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What's Brown and Soggy and Fights Climate Change?

Protecting intact peatlands and restoring degraded ones are crucial steps if the world is to succeed in its efforts to hold back climate change. It's the 'low hanging fruit'.

Here's an extraordinary fact: Peatlands exist around the world, but make up only about 3 percent of global land area. However, their deep layers of peat are treasure chests of carbon, overall containing roughly twice as much as the world’s forests, which cover 30 percent of global land area.

A new study demonstrates that peat bogs contain large amounts of carbon in the form of decaying vegetation that has built up over centuries and are an important ally in helping the world achieve climate goals like the limit of 2 degrees Celsius of post-industrial warming that's enshrined in the 2015 Paris agreement.

However, without protection and restoration of peatlands, some targets for greenhouse gas emissions “would be very difficult or nearly impossible to achieve,” said Alexander Popp, a senior scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, where he leads a group studying land-use issues.

In pristine bogs, carbon remains soggy and intact. But when a bog is dried out, for agriculture or other reasons, the carbon starts to oxidize and is released to the atmosphere as planet-warming carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Dried peatlands could be restored by allowing them to become wet again, which would saturate the decaying vegetation and prevent further release of carbon dioxide, and also eliminate the fire hazard. “Rewetting them is really the core for reaching mitigation targets,” Dr. Popp said.

Mike Waddington, a peat researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who was not involved in the work, said the study “makes a very compelling case” in favour of restoring peatlands. “When we think about storing carbon in ecosystems, it’s almost always about planting trees. There’s often tremendous pressure to plant trees in drained peatlands," he said, "but that’s the wrong choice given the carbon-storing ability of an intact bog."

“In a way it’s the low-hanging fruit,” he added.


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