Urgent action on Peatlands

The United Nations Environment Assembly in Kenya has adopted a new resolution for conservation and restoration of peatlands.

Background

Peatlands are created when dead vegetation subsides, partially decayed and partially preserved, into waterlogged landscapes or when the water table rises, overtaking the vegetation. The organic material doesn’t fully degrade due to a lack of oxygen in the wetlands. It accumulates and compresses, trapping the carbon the living plants had captured from the air.

▪ They form a unique natural habitat that supports biodiversity and species at risk (plants, birds and insects).

▪ Peatlands act as important stores of carbon (one-third of the world’s soil carbon). Peat is extracted and used in gardening the stored carbon is released as CO2, a greenhouse gas, which exacerbates global warming and climate change.

▪ They act as 'archives', offering unique historical evidence on the area and its inhabitants.

▪ They play an important role in the global hydrological cycle helping maintain both water quantity and quality: they contain 10% of global freshwater resources. In the UK peatlands are thought to play an important role in flood prevention.

To perform these critical functions, peat must be wet. Unfortunately, for centuries, peat and its vegetation have been cultivated, drained and degraded. Dry peat is easily eroded and washed away, and is also a fire hazard. It also releases carbon dioxide and is one of the most significant sources of greenhouse gas.

A lack of awareness of the benefits of peatlands means that they have been severely overexploited and damaged as a result of actions including drainage, agricultural conversion, burning and mining for fuel. About 15% of the world’s peatlands have been drained.

Analysis

Peatlands cover about 3% of the Earth’s land area, store vast amounts of carbon, and provide habitats for diverse flora and fauna. The recent discovery of one of the most significant carbon sinks in the Congo Basin, the Cuvette Centrale, which straddles the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has dramatically altered the estimates of carbon reserves contained in peatlands.

These ecosystems are found in around 180 countries. UN Environment recently focused attention on the large permafrost peatlands in the globe’s far north, and the importance of conserving them as a hedge against potentially calamitous climate change. Through the negotiations, Member States realised that if they wanted global action on peatlands, any resolution needed to cover all peatlands, not just tropical peatlands,” says UN Environment’s leading peatlands expert Dianna Kopansky.

In the tropics, as Indonesia has learned, the secret to preventing peatland fires is keeping peatlands wet. Restoring drained and degraded peatlands often require re-wetting and restoration of the peatlands hydrology.

The resolution requests UN Environment “to coordinate efforts to create a comprehensive and accurate global peatlands inventory”: without reliable data, policymakers don’t even know where these “carbon hotspots” are, and they cannot effect sustainable change.

It also encourages “Member States and other stakeholders to enhance regional and international collaboration for the conservation and the sustainable management of peatlands” and “Member States… and all other actors involved with peatland conservation, management and restoration… to foster the conservation and sustainable management of peatlands”.

UN Environment, working with many partners, is beginning to change mindsets on peatlands.

“The adoption of the global resolution on the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Peatlands marks an important moment for the environment, for global biodiversity conservation, climate action and resilience,” says Tim Christophersen, head of UN Environment’s Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch, and Chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration. “And the timing is auspicious: the recently declared UN Decade on Ecosystems Restoration 2021-2030 should lend impetus to peatland conservation and restoration efforts.”

Kopansky adds: “We’ve come a long way since December 2016 when UN Environment was asked to coordinate efforts to protect, conserve and restore peatlands. Publications such as Smoke on Water and the collaborative efforts of the Global Peatlands Initiative have been hugely influential in changing attitudes.”

The United Kingdom is establishing a strategic peatland action plan to support the UK’s climate mitigation plans and international biodiversity targets. In Southeast Asia, the ASEAN Peatland Forests Project (APFP) is supporting the implementation of a multi-stakeholder Peatland Management Strategy to restore peatlands and reduce the rate of degradation and the risk of fire and haze. The European Union LIFE funding has assisted over 260 peatland restoration projects, providing practical experience on the feasibility and techniques of peatland restoration.

Assessment

Our assessment is that to conserve and restore peatlands these areas have to be identified. The best way to uncover the world’s still-hidden peatlands, as well as, ensuring that these lands are not destroyed for agriculture is by scanning areas of potential through satellite data. We believe that the challenge is to develop mechanisms that can balance the conflicting demands on global peatland.

India Watch

Wetlands in India are under threat due to urbanisation, land use patterns, agriculture, industrial pollution and global climate change. In addition, research and development of wetlands and wetland ecosystems in India also seem to be limited. 

 

Image Courtesy: Alasdair MacDonald / Wet peat land