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Restoration of peatlands can prevent billions in wildfire damage

The restoration of peatlands across Indonesia could ultimately prevent billions of dollars in damages from wildfires, according to a new study from the University of Leeds.

The researchers found that the benefits of effective Indonesian peatland restoration will outweigh the costs, while ultimately reducing the impacts of fires on the environment and human health.

The study provides clear evidence to support ongoing restoration efforts. The Indonesian government has committed to restore 2.5 million hectares of degraded peatland. It is estimated that this will cost $3.2 to $7 billion USD.

By analyzing satellite data and computer models, the experts determined that peatland restoration could have resulted in economic savings of $8.4 billion from 2004 to 2015.

The 2015 fires alone resulted in economic losses of $28 billion. Collectively, the six largest fire events between 2004 and 2015 cost approximately $93.9 billion. These massive economic losses resulted from damage to plantations, forestry and agriculture. The costs associated with the fires also included health impacts linked to air pollution exposure.

According to the study authors, if restoration had already been completed, the area burned in 2015 would have been reduced by 6 percent. This would have reduced CO2 emissions by 18 percent and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions by 24 percent – preventing 12,000 premature deaths. 

Laura Kiely of UC Riverside led the study while she was a PhD researcher in the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds. 

“There are wide ranging benefits of peatland restoration, from local reductions in property loss, regional benefits to air quality and public health to global benefits from reduced CO2 emissions,” said Kiely.

“Not only do fires destroy agricultural land and disrupt transport, tourism and trade, peatland fires cause large CO2 emissions. Between 1997–2016, fires in Equatorial Asia – most of which were in Indonesia – were responsible for 8% of global fire carbon emissions in 1997–2016.”

“Indonesian peatlands store an estimated 57 gigatonnes of carbon, roughly 55% of the world’s tropical peatland carbon. There is clearly a worldwide benefit to restoring and safeguarding Indonesian peatlands.”

Until recent years, fires were rarely seen across Indonesia’s peatlands. Human activities such as land use changes, agriculture, and deforestation have degraded the peatlands, making them much more flammable and susceptible to fire.

“Monitoring is needed to assess whether peatland restoration efforts are successful. Local support of peatland restoration and fire reduction schemes is a key factor to their success,” said study co-author Professor Dominick Spracklen.

“Future climate change will put Indonesian peatlands – and peatlands all over the world – at greater risk to further degradation and fire. The efforts being made by the Indonesian government to restore their peatlands could be leading example in the years to come.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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