The Viru Bog, Lahemaa Nature Reserve, Estonia. Jaanus Jagomägi, Unsplash

5 things you should know about peatlands

What we learned at GLF Peatlands 2024

GLF Peatlands 2024: The Climate Solution We Forgot is available to stream on demand until 30 June.

Are peatlands the world’s most forgotten climate solution?

Yesterday, 1,200 people gathered in Bonn, Germany, and online from 118 countries to answer that crucial question – and give these crucial ecosystems the attention they deserve.

But what exactly are peatlands, and what can they do for us? Here are five things we learned from GLF Peatlands 2024: The Climate Solution We Forgot, showing why it’s so vital that we protect and restore them before it’s too late.

What excites you the most about peatlands?
Photo: Jörn Wolter

Peatlands are our forgotten climate heroes – but they could turn into climate villains

Peatlands are one of our best allies against the climate crisis: despite making up less than 3 percent of the Earth’s land surface area, they store more than twice as much carbon as the world’s forests.

“Peatlands are a source of life for plants, animals and people,” said Éliane Ubalijoro, CEO of CIFOR-ICRAF, at the event’s opening plenary. “They give us food and clean water and are a source of our livelihoods.”

“They’re also home to many of the world’s threatened species, such as orangutans, rhinoceroses and tigers. They play an important cultural and economic role for our well-being and the Indigenous communities who live in them and from them.”

But peatlands are also under threat as we drain, clear and burn them to make room for agriculture and other land uses. When that happens, they release their stored carbon into the atmosphere – thus further contributing to the climate crisis.

“Around 12 percent of the world’s peatlands are already degraded, primarily due to intensive agriculture activities,” said Patrick Schell, a research specialist at the UN Environment Programme, presenting the findings of the Global Peatlands Assessment (GPA).

“Sadly, we can see that in Europe, approximately 50 percent of peatlands have been drained. [Globally], only 19 percent of peatlands are located within protected areas.”

Fenor Bog
The Fenor Bog, County Waterford, Ireland. Brendan Tobin, Wikimedia Commons

Each year, degraded peatlands contribute to around 4 percent of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions, according to the GPA.

But the world doesn’t seem to have grasped the urgency of protecting them.

“Peatlands have often been seen as an exploitable resource without considering the full range of implications of this exploitation,” said Musonda Mumba, secretary general of the Convention on Wetlands.

“Many countries have yet to develop national peatland policies or plans. Typical challenges include incomplete information on the location, extent and condition of peatlands, coupled with a lack of awareness, policies and resources.”

Kristell Hergoualc’h
Kristell Hergoualc’h, senior scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF, speaking at GLF Peatlands 2024. Jörn Wolter

There’s still a lot that we don’t know about peatlands

Despite the groundbreaking work carried out by the 226 authors of the GPA, there are still numerous research gaps that need to be addressed to help us protect peatlands, especially in the Global South.

“Peatlands have long only been mapped marginally – regarded as wastelands – and much more energy has been put into their drainage to make them useful for human purposes,” said Alexandra Barthelmes, a senior scientist at the Greifswald Mire Center and coordinator of the Global Peatland Database (GPD).

“But for a long time, nobody aimed to understand their extent, functioning in the landscape, the ecosystem services they provide and how best to restore them. Such data and knowledge is crucial to take informed decisions on land use change and human interventions on peatlands.”

In Latin America and the Caribbean, for instance, there is a lack of reliable soil data and mapping, making it difficult to estimate the extent of peatlands, said Kristell Hergoualc’h, a senior scientist in ecosystem functions at CIFOR-ICRAF.

“There are also critical knowledge gaps regarding ecosystem services, with limited knowledge on carbon stocks, greenhouse gas emissions and uptakes, biodiversity and water flows,” Hergoualc’h added.

“Given this shortage of knowledge, the inclusion of peatlands in conservation, land use and climate policy remains very limited in the region.”

GLF Peatlands participants
Participants at GLF Peatlands 2024. Jörn Wolter

We need all hands on deck

Fortunately, our knowledge of peatlands is constantly improving thanks to global mapping efforts like the GPA and GPD.

But science on its own won’t be enough to save these landscapes from destruction. Instead, we need to work together across sectors and actors to form a united front for sustainable peatlands.

“The first thing we need is partnership to mobilize adequate resources for not just to protect peatlands, but to look after the communities depend on them so that they do not degrade them,” said Alfred Okot Okidi, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Water and Environment of Uganda.

“We need to make sure that the issue of peatlands is acknowledged and appreciated at the international level.”

Alfred Okot Okidi
Alfred Okot Okidi, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Water and Environment of Uganda, speaks at GLF Peatlands 2024. Photo: Jörn Wolter

Crucially, these partnerships must be directed from the bottom up, with local people playing an active role in conserving and restoring the landscapes they live on – albeit guided by the latest tools and data.

“Indigenous traditional land management practices and techniques should be recognized and acknowledged legally,” said Emmanuela Shinta, director of the Ranu Welum Foundation and coordinator of the GLFx Kalimantan chapter in Borneo.

“We should promote and implement mutual and equal partnerships and collaborations at both national and international levels, where Indigenous communities are not just merely considered beneficiaries but the main actors. This can lead us to a more comprehensive understanding and innovative solutions for peatland conservation on a global scale.”

Following devastating peat fires in 2015, the Indonesian government has been working to restore peatlands by partnering with both researchers and local communities.

For example, the Peat-IMPACTS Indonesia project, implemented by CIFOR-ICRAF, works with communities across Borneo and Sumatra to co-develop and co-design policies, interventions and business models for peatlands, while also training young people in restoration techniques.

GLF Peatlands participants
Participants at GLF Peatlands 2024. Jörn Wolter

We can’t afford not to restore peatlands

Peatlands are being lost three times faster than forests – and it’s clear that the clock is ticking to keep their vast carbon stocks locked in. But the world is still not investing enough in restoring nature, nor are we ensuring that these investments are being made in the right places.

“The big gap is financing,” said Sonya Dewi, CIFOR-ICRAF’s director for Asia. “Innovative financing would be a huge benefit to enable restoration and management for the benefit of the climate and local communities.”

While climate finance is a rapidly growing field, the vast majority of funding is being allocated to mitigation rather than adaptation and nature-based solutions, said Vera Songwe, chair and founder of the Liquidity and Sustainability Facility (LSF).

“We know that 69 percent of species are at risk of extinction. We can develop asset classes around that. How can we get the private sector, the banking sector and multilateral development banks to come together and raise financing for it today?” Songwe posed.

Financing also poses an obstacle to peatland restoration in the Global North, but for a different reason: World Trade Organization rules mean landowners cannot be incentivized to restore their land through subsidies.

“[There isn’t] a big enough incentive for landowners, who perceive significant risks not only with restoration, but especially when it comes to integrating carbon markets,” said Mark Reed, co-director of the Thriving Natural Capital Challenge Centre at Scotland’s Rural College.

As such, Scotland is developing blended finance models to help de-risk carbon markets, combined with tax incentives and U.K.-wide sustainability standards to prevent greenwashing.

Doune Hill
A peat bog below the top of Doune Hill, Luss Hills, Scotland. Michal Klajban, Wikimedia Commons

We need a just transition for peatlands

We know that peatlands are all too often drained by local people to make room for agriculture. So, how can we make sure that farming communities can still make ends meet without having to tear down this invaluable ecosystem?

“We always talk about the developing world and Africa in particular not having contributed a lot to carbon emissions,” said Songwe.

“I say: no, we have contributed a lot, because if we did not have peatlands, we would already be at 1.5 degrees [of warming] today, and we should be compensated for that in the right way.”

This means putting an appropriate price on carbon stored in peatlands so that communities in the Global South are incentivized to keep their carbon stocks intact, Songwe argued.

“If you’re replacing coal with wind solar panels, you’re getting USD 200 per ton. But if you’re protecting peatlands, you’re getting USD 5 – because we don’t know how to value and quantify it. It’s not yet a financial asset.”

At the end of the day, the onus shouldn’t be on the Global South to reduce emissions from land use when those from fossil fuels aren’t being properly addressed, said Daniel Murdiyarso, a principal scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF.

“Fossil fuel burning is the elephant in the room,” Murdiyarso said. “The Paris Agreement mentions greenhouse gases 15 times and forests six times, but energy and fossil fuels? Zero.”

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