Wet, wet, wet – Forests are not the only habitat whose conservation matters to the climate

Wet, wet, wet – Forests are not the only habitat whose conservation matters to the climate

16 Dezember 2010

published by www.economist.com

Russia — RUSSIA does not normally spring to mind as being in the forefront of the fight against climate change. The citizens of Moscow, however, need no explanation of one aspect of the problem—the importance of wetlands. Earlier this year they had an abrupt and lethal lesson on the dangers of peat-bog fires. An unusually hot summer set such fires across the country and the peatlands around Moscow generated a smog that blanketed the city with carbon monoxide and soot. By August 9th the daily death rate had climbed to 700, twice the normal level for that time of the year.

Whether peat-bog fires are being encouraged by climate change is debatable. But it is clear that they release prodigious quantities of climate-changing carbon dioxide when they happen. And even in the absence of fire, draining peatlands—for example, for agriculture—liberates a lot of carbon dioxide. In Russia such drainage is reckoned to free 160m tonnes of the gas every year. In Indonesia the figure is 508m tonnes. All told, the global total is about 1.3 billion tonnes—6% of man-made carbon-dioxide emissions even without the effect of fire. That is far more than the contribution made by aviation, for example.

This is both a problem and an opportunity, as climate negotiators now realise. The solution to those fires (and, indeed, to all peat-related carbon-dioxide emissions) is simple and relatively cheap: stop draining wetlands and allow water to accumulate in them again. On December 11th climate negotiators at the United Nations’ meeting in Cancún, Mexico, agreed that peatland “rewetting”, as it is rather inelegantly known, could be a way for some countries to offset emissions of carbon dioxide from other sources, under the Kyoto protocol or any agreement that follows it.

Guidelines for doing so will now be developed. But for these to have any practical effect, a final agreement will be needed over how more general changes in land use will be treated within any new climate deal. The next global climate gathering, in South Africa in December 2011, will attempt to arrive at one.

As Susanna Tol of Wetlands International, an environmental lobby group, observes, only a portion of the world’s wetlands will eventually be rewetted. Exactly which bits are restored to pristine sogginess will depend on local questions, such as the availability of land, the alternative uses for drained peatland and the price of carbon-dioxide offsets.

In poor and boggy Belarus, for example, Ms Tol says it costs a mere €10 ($13) to avoid a tonne of carbon-dioxide emission in this way. Even in richer places the cost can be offset in part if the soggy ground can be put to lucrative use. That may sound unlikely, but wet peatland agriculture, known as paludiculture, can produce profitable crops such as reed, alder and moss.

Add in other reasons to protect wetlands—from their pragmatic role providing clean water and flood protection to the sentimental one of providing homes for wildlife—and the case for rewetting is strengthened. Whether it is strong enough to overcome the age-old human instinct that swamps are there to be drained remains to be seen.

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