For peat's sake: Study reveals benefits of restoring Indonesia's fragile peat lands

SINGAPORE – Restoring Indonesia’s damaged peat lands could bring economic savings of billions of dollars, an analysis shows, while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions and reducing health risks.

The study, led by the University of Leeds, calculated that peat land restoration could have reduced economic losses by US$8.4 billion (S$11.45 billion) from 2004 to 2015, when Indonesia suffered repeated and damaging fires.

Researchers found that the benefits of effective peat land restoration outweigh the cost of restoration. They said this supports Indonesia’s ongoing efforts to try to reverse decades of damage, caused mainly by plantation and logging firms that have cleared and drained millions of hectares of peat swamps.

“Our work demonstrates the widespread benefits of peat land restoration from a reduction in damage to national resources, to the regional benefits of reduced haze through to the global benefits of reduced carbon emissions and climate action,” co-author Professor Dominick Spracklen, from the University of Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment, told The Straits Times.

Scientists have long known that protecting and restoring Indonesia’s carbon-rich peat lands is a vital solution to curbing climate change.

The normally flooded peat lands store huge amounts of carbon in the form of dead plant matter that has accumulated in the soil over hundreds to thousands of years. Indonesia’s peat lands store an estimated 57 billion tonnes of carbon.

When drained, the peat lands dry out and become vulnerable to fire that can burn for weeks to months.

The toxic smoke is a major contributor to haze that leaves many ill in Indonesia and across the region, especially the tiny particulate matter of 2.5 microns in size (PM2.5) that gets deep into the lungs.

Peat land smoke also contains large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas. A 2016 study estimated that fires in South-east Asia released 884 million tonnes of CO2 in 2015, with 97 per cent originating from forest fires in Indonesia. That is more than twice Australia’s annual CO2 emissions.

Restoring peat lands therefore seems a logical thing to do. Reflecting this, in early 2016, Indonesia launched the Badan Restorasi Gambut (BRG), an agency tasked with restoring 2.49 million hectares of the most vulnerable peat lands over 5 years. Its mandate has since been extended to 2024 and expanded to include mangrove restoration.

The agency oversees efforts to build dams to block peat land drainage canals and to rewet and replant dried out areas, especially those that have burned previously. The agency works with villages on the dam-building work and funds livelihood projects to get local buy-in.

The government in 2011 also introduced a moratorium on clearing primary forests and peat lands. President Joko Widodo made this ban permanent in 2019.

Trying to quantify the exact cost-benefit of restoration efforts, though, is not easy. Large-scale restoration efforts to address fire-related problems lack a cost-benefit analysis, according to the study, which was published earlier this month (Dec) in the journal Nature Communications.

To get a clearer idea, the team went back in time to estimate the losses and damage caused during six major fire seasons between 2004 and 2015. They used a scenario where the restoration of the 2.49 million hectares of degraded peat land had been completed by 2015.

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They found that the six largest fire events caused a total of US$93.9 billion in economic losses. The fires in 2015, the worst since the record 1997-98 fire disaster and fuelled by severe drought, caused US$28 billion in economic losses.

The authors used satellite data and models in their estimates and based their loss assumptions on damage to agriculture, plantations and natural forests as well as the cost of CO2 emissions and health impacts from exposure to smoke haze.

If the peat land restoration had already been completed by 2015, the area burned that year would have been reduced by 6 per cent, CO2 emissions would have dropped 18 per cent and PM2.5 emissions cut by 24 per cent, preventing 12,000 premature deaths, the authors found.


Villagers constructing a dam using local materials in Desa Seponjen. PHOTO: PEATLAND RESTORATION AGENCY, INDONESIA

The total economic savings of these reductions in emissions, damage to land and fewer deaths totalled US$8.4 billion from 2004 to 2015, Prof Spracklen said.

He added: “If 2.5 million hectares of peat lands can be effectively restored before another major drought like that of 2015, we estimate economic savings of US$4 billion in that year due to reduced fire.”

“Our work shows that peat land restoration can substantially reduce carbon emissions and play a key role in meeting national emission targets,” he said.

“Hopefully, these findings will encourage investors to provide financing that supports restoration of degraded peat lands. Restoration also provides a range of other benefits such as protection and recovery of biodiversity and improved health associated with haze reduction.

“These benefits are equally valuable to society, but we don’t have a way to link to investors in the same way as we do for carbon.”

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Restoring peat lands is one of a number of nature-based climate solutions that are likely to attract funding from carbon market investors. The recent COP26 talks in Glasgow concluded years of negotiations on rules for new carbon markets that will allow the trading of carbon offsets from overseas projects to help countries meet their national emissions reduction targets.

In Indonesia, keeping the peat lands locked away by protecting and restoring peat swamp forests is a good idea and one that already generates carbon offset income for several existing projects in Indonesia.

These efforts might get a boost as the costs and benefits of peat land restoration become even clearer.

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