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Burning issues

The Kyoto Protocol is just a small first step in restricting man's influence on climate. If we can't prevent fires in Indonesia, such international efforts to limit the effects of climate change could be in vain.

The engagement of society's upper echelons with the problems of climate change reached a peak last week, when Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied in Berlin by ministers from Britain and Germany, launched a bilateral collaboration of the two countries' climatologists, business and investment communities.

While recognizing the newly energized Kyoto Protocol as a crucial first step in international collaboration, the meeting that followed focused on its limitations (see http://www.britischebotschaft.de/statevisit/en/press/climate_change_conference.htm). As one participant said, the world cannot wait for a ponderous succession of interminably negotiated increments to treaties to be achieved: we have years, not decades, to take steps that might prevent the worst possible consequences of current trends in greenhouse-gas emissions later this century. As a UK House of Lords report emphasized this week, emissions trading needs to take aviation into account. Two other essential goals include protecting carbon sinks and integrating southern countries into the framework.

For a stark example of the latter challenges, consider the peatlands of Indonesia. Under the Kyoto Protocol, it is technically possible for investors to back projects that increase the capacity of ecosystems to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and to sell the resulting ‘carbon credits’ to polluters who need more time to control their emissions — though no such projects have yet been approved by the United Nations. The idea, which will be explored in detail in a News Feature in Nature next week, is to harness market forces to help limit atmospheric levels of CO2. But success is far from guaranteed, and ecologists who study the world's peatlands are already pointing to a major gap in the Kyoto Protocol's carbon-trading provisions.

As soon as peat is drained, microbial activity previously held in check by waterlogging causes it to start releasing CO2. If large expanses of drained swamp catch fire, the gas belches into the atmosphere in staggering quantities. Yet until 2012 at the earliest, no one can claim carbon credits under Kyoto for restoring the hydrology of a damaged peatland ecosystem — unless the project can somehow be shoehorned under the headings of forestry or agriculture.

Anyone who doubts the seriousness of this oversight should consider what happened in 1997, when El Niño conditions brought months of drought to southeast Asia. Millions of hectares of drained Indonesian peat swamps went up in smoke, releasing perhaps as much CO2 as Europe emits each year by burning fossil fuels. The next time a severe El Niño hits, this catastrophe will be repeated (see page 145).

Negotiators considering the shape of the Kyoto Protocol after 2012 clearly should include peatland restoration under its carbon-trading arrangements. But we can act before then. The onus lies with Indonesia itself and the nine other members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. They collectively lost billions of dollars in the choking haze that smothered the region in 1997, and have set up a task force to consider the issue. But ASEAN has been slow to turn its concern into practical projects designed to prevent fires in Indonesia's peatlands.

As for the rest of the international community, little action has been taken, save for some tiny pilot projects to block the drainage canals that created the tinderbox in the first place. There is a real opportunity here to spend development aid money in a way that will legitimately benefit both recipient and donor. This would be a highly cost-effective way to simultaneously fix an ecological disaster and limit global warming.

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Burning issues. Nature 432, 131 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/432131a

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