by Hannah Stelben
Making up only 3% of Earth’s terrestrial surface, peatlands are an often forgotten wetland ecosystem. Yet their primary feature, producing more organic matter than can be decomposed, makes them an essential player in the climate crisis as vast carbon reservoirs.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 42% of all soil carbon is stored in peatlands, and they are estimated to store more carbon than all of the world’s forests.
However, when peatlands are damaged, they begin to release all of the carbon they once absorbed. 5.6% of all CO2 emissions globally come from peatlands, and specifically in Ireland, peatlands release an estimated equivalent amount of CO2 each year as their transportation sector.
The main cause of peatland degradation is changing their hydraulic conditions. Once the water table reaches a certain low level, “microorganisms… begin decomposing thousands of years of preserved plant matter, which results in a massive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” This most often occurs when peatlands are converted into agricultural lands or mined for fuel or horticulture.
The problem is complex, however, because extracting peat has been a longstanding tradition in countries like Ireland, where rural communities can be self-sufficient by heating their homes from peat that is extracted, pressurized, and formed into bricks.
Still, it has become increasingly clear to scientists, the public, and even business leaders that continuing to extract peat is unsustainable.
In Ireland, energy producer, Bord na Móna, is converting a portion of their business from peat extraction for fuel to peatland rehabilitation. They plan to initially restore 80 of their bogs, which make up 33,000 hectares of peatlands, with an end goal of gaining 100 million metric tonnes of carbon storage from these rehabilitated peatlands.
While these advances are promising, there is still a need for grassroots efforts that focus specifically on protecting and restoring peatlands.
One example is the non-profit, the Lokolama Peatland Protection Initiative (LPPI). Based in the U.S. and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), their primary focus is protecting peatlands as well as the land rights of indigenous and local communities in Lokolama.
Their more specific objectives are: “To make sure that [the] government honors the moratorium on logging in the rain forests of the DRC. / To reverse the logging and farming concessions that have been illegally issued during the moratorium period. / To fast track and fund the issuing of land rights to local communities and indigenous people in the peatlands.” And, to achieve their goals, LPPI proposes methods such as lobbying, fundraising, and collaborating with conservation and human rights groups to maximize their impact.
Both top-down and bottom-up initiatives like these are essential in the fight to protect this enormous carbon sink and the ecosystems it makes up. With the threat of climate change already imminent, protecting and reviving existing carbon dioxide sinks, like peatlands, is a key component of climate regulation that must not be forgotten.
Hannah Stelben, Editorial Support Intern