The significance of peatlands in achieving international climate goals was highlighted at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) summit in Bonn, Germany, early in December 2018. Although they cover just three per cent of the Earth’s land mass, peatlands store 30 per cent of global soil carbon – twice as much as all global forest biomass does, and roughly equalling the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Ecosystem services that they provide include water purification, flood control and habitats for a wide range of animals and plants. Peat has also been used as fuel for thousands of years.
The chief threat facing peatlands is drainage for agricultural land. Once they are drained, oxygen enters the peat, and it begins to rot, emitting huge amounts of carbon and nitro-gen. Drained peatlands are also highly prone to fire. Today, damaged peatland accounts for almost six per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Half of the world’s peatland emissions come from Southeast Asia.
In 2015, Indonesia experienced a spate of peatland fires emitting greenhouse gas vol-umes equalling those of Japan in an entire year. Some estimates put the number of deaths through respiratory diseases caused by particulate matter pollution at around 100,000. Peatland fires have been burning in Indonesia since the early 1980s, when the country started draining measures to create agricultural land.
“At the time, no-one realised the importance of these landscapes in terms of carbon stor-age and other ecosystem services they provided,” GLF President Robert Nasi said in Bonn. “A potential fire in waiting was created.” Nasi recalled that he had been walking in forests in Kalimantan/Indonesia in 1996 where underground peat fires were still burning that had started in 1982. He stressed, however, that the fires had above all been raging in already degraded land. Nasi noted that restoring peatlands was an expensive venture and required more international support.
“On most days, the daily emissions from the Indonesian fires in 2015 exceeded the total emissions of the USA on a day-by-day basis,” Satya S. Tripathi, Assistant Secretary Gen-eral of UN Environment, recalled in Bonn. “That tells you the gravity of the challenge and the situation we are facing.”
Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, added that the 2.6 million hectares that had burned included some 800,000 hectares of peatland. Respond-ing to the fires, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo had promised at the Paris climate summit in 2015 that radical steps would be taken to tackle the problem of peatland degra-dation. “The main principle of the measures taken since is to keep the peatlands wet,” Siti Nurbaya Bakar explained. “Companies obtaining concessions for agricultural and forest-ry activities are obliged to control the hydrology.”
The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands provides a framework for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and their resources. Signed in Ramsar/Iran in 1971, it came into force in 1975 and is supported by almost 90 per cent of the UN member states. Fran-cisco Rilla, Director of Science and Policy at the Convention Secretariat, noted that peat-lands had played a role in the Ramsar context right from the start. Rilla stressed the im-portance of maintaining the coherence of the ecosystems that the peatlands formed. Draining them also led to the loss of fertile soils.
Hans Joosten, who heads the Department of Peatland Studies and Palaeoecology at Greifswald University/Germany, pointed to the risk of land subsidence through draining of peatlands. Areas existed in his native Netherlands that had sunken by up to eight me-tres through draining of wetlands. In turn, subsidence could create the danger of land being flooded with seawater and subsequent salinification of soil.
“Rewetting could solve most of the problems peatlands are facing,” Joosten said in Bonn. “But intensive agriculture remains the chief threat.” Paludiculture – the sustainable man-agement of peatlands through wet agriculture – was a viable alternative. Joosten praised Indonesia for its leading the way in safeguarding peatlands by committing large areas to restoration. He also stressed the importance of the International Tropical Peatland Center in Bogor/Indonesia and the Paludiculture Platform launched there. “The peatlands must be kept wet – for the climate, for the people, and forever,” Joosten noted. And referring to the 2015 Climate Change Agreement, he added: “There will be no Paris without peat-lands.”
Mike Gardner, journalist, Bonn/Germany