas earmarked for “national development”.