JAKARTA An Indonesia-based study shows carbon-rich tropical peat lands trap more greenhouse gases than first thought, driving up their potential value on the carbon market and strengthening a case for their protection.
Green groups on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks in Barcelona said tropical deforestation accounted for a smaller portion of global carbon emissions than thought, reaching 15 percent including draining peat soils where rainforests grow.
Huge amounts of greenhouse gases are released when peat lands are logged or drained for agriculture, and even more when the dried bogs catch fire and release toxic haze into the air.
While scientists agree preserving peat is key to slowing global warming, a team of 11 of the world's best peat scientists have found it might be more important than first thought.
"We are finding that the emissions from peat are very, very large, much larger than people expected," said John Raison, chair of the 11-member Peat and Greenhouse Gases Group, a joint project between the Indonesian and Australian governments formed late last year to develop a method to measure peat emissions.
"We are also finding that all of the assumptions to date have been too rough, far too rough for something that is to be sold on the (carbon) market."
Peat is created when layers of organic material break down over thousands of years and is particularly abundant in the Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian half of Borneo island, where huge tracts have been cleared for palm oil plantations.
Accurate calculations on carbon lost through deforestation or locked away by saving and replanting forests and peatlands is crucial to a fledgling U.N. forest carbon offset scheme called reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD).
REDD aims to reward developing nations for preserving and protecting forests via the use of an expanded carbon market, under a wider climate pact from 2013 that might be agreed next month in Copenhagen or some time next year.
But Raison said there was still great uncertainty about how much carbon was stored in the peat lands, which would influence how much peat carbon credits should be worth.
Governments and companies in rich nations could buy the credits to help them meet mandatory emissions reduction targets.
"There have only ever been very gross estimates about that -- just guesses, really -- but the price is dictated by the certainty of the estimates. The more precise the estimate, the more valuable the product," he told Reuters in an interview.
To settle the debate, the team of peat experts will develop a method of estimating greenhouse gas emissions from tropical peat lands and create a way of forecasting more accurately how much greenhouse gases could be saved through REDD projects.
Environmental groups including the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International said on Friday that tropical deforestation plus degradation of associated peat accounted for about 15 percent of global carbon emissions.
Previously most references were to 20 percent emissions from deforestation. A study published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Geoscience found that global deforestation accounted for 12 percent of the world's total carbon emissions, and peat degradation in South East Asia 3 percent.