World Wetlands Day on 2 February is a chance to highlight the vital role of peatlands in mitigating climate change.
“Strategies that address climate change must include the wise use of wetlands,” says UN Environment peatlands expert Dianna Kopansky. “We’ve already lost 35 per cent of them since 1970. Individuals, communities and governments must work together to protect these amazing ecosystems, which help us prepare for, cope with and bounce back from the impacts of climate change.”
Peatlands cover only about three per cent of our planet’s land, but account for nearly half the world’s wetlands.
According to the Ramsar Convention of 1971, “wetlands are land areas that are saturated or flooded with water either permanently or seasonally. Inland wetlands include marshes, ponds, lakes, fens, rivers, floodplains, and swamps.”
Peatlands are a type of wetland that occurs in almost every country on the globe. They store vast amounts of carbon—twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. By conserving, protecting and restoring peatlands globally, we can reduce emissions and revive an essential ecosystem that provides many services, for people, the planet and the climate—including their vital role as a natural carbon sink. The theme for World Wetlands Day is “Wetlands and climate change”.
A lack of appreciation of this unique ecosystem and a lack of awareness of the benefits of peatlands mean that they have been severely overexploited and damaged by drainage, agricultural conversion, burning and mining for fuel. About 15 per cent of the world’s peatlands, covering less than 0.4 per cent of the global land surface, have been drained. This has released huge amounts of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, from the carbon stored within peat soils into the atmosphere.
When drained or burned for agriculture (as wetlands often are) they go from being a carbon sink to a carbon source, releasing into the atmosphere centuries of stored carbon. CO2emissions from drained and burned peatlands equate to 10 per cent of all annual fossil fuel emissions.
“These emissions can and should be avoided. We have the knowledge and innovations to do so. We are not powerless to prevent or mitigate climate change,” says Kopansky.
UN Environment action
UN Environment is the lead coordinator of the Global Peatlands Initiative which aims to bring countries and partners together to save peatlands as the world’s largest terrestrial organic carbon stock, and thus prevent releases of CO2 into the atmosphere.
UN Environment has recently helped promote South-South cooperation between tropical peatland countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, the Republic of Congo and Peru, on best practices in peatland management.
For the world to keep the global average temperature increase under 2°C, peatlands must gain our attention, locally and globally. Urgent action must be taken everywhere, especially in the tropics, to keep the carbon locked in peatlands where it is—wet, and in the ground. Kopansky will be highlighting this message in a World Wetlands Day speech at the University of Waterloo in Canada on 4 February.
She will also flag permafrost peatlands as an emerging issue of global concern: the fear is that a warming planet could melt the ice that protects peatlands in the globe’s frozen north, leading to the release of vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Germany, which has seen most of its peatlands drained or otherwise destroyed, recently announced its support for the Global Peatlands Initiative with just under two million euros of funding from the Federal Environment Ministry’s International Climate Initiative.
For further information, please contact Dianna Kopansky