03 Apr 2019 Story Ecosystems

World calls for urgent action on peatlands

Photo by CIFOR

The recent United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, has adopted its first ever resolution on peatlands, giving an impetus to conservation and restoration efforts.

It may not have been intentional but International Women’s Day on 8 March this year saw representatives of The European Union, Indonesia, Norway, the United States and UN Environment - by chance all women - hammer out an agreed draft text on a groundbreaking new resolution on peatlands.

Rural women across the world are often the unsung heroes of ecosystem conservation, so it is fitting that the peatlands resolution was largely crafted by women.

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Discussions on the draft peatlands resolution at the 4th United Nations Environment Assembly. Photo by Dianna Kopansky

Peatlands cover about 3 per cent of the Earth’s land area, store huge amounts of carbon, and provide habitats for diverse flora and fauna. The recent discovery of one of the biggest carbon sinks in the Congo Basin, the Cuvette Centrale, which straddles the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has dramatically altered the estimates of carbon reserves contained in peatlands. The Cuvette Centrale peatland is a biodiversity treasure trove, as the Minister of the Environment of the Republic of Congo, Arlette Soudan-Nonault, reminded us during the Fourth United Nations Environment Assembly.

While Indonesia has been in the spotlight for sharing its efforts to overcome repeated fires caused by peatland drainage, and for their large-scale restoration and conservation initiatives, tropical peatlands are not the only type of peatlands. In fact, these ecosystems are found in around 180 countries. UN Environment recently focused attention on the huge permafrost peatlands in the globe’s far north, and the importance of conserving them as a hedge against potentially calamitous climate change.

“Through the negotiations, Member States realized that if they wanted global action on peatlands, any resolution needed to cover all peatlands, not just tropical peatlands,” says UN Environment’s leading peatlands expert Dianna Kopansky. “Delegations from the European Union and the United States worked together with Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to come up with a commitment that promotes climate action, ecosystem restoration, resilience and drainage-free livelihoods.

For many countries faced with climate insecurity, peatland conservation is the ideal nature-based solution.”

The subsequently approved final resolution, which is not legally binding but which States have a moral obligation to adhere to, got strong support and received accolades from Member States for being in line with the Assembly’s theme #SolveDifferent. The resolution urges “Member States and other stakeholders to give greater emphasis to the conservation, sustainable management and restoration of peatlands worldwide”.

In the tropics, as Indonesia has learned, the secret to preventing peatland fires is keeping peatlands wet. Restoring drained and degraded peatlands often requires re-wetting and restoration of the peatlands hydrology.

The resolution requests UN Environment “to coordinate efforts to create a comprehensive and accurate global peatlands inventory”: without reliable data, policymakers don’t even know where these “carbon hotspots” are, and they cannot effect sustainable change.

It also encourages “Member States and other stakeholders to enhance regional and international collaboration for the conservation and the sustainable management of peatlands” and “Member States… and all other actors involved with peatland conservation, management and restoration… to foster the conservation and sustainable management of peatlands”.

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Photo by UN-REDD.

UN Environment, working with many partners, is beginning to change mindsets on peatlands.

“The adoption of the global resolution on the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Peatlands marks an important moment for the environment, for global biodiversity conservation, climate action and resilience,” says Tim Christophersen, head of UN Environment’s Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch, and Chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration. “And the timing is auspicious: the recently declared UN Decade on Ecosystems Restoration 2021-2030 should lend impetus to peatland conservation and restoration efforts.”

Kopansky adds: “We’ve come a long way since December 2016 when UN Environment was asked to coordinate efforts to protect, conserve and restore peatlands. Publications such as Smoke on Water, and the collaborative efforts of the Global Peatlands Initiative have been hugely influential in changing attitudes.”

For further information, please contact Dianna Kopansky: Dianna.Kopansky[at]un.org

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The UN Climate Action Summit will take place in New York City on 23 September 2019 to increase ambition and accelerate action on the global climate emergency and support the rapid implementation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The 2019 UN Climate Action Summit is hosted by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.