Lungs of the Earth: Why We Need to Increase Investments in Peatlands
Let's unlock the key to carbon reductions
First of all….What are peatlands?
Peatlands are incredibly old landforms that have played an important role in the development of our natural history and are now found in almost every country in the world. The term ‘peatland’ refers to the peat soil and the wetland habitat growing on its surface. This natural terrestrial ecosystem formed over 10–40 thousand years ago is made up of partially decomposed plant material under waterlogged conditions.
Peatlands are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth due to their carbon sequestration capacity. Plants use photosynthesis to extract carbon from the atmosphere and store it in peat. This is why peatlands have a cooling effect on the global climate. Because the peat is permanently saturated in water, the carbon will not be converted into greenhouse gases.
Peatlands are the world’s largest natural terrestrial carbon stock. They cover only 3% of the Earth’s total land surface (an estimated 4 million km2). However, they store over one-third of the world’s soil carbon. In other words, peatlands store more carbon than all other terrestrial vegetation types in the world combined! This is twice as much as all the world’s forests.
The more carbon dioxide we can put into storage instead of the atmosphere, the more stable our planet will become.
The Loss of a Valuable Resource
It takes thousands of years to grow meter thick layers of peat. When peatlands are drained, the peat releases the stored carbon dioxide and reverses this process in only a few years.
The balance between water, plants, and peat is essential. That’s why it is important to keep peatlands wet. When peatlands are drained, the peat is exposed to oxygen which causes microbes to attack the stored carbon. As a result, this carbon is oxidized to carbon dioxide and released into the air.
Draining a peatland the size of a football field releases the same amount of carbon dioxide as driving a car three times around the Earth. Drained peatlands have the same negative effect as coal-fired power plants, oil-fired heating, and gas-powered cars. Peat should be considered a fossil fuel like oil, coal, and gas. The more peat is drained, excavated, and decomposed, the more carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere and the warmer the Earth will become.
Peatlands are predominantly drained to transform wetlands into land suitable for agriculture and for urban and industrial developments. It is also commonplace for peat to be extracted and utilized for a source of energy. Drained and damaged peatlands are a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions, annually releasing almost 6% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions.
Green Financing and Peatland Restoration
The clock is ticking, the remaining time we have to save our planet is limited. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to avoid the worst climate impacts, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will need to be halved by 2030, and we will need to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Therefore, it is imperative that we target our climate change efforts. When we talk about climate change mitigation strategies, peatland conservation and restoration must be an integral part of that conversation.
“From a climate perspective, [peatlands] are the most essential terrestrial ecosystem.” — Tim Christophersen, Senior Program Officer, Forests and Climate, United Nations Environment Programme.
Peatlands are strategic areas for climate change mitigation because of their matchless carbon stocks. Dollar for dollar, peatlands provided one of the best returns on investment for ecosystem-based carbon reduction strategies. There has never been more money and political will for conservation and sustainability than in this decade. At least $30.7 trillion of funds are held in sustainable or green investments, up 34% from 2016, according to a report by the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance. Additionally, the development of regional voluntary carbon markets to fund peatland restoration has already taken way in the United Kingdom and Germany.
With only 1 to 10 millimetres of peat accumulating per year in a peatland, regeneration measures are indispensable and require wide-ranging adoption. Protecting the remaining peatlands is crucial if we are to stop the Earth from warming past the point of no return.