How Indonesia's fires made it the biggest climate polluter


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A villager looks at a peatland fire on the outskirts of Palangkaraya city, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, on Oct. 26. A villager looks at a peatland fire on the outskirts of Palangkaraya city, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, on Oct. 26.


Indonesia’s forest fires have catapulted the southeast Asian nation to the top of the rankings of the world’s worst global warming offenders, with daily emissions exceeding those of China on at least 14 days in the past two months.
The nation’s total daily carbon dioxide emissions, including from power generation, transport and industry, exceeded those of the U.S. on 47 of the 74 days through Oct. 28, according to Bloomberg analysis of national emissions data from the World Resources Institute in Washington and Indonesian fire-emissions data from VU University in Amsterdam.
Smog caused by the fires has generated headlines and a diplomatic flare-up between Indonesia and its neighbors in southeast Asia. It’s a threat to human health and has disrupted flights in the region. At the same time, burning trees and peatlands are pumping heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere at a time when more than 190 nations are gearing up to sign a new agreement to stem global warming in Paris in December.
“The problem that we see in Indonesia with essentially unrestrained deforestation going on is a bad message for the world,” Bill Hare, chief executive officer of Potsdam, Germany-based policy researcher Climate Analytics, said in a phone interview. “If we can’t really control deforestation in this region, who’s going to be next? It would be a signal that countries can get away with this kind of deforestation without any real constraint.”
The fires are caused by clearing woodland for paper and palm oil plantations, and have been worsened by El Nino-related dry conditions.
In a satellite record that began in 1997, 2015 is the second worst year on record for emissions from Indonesian forest fires, according to Guido van der Werf, professor of Earth sciences at VU University. It’s unlikely to exceed 1997, which itself was probably worse than any year predating the satellite record, he said.
“We have some confidence in the numbers because by using atmospheric models we can predict, based on our emissions, how elevated concentrations of gases and aerosols will be in the atmosphere,” van der Werf said in an e-mail. “That corresponds reasonably well with what we actually measure in the atmosphere.”
Without including land use changes and deforestation, Indonesia emits about 761 megatons (761 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide a year, according to 2012 data from the World Resources Institute. That works out at 2.1 megatons a day, compared with almost 16 for the U.S. and 29.3 for China.
Indonesian daily emissions from fires alone rose as high as 61 megatons on Oct. 14, according to van der Werf’s data, part of the Global Fire Emissions Database. That accounted for almost 97 percent of total national emissions for the day.
Exceeding China
The daily average emissions for Indonesia, including those of the wider economy, was 22.5 megatons in September and 23 megatons for Oct. 1 through Oct. 28, according to Bloomberg calculations. That’s more than the U.S. average for those two months, based on a typical year, though still short of China. Even so, daily emissions first exceeded those of China on Sept. 8, and most recently did so on Oct. 23.
“Put simply, this is a climate catastrophe,” Nigel Sizer, global director of WRI’s forests program said in an e-mailed reply. “The emissions from these fires are likely to add about 3 percent to total global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities for the year.”
The WRI posted analysis in an Oct 16 blog that showed emissions from the fire exceeding those of the entire U.S. economy.
Indonesia has pledged to cut its emissions by 29 percent from a projected “business-as-usual” scenario by 2030 as part of the new UN deal on climate change. The plan, short on details, includes an unquantified commitment to reduce deforestation. The country already has a moratorium in place on clearing primary forests, and a ban on converting peatlands to other uses.
Failed efforts
“An enormous amount of effort has gone in from different countries to support reductions in deforestation and burning of peat land and it’s really failed,” said Hare.
Van der Werf said it takes 100 years or more to grow trees that will absorb the CO2 released by burning primary forests. For carbon-rich peat soils that have been burnt, the lag is even bigger, he said.
“What is burning in Indonesia is for a large part peat that has accumulated over thousands of years and will not regrow so this is a net source of CO2, just like fossil fuel emissions,” he said. “Unless there is a dramatic change in land management these peatlands will not be restored.”

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