This article was originally published in WhiteHat Magazine’s Winter 2015/16 Edition.
Every year, Indonesia’s forests burn.
Campaigns to slash and burn the rainforests, perpetrated by an agriculture industry operating in nearly complete disregard for the law, clear thousands of hectares of land of their forest cover. Canals are then dug to drain the swampy peat, leaving the land open for palm oil agriculture. This, combined with an El Nino-influenced drought, leaves the land vulnerable to fires, where the peat smolders for months on end. In the first quarter of 2015, 2 million hectares of Indonesia’s rainforests and peatland burned, making Indonesia a carbon bomb. In 1997, the last time drought conditions were so bad, the fires emitted somewhere between 13 to 40% of the world’s total carbon emissions for the year, causing the biggest jump in CO2 in the atmosphere ever recorded.
In 2015, Indonesia’s fires put off more carbon emissions per day than the United States does, and more than the annual carbon emissions each of the United Kingdom and Germany.
Indonesia has committed to stopping the fires within the next three years, but environmental activists in the country say the government’s plans presented to the United Nations’ COP21 climate negotiations in Paris are too vague.
The destruction of forests is a massive problem for a warming planet. Forests sequester carbon, in both the living plants and the decaying plant matter. When forests burn, not only is the sequestered carbon released into the atmosphere, but these vital filters can no longer pull CO2 already existing in the atmosphere out in order to replace it with oxygen.
If this seems like a double whammy, it’s about to get worse.
Dutch NGO Fern released a report on December 2, 2015 alluding to just how bad it is out there for the world’s forests. Because of the nature of forests—decaying plant matter gathering on the forest floor, compacted by more plant matter season after season—much of the prime coal mining areas in the world are located under forests that have existed for thousands of years.
Mining and burning coal is already the single biggest contributor to man-made climate change in our world today, and in the United States and Europe, an economic environment that is increasingly favoring clean energy options like solar and wind are pushing coal companies out of business.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case in the rest of the world. China has become one of the largest consumers of coal and oil, although the country’s economic slowdown the past year cut somewhat into the profits of global oil and gas companies. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India—the third largest producer of coal in world—has made coal mining a central part of his economic development platform, with plans to double coal production by 2020. Coal production is so important to India, that when environmental activists and villagers began to protest the development of coal mines, India’s Intelligence Bureau labeled it “a potential threat to national economic security.”
Indonesia is once again at the top of the top of the list of biggest emitters, as the country is expected to clear 8.6 million hectares of forests—nearly 9% of the nation’s total forest cover—in order to develop mining operations. It has become the world’s top coal exporter and the fourth-largest coal producer, to add to its notorious ranking with the fastest rates of deforestation in the world.
Australia, which until just recently was led by the loud and proud pro-coal Prime Minister Tony Abbott, is the world’s fifth largest producer of coal, and coal mining threatens 1.3 million hectares of forests. (That’s the equivalent to 2.1 million football fields.) And the drive for coal down under does not seem to be slowing down in the least. In the Leard State Forest, three open-cut coal mines are under development; if fully developed, these three projects alone would have a larger greenhouse gas impact than all but 50 entire nations.
When forests are cleared for mining coal that is later burned for energy, it’s a bigger double whammy than deforestation for agriculture.
In fact, Fern found that at least 11.9 million hectares of forests globally are under threat from coal mining alone. That’s a huge number, and it’s definitely an underestimation. The NGO found that much of the data for where coal mining operations are located are not public, are hidden behind proprietary commercial walls. So when putting together the report, it was not able to locate data such as mining operations in the United States outside of the Appalachia region, operations in western Australia, or any data at all for countries like Russia and China.
There’s a lot of coal mining still happening under the world’s forests, and we know very little about it.
A study published by Nature in January 2015 found that 88% of the world’s known coal reserves need to stay in the ground; otherwise, we will be unable to keep climate warming below 2°C and “avoid dangerous climate change”. If the Fern study is any indication, we may already be beyond that.
Photo copyright Mihai Stoica. Courtesy of Fern.
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