Smoke on water – countering global threats from peatland loss and degradation

Smoke on water – countering global threats from peatland loss and degradation

 15 November 2017

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GLOBAL: Bonn, 15 November 2017 – At the side event Good Peatland Governance to Strengthen Economic, Social and Ecosystem Resilience at the UNFCCC COP23 in Bonn, Germany, the Global Peatlands Initiative under the leadership of UN Environment will release today its rapid response assessment Smoke on Water – countering global threats from peatland loss and degradation. Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, H.E. Amy Ambatobe Nyongolo, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Democratic Republic of Congo, H.E. Arlette Soudan-Nonault, Minister of Tourism and Environment, Republic of Congo and H.E. Dr. Siti Nurbaya Bakar, Minister of Environment and Forestry, Indonesia will attend the launch. The report aims to close the knowledge gap and enable action on protecting one of the most crucial and the probably least appreciated ecosystems: peatlands.

Peatlands, which can be found in more than 180 countries, are, in addition to supporting a wide range of biodiversity as well as the livelihoods of millions of people, a giant carbon store. But when drained or burning, peatlands release greenhouse gas emissions that account for five percent of the global carbon budget.

“Last year, scientists discovered the world’s biggest tropical peatland in the Congo Basin is estimated to contain over 30 gigatons of carbon, about the same as what the United States emits in 15 years,” said Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment.

“The amount of carbon held in a single hectare of wet peatland is equivalent to the annual emissions of 1,400 passenger cars. So it’s absolutely crucial that these areas are protected and we keep that carbon locked up safely in the ground.”

Across the globe, in both the tropics and the temperate north, peatlands are under threat from drainage and burning for agricultural, forestry and other development uses. Fifteen percent of known reserves are already either destroyed or degraded. In this state, peatlands release the carbon locked within the layers of decomposed organic matter.

While historically, Europe has seen the greatest drainage, half the world’s peatland emissions come now from Southeast Asia where high rates of clearing and drainage for agricultural expansion speed up decomposition of the dry peat. When used for traditional agriculture the originally organically rich and highly productive peat soil exhausts quickly due to its low level of nutrients. Drying out the surface of peatlands to maximize their agricultural use leaves them vulnerable to fire, which significantly increases greenhouse gas emissions. Peat fires can burn for a long time and the smoke carries particulate matter into the atmosphere that adversely affects the health of communities.

Immediate action to locate, manage and safeguard the remaining global peatlands is therefore an urgent issue that requires increased research to better understand their extent and status. The rapid response assessment Smoke on Water, the first joint report by the Global Peatlands Initiative, an international partnership of 24 members formed in 2016 to preserve peatlands, is an initial leap in that direction.

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