By Tim Christophersen, UNEP
An often neglected ecosystem, and significant contributor to climate change, is peat. When it burns or dries up huge amounts of CO2 are released.
The UK Met Office says carbon dioxide levels have seen a surge in recent months as a result of the El Niño climate phenomenon, which has warmed and dried the tropics. These conditions not only limit the ability of forests to draw CO2 from the atmosphere but also trigger huge fires around the globe that inject extra carbon into the air.
Forest fires on peatlands are particularly worrying: The 2015 forest fires in Indonesia are estimated to have generated more CO2 on some days than average daily emissions for the whole of the USA. They also caused an estimated $16.1 billion in overall economic damage (twice the value of the Aceh Tsunami Reconstruction), affected 43 million people, hospitalized 550,000 and killed 24 people.
Peatlands cover 3-5 per cent of the Earth’s surface but store over 30 per cent of all soil carbon.
The area of peatland currently classified as drained and degrading covers less than 0.4 per cent of the global land surface but is responsible for 5 per cent of global anthropogenic emissions.
Peatlands are therefore disproportionately important to the climate system.
The destruction or degradation of forest cover on peatlands delivers a double blow for carbon emissions, with losses from both standing biomass and from the drying and degradation of peat soils.
UNEP, in collaboration with partners, is responding to this crisis through the Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI) which aims to:
- Provide an updated overall assessment of the status of peatlands and their importance for the achievement of the Paris Agreement on climate change;
- Mobilize countries and partners, including the private sector, to respond to the urgent need to improve awareness of the value of peatlands and the threats they face;
- Work in three pilot countries (Indonesia, Peru and the Republic of Congo) to build the knowledge base and develop options for sustainable peatland management.
“A lot of people are working on peat in their own way, but we want to bring together partners in the GPI so that they can agree on the very best ways to maximize peat’s contribution to implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change,” says UNEP peat expert Jaime Webbe.
Active partners in GPI include the European Space Agency, GRID-Arendal, Wetlands International, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the World Resources Institute, and the governments of the three pilot countries. In addition, GPI has a number of advisory and technical partners as well as partners in the three pilot countries.
The project will focus on tropical peat, and work towards developing and piloting key policy recommendations and approaches to more effectively address the drivers of peat loss and degradation.
Awareness-raising among key policy- and decision-makers, and South-South cooperation, including within the private sector, will be critical elements in order to ensure that the lessons learned from peatland management in Southeast Asia can be transferred to Central Africa and Latin America where peatlands are facing increasing development pressure. This exchange of information will target sustainable peat strategies in the 25 countries responsible for 95 per cent of peat emissions.
UNEP will be responsible for overall project coordination; input on sustainable peatland management, peatland restoration, engagement of the private sector, and identification of innovative financing mechanisms (through UNEP Finance Initiative).
Later in 2016, UNEP will produce its annual Emissions Gap Report which will explore options and opportunities to address climate change through reducing emissions and increasing carbon stocks. This year’s report will also focus on peat.
REDD+ and forested peatlands
The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD) was launched in 2008 and builds on the convening role and technical expertise of FAO, the United Nations Development Programme, and UNEP.
The UN-REDD Programme and its 64 partner countries look to forests for climate change solutions. But the peat lying below the forests is not being forgotten.
The UN-REDD Programme is already supporting actions targeting peat, including through an assessment of fiscal incentives for Indonesian palm oil production and the mapping of carbon stocks and great ape habitat in key forested peat areas; and key commodity producers operating on or near peatlands are being engaged in REDD+ planning and decision-making through stakeholder engagement.
Other global partnerships working on peat include the International Peatland Society, which is organizing an International Peat Congress from 15-19 August 2016 in Kuching, Malaysia, and the International Mire Conservation Group, http://www.imcg.net.
Over the past 360 million years peat has been forming all over the world. Wet conditions have slowed the decay rates for vegetation and other organic matter creating one of the world’s most effective carbon stores.
Peatlands provide a number of ecosystem services including water cycling, and mitigation of droughts and floods. They provide a source of food, and are important for local livelihoods, providing timber and non-timber forest products and other goods and services including energy.
Despite their importance, peatlands around the world are subject to degradation. In boreal areas, permafrost is thawing causing peat to dry out. In tropical areas, peatlands and are being deforested and drained at an unprecedented rate, largely for agriculture, especially oil palm and pulp wood plantations.
Policymakers trying to implement the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement will need to look hard at how peatlands are managed in order to curb emissions. While the launch of the peatland hotspots map at the Paris climate talks in 2015 marked the start of work to develop an online Global Peatland Atlas, better mapping is needed before restoration and conservation can begin in some areas, and new partners will need to be mobilized and engaged to make progress towards sustainable peatland management.
GPI hopes to bring partners together and spur action on peat by governments and the United Nations.
Carbon emissions aren’t the only consequence of losing peat forests. In the peatlands of Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia, deforestation and drainage increases local flooding and leads to higher flood peaks and lower baseflow. Furthermore, peatlands tend to have very high biodiversity value hosting endangered species such as orangutans and the Sumatran Tiger.
Drained and drying peatlands are exposed to subsidence, which in the case of coastal peatlands can lead to saltwater intrusion leading to the permanent loss of agricultural production. For example, subsidence may cause almost the entire area of coastal peatland in Southeast Asia (250,000 km2) to be lowered to near sea level and become susceptible to frequent or permanent flooding.