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Indonesia's Fires Are Emitting More Carbon Pollution Than the Entire US Economy

Over 100,000 fires are burning, mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, in order to make way for palm oil, timber, and pulp and paper plantations.
imagen vía Antara Photo Agency/Reuters

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At a time when the world is pushing to cut carbon emissions, Indonesia's blazing forests are shoving it in the opposite direction.

More than 115,000 fires are burning across the Southeast Asian nation, most of them on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan, according to the Global Fire Emissions Database. Not only are they wreathing the region in a noxious haze, they've been pumping out far more carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases on a daily basis than the United States, according to international estimates.


"What does a climate catastrophe look like in a real-world context?" the US-based World Resources Institute asked in a recent analysis. "Since September, daily emissions from Indonesia's fires exceeded daily emissions from the entire US economy on 26 days. To put it into perspective, the US economy is 20 times larger than Indonesia's."

The fires were on the agenda when Indonesian President Joko Widodo met with US President Barack Obama on Monday — but the White House said Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, will be cutting short his American visit to head home and address the crisis.

"From our perspective, climate — and specifically the issue of fire and haze — definitely deserves to be at the top of their agenda," said James Anderson, communications manager WRI's Forest Program. "Not only is it a major environmental crisis, but it's a huge public health crisis. I think we're likely to see the impact of this stretching for years."

Related: Indonesia Is Finally Arresting People Burning Down Its Forests

In September, Indonesia announced a crackdown on companies blamed for illegal fires, most of which are set to clear land for palm oil or pulpwood plantations. But the fires have only continued to grow, and much of the burning land is peat forest — a rich trove of carbon that releases up to 200 times the greenhouse gases of other fires as it burns.

Indonesian air-pollution readings have "maxed out the charts" in recent weeks, said Susan Minnemeyer, the mapping and data manager of Global Forest Watch. News accounts have blamed the haze for up to half a million upper respiratory infections in Indonesia, while air-quality numbers in neighboring Singapore are routinely hitting unhealthy marks, she said.


"I think it's been more in the unhealthy zone than the healthy zone for the last few weeks," Minnemeyer said.

Reducing that fiery footprint is a major part of the carbon-reduction pledge Indonesia filed ahead of the upcoming climate summit in Paris. Nearly two-thirds of Indonesia's estimated carbon emissions come from forestry, largely due to fires, and it has set a goal of cutting emissions by at least 29 percent below its current trajectory by 2030.

Monday's visit by Jokowi came as the US embassy in Jakarta announced $2.75 million in US assistance to fight the fires. The package includes help for health centers dealing with haze-related illnesses, protective gear and equipment for firefighters and advisers from the US Forest Service, who are expected to arrive this week.

"I'm confident there will be a discussion of additional assistance that the United States could provide, and we stand ready to have those discussions," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday.

Anderson said the United States could help Indonesia by establishing financial incentives for sustainable production of Indonesia's three major forest products — wood pulp, timber, and palm oil — or by promoting technology and research that can be used to track fires and study the peat fires, which give off toxic smoke.

"The exact nature of the interaction between fire and air quality, especially when the fires are occurring on peat, is not well understood," he said. "It's still very much a new frontier."

And the environmental group Greenpeace, which released dramatic drone video of the fires earlier this month, said American companies need to shut out suppliers that burn rainforests.

"US brands should support progressive Indonesian businesses by refusing to buy from reckless companies that put lives at risk by destroying rainforests," Bustar Maitar, the head of Greenpeace Southeast Asia's Indonesia forests campaign, said in a statement on Monday's meeting.

Related: As Indonesia's Fires Rage Yet Again, Experts Call For a Long-Term Solution

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl