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Southeast Asian fires emitted most carbon since 1997 - scientists

by Beh Lih Yi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 28 June 2016 15:25 GMT

A fire fighter tries to put out a fire on land intended for a palm oil plantation in the village of Tanjung Palas, Dumai, Riau province, Sumatra, Indonesia in this photo taken by Antara Foto on March 5, 2016.

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Fires in Indonesia are used to cheaply clear land for palm oil crops and for pulp and paper plantations

By Beh Lih Yi

JAKARTA, June 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Forest fires that blanketed Southeast Asia in thick haze last year released the greatest amount of climate-changing carbon since record blazes in 1997, producing emissions higher than in the whole of the European Union, scientists said on Tuesday.

Singapore, Malaysia and northern Indonesia choked under a layer of toxic smog in September and October last year, caused by thousands of fires started in Indonesia to cheaply clear land for palm oil crops and for pulp and paper plantations.

The fires and resulting haze, an annual occurrence, pushed up pollution levels, caused schools to close, flights to be disrupted and people to fall sick across the region.

Last year's blazes were the worst for years with El Nino, a warming of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific, causing tinder-dry conditions.

The study by scientists from the Netherlands, Britain and Indonesia, published in the online journal Scientific Reports recently, was the first scientific report calculating greenhouse gas emissions from the fires using measurements on the ground combined with satellite observations.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (front) inspects the aftermath of a recent forest fire during a visit in Banjarbaru, near Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan province, Indonesia September 23, 2015 in this file photo taken by Antara Foto. REUTERS/Herry Murdy Hermawan/Antara Foto

"There have been some isolated studies before where people artificially set fires in the lab to try to understand the chemical characteristics of peatland fire smoke in Indonesia," said Martin Wooster, one of the scientists and a professor of earth observation science at King's College London.

"But no one had done this on natural fires, and especially not on the kind of extreme fires seen in 2015," he added.

The researchers first measured the ground-level smoke composition from peatland burning in the region, including in Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province, one of the worst-hit areas.

They combined the data with satellite information to work out greenhouse gas emission estimates from the fires.

They concluded that 884 million tonnes of carbon dioxide was emitted in the region last year, with 97 percent originating from forest fires in Indonesia.

The results showed that regional carbon dioxide emissions from the fires were 11.3 million tonnes per day in September and October 2015, more than the 28-nation EU's daily emissions of 8.9 million tonnes during the same period.

The researchers also said the emissions were worse than during the 1997 fires, considered the worst on record.

An aerial view of a forest fire burning near the village of Bokor, Meranti Islands regency, Riau province, Indonesia in this March 15, 2016 file photo taken by Antara Foto. REUTERS/ Rony Muharrman/Antara Foto/Files

At that time, there was an even longer drought and widespread burning due to a stronger El Niño.

The researchers said they hoped the findings would contribute to a better understanding on the need for fire prevention and improved ways of managing the land.

"What is important is the applicability of a study like this in helping policy makers to use more accurate fire emission factors to design policy and act to prevent further fires and greenhouse gas emissions," said scientist Daniel Murdiyarso from the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research.

The Indonesian fires have prompted criticism from green groups and other Southeast Asian nations, accusing Jakarta of not doing enough to crack down on the slash-and-burn forest clearing techniques.

In a bid to tackle the issue, President Joko Widodo announced in April plans for a moratorium on new palm oil concessions and asked firms to raise yields on existing plantations instead of clearing forests.

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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