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Understanding Peatlands in Climate Change Strategies  

Peatlands are found in an estimated 180 countries. Many of them have not been recognized and are not yet properly mapped. Levi Westerveld/GRID-Arendal, CC BY-ND

The core focus emerging from the argument pitching for peatlands is that this wetland type is the largest natural terrestrial carbon store. Peatlands store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined.

By Salam Rajesh

The understandings on strategies to address climate change mitigation and adaptation measures have come up with several interesting suggestions that deviates from the conventional thinking process that forests alone is good enough to meet the crisis. The new thinking approach is to tap the water bodies – lakes, swamps, bogs, peatlands, mangroves – to find better and additional sources for carbon sequestration to achieve the Paris climate goals.

A November (2021) publication of the IUCN (World Conservation Union), captioned as “Peatlands and Climate Change”, takes the debate across the board pulling the string for renewed emphasis on peatlands, other than forests, as one of the better options to address climate change mitigation measures.

The IUCN report defines ‘Peatlands’ as a term referring to the peat soil and the wetland habitats growing on the surface, and peatlands as a type of wetland that occur in almost every country are known to cover at least 3 percent of the global land surface.

Taking the argument further, the IUCN report stresses that peatlands as a type of wetland are critical for preventing and mitigating the effects of climate change, preserving biodiversity, minimizing flood risk, and ensuring safe drinking water.

The core focus emerging from the argument pitching for peatlands is that this wetland type is the largest natural terrestrial carbon store. Peatlands store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined, says the report. At this assumption the push for global scale restoration of peatlands has gained momentum in international forums.

The central theme on climate change deliberation is the question on what causes the most damaging greenhouse gas emissions. The earlier idea was primarily on deforestation and the large scale burning of forest lands, besides large scale cattle rearing, that cause maximum GHG emissions.

The emerging deliberation is that damaged peatlands are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, which is responsible for almost 5 percent of the global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. The reclamation of peatlands through burning the peats is what causes the most damages, according to peatland campaigners.

Consequently, the debate swings in favour of peatland restoration which if achieved cent per cent can reduce emissions significantly all across the globe. The IUCN report is critical in its push for peatland restoration stating that countries must include peatland conservation and restoration in their commitments to international agreements, including the Paris Agreement on climate change.

In pitching for peatlands, the IUCN report stresses that in their natural, wet state, peatlands provide “indispensable Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, including regulating water flows, minimizing the risk of flooding and drought, and preventing seawater intrusion”.

The report further says, “Wet peatlands lower ambient temperatures in surrounding areas, providing refuge from extreme heat, and are less likely to burn during wildfires. This helps to preserve air quality”. This is definitely crucial in limiting the global temperature rise, and where peatlands are in urban areas their restoration and vitality can help reduce the urban heat island effect.

The report is critical of the fact that draining peatlands for reclamation to take up agriculture, farming, cattle rearing, and urbanization reduces the quality of drinking water as water becomes polluted with organic carbon and pollutants historically absorbed within peat. In many parts of the world, peatlands supply food, fibre and other local products that sustain economies. They also preserve important ecological and archaeological information such as pollen records and human artifacts, the report states.

Stating that damage to peatlands causes intense biodiversity loss, the report cites a clear example of where the decline of the Bornean orangutan population by 60 percent within 60 years is largely attributed to the loss of peat swamp habitat upon which the primates thrive.

International communities like the UN Environment Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization, and the Ramsar Convention have already committed to several goals, resolutions and strategic actions concerning peatlands, according to the IUCN report. The strategy is to focus on intergovernmental effort at up-scaling the value of peatlands as major carbon sinks and in helping immensely towards global effort at meeting climate goals.

The IUCN has recommended that peatlands must be included alongside forests in all relevant intergovernmental agreements relating to climate change, geo-diversity and biodiversity. The IUCN had further suggested strategy which would involve stopping degrading activities such as agricultural conversion and drainage, and restoring the waterlogged conditions required for peat formation.

Bringing out a white paper (2022) on why wetlands must be saved, Wetlands International stresses that, “Wetlands store almost a third of global soil carbon, and support 40 percent of global biodiversity, despite covering just 6 percent of the earth’s surface. These facts alone are enough to indicate the significance of wetlands in our efforts to fight climate change and halt biodiversity loss. Nevertheless, wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests, with 35 percent of wetland ecosystems lost since 1970”.

Jane Madgwick, chief executive officer of Wetlands International says, “Wetlands are literally going up in smoke and down the drain. Wetland degradation is causing huge greenhouse gas emissions, loss of productive land, as well as more extreme floods and droughts”.

Wetlands International’s white paper on wetlands provides a global assessment of the potential of wetlands to offer a key solution to global warming and biodiversity loss. It looks at the ‘carbon storage potential of wetlands and what this means for limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius’.

The urgency of the call to save and conserve wetlands come from the baseline argument that wetlands can store massive amount of carbon within them, and so these water bodies are vital in achieving the target of limiting global temperature rise well below 1.5 degree Celsius within the time set (2030 to 2050). For instance, peatlands alone have the capacity to store a massive 4700 tons of carbon in one hectare area, as compared to 200 tons of carbon in one hectare of forest.

In the light of these observations at the global scale, it has become imperative for Manipur State to relook into the status of the wetlands – lakes, rivers, peatlands, swamps – in contributing significantly towards the global targets on achieving climate change mitigation and adaptation.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be reached at [email protected])


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