This article was first published in The Jakarta Post
Katowice, formerly a mining town in southern Poland, is taking center stage in the world. Once home to heavy, polluting industries, the vibrant town of about 300,000 people is hosting the 24th Climate Change Conference (COP24) until next week.
Alongside the usual climate conference agenda items and formal negotiations, the discussions in the hallways of Katowice’s International Congress Center are also to be enlivened by the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report. Known as SR1.5, the report made headlines last month with troubling insights into the accelerating pace of climate change.
Countries have been warned that an average global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels poses greater risks than previously believed. These risks can be substantially reduced by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees — but this requires dramatic emission reductions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by about 2050. This would entail unprecedented transformations of energy, land, urban and industrial systems.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s pledge to restore more than 2 million hectares of peat land at climate talks in Paris three years ago is more relevant than ever. To move forward with this ambitious goal, the President established the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) in early 2016. The BRG’s mandate of restoring peat land across seven peat-rich provinces in Indonesia covers an area of more than 12 million ha — about the same size as the entire territory of North Korea.
Having been hustling for three years and with two more to go, the BRG might just be able to achieve all the planned restoration targets. The numbers, however, have nothing to do with emission reduction targets. This absurdity may have something to do with the entire governance system for curbing climate change in the country.
The historic emissions associated with peatland degradation in the past decade amounts to 430 million tons of CO2 equivalent annually. This includes biomass removal as a result of deforestation and peat decomposition and oxidation following excessive drainage and peat fires. It could be worse when El Niño, a climate phenomenon characterized by a long drought, comes.
In the climate talks in Katowice countries are to be updating their individual efforts to reduce emissions and tackle climate change, a process known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). Indonesia could improve its ambition by including restoration efforts as part of its emission reduction measures. This could be even more promising when avoidance of further conversion and conservation of intact peatlands is included. At the back of the envelope, the ambitions for the land sector could slash the 2010 emissions level of 650 million tons to 200 million tons by 2030.
Peatland restoration and conservation would lead to unprecedented transformations of sustainable peatland management to achieve “negative emissions”, meaning peatlands would become net sinks for atmospheric carbon. This could offset the challenges associated with reducing emissions in the energy sector, which are growing exponentially.
The largest source of emissions is from drained peatland (250 million tons of CO2 equivalent annually). Rewetting followed by revegetating the landscape could effectively halt the emissions and at the same time help avoid fires, the second-largest source of emissions (110 million tons of CO2 equivalent annually). Mitigating these sources by combining peat land restoration and conservation would meet emission reduction targets relatively easily.
Financing peatland restoration is the key to success. In addition to public budgets, other sources worth exploring include the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) mechanism and bilateral arrangements, as well as multilateral streams, such as the Green Climate Fund (GCF). The latter would need coordination with the National Designated Authority to prepare the transformational change through the GCF.
Peatland is the low hanging fruit by which Indonesia has the capacity to demonstrate technical evidence relatively easily. If the institution and the associated regulatory framework in place could form a strong peatland governance framework, development and conservation in Indonesia could be the gold standard for south-south collaboration.
The recent joint declaration of Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya and her counterparts from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo, who agreed to establish the Interim Secretariat of the International Tropical Peatland Center, is paving the way for such leadership. It is likely that the environment minister from Peru would also be jumping on the peatland conservation bandwagon while mingling and debating during the COP24.
Katowice has transformed itself from a town known for its dirty coal and acid rain into one of 16 European cities with the most vibrant and innovative economies. Let’s hope the same spirit of transformation can spread to others at this year’s climate change talks.
The writer is principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and a professor at Bogor Agricultural University. He is also a member of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences.