Indonesia targets catastrophic wildfires, climate change with historic move to protect peatlands


- Drained and burned peatlands are responsible for up to 5 per cent of anthropogenic carbon emissions 

- 2015 Indonesian peat fires caused economic losses of US$ 16.1 billion

- At their worst, daily emissions from Indonesia's peat fires were greater than those of the entire US economy

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5 December 2016 – Indonesia's president Joko Widodo announced today a landmark moratorium, which bans all activities that damage the hydrological functions of peatlands – the world's largest terrestrial soil carbon stock.

The move is expected to slash greenhouse gas emissions and prevent disastrous peat fires that have plagued the Southeast Asian nation in recent years.

Recent studies suggest that the 2015 Indonesian peat fires affected 43 million people, caused over 500,000 people to be treated for respiratory disease, and led to US$ 16.1 billion in overall economic damage (twice the value of the Aceh Tsunami Reconstruction).

UN Environment head Erik Solheim welcomed Indonesia's decision with the following statement.

"This is an extremely positive and historic decision, both for Indonesia and for global efforts to tackle climate change. Such a moratorium has the potential to deliver huge health benefits for the Indonesian people, protect the country's incredible environment and deliver one of the biggest commitments yet to the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

"This is an example of the kind of leadership that the world needs right now." 

Greenhouse gas emissions from drained and burning peatlands account for up to 5 per cent of anthropogenic carbon emissions. These emissions are rising due to increasing peat degradation and loss from agriculture and fires, and driving the world closer to a dangerous tipping point.

Peat carbon stocks are equivalent to at least 60 per cent of all atmospheric carbon. It means that their further degradation could  send climate change spiraling out of control.

Despite their importance, peatlands are coming under increased threat, mainly from conversion for palm oil and pulp wood production. Drainage of peatlands can result in environmental problems, most visible being the enormous fires in Indonesia and Russia in recent years.

In Indonesia, the worst days of the peat forest fires resulted in emissions greater than the daily emissions from the entire United States economy. In the Nordic and Baltic states, drained peatlands are responsible for 25 per cent of all emissions.

At the recent climate conference in Marakech, Morocco, Indonesia joined Peru and the Republic of Congo as partner countries for the new Global Peatlands Initiative, which will mobilize governments, international organizations and academia in a targeted effort to protect peatlands, which contain


What is peat?

Peat consists of partially decayed plant material, which has accumulated under water-logged conditions over long periods of time. Peatlands can be found on every continent and are regionally known as peat swamp forests, fens, bogs or mires and are found on every continent on Earth.

Tropical peatlands are home to a number of endangered species including Sumatran tigers, gorillas and orangutans. Boreal, sub-Arctic and Arctic peatlands provide habitat to species with unique adaptations such as caribou and muskox. Peatlands also support important traditional knowledge, local economies and practices.

Peat is burned as fuel, sold in gardening centres as potting soil, is highly prized as agricultural land (when drained) and is used in the production of whisky. Because of its importance and multitude of uses, the European Union regulates the use of peat, ASEAN has adopted a regional peat management strategy and Ireland and Scotland are among a number of countries that have developed national peat strategies.