It’s World Peatlands Day: Why Should We Care and What Can We Do About It?


By Kemen Austin | June 2, 2023

Peatlands in Karukinka Natural Park, Chile store over 200 million tons of CO2 and remain largely intact. Photo credit: Guy Wenborne/WCS.

There is more carbon stored in peat than in all of the world’s forests combined. This amount of carbon (roughly 600 billion tons) is approximately equivalent to three-quarters of the carbon in earth’s atmosphere, and more than twice the carbon stored in known and currently accessible fossil fuel reserves.

Nonetheless, the wetland ecosystems where peat is present, also known as peatlands, cover just three percent of the world’s land surface — compared to 30 percent covered by forests.

To keep global warming under control, it’s critical to keep ALL of the carbon stored in those peatlands out of the atmosphere. But peatlands are woefully under-protected. Only 19 percent of the world’s peatlands have any kind of official protected status, compared to 36 percent of global intact forests, 42 percent of mangrove forests and 50 percent of saltmarshes.

Peatlands cover just three percent of the world’s land surface, yet they store more carbon than all of the world’s forests combined.

There is a clear-cut case for expanding peatland protection. One global initiative, “30x30” — calling for the effective protection of 30 percent of the planet’s lands, oceans, coastal areas, inland waters by 2030 — is a step in the right direction.

The peat swamps in the Pastaza-Maranon basin contain more carbon than the rest of the forests in the Peruvian Amazon combined. Photo credit: Diego Perez/WCS.

A more ambitious goal to specifically ensure that the massive carbon stocks in peatlands are fully and effectively protected is a crucial next step. This is particularly important given the irreversibility of carbon stock losses from these ecosystems. Once peat carbon is emitted to the atmosphere it can’t be reabsorbed by peatlands on time scales that matter in our fight against climate change.

Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPs and LCs) are critical to peatland conservation. For millennia, these groups have stewarded and sustainably managed intact peatlands in many of the largest peatlands in the world, including Canada, Peru, and the Congo Basin.

For millennia, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities have stewarded and sustainably managed intact peatlands in many of the largest peatlands in the world.

And they bring valuable traditional ecological knowledge and management expertise that will be critical to the success of peatland conservation efforts. Recognizing the rights of IPs and LCs is urgently needed to improve and expand peat protection, while contributing to local economies and food security.

Even beyond carbon storage, peatlands provide slow-release freshwater storage, reduce flood risks, offer unique habitat, and help support local fisheries. The financial returns from peatland degradation and exploitation are nearly always exceeded by the benefits of protecting peatlands, but those benefits are diffuse and rarely accounted for, whereas the financial returns are particular and fully monetized.

Gorillas captured by camera trap in the Republic of Congo’s Lac Tele Community Reserve. Photo credit: ©WCS.

Financial instruments that recognize the monetary value of the benefits of peatlands, including payments for ecosystem services (PES) and carbon market mechanisms, have the potential to create new incentives for peatland conservation, management, and restoration globally.

In parallel to conservation efforts, we need to reduce pressures on peat ecosystems. Over the past decade hundreds of private-sector actors sourcing deforestation-risk commodities — such as palm oil, soy, beef, and timber — have committed to eliminating deforestation and peat conversion from their supply chains.

Every year that brings more peatland destruction results in more greenhouse gas emissions that cannot be reversed.

When implemented, these pledges can substantially reduce risk to peat ecosystems in geographies where agricultural production is a major driver of peatland destruction. Aligned public policies to limit development on peatlands can support and strengthen these private sector-led efforts.

Hudson Bay Lowlands. Photo credit: Lorna Harris/WCS Canada.

Finally, restoration of degraded peatlands will also be critical to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Drained and degraded peatlands continue to emit GHGs for decades or even centuries as their enormous carbon stocks are slowly converted to GHGs in the atmophere. Only by restoring and rewetting degraded peat can this continuous flow of GHG emissions be slowed and eventually reversed.

Peatlands, which currently emit 3–4 percent of global greenhouse gases, can be an important part of the climate solution. But every year that brings more peatland destruction results in more greenhouse gas emissions that cannot be reversed, and makes it harder and more expensive to reduce peatland emissions in line with targets to prevent warming greater than 1.5°C.

The warmer the world becomes, the more fires, droughts, and permafrost thaw will negatively impact peatlands and limit their contribution to this global mitigation goal. Peatland conservation isn’t the only solution, but it’s one we can’t ignore.

Kemen Austin is Director of Science for the Forests and Climate Change Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).



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