It’s easy to dismiss the earth beneath our feet, but the soil we walk on may have potential for storing significant amounts of carbon. For example, in the UK, the peatlands have been referred to as the ‘UK’s rainforests’ as they act as an important carbon store. Peat is found in almost every country on Earth, from treeless vegetation in the UK to swamp forests in Southeast Asia. Some peatlands are still being discovered, such as the world’s largest tropical peatland beneath the forests of the Congo Basin.
Peatlands are a type of wetland that cover 3% of the global land surface. The term ‘peatland’ refers to the peat soil and the wetland habitat growing on its surface. In peatlands, water-logged conditions slow the process of plant decomposition throughout the year resulting in dead plant matter accumulating to form peat. As this builds up over millennia the peat becomes several metres thick and large amounts of carbon, fixed from the atmosphere into plant tissues through photosynthesis, is locked away in the peat soils; turning into a large carbon ‘sink’.
Why are peatlands important?
If preserved properly peatlands can lock up vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, representing a valuable global carbon store. They are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store, storing more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined. The remaining area of near natural peatland contains more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon and represents 42% of all soil carbon. Peatlands are among the most valuable ecosystem on Earth as they provide a vast array of ecosystem services; they preserve biodiversity, provide safe drinking water, minimise flood risk and help address the challenge of climate change.
What is the issue?
Due to a lack of awareness of the benefits of peatlands, they are being severely overexploited and damaged. This is largely caused by, inter alia, drainage, agricultural conversion, burning and mining for fuel. To date, approximately 15% of the world’s peatlands have been drained, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Research has revealed that if peatland draining continues to occur at the rate it currently is, efforts to reduce carbon by other means, such as tree planting, will be severely undermined.
What can be done?
Peatlands must be sustainably managed and restored urgently to protect them from degrading activities such as agricultural conversion and drainage. The UN FAO has published 10 strategic actions that can ensure peatlands contribute their full potential to global agreements, such as the Paris Agreement and UN SDGs. These include:
- assessing the distribution and state of peatlands
- measuring and reporting emissions from peatlands
- protecting and restoring peatlands with targeted financial support
- stimulating market-based mechanisms to support peatlands
- engaging and supporting local communities
- sharing experience and expertise on peatland conservation, restoration and improved management
As emissions from damaged peatlands and carbon saving from peatland restoration are eligible for national accounting under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, there is an opportunity for more countries to include peatland restoration in their national climate action plans.