Mopping up water with the faucet still on
The agreed 2 year suspension on new concessions on oil palm plantations under the Norway-Indonesia partnership signals the potential of a total moratorium on the destructive allocation of peatswamps and forests for palm oil production. However it only starts in the second phase of the partnership. This is too late as it will allow and perhaps encourage many new concessions to be developed in the coming years with associated alarming CO2 emissions and biodiversity loss. This will be counter-effective to the efforts of the partnership to achieve emissions reductions.
Currently about 25% of all oil palm plantations in Indonesia are on peat which are responsible for an estimated 90 to 140 million tonnes of CO2 emissions (roughly 45 to 70 tonnes CO2 per ha/year in optimally managed conditions). These emissions will continue for as long as the drainage continues – i.e. during the entire lifetime of a concession. Millions of additional hectares have already been allocated of which a large percentage on peat and in remaining forest areas.
Strong signs many new concessions on carbon rich peatlands
In the new Indonesian national spatial plan many forest and peat areas have been designated for conversion to plantations. In the coming years many existing but still undeveloped concessions will become effective and many new concessions will be allocated. Until recently 'deep peat' (more than 3 meters) was protected by Indonesian law and could officially not be developed. However, a recent Indonesian ministerial decree has ended this protection measure by requiring only 70% of a concession to be on shallow peat; as such it opened up the possibility for conversion of any Indonesian peatlands, except those that are part of the Indonesian legal protected area system (less than 5% of all Indonesian peatlands are protected). The decree is estimated to bear relevance on 2.8 million ha deep peat that were protected and now may be converted legally into palm oil.
In most cases, and as a conservative estimate, the relationship between drainage level and the peat subsidence rate is almost linear and yields an emission of 9t/ha/yr CO2 for each 10cm of additional drainage up to a depth of 50cm when subsidence levels off. Scientific data on emissions from areas with deeper drainage is limited. In some areas it seems to remain constant at around 45t/ha/yr, but in other studies much higher emissions have been found of up to 90 tonnes/ha per annum at 1 meter drainage.
Focus also on better management of existing plantations
Significant CO2 reductions could be gained also from the better management of existing plantations by reducing drainage depth and improved water control measures, as well as enhanced fire prevention. Development of plantations inevitably requires intensive drainage, including also drainage intensification in previously logged or degraded areas. Policy measures and incentive mechanisms are needed to direct development of plantations to degraded areas on mineral soils, and existing concessions on peat could be encouraged to move to such areas.
The degraded peatlands could then be restored or put to sustainable uses that require no drainage, thus further decreasing emissions. If not, the drained peat will continue to release huge quantities of CO2. Another focus should be an increased control over illegal small-holder developments in peatland and forest areas. Illegal small holder palm oil plantations are estimated to cover a total of 2 million ha, including many on peatlands and in protected areas.
Wetlands International has been working over 15 years to protect and restore South-east Asia’s tropical peatlands and has raised the issue on the agenda of the UN Climate Change Conference.
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Watch our videos:
"Palm oil production, peatland loss and CO2 emissions"
"Restoring the peatswamp forests of Indonesia"