Peatlands – the Earth’s under-appreciated carbon storage

What is it?

So, peatlands. What’s so special about peatlands? Well, there’s a lot to know about peatlands and their role in our Earth systems. Peatlands are one of the most valuable ecosystems on Earth. They play an incredibly imporant role in climatic and ecosystems and can be found in almost all countries in the world, as can be seen on the following map.

Distribution of peatlands in the world.

A book by Rydin and Jeglum covers everything you would need to know about peatlands. Some of the basics of peatlands: they are a type of wetland defined by an accumulation of organic matter suspended in its decomposition due to lack of oxygen and waterlogged conditions, they house a multitude of insects, animals, and microorganisms, and they can provide material – peat – which can be harvested and used as fuel or for horticulture. What to gather from that information? They are an essential carbon storage, important ecosystems for biodiversity, and often transformed and exploited for human use. They are a type of wetland which is often overexploited, drained, converted for agriculture, burned, harvested for horticulture and used for fuel, with 15% of peatlands already having been drained. While this issue has been known for a long time, this fact is not apparent in current policies.

How does this relate to climate change?

As established above, peatlands are incredibly important ecosystems mainly due to their carbon storage capacities and biodiversity. As shown in the following graph from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), draining these important ecosystems releases greenhouse gases, decreases biodiversity, leads to land degradation and more environmental issues, as peatlands play an essential role in the global climate and local ecosystems.

Peatlands may store ~644 Gt of Carbon or 21% of the global total soil organic Carbon stock of ~3000 Gt. So, draining of these areas will allow decomposition and through that, the emission of CO2 and N2O.

Research has also shown peatland’s climate change mitigation potential, the importance of their rich biodiversity (both in soil and aboveground), their role in regulating the water cycle, and their protection from water erosion (in the case of grasslands and wood- pastures). These essential roles of peatlands show why it is so important to protect these ecosystems.

Rewetting peatlands is also a method that can be used to regain some of these benefits and can solve the issues occurring from draining them, like emissions, higher flooding risks and eventual loss of productive land. This doesn’t have to mean a loss of agricultural land, as paludiculture (agriculture in wetlands) can serve as a low-emission land use alternative.

Rewetting might not be as straight-forward as it sounds though, as according to an assessment of two rewetted peatlands it “may be a balancing act between biodiversity or climate benefits”. So, while rewetting is an important tool, can bring back peatland benefits and is probably necessary in drained areas, the protection of existing peatlands is just as, if not more important.

Why is a paradigm shift necessary?

Currently, many peatlands are drained or exploited, as this is how humans see value in them. This is because of long-standing habits and traditions, but also because of governmental incentives. Focusing on the European Union (EU), awareness and some steps have been taken, but the necessary changes they are supposedly aware of are not reflected in direct policy action.

Research for the AGRI Committee of the European Parliament shows recommendations of the protection of peatlands and demonstrates that the EU is aware of the issue, listing the reasons the protection of peatlands is vital and stating paludiculture as an alternative, when done right.

In 2018, the European Commission agreed on key legislation that would account for emissions from land use, land use change and forestry. This still does not show protection of peatlands, but rather a very indirect measure taken to try to limit emissions from the above mentioned factor in general.

A publication from the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt) and the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (Bundesamt für Naturschutz) brings to light some of the issues in the current paradigm, which are not reflective of the awareness that should be present. The EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) principles and payments support high emission drainage-based agriculture, through high subsidies. Yet, climate-smart rewetting and paludiculture loose CAP payments.

Energy fuels from paludiculture could be a more sustainable form of biofuels derived from rewetted peatlands. These also have extremely limited economic support. This alternative could replace biomass which is grown on peatlands unsustainably for renewable energy.

So, although the EU seems to have received relevant recommendations, gained awareness and taken very indirect steps, larger-scale protection of peatlands and support of paludiculture are necessary to protect these essential ecosystems.

Some upcoming peatland movements

If you want to get involved in making this change or doing your part, there are several movements and campaigns that are involved in advocating for this peatland paradigm shift. RE-PEAT is a relatively new movement (with some AUC students involved) encouraging a paradigm shift through story-telling, connecting and encouraging dialogue and through political advocacy. Friends of the Earth has fought to protect peatlands since 1996. And PeatFree April and For Peat’s Sake are campaigns that are fighting for the removal of peat from horticulture.

2 thoughts on “Peatlands – the Earth’s under-appreciated carbon storage

  1. Great blog post! Paludiculture sounds like a very interesting option to be able to restore some of the drained peatlands and continue to produce agricultural goods. I think the land use change emissions would be much lower compared to other more common land use changes. Most of the LUC emissions in this scenario would probably be caused by rewetting the land. I think the restored peatland could win back the emissions of the convertion pretty quickly. Did you see anything in your research about the emissions of the LUC of rewetting?

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  2. It’s great to see you put peatlands on the map as an important carbon sink and potential carbon source. Right now estimates are that drained peatlands in the netherlands contribute 5% to the dutch annual CO2 emissions. Research is now being conducted into whether rewetting peatlands will decrease these emissions. One issue is that a lot of this drained peatland is used for cattle farming, which is nearly impossible if the soil becomes waterlogged once more. How would you propose we solve this issue? Do we buy out farmers? Or do we move the cattle to a different piece of land? I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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