Photo credit: U.N. Environment program /Johannes Refisch.

Our precious peatlands – why do they matter?

We must conserve these valuable assets

By Dianna Kopansky

It may come as a surprise to many people that peatlands represent the world’s largest terrestrial organic carbon stock. Despite this startling fact, only recently have these ecosystems received attention about their critical role for climate action. So why are they so important?

On Nov. 15, 2017, U.N. Environment, in collaboration with over 20 partners, launched the Peatland Rapid Response Assessment report – Smoke on Water – Countering global threats from peatland loss and degradation at the U.N. Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks COP 23 in Bonn, Germany.

More than 180 countries have peatland areas, but we are only just beginning to understand their role in climate change and our efforts to curb it.

“When I came to Bali, Indonesia in 2007, there was hardly any talk of peatlands. Discussions revolved around forests,” said Erik Solheim executive director of U.N. Environment. He emphasized that despite their importance, peatlands ecosystems have been ignored for just over a decade in climate change discussions.

We have misused and taken these precious ecosystems for granted, often seeing them as unproductive or hostile lands that need to be drained for human use when desired.

As a result, peatlands continue to face imminent and existential threats from rapid agricultural expansion, human development and uncontrollable wild fires. All of which pose additional environmental and health challenges. While peatlands are under pressure from a range of human activities, drainage is the immediate and most wide-ranging global threat to the integrity of these ecosystems.

It is imperative to conserve these valuable assets to support climate action both at international, regional and national levels, if we are to remain within the 2-degree target agreed during the U.N. climate talks in 2015. Otherwise, the efforts demonstrated by the parties to the UNFCCC to reduce their share of carbon emissions in their national determined contributions and adaptation plans, would be in vain.

“It is absolutely essential that we conserve peatlands, because if we destroy them, whatever measures we take to curb emissions will be without meaning,” Solheim urged during the meeting’s proceedings.

Besides their carbon storage abilities, peatlands are home to unique and endangered biodiversity, they a play critical role in water regulation, and support a host of other ecosystem services. In the Congo Basin, they are the lifeline for communities and wildlife that depend on them for their livelihoods and survival.

The Cuvette Centrale peatland, housed in the Congo Basin, is estimated to be the largest peatland in the world. It interacts with a mosaic of rivers, forests, savannas, swamps and flooded forests is teeming with life. Endangered wildlife, including forest elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, and lowland and mountain gorillas inhabit the extensive tropical peatland.

The Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Peru are at the forefront of addressing the challenges of sustainably managing, protecting and restoring these fragile ecosystems. They have been inspired by each other, and have established institutional frameworks to coordinate the sustainable management of peatlands in their countries and across their boundaries.

The release of Smoke on Water – Countering global threats from peatland loss and degradation by the Global Peatlands Initiative is a first step by our partners to map out the threats and provide insights on potential options and solutions to countering peatland destruction.

The report is:

– an urgent call to decision-makers to acknowledge the importance of peatlands to protect this critical ecosystem and to prevent the carbon it stores from being released into the atmosphere for the climate, people and the planet

– a call to actors to identify where peatlands are and to halt actions that drive the degradation of peatlands

– a call to stakeholders to take note and inspiration from the solutions and innovations presented in the report

– a call to like-minded partners to join in the Global Peatlands Initiative and help chart a way forward for concerted climate action – for the climate, people and the planet

Further discussions and sharing of experiences and insights captured in the report will be held at a dedicated Discussion Forum during the Global Landscape Forum on Dec. 19, 2017.

Next year the partners will meet at the 3rd Global Peatland Initiative partners meeting to be held in the Republic of Congo, Brazzaville on the 21- 23rd March 2018.

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