A peat bog in Estonia. Maksim Shutov, Unsplash

What are peatlands, and why do they matter?

All you need to know about the quiet, sodden heroes of carbon sequestration

To learn more, join us at GLF Peatlands 2024: The Climate Solution We Forgot on 6 June.

Is there a peatland somewhere near you? It’s quite possible: they occur in almost every country and cover almost 3 percent of the Earth’s land area.

But you’d be forgiven for being oblivious: they’re pretty hard to recognize at first glance. Peatlands take many different forms – from the treeless ‘blanket mires’ of Scotland’s Flow Country to dense swamp forests in Southeast Asia.

And scientists are still working to chart their full extent across the more remote corners of the planet: for instance, the world’s largest known expanse of peatland, located in the Congo Basin’s Cuvette Centrale, was only identified in 2017.

That’s because the true power of peatlands sits beneath the surface. They sequester more carbon than any other type of terrestrial ecosystem – far outstripping even our oldest and most expansive forests.

The flip side of this superpower, unfortunately, is that when peatlands are degraded, they emit especially large amounts of greenhouse gases.

And as the climate crisis begins to crunch, world leaders are finally recognizing the need to protect and restore our planet’s peatlands. Join us to school up on these critical ecosystems and help ensure that we protect them – and their myriad benefits to people and nature.

Estonia peatlands
Põhja-Kõrvemaa Nature Reserve, Estonia. Maksim Shutov, Unsplash

What are peatlands?

Peatlands are a type of terrestrial wetland ecosystem with a naturally accumulated layer of dead plant material, called peat, at the surface.

They form when an area is so waterlogged that the plant material within it doesn’t have enough oxygen to fully decompose. As more plant material accumulates, it absorbs atmospheric carbon and turns into a substance called peat.

It’s a slow process: 1 meter of peat takes 1,000 years to form, and some peatlands are over 10 meters deep.

The global distribution of peatlands. University of Leeds

Where are peatlands found?

Peatlands cover about 4.23 million square kilometers, or around 2.84 percent of our planet’s land area. Most of the world’s peatlands are located in boreal and temperate parts of the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in Europe, North America and Russia.

There are also large areas of peatlands in the humid tropics, including Southeast Asia, East Asia, the Caribbean, Central America, South America, Africa, parts of Australasia and some of the Pacific Islands.

Southeast Asia has the largest area of tropical peatland, with Indonesia home to about 23 percent of the world’s total tropical peatland area.

Riau Province, Indonesia
Peat swamp forests in Riau Province, Indonesia, enveloped in haze from fires in 2013. Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR-ICRAF, Flickr

How do peatlands affect climate change?

Peatlands are so good at stashing carbon that they contain a quarter of global soil carbon stock – twice that of the world’s forests.

Yet when they’re drained, degraded or burned, they oxidize and erode, and all that carbon rapidly returns to the atmosphere.

For instance, when Indonesia’s peatlands went ablaze in 2015, they emitted around 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere – roughly the same amount that Brazil produced that year.

Across large parts of the Arctic and Antarctic, a layer of peat lies on top of permafrost and keeps it from melting. But the poles are warming three to four times faster than the rest of the planet, putting those peatlands under threat.

Globally, emissions from drained and burned peatlands currently account for about 5 percent of all those caused by human activity.

So, we need to prioritize the restoration of the world’s peatlands to mitigate the climate crisis – and, even more importantly and cost-effectively, to prevent their degradation in the first place.

Alligator in Everglades
An alligator in the Everglades, Florida, U.S. Bruce Warrington, Unsplash

What are some other benefits of peatlands?

Alongside sequestering carbon, peatlands are home to a rich array of biodiversity. For example, red deer and mountain hares live in Scotland’s peatlands, while Borneo’s are home to endangered orangutans, proboscis monkeys and white-bearded gibbons.

They also help with climate adaptation by minimizing the risk of flooding, drought and wildfires, and they store and filter important sources of freshwater: most of Scotland’s drinking water, for instance, is filtered through peatlands.

Wet peatlands lower ambient temperatures and are less likely to burn during wildfires. They’re also used for a range of livelihood and cultural activities, supplying resources like food, fiber and other products.

Borneo peat fire
Burned peat in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, during the fires of 2015. Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR-ICRAF, Flickr

What are the main threats to peatlands?

Our planet’s precious peatlands are being lost three times faster than its forests.

The biggest threat to peatlands is drainage for other land uses. About 15 percent of the world’s peatlands have already been drained for land development and agriculture.

In some locations, peatlands are also ‘mined’ or ‘cut’ for fuel, which damages them and can cause them to dry out.

Another major threat is the practice of burning peatlands to encourage new growth for livestock, which is common in many parts of Southeast Asia.

These fires can easily get out of control, as peat fires smolder beneath the surface, making them very difficult to extinguish. They emit very thick smoke that can cause significant air pollution and human health impacts, too.

The Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia. Alex Glebov, Unsplash

How can we restore peatlands?

Restoring peatlands is worth our while: it’s estimated to prevent the release of 394 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year – that’s more than Australia’s annual emissions. But how should we do it?

First, we need to collaborate with local communities and businesses to find sustainable and economically viable ways to end degrading activities like agricultural conversation and drainage.

Then, we have to work together to ‘rewet’ degraded peatlands to restore the waterlogged conditions required for peat formation, and to reintroduce peat-forming plants.

Such processes can be costly, so it’s key to develop funding mechanisms that communities can access to carry out conservation and restoration activities that align with local development aspirations.

The Katingan Peatland Restoration and Conservation Project in Indonesia offers a great example. It’s protecting and restoring 149,800 hectares of peatland ecosystems, while providing sustainable sources of income for local communities and contributing to climate change mitigation.

GLF Peatlands 2017
The Director General of Agricultural Plantation at Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture speaks at GLF: Peatlands Matter in 2017. CIFOR-ICRAF, Flickr

What are world leaders doing to protect peatlands?

Policymakers are increasingly recognizing the role of peatlands in addressing the climate and biodiversity crises.

These landscapes have been addressed by a range of bodies, including the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The Ramsar Convention, for instance, currently calls for the protection of all remaining peatlands from drainage, and restoration of at least 50 percent of degraded peatlands by 2030, to align with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

At the national level, many countries are working out how to invest in peatland restoration, protection and sustainable management and integrate it into their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and long-term strategies under the Paris Agreement.

This requires upping existing research and honing estimates on exactly how much carbon each peatland contains. Platforms like the International Tropical Peatlands Centre (ITPC) are helping to connect science, policy and practice towards these goals.



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