Why should we keep peatlands wet? If they have been drained, why should we bother to rewet them? The answer is that peatlands provide huge benefits that often go unrecognised. Presentations from China and Belarus in a side event co-organised by Wetlands International at the Ramsar Convention Conference of the Parties (COP11) gave excellent overviews of the benefits as well as challenges of peatland conservation and rewetting for climate change mitigation.
Functioning peatlands store water and reduce flooding; they can help prevent wildfires; they keep the climate cool; they produce biomass as alternative fuel, they can help generate carbon credits and they help maintain the beauty of the landscape. In their natural state they can be used in the promotion of ecotourism and in the development of paludiculture (wet agriculture, forestry or grazing).
Peatlands have been and still are drained to make way for farmland, for forestry or to use the peat as fuel and soil substitute for horticulture. Recently, countries have started to recognize the benefits of conserving and restoring peatlands. The side event Peatlands: global challenges and opportunities (1) presented an opportunity to highlight the reasons why peatlands should be protected and rehabilitated.
For example in China, where the drainage of and grazing on the Ruoergai peatlands on the Tibetan plateau have a direct impact on water quantities in the Yellow river, efforts have been made over the last decade to block canals and gullies to rewet their peatlands. The Chinese government has also developed tools to manage the livestock grazing on peatlands to limit soil degradation.
Also Belarus has been very active in rewetting its degraded peatlands. Between 2007 and 2012, 30 000 hectares were rewetted. Annual emission reductions are estimated to be 50 000 tons of carbon dioxide each year over the next 20 years by which time 40 000 hectares will be rewetted. Belarus intends to sell these emission reductions under the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) in the Peatland Rewetting and Conservation category. These funds will allow for the continued management of intact peatlands and further restoration of degraded peatlands. A striking fact came out though during the side event as the speaker from Birdlife Belarus said that the ongoing development of peat extraction for energy and horticulture in Belarus is partly reversing the benefits gained from the rewetting activities. This underlines the need to have harmonized national policies that holistically address all peatlands.
Globally the drainage for agriculture is the most important cause of peatland destruction and of the growth of emissions from organic soils. Once peatlands are dried, their peat starts to oxidize. As a result, the drained peatlands emit greenhouse gases for hundreds of years. The rehabilitation of peatlands through rewetting helps to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and halt peat depletion.
However, peatlands can very rarely be restored to their original state. Their capacity to retain water, store carbon and support biodiversity can never be the same once ditches have been dug to lower the water table. For this reason, conserving pristine peatlands is one of the best options for mitigating and adapting to climate change.
A poster of a decision support tree for the management of peatlands was distributed to the participants of the side event.
As underlined at the side event, there have been positive developments regarding peatlands in the climate change agreements. However, countries need to pay greater attention to developing policies and building capacities for the conservation and restoration of peatlands. Recognising the value of conserving, rewetting and managing peatlands more sustainably, as well as monitoring and reporting the emissions from peatlands is vital for reaching emission reduction goals and safeguarding the environmental services peatlands provide.