30 Jan 2018 Story Ecosystems

Protecting peatlands, protecting the planet

While peatlands cover only 3 per cent of the global land surface, they store nearly 550 billion tons of carbon – twice as much as all the world’s forests.

Peatlands are one of the greatest allies and potentially one of the quickest wins in the fight against climate change. By conserving and restoring peatlands globally, we can reduce emissions and revive an essential ecosystem that provides many services, including their role as a natural carbon sink.

World Wetlands Day on 2 February aims to highlight the importance of wetland ecosystems to human well-being. Peatlands – particularly vital wetlands with potentially huge biodiversity, resilience and climate change impacts – are a case in point.

For the world to keep the global average temperature increase under two degrees Celsius then peatlands must gain our attention. Urgent action must be taken, especially in the tropics to keep the carbon locked in peatlands where it is – wet, and in the ground.

The largest transboundary Ramsar wetland site in the world is in the Congo basin. Made up of two Ramsar sites in the Republic of Congo, and one in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it covers 129,000 square kilometres – about the same size as Greece or Bangladesh.

Known as the Cuvette Centrale, it contains around 30 gigatons of carbon, which is as much as the United States economy emits in 15 years.

The Global Peatlands Initiative, led by UN Environment and a group of more than 20 partners, is working with partner countries (Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Peru) to enable, activate, amplify and accelerate the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of peatlands in the Congo basin and around the world.

“Peatlands store incredible amounts of carbon, which puts them at the top of the protection list,” says UN Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim.

The Third Partners Meeting of the Global Peatlands Initiative – to be opened by Solheim – will take place in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, on 21-23 March 2018.

“For the world to keep the global average temperature increase under two degrees Celsius then peatlands must gain our attention. Urgent action must be taken, especially in the tropics to keep the carbon locked in peatlands where it is – wet, and in the ground,” says UN Environment peatlands expert Dianna Kopansky.

Lac Tele
Lac Télé is a freshwater lake in Epena District, Republic of the Congo. The lake forms part of the world's largest transboundary wetland ecosystem. (Source: Johannes Refisch/UN Environment)

The world's peatlands are under increased threat from drainage for agriculture, forestry, resource extraction and infrastructure development.

Current greenhouse gas emissions from drained or burning peatlands are estimated to amount to up to 5 per cent of all emissions caused by human activity.

The 2015 peatland fires in Indonesia – which caused huge damage to health, livelihoods and the environment – has helped raised awareness of the importance of this critical ecosystem.

A recent assessment, carried out on behalf of UN Environment and based on the efforts of more than 30 contributors, titled Smoke on Water – Countering global threats from peatland loss and degradation, concluded that:

  • Immediate action is required to prevent further peatland degradation and the serious environmental, economic and social repercussions it entails. 
  • A landscape approach is vital and good practices in peatland management and restoration must be shared and implemented across all peatland landscapes to save these threatened ecosystems and their services to people.
  • Local communities should receive support to sustainably manage their peatlands by preserving traditional non-destructive uses and introducing innovative management alternatives.
  • A comprehensive mapping of peatlands worldwide is essential to better understanding their extent and status, and to enable us to safeguard them. 

The assessment is a key milestone for the Global Peatlands Initiative and is based on existing data and information.

Further resources:

Smoke on Water – Countering global threats from peatland loss & degradation (revised Dec 2017)

Managing peatlands and keeping carbon dioxide under control

The Ramsar Convention holds its 13th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties on 21-29 October 2018.

For further information: Dianna.Kopansky@un.org