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Indonesian oligarchs took advantage of a US law and created a climate calamity of global consequence

“We’ve created a situation that is so contrary to what we had hoped for. We’re doing more harm to the environment. It was a mistake.” Former Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA).

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Heartbreaking and horrific recent images of the severity of wildfire that have burned out of control in the Amazon rainforest. The Trump of the Tropics, Jair Bolsonaro, is to blame for this catastrophe.

The Congo, also known as the Earths second lung after the Amazon, is on fire due to farmers clearing land, and the dry season where vegetation can ignite naturally. Julie Turkowitz of the NY Times notes that the flames in central Africa are “mostly licking at the edges” of the rainforest, the primary fuel incinerated is savannah and scrub.

In Indonesia, fires are killing iconic wildlife that is unable to flee the flames. The fires also threaten the lives and livelihood of indigenous people. If it’s even possible to imagine the situation could get any worse, it does. These infernos are burning carbon-rich peatlands over large swathes of the Indonesian archipelago and funneling it all into the atmosphere as a potent greenhouse gas. As of September 21, 2019, 800,000 acres of Indonesian rainforest has been incinerated.

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I’ve been out of sorts over the wildfires sweeping the tropics. Utter despair actually, because this feels different to me, like the window of whatever opportunity there may have been to change course had firmly closed. After much agonizing, I finally decided to confront this demon when I stumbled across this piece from George Tsakraklides writing in Medium:

Let’s just be honest with ourselves. Climate Change mitigation isn’t going very well. In fact, it is a joke. At a time when society should be making Herculean efforts to reorganise our very economies, something already a bit of an ambitious fantasy given our previous record, we want to make things even harder for ourselves: we take a Herculean leap backwards by burning the Amazon.

The climate mitigation models, which give us 10 years to make significant changes, are not factoring in one huge variable in their complicated algorithms: the “looney” factor. There are far too many crazies in power to be able to predict a safe, unhindered path to mitigation that is actually doable and realistic.

 Yes. The “looney” factor, that is the source of my haunting and despair.

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Across my social feeds, video and images emerged of a deadly toxic haze blanketing many areas of southeast Asia, primarily Malaysia and Singapore, as well as Indonesia. The fires started on the island of Borneo for land clearing to grow palm oil, plantations of it as far as the eye can see. and it is burning today because of a well-intentioned law that US lawmakers thought would reduce carbon emissions, in fact, the opposite occurred. 

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One investigative article grabbed my attention when it came across my FB feed. I had missed it when it first came out in November of 2018. It is a brilliant collaboration between ProPublica and the New York Times titled: Fuel to the Fire. It is a lengthy piece but is quite informative and revealing. Hope you can take a look. Here are some excerpts but there is so much more background at the link.

Most of the plantations around us were new, their rise a direct consequence of policy decisions made half a world away. In the mid-2000s, Western nations, led by the United States, began drafting environmental laws that encouraged the use of vegetable oil in fuels — an ambitious move to reduce carbon dioxide and curb global warming. But these laws were drawn up based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs. Despite warnings that the policies could have the opposite of their intended effect, they were implemented anyway, producing what now appears to be a calamity with global consequences.

The tropical rainforests of Indonesia, and in particular the peatland regions of Borneo, have large amounts of carbon trapped within their trees and soil. Slashing and burning the existing forests to make way for oil-palm cultivation had a perverse effect: It released more carbon. A lot more carbon. NASA researchers say the accelerated destruction of Borneo’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, an explosion that transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions. Instead of creating a clever technocratic fix to reduce American’s carbon footprint, lawmakers had lit the fuse on a powerful carbon bomb that, as the forests were cleared and burned, produced more carbon than the entire continent of Europe. The unprecedented palm-oil boom, meanwhile, has enriched and emboldened many of the region’s largest corporations, which have begun using their newfound power and wealth to suppress critics, abuse workers and acquire more land to produce oil.

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Indonesia's toxic haze affecting Borneo's orangutans.

Exposed peatland can spew carbon into the atmosphere for decades, even centuries, after the land is first disturbed. Indonesia’s peatland destruction — just the amount that has already occurred — is roughly the equivalent of opening 70 new, large coal-fired power plants. And if even a fraction of these emissions are counted as land-change effects in the process of evaluating biofuels, the scales are forcefully tipped. “It’s all a deception,” Suhadi said. “There is no sustainability.”

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What the Walhi crew found that week in Kalimantan was not just deforestation and misery but a virtual hole ripped into one of the largest banks of concentrated carbon in existence. At every turn — by motorbike and motorboat — shards of burned stumps, a crop of shimmering silvery charcoal, stuck out from the blackened earth like gravestones. This apocalyptic landscape stretched as far as they could see, punctuated by only the rare tuft of scorched but otherwise healthy juvenile palm. They traced what they describe as telltale signs that the fires had been started by the palm companies — which is illegal and which all the palm-oil companies strongly deny doing, but which is also the fastest, cheapest way to raze the land.

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The process is simple and devastating. First, workers bring in excavators to cut deep trenches across the swampland. These quickly fill with water that drains from the adjacent forest, thereby creating canals that serve as near-instant inroads on which to transport heavy machinery by boat or barge. With the machinery, the forests are cut down, their timber efficiently removed, and the swampy peatland they sit on is left to drain and dry. Once it’s dried, it’s burned.

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Palm-oil producers had been lobbying American lawmakers to introduce biofuel incentives for years, and they were well prepared for the moment when the incentives became law. Wilmar — the colossal Singaporean conglomerate that controls nearly half of the global palm-oil trade — announced in 2007 that it would quadruple its biodiesel production. In Indonesia, officials directed state-owned and regional banks to make loans on more than $8 billion worth of palm-oil-related development projects and pledged to produce 5.9 billion gallons of biofuel within five years. They also announced that Indonesia would convert more than 13 million acres of additional forest to industrialized palm production. It was as if in response to a law in China, the United States undertook a plan to convert every single acre of New Jersey to soybean crops, and then threw in all of Connecticut and New Hampshire.

On the night of the president’s address, Timothy Searchinger sat on his couch in Takoma Park, Md., just a few miles from the Capitol, and watched on television, struck by what seemed to him a glaring lapse in logic. “Oh, my God, what the hell is happening here?” he recalls wondering aloud. Searchinger wasn’t a scientist; he was a lawyer, working with the Environmental Defense Fund. But he saw a serious flaw in the claim that the president’s proposal would ameliorate climate change. Searchinger knew that cropland had already consumed virtually every arable acre across the Midwest. Quintupling biofuel production would require a huge amount of additional arable land, far more than existed in the United States. Unless Americans planned to eat less, that meant displacing food production to some other country with unused land — and he knew that when forests are cut, or new land is opened for farming, substantial new amounts of carbon can be released into the atmosphere. Forests hold as much as 45 percent of the planet’s carbon stored on land, and old-growth trees in particular hold a great deal of that carbon, typically far more than any of the crops that replace them. When the trees are cut down, most of that carbon is released.
On the night of the president’s address (George W. Bush), Timothy Searchinger sat on his couch in Takoma Park, Md., just a few miles from the Capitol, and watched on television, struck by what seemed to him a glaring lapse in logic. “Oh, my God, what the hell is happening here?” he recalls wondering aloud. Searchinger wasn’t a scientist; he was a lawyer, working with the Environmental Defense Fund. But he saw a serious flaw in the claim that the president’s proposal would ameliorate climate change. Searchinger knew that cropland had already consumed virtually every arable acre across the Midwest. Quintupling biofuel production would require a huge amount of additional arable land, far more than existed in the United States. Unless Americans planned to eat less, that meant displacing food production to some other country with unused land — and he knew that when forests are cut, or new land is opened for farming, substantial new amounts of carbon can be released into the atmosphere. Forests hold as much as 45 percent of the planet’s carbon stored on land, and old-growth trees in particular hold a great deal of that carbon, typically far more than any of the crops that replace them. When the trees are cut down, most of that carbon is released.
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Accounting for the “substitution effect,” which describes the way more or less interchangeable commodities like palm and soybean oil tend to be swapped out for one another as buyers seek the lowest price, has proved to be a particularly challenging problem. The American biofuels law, for instance, was designed to support soybean and corn farmers, not palm-oil producers. But the United States began increasing foreign palm-oil imports nonetheless — they more than doubled by 2017 — in large part because so much of the domestic soybean production that once went to food was now being used for fuel. Much of that palm oil went to food production. But the increased use of palm oil in food production was largely a byproduct of the increased fuel-oil production. (In Europe, which also passed a biofuels mandate in 2009 and uses large amounts of palm-based biodiesel directly in its vehicles, the calculation was simpler.)

 

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Forest fires are an annual event in Indonesia — sparked in the dry early fall as village farmers clear their fields and then extinguished by the monsoons. But this year was different. NASA officials said they were the worst fires they’d ever observed. Indonesians suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation were streaming into hospitals by the tens of thousands. Researchers at Columbia and Harvard later estimated that the fires led to 100,000 premature deaths. And the fires wouldn’t stop. Suhadi, long a critic of how the palm-oil companies managed their plantations, feared that they had now done something cataclysmic.

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