“We would like all humanity to understand the importance of peatlands to climate change.”
Amy Ambatobe Nyongolo, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Democratic Republic of Congo, speaking at COP 23
Peatlands are among the world’s most underappreciated natural treasures.
Found on every continent, these waterlogged ecosystems are among the most important carbon reservoirs on the planet. While covering only three percent of the Earth's land mass, they contain as much carbon as all terrestrial biomass combined, twice as much as all global forest biomass, and about the same as in the atmosphere.
A new report called called Smoke on Water – Countering global threats from peatland loss and degradation was launched in Bonn at COP 23, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s annual negotiating session. Smoke on Water is the first joint report from the Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI), an international partnership formed in 2016 to preserve peatlands.
The report was launched by Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, H.E. Amy Ambatobe Nyongolo, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Democratic Republic of Congo, H.E. Arlette Soudan-Nonault, Minister of Tourism and Environment, Republic of Congo and H.E. Dr. Siti Nurbaya Bakar, Minister of Environment and Forestry, Indonesia.
Despite the fact that peatlands are often seen as mostly unproductive land, they offer incredible value beyond their carbon storage ability. They provide many ecosystem services such as flood control, water purification and habitats for unique and varied animals and plants.
Peatlands also support human livelihoods around the world. In Mongolia, nomadic peoples have driven their herds over peatland landscapes for centuries. In recently mapped peatlands in the Congo River Basin, forest dwelling people rely on an intact ecosystem for food and materials to sustain life.
Globally peatlands are facing numerous threats, with the main one being drainage. Drying out the surface of peatlands is a method often used to maximize agricultural use of the soil. In this state, peatlands release the carbon historically stored and leaves them vulnerable to fire.
Climate change is leading to increasing temperatures, longer and more intense dry seasons and changes in patterns of cloud cover, rainfall and fire frequency. All of this is likely to increase pressure on peatland ecosystems, especially on those that are already degraded.
Yet peatlands can play an important role in climate change mitigation by providing secure long-term storage of carbon and other greenhouse gases. However, to allow them to play this role requires putting an end to their drainage and restoring already degraded peatland areas.
Smoke on Water looks at the policy options that can be pursued now to preserve peatlands or restore them.
One example of restoration is a site visited last spring during a meeting of the Global Peatlands Initiative in Indonesia. An early morning flight took the group to Riau Province in the island of Sumatra. A two-hour bus ride brought the group to the edge of a small lake where the Indonesian government and regional authorities were working with local people to restore a degraded peatland landscape.
At the side of the lake, a Malay elder named Thrmrin the restoration wasn’t about political or scientific progress but about creating a better life for his community and lifting people out poverty. While Thrmrin came from a poor family, he learned enough English to work as a guide showing tourists the peatland and lake being restored by the community. Now his village has a school and people are happy to share their culture with visitors. Preserving peatlands means Thrmrin’s grandchildren can look ahead to a brighter future.