Peatlands are wetland ecosystems that accumulate plant material under saturated conditions to form layers of peat soil up to 20m thick – storing on average 10 times more carbon per hectare than other ecosystems. Peatlands occur in 180 countries and cover 400 million hectares or 3% of the world’s surface.
Clearing, draining and setting fire to peatlands emits more than 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year – equivalent to 10% of global emissions from fossil fuels, according to the Assessment on Peatlands, Biodiversity and Climate Change, the first comprehensive global assessment of the link between peatland degradation and climate change.
“Just like a global phase-out of old, energy-guzzling light bulbs or a switch to hybrid cars, protecting and restoring peatlands is perhaps another key ‘low hanging fruit’ and among the most cost-effective options for climate change mitigation”, said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Mr. Steiner said: “The new Assessment, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), shows that peatlands are a critical part of the global climate regulation system, storing twice as much carbon as the biomass of the world’s forests – a fact that has escaped the attention of many of the world’s negotiators.”
“Peatlands worldwide”, he added, “are under severe threat from human activities and climate change, especially permafrost, mountain and coastal peatlands.”
Key Findings from the Assessment on Peatlands, Biodiversity and Climate Change
Some of the major overall findings of the Assessment are:
* Peatlands are the most efficient terrestrial ecosystems in storing carbon. While covering only 3% of the world’s land area, their peat contains as much carbon as all terrestrial biomass, twice as much as all global forest biomass, and about the same as in the atmosphere.
* Peatlands are the most important long-term carbon store in the terrestrial biosphere. They sequester and store atmospheric carbon for thousands of years.
* Peatlands are critical for biodiversity conservation. They support many specialized species and unique ecosystem types, and can provide a refuge for species that are expelled from non-peatland areas affected by degradation and climate change.
* Peatlands play a key role in water resource management, storing a significant proportion of global freshwater resources. Peatland degradation can disrupt water supplies and decrease flood control benefits.
* Degradation of peatlands is a major and growing source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions from peatland drainage, fires and exploitation are estimated to currently be equivalent to at least 3,000 million tonnes per annum or equivalent to more than 10% of the global fossil fuel emissions.
* Peatland degradation affects millions of people around the world. Drainage and fires in South-East Asian peat swamp forests jeopardize the health and livelihoods of millions of people in several countries in the region. The destruction of mountain peatlands in Africa, Asia and Latin America threatens the water and food supply for large rural and urban populations.
* Climate change impacts are already visible through the melting of permafrost peatlands and desertification of steppe peatlands. In the future, impacts of climate change on peatlands are predicted to significantly increase. Coastal, tropical and mountain peatlands are all expected to be particularly vulnerable.
* Conservation, restoration and wise use of peatlands are essential and very cost-effective measures for long-term climate change mitigation and adaptation as well as biodiversity conservation.
* Optimizing water management in peatlands (i.e. reducing drainage) is the single highest priority to combat CO2 emissions from oxidation and fires as well as address peatland degradation and biodiversity conservation.
* There is in most countries an urgent need to strengthen awareness, understanding and capacity to manage peatlands– to address peatland degradation, biodiversity conservation and climate change.
UNEP and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) together with the GEF, the Global Environment Centre (GEC) and Wetlands International today called for the international community to take urgent action on to protect and restore peatlands through integration into climate adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Continued burning, degradation, drainage and exploitation of peatlands all over the globe, particularly in South-East Asia due to forest fires, constitute a “time bomb” of massive amounts of below-ground stored carbon ready to be released in the atmosphere – which can undo much of the mitigation efforts already underway. The Assessment identifies several other major areas in Northern Europe and Russia and North America with serious peatland degradation.
“The Assessment, compiled by an multidisciplinary expert team, represents for the first time key information on the relationship between peatlands, biodiversity and climate change that has been analysed on a global level”, according to Faizal Parish, Director of the Malaysia-based Global Environment Centre which coordinated the Assessment’s preparation, together with Wetlands International.
Marcel Silvius of Wetlands International, which has been undertaking pilot projects for peatland restoration in China and Indonesia linked to the Assessment, said: “Fortunately, despite the high emissions from degraded peatlands, it is possible to drastically reduce emissions through very cost-effective water management, restoration and fire prevention measures.”
“An expert meeting organized by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the CBD earlier this year concluded that investments in conservation and restoration of peatlands can be up to 100 times more cost effective as other carbon sequestration measures”, said Ahmed Djoghlaf, CBD’s Executive Secretary. “In addition to their climate functions, peatlands are also critical for biodiversity conservation with key species such as Orang-utan and crane species being found mainly in peatland areas.”
He further added that peatlands also provide major ecosystem services and that in July of this year the CBD Parties welcomed the Assessment and have requested rapid follow-up in partnership with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other organizations.
He concluded: “We now need to raise the profile of these ecosystems in the debate on linkages between wetlands, biodiversity and climate change as the conclusions of the Assessment demonstrate one of the clearest opportunities for win-win outcomes” and that “the most important need is for this progress to be reflected in real changes to the policies, management and use of peatlands on the ground.”
In South-East Asia, Governments have taken action by endorsing the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy 2006-2020 (APMS), which outlines 25 objectives in 13 focal areas to prevent peatland degradation and fires in the region.
According to Mr. Parish: “Peatland fires in South-East Asia have burnt 3 million hectares of peatland in the last 10 years, generating average emissions of 1.4 billion tonnes per year and regularly blanketing the region in smoke with major impacts on the health and livelihood of millions of people. Addressing these problems will solve key local issues as well as addressing global concerns. Similarly, the destruction of mountain peatlands in Africa, Asia and Latin America threatens the water and food supply for large rural and urban populations.”
“Permafrost and steppe peatlands are already being impacted by climate change”, added Mr. Steiner. “Melting permafrost may increase methane emissions in some areas and enhance fires in others. Increasing temperatures and declining rainfall will reduce the area of peatland and enhance emissions. With proper management peatlands can be more resilient to climate change – but this needs to be adequately incorporated into climate adaptation strategies”, he said.
Mr. Silvius cautions: “We need to avoid ill-advised climate mitigation measures on peatlands. Cultivation of biofuel crops such as soy, oil palm or sugar cane on peatlands generates much more CO2 emissions than saved through fossil fuel substitution. Construction of windfarms and hydropower reservoirs on peatlands also generates significant emissions and large-scale development of biofuel feedstocks on peatlands is stimulating massive increases in emissions.”
Visit the Global Environment Centre website at www.GECnet.info
For more information, please contact (in Bali):
Jim Sniffen, Information Officer
UN Environment Programme
Marie Aminata Khan
Global Environment Centre:
Peat Portal: A Global Portal for information dissemination and exchange among researchers, scientists as well as amongst environment related experts or stakeholders. Resources available on www.gecnet.info:
Peat-Portal.org is managed by the Peat-Portal Secretariat, located at the Global Environment Centre (GEC). The GEC supports information exchange and capacity building as well as undertaking strategic projects particularly in developing countries. It works in partnership with other like-minded agencies worldwide.
22 February 2008
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