Peatland emissions have snowballed in 20 years, but enhanced peatland management can reduce GHG emissions
Peatlands are the most significant natural carbon store in Malaysia, but increasing clearance, drainage, and fires lead to massive emissions.
Unless Malaysia rapidly changes its approach and better protects and restores peatlands, it will be hard to meet the country’s target for carbon neutrality by 2050, as announced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob in Parliament on Sept 27.
Malaysia’s 2.56 million hectares (ha) of tropical peatlands form a critical buffer against flooding during the wet season and insurance against drought in the dry season, being a crucial habitat for diverse and endangered flora and fauna.
Peatlands are an essential ecosystem for carbon storage to regulate the global climate. However, damaged peatlands release greenhouse gas (GHG) into the atmosphere contributing to global climate change.
Tropical Catchment and Research Initiative (TROCARI)1 Founder and Principal Investigator Dr Stephanie Evers pointed out peatlands were one of the most important ecosystems for carbon storage. But these carbon stores are affected by drainage and fires, releasing significant amounts of GHG in Malaysia.
Recent work has indicated that drained peatlands can release 40 to 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide per ha annually, much higher than the figures used earlier for estimating and reporting GHG emissions in Malaysia.
Drainage, peatland conversion lead to 40-100 mt of CO2 emissions annually
With more than a million ha of peatlands developed for agriculture and oil palm, the annual emissions from drained peatlands are between 40 and 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to 17-38 per cent of the total GHG emissions by Malaysia in 2019.
Unless these emissions are correctly controlled or reduced, Malaysia will not meet its ambitious emission reduction targets.
Dr Evers said this during the Virtual International Greentech & Eco Products Exhibition & Conference Malaysia (IGEM) 2021 Conference Session.
The Conference Session titled GHG Emissions from Peatland Management In Relation To Malaysia’s Commitment under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was organised by Global Environment Centre (GEC) and the Malaysian Green Technology Corporation (MGTC).
Fellow panellist Dr Mohd Shukri Mat Ali @Ibrahim, Director of the Agrobiodiversity and Environment Research Centre (BE) of the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI), highlighted MARDI’s research in Saratok, Sarawak identified peat fires as another major problem and source of CO2 emissions.
It is one of the five sources of carbon loss under agro-ecosystems in Malaysia. The other primary sources/drivers are land-use change, drainage, crop type and temperature.
Dr Shukri acknowledged in the past, information on CO2 emissions in agricultural peatlands in Malaysia was grossly lacking and not given due attention.
Hence, he said MARDI embarked on research on agricultural activities related to sustainable peatlands since 2001 at MARDI Saratok in Sarawak, the institute’s central peat research station, to identify factors in CO2 emissions in tropical peatlands.
Sustainable farm management practices, policies key to mitigating carbon loss
While the current scenario shows portions of peatlands have been cultivated with various crops and technologies, Dr Shukri said: “Sustainable farm management practices and policies must be considered to control carbon loss in peatland ecosystems.”
GHG emissions in Malaysian peatlands, removal estimates
Dr Elizabeth Philip, Chief Executive Officer of the newly-established Malaysia Forest Fund, detailed previous approaches used by Malaysia to track GHG emissions from peatlands about Landuse, Landuse Change and Forestry (LULUCF) and Agricultural sectors using Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Guidelines.
She added anthropogenic emissions (i.e. as a result of human activity), and removals were considered in National GHG Inventories, and reporting on GHG emissions, usually based on changes in carbon stock. In Malaysia, emissions from peatlands have been accounted for in several categories, namely Forest Land, Crop Land, Wetland and Agriculture.
Dr Philip suggested Malaysia needed to document and report additional elements as recommended through the IPCC Wetlands Supplement.
This includes rewetted organic soils, coastal wetlands and inland wetlands on mineral soils, on top of rice cultivation and drained inland organic soils including drainage ditches, off-site CO2 emissions associated with dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and emissions from peat fires, when Malaysia prepares its First Biennial Transparency Report in 2024.
Drawing from GEC’s experience in peatland management and restoration
GEC Director, Faizal Parish, who moderated the session, shared some of GEC’s 20 years’ experience working with oil palm, forestry and environment sectors to prevent peatland fires and degradation, reduce emissions from agriculture and plantations as well as restoring natural peat swamp forest ecosystems.
Partnership with oil palm plantations and local communities adjacent to peat swamp forests in Selangor and Pahang in Malaysia has significantly reduced GHG emissions while recovering forests and maintaining or enhancing agriculture and plantation yields.
“In Selangor, GEC has helped the State Forestry Department reduce fires on peat swamp forests by 95 per cent since 2014,” said Faizal.
“In Pahang, along with community members of the Orang Asli Jakun tribe and several plantation companies, we have blocked abandoned drainage canals, rewet peatlands and prevented fires in Pekan, Nenasi and Kedondong forest reserves.
“We have also collaborated with the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil and the Malaysian Palm Oil Board to develop Best Management Practice guidance for plantations on peatlands to enhance sustainability and at the same time reduce GHG emissions and degradation.
“There are significant opportunities for Malaysia to reduce emissions from peatlands through better management of oil palm and agriculture on peat as well as the development of peatland restoration projects.”
The virtual conference session, attended by about 100 participants, was an opportunity to learn from experiences and findings on GHG emissions from peatlands concerning Malaysia’s commitments to reduce emissions under the Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. — @Forest