Peatlands are crucial carbon sinks but they are not on the map

  • Peatlands cover less than 3% of the earth’s land surface area but pack twice as much carbon as world’s forest.
  • These carbon sinks are very poorly mapped and are getting rapidly converted for other land uses.
  • At the CoP25 to the Climate Change Convention underway in Madrid, Spain, the international community raised the issue of conserving peatlands as an important part of the nature-based solutions to climate change.

Imagine semi-decayed plant material accumulating for thousands of years under water-logged conditions. This thick and condensed layer of soil that packs a large amount of organic carbon is called peat.

Hans Joosten, Professor of Peatland Studies at the University of Greifswald in Germany, explains, “The decomposition of organic matter is hampered by water saturation – which is the same as if you put fish or vegetables in acid water – because the water keeps out the oxygen.”

At an event during the ongoing climate change conference in Madrid, Dianna Kopansky, Global Peatlands Initiative Coordinator at UN Environment, said, “Peatlands cover less than 3% of the earth’s land surface, but they contain twice as much carbon as in the world’s forests.” Joosten, who was also a panellist at the event, later told Mongabay-India, “To give you a better perspective, the average peatland per hectare has a carbon content equivalent to that of 2 million litres of diesel.”

When this carbon-rich soil is deprived of water and gets exposed to air, it decomposes rapidly and releases all the carbon back into the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.

So, protecting peatlands becomes a nature-based solution to reduce the effect of or mitigate climate change. This ecosystem also helps in climate change adaptation by controlling floods, improving water availability by holding and releasing water, purifying water, and providing habitat for a variety of biodiversity.

Draining and clearing peatlands to make them suitable for agriculture and other development activities has been the main threat to the ecosystem. “Around 0.4% of the world’s land is drained peatlands, and just this land is contributing to 5% of global anthropogenic emissions,” said Kopansky during an interview. Drained peatlands are also vulnerable to long-lasting fires, which can multiply emissions and also release toxic haze. For instance, fire in the carbon-rich peatlands of Indonesia this year emitted double the carbon of Amazon fires.

Despite their crucial role in storing-releasing carbon and regulating the climate, the distribution, location, and status of the world’s peatlands are relatively unknown.

“Peatlands are like mines. First, you need to know where they are laid. And then you can take that into account in land-use planning. If you treat them wrongly, which is very easy, you blow up everything,” said Joosten. “Hence, mapping exercise is important, and it becomes more necessary as land use becomes more intensive.”

Only three percent of earth’s land is peatland but it contains twice the amount of carbon as the world’s forests. Photo by Hans Joosten.
Only 3% of earth’s land is peatland but it contains twice the amount of carbon as the world’s forests. Photo by Hans Joosten.

For earth and peat’s sake, map peatlands

Peatlands have been found in 180 countries so far, and they occur extensively in the northern and tropical zones. But their exact location and status remain relatively unknown in most countries.

The Greifswald Mire Centre maintains a Global Peatland Database that maps the location, extent, and status of these ecosystems across the world with inputs from existing information, field research, and other maps and studies. But Joosten claims that despite being one of the reliable resources available, their map needs more work. “There is no remote sensing technology that can look inside the soil. You really have to dig deep in the mud and get dirty,” remarked Joosten.

Kopansky and Joosten both agree that peatlands have long been unrecognised. “The fact that the largest tropical peatland – 14 million hectares – was mapped in the Congo basin recently (2017) is an example. Now, it has been revised to 19 mha, which is greater than the size of England. In this patch of Congo, there is more carbon as compared to the entire forests of Congo…and time and again, we discover them in different regions,” said Joosten, who has been studying peatlands for over 40 years.

Ritesh Kumar, Director at Wetlands International South Asia, said, “In India, peatlands have been recorded in Kerala, Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and north Sikkim. Some parts of the Western Ghats have peat too. A lot of our deltas and mangroves have the propensity to develop into peat. But there have been no systematic efforts to map them.”

Since they weren’t documented earlier, we don’t know what’s lost. And as land conversion for agriculture, grazing, housing and tourism threatens peatlands across the country, Kumar told Mongabay-India over phone that the ecosystem needs a lot more research. “We are trying to accumulate information and evidence and develop a peat map of India,” he said.

Joosten also feels that the neglect is because peatlands comparatively occupy a smaller part of the earth’s surface (3%) and are usually not visible, tucked in forests or mangroves. “Also, there’s a lot of negative connotation to the words related to peatlands…swamped, bogged down, mired…so people tend to undervalue them,” he said.

Peatlands are found over 180 countries but their exact extent, location and status are not relatively known. Photo by Hans Joosten.
Peatlands are found over 180 countries but their exact extent, location and status are not relatively known. Photo by Hans Joosten.

COP25 feat. Peat

According to the report ‘Nature-based Solutions in Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and the University of Oxford, while at least 66% of countries included nature-based solutions in their NDCs (efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change), these are currently not substantive or stringent enough. For example, only around 17% of NDCs with actions involving nature-based solutions for adaptation set quantifiable and robust targets. It also suggested that while forests were highlighted for climate change mitigation, ecosystems such as grasslands, drylands, mangroves, and peatlands were relatively poorly represented.

Sandeep Sengupta, the Global Coordinator of IUCN’s Climate Change Portfolio and one of the authors of the report, said, “We are used to getting the services from nature for free for so long. So, the understanding that you actually have to put serious money to make sure that the world’s ecosystems are protected, restored and managed well is quite important.”

Globally, acquiring funds for conserving, restoring, and monitoring natural ecosystems has been a challenge. “30% carbon mitigation potential but only 3% public funding available for nature-based solutions. And for peatlands, the fund is lesser,” said Kopansky, adding that obtaining public-private funds is a difficult task. “There’s a lot of investment in technology and energy transition, but not many are coming forward to actually invest in nature, which is our fastest and probably the most long-term, effective way to grab carbon dioxide out of the air.”

Drained peatlands occupy 0.4 percent of the world's land surface, and just this land is contributing to five percent of global anthropogenic emissions. Photo by Hans Joosten.
Drained peatlands occupy 0.4% of the world’s land surface, and just this land is contributing to 5% of global anthropogenic emissions. Photo by Hans Joosten.

Presentations and discussions on nature-based solutions had their space at many events at the current COP25, where world leaders, scientists, and officials have come together to find ways to tackle climate change.

Sengupta said, “I have never seen so much attention on nature-based solutions at a climate COP before, and this, I think, can be credited to the fact that the UN Secretary-General decided to have a dedicated track for it at the UN Climate Summit. It is also due to a growing realisation that investing in these nature-based solutions can provide multiple cost-effective and practical benefits to society.”

Considering their massive role in regulating carbon in the atmosphere, several events on peatlands concluded that without proper maps and monitoring procedures for peatlands and additional financing for nature-based solutions, there will be gaps in efforts to keep the global average temperature below two degree Celsius. “And as countries think of revising and submitting new NDCs in 2020, there is a very clear opportunity for all to include nature-based solutions in their NDCs in a more concrete manner to raise overall ambitions,” said Sengupta.

“But it is also important to bear in mind that nature-based solutions cannot be seen as a panacea to climate change. It is something that needs to be done in addition to reducing the use of fossil fuels to meet the 2 and 1.5 degree Celsius temperature goals set under the Paris Agreement,” he added.

Banner Image: Peatlands are the largest terrestrial carbon sink. Photo by Sigit Deni Sasmito/CIFOR/Flickr.

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