For Peat's Sake! World's Largest Carbon Footprint Revealed!
By Vladimir Posted in Energy — Comments (23) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Promoted from blogs. AGAIN. Sheesh, Vladimir: stop fiddling with it. - Moe Lane
Darned if it doesn't look like a footprint!
The image above is a satellite image of atmospheric aerosols - particulate matter - stemming from fires in the Indonesian peat bogs in 1997-98. El Nino conditions that were active at the time made the peat drier than usual, but peat fires are a recurring (2004, '06) phenomenon in Indonesia.
And not a natural phenomenon, for the most part. Most of the fires are man-made; slash and burn techniques are used to clear forests, and the forest fires in turn ignite the peat, which smolders like a burning cigarette. The Indonesian government has contributed to the problem by trying to drain some of the peat bogs for conversion to agriculture.
But here's the mind-blowing part:
[It is] estimated that during 1997 and 1998 smouldering peat beneath the Borneo forests released between 0.8 and 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. That is equivalent to 13 to 40 per cent of all [global] emissions from burning fossil fuels, and contributed to the CO2 peak in 1998. [emphasis added]
Peat fires are a two edged sword. A natural peat bog is actually a carbon sink, so its destruction not only releases the sequestered carbon to the atmosphere, it reduces the earth's capacity to regulate the carbon balance.
Why isn't Al Gore doing something about this?
Maybe it's because there's more political mileage to be gained by promoting feel-good solutions to college students and soccer moms than there is on tackling the thorny issue of international land-use. It's much easier (and politically rewarding) to play on the guilt and self-doubt of bourgeois Americans than it is to get the Indonesian rice farmer (or politician) to put down his machete & listen to reason. Not to mention the potential reward of turning control of the American economy to an AGW Politburo.... reward, that is, if you're a member of that AGW Politburo.
Not to worry; I remain an AGW skeptic. One of things that has always troubled me about the AGW movement has been the scale of their prescriptive measures: the current silliness about restricting one's use of butt-wipe to 1 sq per episode is but the latest example of an effort to mobilize the populace to adopt whatever nutty solution, on the idea that it will make one feel better to do... "something". Most of the suggestions in Time Magazine's
51 Things We Can Do to Save the Environment are similarly trivial in terms of scale: Green eye shadow? Ditch your necktie? Get real.
Perhaps more troubling are the ideas of a planetary scale, such as Time's #33:
Geoengineering, as the field is called, involves rearranging the environment on a planetary scale. The best-known idea involves the so-called space mirrors. Roger Angel, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, suggests putting trillions of small, ultra-thin lenses into orbit, enough to form a cylindrical cloud with a diameter half the size of the Earth's equator and a length of 60,000 miles. Placed 1.5 million km above the Earth's surface, the massive mirror would reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet by about 2%, which Angel believes would be enough to offset a significant amount of warming. Implementing this plan would be no mean feat: the mirrors would collectively weigh 20 million tons and cost trillions of dollars. And to get all those lenses into orbit, we'd have to launch rockets every five minutes for 10 years. [emphasis added]
Uhhh...what if they're wrong? Then what?
The Indonesian peat fires would be a laboratory to test climate models and simulations. Attacking the fires would be an enormous civil engineering project, but it would seem to be something of a scale that might be feasible now instead of decades from now. At a minimum, control of the fires would improve air quality in the region (see image of Kuala Lumpur skyline below), improve the regional economies (damaged to the tune of billions of dollars per year), without taking steps that could jeopardize regional or global ecologies. This seems to me to be a conservative and sensible approach.
The Indonesians have tried to control their fires in the past, but their efforts have been small in scale, undermanned, underequipped and underfunded. Their efforts have been restricted to public lands, and many of the fires are on private land.(see Wikipedia article).
In doing this research, I came across this passage which confirmed my suspicions about the robustness of climate change modeling, and the thoroughness of the scientific community's understanding of the complicated processes in play:
...[T]wo ... independent studies of atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations during that ['97-'98] time period support the conclusion that the fires were a major contributor to atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels. ... [C]omputer climate simulations assume that processes which emit carbon dioxide and remove it from the atmosphere operate smoothly and continuously. Episodic events such as wildfires play havoc with such simulations.
At present, no climate modeler knows exactly how to factor catastrophic events in small areas that release carbon dioxide that has been locked away in peat or other carbon and methane reservoirs into world-scale forecasts of greenhouse-gas levels. Such events can evidently have a huge impact on the global carbon balance...
The AGW crowd must do two things before I will consider them to be sincerely engaged in solving the "problem" for which they express such grave concern: a) eschew the trivial feel-good "solutions" which are of too small a scale to matter; and b) embrace large scale strategies, including but not limited to nuclear energy, which just might have a chance of making a difference.
Indonesian forest fires again cause haze in Malaysia (AP), 8/4/2005
Indonesia Peat Fires May Fuel Global Warming, Experts Say National Geographic, 11/11/2004
Massive peat burn is speeding climate change NewScientist.com, 11/6/2004