This year’s forest and peat fires in Indonesia have reached unprecedented scale. The Global Fire Emissions Database[i] estimates that by 16 November, more than 122,000 forest and peat fires will have emitted 1.75 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent. The World Resources Institute (WRI) calculated that as of 16 October, emissions from fires had exceeded those of the total US economy – more than 15 million tons CO2 per day – on 26 separate occasions, noting that the U.S. economy is 60 times larger than Indonesia’s.
Put another way, in just three weeks, emissions from fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan exceeded the annual emissions of Europe’s largest economy, Germany.[ii] The fires have caused environmental havoc, a surge in respiratory illnesses and other health impacts, and economic losses around the region. After mounting international pressure, President Widodo announced radical new caps on peat use: an end to licensing for concessions on peat lands, a review of existing licensing, recognition of high carbon value lands, and the creation of a program to restore the carbon-rich forests and peatlands. The government is reportedly exploring the establishment of a new Peat-land Management Agency to spearhead efforts.
This is not the first time moratorium-like measures have been announced in Indonesia. Success will lie in the extent of implementation and especially, in enforcement. But there is very real potential here for Indonesia to transform the way peat is used, particularly in the agricultural sector—with international assistance. Indonesia’s peatlands and tropical peat swamp forests, store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem and are important reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services such as water filtration. There is global significance in the efforts to find ways to rehabilitate peat forests degraded due to deforestation and inefficient agricultural practices.