Indonesian officers put out forest fires in a village in Central Kalimantan province in September 2015. (Bagus Indahono/European Pressphoto Agency)

A new decision from the government of Indonesia could be a major boon for both public health and the global climate. On Monday, President Joko Widodo announced a moratorium on all activities that could damage the nation’s peat-filled wetlands, a move that could help prevent wildfires and billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the next few decades.

The action represents “the kind of leadership that the world needs right now,” Erik Solheim, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, said in a statement.  

Indonesia is known for its tropical peatlands — bogs filled with carbon-rich, partly decomposed organic matter, or peat. Recently, though, Indonesia’s peatlands have been faced with growing threats from human activity, mainly agriculture. To make room for farmland, people in the region have taken to draining and drying the bogs, sometimes starting fires to aid them in clearing the land.

In particularly dry years, these fires have been known to spiral into enormous blazes that pour hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threaten thousands of people with respiratory illness. In the past, the worst fire seasons have corresponded with severe El Niño events — the most recent occurred in 2015, when wildfires in Indonesia emitted about 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents — as much as Japan typically emits in a year. About half of these fires occurred on peatlands.  

These fires have been a growing source of concern for climate scientists, who have noted that the warming climate is likely to exacerbate such fires in the future. In a study published earlier this year, researchers used climate projections to predict the amount of carbon that might be lost from peatlands as a result of future wildfires.

The study suggests that there may be a significant increase in the frequency of severe El Niño events by the end of the century and that these events may bring about even more intense wildfires — unless, that is, humans stop setting them in the first place. In this way, the new action from the Indonesian government could play a significant role in putting a stop to the blazes.

“If you are able to eliminate those ignitions, then you could do away with the fires,” said Guido van der Werf, an expert on the global carbon cycle at VU University in Amsterdam and one of the fire study’s authors. This action benefits both the climate and the public health, van der Werf added. In 2015, reports suggested that wildfires were responsible for up to half a million respiratory infections.  

“By strengthening the efforts to prevent damages to peatland such as by banning virtually all conversion of peatlands for certain plantations and by encouraging peat restoration, this regulation will be a major contribution to the Paris climate agreement and a relief to millions of Indonesians who suffer the effects of toxic haze from peat fires,” Nirarta Samadhi, director of World Resources Institute Indonesia, said in a statement. He added that the World Resources Institute estimates that by 2030, the new regulation could save anywhere from 5.5 billion to 7.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Indonesia has pledged to cut its domestic carbon emissions by at least 29 percent by 2030, and the government has recently indicated that more than half of these cuts should come from the forestry sector. The government began tackling the peatland issue in January, when Widodo established a peatland restoration agency charged with restoring 5 million acres of peatland damaged during the 2015 fires. This week’s announcement helps ensure that the nation’s peatlands will not only be restored, but also protected from future damage.