Draining the Swamp

Peatlands contain peat soil, which is wet, thick, and made of partially-decomposed plant materials. The International Peatland Society (IPS) cover approximately 3% of the Earth’s surface. Tropical peatlands in Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Southern Africa contain 10-12%of the total peatland resource. Peatlands are also extremely valuable ecosystems because they foster biodiversity, are a habitat for multiple species, provide quality drinking water, support local economies, and minimize flood risk.

Figure-1-Global-peatland-distribution-Riccardo-Pravettoni-UNEPGRID-Arendal.As the plants in the peatlands remain saturated with water and fail to decompose, carbon gets trapped within the plants. Due to this process, the soil acts as a carbon storage. When peatlands are drained, the plants complete the decomposition process and release copious amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Approximately 15% of peatlands have been drained, which contributes nearly 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per day. The remaining 85% of peatland contains approximately 550 gigatons of carbon. In 2016, the draining and burning of peatland accounted for 5% of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

peat_presentation300pxUsing international climate policies, it is important to conserve and rehabilitate peatlands globally. International cooperation towards more sustainable use of peatlands began at the 2011 Durban Forum which recognized “wetland drainage and restoration,” as a focus area. The Durban Forum later identified peatlands as “hotspots” of greenhouse gas emissions in 2013. Moving up to this past year, at COP 22, a new global initiative was launched in Marrakech to reduce GHGs by protecting peatlands. The Global Peatlands Initiative, led by the UN Environmental Program, aims to increase conservation, restoration, and sustainable management. The initiative aids national governments in meeting Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change  (UNFCCC). From this structure, countries are more incentivized and have the ability to address peatland conservation and restoration in their mitigation, adaptation, and sustainable development goals.

In addition, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has presented strategic action plans to ensure peatlands are used effectively and efficiently. The FAO facilitates action by guiding nations through their “strategic actions.” The FAO actions include assessment, monitoring, protecting, and resorting of peatlands. It also has broader goals of ensuring sustainable care of the peatlands such as engaging with local communities, generating effective economic governance, stimulating market-based mechanisms to support the peatlands, and information exchange on peatland care. The IUCN has also bolstered the FAO’s actions and further recommends peatlands be considered in forestry agreements relatingto climate change and a moratorium on peat exploitation.

downloadThe United Kingdom have both taken active steps towards conservation and rehabilitation of peatlands within their territory. Peatlands cover 12% of the UK’s total territory, but 80% are in poor condition due to drainage or extraction. In response to this issue, the Wildlife Trusts have taken on the mission of restoring the peatlands on a regional basis called the “Million Hectare Challenge.” As a part of this, more than ten regions in the UK have adopted individual long-term rehabilitation programs. Regional programs such as the UK’s Million Hectare Challenge and FAO’s international initiatives provide foundations for other counties.

Peatland restoration remains an ongoing issue, but it is has become a recognized method for nations to satisfy their sustainable goals and meet their obligations under the UNFCCC. Overall, peatlands represent an opportunity for significant reduction of greenhouse cases if managed correctly. Luckily, as the standards and methods are being developed, it is likely restoration will become increasingly efficient and effective.