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Indonesian fire finger-pointing

Germany's UFOP says while EU's biofuel policy is falsely being pointed at as a driver of Indonesia's fires, continued EU and Indonesian inaction are really to blame since RED requirements and increased sustainability measures preclude such activity
By Ron Kotrba | November 03, 2015

The raging forest fires in Indonesia are of global concern. According to the World Resources Institute, more than 127,000 fires have been detected this year in Indonesia, many of which were started to clear lands for commodities such as palm oil.

Emissions from this year’s fires, according to WRI, “have reached 1.62 billion metric tons of CO2—bumping Indonesia from the sixth-largest emitter in the world up to the fourth-largest in just six weeks.”

WRI notes that Indonesian fires during 38 of the past 56 days, as of Oct. 26, have released more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire U.S. economy on those days.

Furthermore, emissions from Indonesia’s fires alone are approaching the total annual emissions of Brazil.

The catastrophe is acutely distressing to the ecologically conscious biodiesel community whose efforts to sustainably grow global production are discredited by the clearing of forested peatlands for palm plantations, the oil from which are utilized for—among other, more prolific uses such as food—the manufacturing of biodiesel for domestic use and exportation to the EU and U.S. markets.

On Nov. 3, Germany’s Union for the Promotion of Oil and Protein Plants e. V. (UFOP) issued a press release titled, “Indonesia continues to burn the image of sustainably certified biodiesel.” It reads:

“In light of Indonesia’s worst forest fires in years, UFOP criticizes the continued inaction of the Indonesian government and the European Union. It is reported that the reaction of the authorities to the more than 2,000 fires, intended to create space for palm oil plantations, and the ongoing loss of valuable natural habitats has evidently been just as passive as their response to the health threat posed to the inhabitants of these areas. Indonesia is thereby discrediting the efforts of the European biofuel sector to expand the use of oil plants such as rapeseed as material and energy resources. These efforts aim to increase sustainably certified raw material production as part of the bioeconomy strategy.

“UFOP notes that once again the EU biofuel policy is being pointed to as an alleged driver of these annual forest fires. The advocacy group of German oil and protein plant producers counters this by pointing to association initiatives for tightening certification requirements, in particular as regards the verification of the origin of raw materials in the processing chain. According to the Renewable Energy Directive, biomass raw materials may only be counted as fulfilling their legally required obligations if they originate from areas that were being cultivated prior to 2008. UFOP highlights that this requirement must not be softened and that it instead needs to be applied to all other uses of plant oil. This should be the case for material use as well as for use in foods, which has always been the main method of exploiting palm oil.

“With a view to the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21), UFOP calls on the German government to take an active stance towards the Indonesian government. UFOP points out that in order to still be able to achieve the mandated 2 degrees target, a deforestation ban has to be a binding outcome of this conference, while the appropriate compensation measures to offset the nonusage of these areas are also required.”

WRI says much of the clearing and burning has been financed by small- and medium-sized investors.

“Peat stores some of the highest quantities of carbon on Earth and also emits methane resulting in up to 200 times more damage to the global climate than regular fires of a similar extent,” WRI notes. The smog, it says, is especially toxic.

“The impacts of these fires are especially significant in the run-up to the global climate conference in Paris at the end of this year,” WRI states. “Deforestation usually constitutes about 60 percent of Indonesia’s total emissions, and the country has pledged to reduce deforestation and cut annual emissions by 29 percent from business as usual by 2030. The country will be unable to achieve this target if it does not take serious steps to quell existing fires and to prevent future fire outbreaks.”

Experts from WRI and Global Forest Watch suggest three ways Indonesia can respond to this crisis and reduce the risks of future fires. They recommend the adoption of “responsible financial incentives to commodity growers to encourage more sustainable production of forest-based commodities; focusing technical and mapping support on systems that harmonize land use management and reduce land conflicts; and streamlining the murky world of concession licenses through innovative technologies that improve transparency and combat corruption in land use decision-making.”

Heavy rainfall may now be quelling the record-breaking fires and toxic smog in South Sumatra and Kalimantan, but WRI advises that “the damage to human health, the economy and the global climate has already been done. Indonesia desperately needs to take advantage of the hopeful respite provided by the rain to fast track reforms. Quick action is the only way to ensure that next year does not bring a repeat of this local and global calamity.”