UN Environment Programme launches initiative to save peatlands

Marrakech, Nov 17 (IANS) A new global initiative led by the UN Environment Programme to conserve peatlands — world’s largest terrestrial organic soil carbon stock — was launched at the UN climate summit here on Wednesday to help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Global Peatlands Initiative will mobilise governments, international organisations and academia in a targeted effort to protect peatlands, which contain almost 100 times more carbon than tropical forests.

“Even with current pledges under the Paris Agreement, we are heading for a global temperature rise of over three degrees Celsius this century,” UN Environment Programme head Erik Solheim told IANS.

“This will cause misery and chaos to millions of vulnerable people, so we cannot afford to let any opportunity to reduce emissions slip away,” he said.

Last year’s raging fires in Indonesia’s peatlands cloaked Southeast Asia in toxic haze.

Peat, which is used as a fuel, consists of partially decayed plant material, which has accumulated under waterlogged conditions over long periods of time.

The tropical peatlands are home to a number of endangered species, including Sumatran tigers, gorillas and orangutans.

Solheim, who says preserving the peatlands “needs no extra costs but only the political will”, said taking urgent action through the Global Peatlands Initiative could help limit climate change.

“It’s critical that we do not reach the tipping point that will see peatlands stop sinking carbon and start spewing it into the atmosphere, destroying any hope we have of controlling climate change,” he said.

Despite their importance, peatlands are coming under increased threat, mainly from conversion for palm oil and pulp wood production. Drainage of peatlands can result in environmental problems, most visible being the enormous fires in Indonesia and Russia in the recent years.

In Indonesia, the worst days of the peat forest fires resulted in emissions greater than the daily emissions from the entire US economy. In the Nordic and Baltic states, drained peatlands are responsible for 25 per cent of all emissions.

The impacts of peatland degradation go beyond emissions.

Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency head Nazir Foead told IANS that his country has set up a target to oversee the restoration of 2.6 million hectares of peat in five years that would help prevent future fires.

He said President Joko Widodo has introduced measures to protect the peatlands that also include banning the use of new land for palm oil cultivation.

Recent studies have suggested that the 2015 Indonesian peat fires affected 43 million people, indirectly killed up to 100,000 people through the toxic haze and led to $16.1 billion in overall economic damage (twice the value of the Aceh Tsunami Reconstruction).

The Global Peatlands Initiative, led by the UN Environment with support from over a dozen partners, is the largest collaborative effort on peat so far. It aims to increase the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of peatlands in countries with significant peat deposits, delivering benefits for agriculture, biodiversity and the climate.

Studies say greenhouse gas emissions from drained and burning peatlands account for up to five per cent of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

(Vishal Gulati is in Marrakech at the invitation of the Global Editors Network to cover COP 22. He can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)