Indonesia ‘failing on pledge to reduce forest fires’


The Indonesian government failed to live up to its promises to reduce fires across the tropical nation last year, reports Mongabay.com.Take Cover library picture

It quotes The Jakarta Post as saying that the nation’s 2009 State Environment Report revealed a 59% increase in the number of fire hotspots from 19,192 in 2008 to 32,416 last year.

Officials are reported as saying that land clearing was the primary cause because, unlike temperature forests, intact rainforests rarely burn naturally.

“Illegal land clearing with fires by local people in Kalimantan and Sumatra is still rampant,” Heddy Mukna, deputy assistant for forest and land management at the Environment Ministry told the Post.

The state of Kalimantan on the island of Borneo saw fires triple in some areas from 2008 to 2009.

Haze blanketed much of the island last year during the “burning season”.

In 2007, the Indonesian government announced plan to cut forest fires in half to mitigate climate change from 35,279 fires in 2006.

The government has since revised that reduction from 50% to just 20%.

Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world behind China and the US.

An estimated 80% of the nation’s 2.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions is from rainforest and peatland destruction.

Source: Mongabay.com

Date: 13/06/2010

Climate ‘adds fuel to Asian wildfire emissions’


In the last decade, Asian farmers have cleared tens of thousands of square miles of forests to accommodate the world’s growing demand for palm oil, an increasingly popular food ingredient, reports Science Daily.

Ancient peatlands have been drained and lush tropical forests have been cut down.

As a result, the landscape of equatorial Asia now lies vulnerable to fires, which are growing more frequent and having a serious impact on the air as well as the land.

A team of NASA-sponsored researchers have used satellites to make the first series of estimates of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from these fires — both wildfires and fires started by people — in Malaysia, Indonesia, Borneo, and Papua New Guinea.

They are now working to understand how climate influences the spread and intensity of the fires.

Using data from a carbon-detecting NASA satellite and computer models, the researchers found that seasonal fires from 2000 to 2006 doubled the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released from the Earth to the atmosphere above the region.

The scientists also observed through satellite remote sensing that fires in regional peatlands and forests burned longer and emitted ten times more carbon when rainfall declined by one third the normal amount.

The results were presented in December 2008 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Tropical Asian fires first grabbed the attention of government officials, media, and conservationists in 1997, when fires set to clear land for palm oil and rice plantations burned out of control.

The fires turned wild and spread to dry, flammable peatlands during one of the region’s driest seasons on record. By the time the flames subsided in early 1998, emissions from the fires had reached 40 percent of the global carbon emissions for the period.

“In this region, decision makers are facing a dichotomy of demands, as expanding commercial crop production is competing with efforts to ease the environmental impact of fires,” said co-author Jim Collatz, an Earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“The science is telling us that we need strategies to reduce the occurrence of deforestation fires and peatlands wildfires. Without some new strategies, emissions from the region could rise substantially in a drier, warmer future.”

Since the 1997 event, the region has been hit by two major dry spells and a steady upswing in fires, threatening biodiversity and air quality and contributing to the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere.

As more CO2 is emitted, the global atmosphere traps more heat near Earth’s surface, leading to more drying and more fires.

Until recently, scientists knew little about what drives changes in how fires spread and how long they burn. Dr Collatz, along with lead author Guido van der Werf of Vrije University, Amsterdam, and other colleagues sought to estimate the emissions since the devastating 1997-98 fires and to analyse the interplay between the fires and drought.

They used the carbon monoxide detecting Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere (MOPITT) instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite — as well as 1997-2006 fire data and research computer models — to screen for and differentiate between carbon emissions from deforestation versus general emissions.

Carbon monoxide is a good indicator of the occurrence of fire, and the amounts of carbon monoxide in fire emissions are related to the amount of carbon dioxide.

They also compared the emissions from different types of plant life (peat land verses typical forest) by examining changes in land cover and land use as viewed by Terra’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectradiometer (MODIS) and by Landsat 7.

Collatz explained that two climate phenomena drive regional drought.

El Nino’s warm waters in the Eastern Pacific change weather patterns around the world every few years and cause cooler water temperatures in the western Pacific near equatorial Asia that suppress the convection necessary for rainfall.

Previously, scientists have used measurements from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission satellite to correlate rainfall with carbon losses and burned land data, finding that wildfire emissions rose during dry El Nino seasons.

The Indian Ocean dipole phenomenon affects climate in the Indian Ocean region with oscillating ocean temperatures characterized by warmer waters merging with colder waters to inhibit rainfall over Indonesia, Borneo, and their neighbors.

“This link between drought and emissions should be of concern to all of us,” said co-author Ruth DeFries, an ecologist at Columbia University in New York.

“If drought becomes more frequent with climate change, we can expect more fires.”

Collatz, DeFries, and their colleagues found that between 2000 and 2006, the average carbon dioxide emissions from equatorial Asia accounted for about 2 percent of global fossil fuel emissions and 3 percent of the global increase in atmospheric CO2.

But during moderate El Nino years in 2002 and 2006, when dry season rainfall was half of normal, fire emissions rose by a factor of 10. During the severe El Nino of 1997-1998, fire emissions from this region comprised 15% of global fossil fuel emissions and 31% of the global atmospheric increase over that period.

“This study not only updates our measurements of carbon losses from these fires, but also highlights an increasingly important factor driving change in equatorial Asia,” explained DeFries.

“In this part of Asia, human-ignited forest and peat fires are emitting excessive carbon into the atmosphere. In climate-sensitive areas like Borneo, human response to drought is a new dynamic affecting feedbacks between climate and the carbon cycle.”

In addition to climate influences, human activities contribute to the growing fire emissions.

Palm oil is increasingly grown for use as a cooking oil and biofuel, while also replacing trans fats in processed foods.

It has become the most widely produced edible oil in the world, and production has swelled in recent years to surpass that of soybean oil.

More than 30 million tonnes of palm oil are produced in Malaysia and Indonesia alone, and the two countries now supply more than 85% of global demand.

The environmental effects of such growth have been significant. Land has to be cleared to grow the crop, and the preferred method is fire.

The clearing often occurs in drained peatlands that are otherwise swampy forests where the remains of past plant life have been submerged for centuries in as much as 60 feet of water.

Peat material in Borneo, for example, stores the equivalent of about nine years worth of global fossil fuel emissions.

“Indonesia has become the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after the United States and China, as a result primarily to these fire emissions,” Collatz said.

“With an extended dry season, the peat surface dries out, catches fire, and the lack of rainfall can keep the fires going for months.”

Besides emitting carbon, the agricultural fires and related wildfires also ravage delicate ecosystems in conservation hotspots like the western Pacific island of Borneo, home to more than 15,000 species of plants, 240 species of trees, and an abundance of endangered animals.

Smoke and other fire emissions also regularly taint regional air quality to such a degree that officials have to close schools and airports out of concern for public health and safety.

Peat fires also aggravate air pollution problems in this region because they release four times more carbon monoxide than forest fires.

In 1997, air pollution from the fires cost the region an estimated $4.5 billion in tourism and business.

Source: Science Daily

Date: 10/05/2009

Study links forest fires to climate shift


A warming climate will fuel larger, more frequent wildfires in the Sierra Nevada and other parts of the West, and the fires will contribute to climate change, according to a new study reported in Insurance Journal.

More than 20 international scientists, in the report published in the journal Science, said fire is not only a consequence of climate change but an important cause.

“Fire also influences the climate system. This is what we call a feedback,” Jennifer Balch, a fire expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Scientists determined intentional deforestation fires, many set in tropical areas to expand agriculture or ranching, contribute up to a fifth of the human-caused increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas helping to boost global temperatures.

The researchers called on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to fully integrate fire into its ongoing assessment of climate change.

Fire-climate feedbacks, they said, have been largely absent from global climate models.

“Extraordinary (fires are) occurring like a rash all over the planet,” said David Bowman, a forestry and wildlife expert at the University of Tasmania.

Fire of unprecedented ferocity swept across parts of Australia in February, killing about 200 people.

Similar fire activity can be expected elsewhere as the climate warms, including in the Sierra, where a 2007 blaze at Lake Tahoe destroyed 254 homes, scientists said.

“We are witnessing an increasing amount of so-called megafires,” said Thomas Swetnam, an expert on fire history and forest ecology at the University of Arizona. “Unfortunately, I think we are going to see more large fires in the western United States. The western United States is in a bull’s-eye.”

Swetnam was involved in a 2006 study that indicated increased fire activity is associated with increasing spring and autumn temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt in western mountains.

That study found that wildfire frequency spiked to nearly four times the average experienced from 1970 to 1986, with the area burned more than six times previous levels.

The average length of the fire season increased by 78 days between 1987 and 2003 compared with 1970 to 1986, with fires starting earlier and burning later into the season.

Source: Insurance Journal

Date: 30/04/2009

Challenge to plant methane link


The recent finding that plants could be a major source of the atmosphere’s methane is challenged by new research, reports BBC News environment correspondent Richard Black.

A 2006 study suggested plants could account for almost half of the global production of the greenhouse gas.

But a UK-based team now reports that under normal conditions, plants just convey methane from the soil to the air without actually producing it.

Writing in a Royal Society journal, they suggest identifying sources of methane is key for climate control.

The gas is about 20 times more potent, molecule for molecule, than carbon dioxide.

After remaining stable for almost a decade, there have been signs in the last two years that concentrations have begun to grow again, which according to some observers presages an era of faster-rising temperatures.

The research that sparked the debate was published almost exactly three years ago by a group from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.

Frank Keppler’s team found that plants emitted methane from their leaves under normal growing conditions, although the output increased in high sunlight and high temperatures.

They suggested that plants possessed a hitherto undiscovered biochemical pathway that could generate the gas.

The finding surprised scientists, and other groups tried to replicate it – with mixed results.

“It just didn’t make sense, and wasn’t something that had entered into any of our minds,” said Ellen Nisbet, leader of the group that has just published the latest findings in the Royal Society’s Proceedings B.

“But then we looked at the details of the experiments they’d done, and they were clearly very well done – we just didn’t like the conclusions,” she told BBC News.

Part of her team’s work involved growing several different varieties of plant, including maize and rice, in media that contained no organic material, so eliminating the chances of methane being formed through decay in soil.

They found during these experiments, conducted in closed chambers, that the plants produced no methane at all.

In another experiment, they compared the genomes of several plants with those of bacteria that produce methane by biochemical pathways that are well understood.

Plants, they concluded, could not generate the gas by any known pathway because they do not possess the right genes.

In a third strand of investigation, Dr Nisbet fed basil plants with water containing dissolved methane.

Later, the air from that chamber was analysed and found to contain the gas. The team concludes that plants do emit methane during transpiration – the release of water from leaves – but only the methane they have absorbed in water from soil.

“I think this does tell us that the vast majority of methane emitted in normal growth conditions is explained by the absorption of methane in the soil water,” said Dr Nisbet, who conducted the research at the University of Cambridge but who now works at the University of South Australia in Adelaide.

In stressful conditions, such as high temperatures or high intensities of ultraviolet radiation, plants can begin to decay, which also emits methane – but this is not significant under normal conditions, according to this analysis.

Dr Keppler suggested the new research does not disprove his idea that a new methane-producing pathway in plants is awaiting discovery.

“The paper is adding transpiration as a source of methane – that’s a nice observation although not entirely new; it’s been found in other studies that rice plants act as tubes to conduct methane to the air,” he told BBC News.

“But we clearly showed in previous studies that emissions came from the plant itself.”

His research team is now actively looking for that elusive new biochemical pathway.

So the issue is clearly not completely settled yet.

Source: BBC News website

Date: 14/01/2009

US shade trees cut bills and emissions


Shade trees on the west and south sides of a house in California can reduce a homeowners’ energy bills by about $25, a study has concluded.

The survey, involving 460 homes in the Sacramento area, is described as the “first large-scale study to use utility billing data to show that trees can reduce energy consumption”.

“Everyone knows that shade trees cool a house,” said co-author Geoffrey Donovan. “No one is going to get a Nobel Prize for that conclusion.

“But this study gets at the details,” he added. “Where should a tree be placed to get the most benefits? And how exactly do shade trees impact our carbon footprint?”

Dr Donovan is a research forester with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest (PNW) research station, compiled the findings with economist David Butry of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Some of the study’s key findings are:

  • Placement of a tree is the key to energy savings. Shade trees do affect summertime electricity use, but the amount of the savings depends on the location of the tree.
  • Trees planted within 40 feet of the south side or within 60 feet of the west side of the house will generate about the same amount of energy savings. This is because of the way shadows fall at different times of the day.
  • Tree cover on the east side of a house has no effect on electricity use.
  • A tree planted on the west side of a house can reduce net carbon emissions from summertime electricity use by 30%.

The report, The Value of Shade: Estimating the Effect of Urban Trees on Summertime Electricity Use, has been submitted for publication to the journal Energy and Buildings.

The researchers said they chose to do their study on homes in Sacramento because of the city’s hot summers and the fact that most people use air conditioners.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District, in partnership Sacramento Tree Foundation, operates an active tree planting programme, in which residents are eligible for up to 10 free trees each year.

Source: press release

Date: 05/01/2009

Amazon deforestation trend ‘on the increase’


Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon forests has flipped from a decreasing to an increasing trend, ScienceDaily reports.

Commenting on the figures released by the country’s space agency INPE, Brazilian environment minister Carlos Minc confirmed that the government was set to announce forest related carbon emission reduction targets.

He added that he hoped that the scheme would link halting deforestation to the national climate change campaign.

From August 2007 to July 2008, Brazil deforested 11,968 square kilometers of forests in the area designated as the Legal Amazon.

This was a 3.8% increase over the previous year and an unwelcome surprise following declines of 18% over the previous period.

From 2003-2004 to 2006-2007, annual deforestation totals from the agency fell from 27,423 sq-km to 11,532 sq-km.

There were fears that the current trend could have been worse but for new measures introduced part way through the year when it became apparent that annual deforestation was accelerating towards a possible 15,000 hectare level.

Source: ScienceDaily

Date: 04/01/2009

Forests and farms ‘can fight climate change’


The problem of global warming from greenhouse gases calls for a stronger involvement of agriculture and farming communities, as well as forestry and forest users in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has said.

“Agriculture and deforestation are major contributors to climate change, but by the same token farmers and forest users could become key players in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said FAO assistant directo-general Alexander Muller.

“Unlocking the potential of agriculture and forestry for climate change mitigation requires financing mechanisms targeting farmers and foresters around the globe, particularly small-scale land-users in developing countries,” he added.

“These mechanisms should give priority to emission-reducing measures that have ‘co-benefits’ for food and energy security, poverty reduction, sustainable use of natural resources. Forestry and agriculture offer many opportunities for such ‘win-win’ measures.

According to the FAO, greenhouse gas emissions from forestry and agriculture contribute more than 30% of the current annual total emissions (deforestation and forest degradation accounts for 17.4%, while agriculture is responsible for 13.5%).

When looking at methane, the FAO says that agriculture is responsible for half of the annual emissions (primarily through livestock and rice), and more that 75% of nitrous oxide (largely from fertiliser application) emitted annually by human activities.

“Climate change will affect the lives and livelihoods of farmers, fishers and forest users in developing countries, many of whom are already facing difficulties in earning a sufficient income and feeding their families,” Mr Muller continued.

Rural communities, particularly those living in already environmentally fragile areas, face an immediate and ever-growing risk of increased crop failure, loss of livestock, and reduced availability of marine, aquaculture and forest products.

Humans, plants, livestock and fish also face the risk of being exposed to new pests and diseases.

Mr Muller concluded that climate change had the potential to increase hunger, particularly in the world’s poorest nations.

“We have to act now if we want to avoid a humanitarian disaster,” he said.

Roughly 40% of the land biomass is directly or indirectly managed by farmers, foresters or herders.

He added: “The international community can only win the global battle against climate change if we succeed in mobilizing the potential of these land users to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and in sequestering carbon in soil and plants.

“We have to adapt to climate changes that are of greater intensity and rapidity than in the past.”

Source: FAO press release

Date: 04/12/2008

Prince calls for rainforest bills


Prince Charles has called for rich countries to pay an annual “utility bill” for the benefits given to the world by its rainforests, the BBC News website reports.

Speaking in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, the prince called rainforests the “world’s greatest public utility”.

They act as an air conditioner, store fresh water and provide work, he said.

The proposal by the Prince’s Rainforest Project would generate funds allowing rainforest countries to change their practices and halt deforestation.

The Prince of Wales outlined the plan in a speech to the Indonesian President, Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and his cabinet in Jakarta.

He told the audience at the Merdeka Palace: “Indonesia and the other rainforest nations are stewards of the world’s greatest public utility.

“The rest of us have to start paying for it, just as we do for water, gas and electricity.”

He added: “Payments should have the characteristics of a commercial transaction, in the same way we pay for our water, gas and electricity.

“In return the rainforest nations would provide eco-services such as carbon storage, fresh water and the protection of biodiversity.”

The prince said the forests provided a livelihood for more than a billion people.

As developed nations were the driving force behind their destruction, through a demand for products like beef, palm oil, soya and logs, they should be billed for their protection, he said.

It is hoped that a large part of the funds raised from the “utility bills” would come from bonds issued by an international body.

Describing the form the annual billing could take, the prince said: “These emergency funds could be provided directly by developed world governments, perhaps from expanded development aid budgets, from surcharges on activities which cause climate change or from the auction of carbon market emission allowances.

“However, I hope that even in the short term the large part of the required funding could be provided by the private sector by subscribing to long-term bonds issued by an international agency.

“The issuing entity would pay the proceeds from the bonds to the rainforest nations. They in turn would use the money to re-orientate their economies to halt or refrain from deforestation.”

Earlier on his Indonesian visit, the Prince visited the Harapan Rainforest conservation project on the island of Sumatra as part of his 10-day tour of Asia.

Indonesia is the final leg of his tour. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall also visited Japan and Brunei, but he travelled to Indonesia alone as his wife has returned to Britain for other engagements.

Source: BBC News website

Date: 03/11/2008

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