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Making peat a priority

Peatlands in the spotlight at the IUFRO Congress in Germany
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Peatlands only take up a small amount of the world’s land coverage, but their potential for impact in efforts against climate change is huge. CIFOR Photo/Kristell Hergoualc'h

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This week the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, IUFRO, is holding its 125th Anniversary Congress in Freiburg, Germany. IUFRO is a global network that promotes international cooperation among more than 15,000 scientists from more than 110 countries. During the five-day event, technical sessions will highlight innovative research under the theme “Interconnecting Forests, Science and People.”

Scientists from the Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program, SWAMP, which includes the USDA Forest Service, Oregon State University and CIFOR, the Center for International Forestry Research, will present a culmination of five years of research into peatlands and mangroves. 

In addition, the journal ‘Mitigation and Adaptation for Global Change’ is soon publishing a series of 10 papers on peatlands in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Central Africa by researchers from CIFOR and other organizations. The special issue will be titled ‘Tropical peatlands under siege: the need for evidence-based policies and strategies’.

As global efforts to reduce climate change move forward, CIFOR researchers say more attention needs to be paid to the role of peatlands. Peat forests evolve over thousands of years and store millions of tons of carbon. They are tremendous stores of carbon when protected, but devastating sources of greenhouse gases when disturbed.

“In addition to providing essential ecosystem services, including water regulation across the landscape and habitat for unique biodiversity, peatlands are globally important for their prominent role as a carbon pool and sink,” says Kristell Hergoualc’h, a CIFOR scientist, and contributor to the special issue and IUFRO session.

Globally, peatlands store about 30% of the world’s soil carbon in only 3% of its land area, but this carbon is vulnerable to the fast burn of fires, and may be released in the form of carbon dioxide if the water balance and natural vegetation are altered.

Hergoualc’h explains that in their natural state, peatlands are flooded for part of the year, leading to a slow decomposition of organic matter deposited by plants, and eventual accumulation of carbon in the form of peat.

But when peat forests are drained and burned for oil palm and other agricultural plantations, they release massive amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere.

DON’T FORGET THE NITROUS OXIDE!

Greenhouse gas emissions in peatlands are made up of mostly carbon dioxide, but methane and nitrous oxide (N2O) fluxes are also present. N2O has a high global warming potential of around 270 times that of carbon dioxide and is a major destroyer of the ozone.

Hergoualc’h says most of the research in tropical peatlands has focused on monitoring soil emissions of carbon dioxide. She says nitrous oxide remains a forgotten gas in many studies from tropical countries like Peru and Indonesia.

“One unexpected research result comes from one of the new studies conducted in a drained oil palm plantation on peat in Indonesia,” says Hergoualc’h.

“Combined with a literature review, the results showed that high N2O emissions from peat decomposition in the tropics tend to be common; which is in contrast with most recent IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] emission factors,” she says.

The research shows that much more data is needed to improve the implementation of the IPCC guidelines which are based on three tiers – with each tier becoming increasingly complex and costly.

“Countries can already report their emissions or removals of GHG in wetlands using the tier 1 or default method,” Hergoualc’h points out.

“However, for countries wanting to focus their efforts on those categories of emissions and removals that contribute most significantly to national emissions, more detailed methods [tier 2 and 3] and data are required,” she adds.

CHANGING MINDS, CHANGING OUTCOMES

To make the changes needed to reduce the effects of climate change in peat forests, researchers also look at the role local communities play. Even though peatlands are often located in remote areas, millions of people around the world live in and around peat forests.

CIFOR senior scientist Daniel Murdiyarso says forested lands are rapidly being converted for agricultural use and there is an urgent need to look at other alternatives.

“Both small- and large-scale conversions are taking place today, causing large-scale disruption of the natural environment, which otherwise could provide numerous environmental services,” says Murdiyarso.

Peatlands provide a number of environmental services, including food and clean water, to local communities. They also provide a home for many endangered species, such as orangutans.

But Murdiyarso says many communities don’t see the direct benefit to themselves and their families of preserving peatlands.

“The challenges are that these services are not monetized, and psychologically speaking people locally and globally don’t feel that they benefit from the services,” says Murdiyarso.

“A market and payment mechanism, for example, should be developed, one that is easily accessible and transparent,” he says.

Hergoualc’h agrees, and says to overcome these challenges environmentally and financially, sustainable livelihood options for communities living in peatlands must be developed.

“By incentivizing local economies, having strong community empowerment and increasing knowledge on sustainable peatland management we can see positive change,” she says.

The research shows that there is also a need to improve and enforce existing policies and regulations that protect the peatlands.

MOVING AHEAD

Researchers say that although much more needs to be done to protect peatlands, a number of countries have made considerable progress.

Indonesia, for example, established the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) after the Paris summit. The agency is tasked with restoring degraded peatlands in the worst affected regions of Indonesia. The goal is to restore more than two million hectares of degraded peatlands over a five-year period.

The government program includes a moratorium on expansion of cultivation, control and prevention of forest fires, assessment of degradation impacts to determine future sustainable land use, implementation of sustainable land use, conservation of peatlands, a focus on resolving conflicts over resource issues, and enhancement of good governance.

“These efforts involve stakeholders from both the public and private sectors at national and sub-national levels. Ambitious targets have been set, but we have yet to see if they can be achieved,” says Murdiyarso.

Hergoualc’h says that to really assess whether Indonesia’s efforts are meeting global goals, it will be vital to generate more refined methods and data for peatland rewetting and restoration activities.

The researchers comment that rather than reinventing the wheel, countries should also strive to learn from one another’s research and experiences on the ground.

“Other countries with relatively pristine peatlands have the opportunity to take a different, more sustainable path if they choose. These countries can learn from the experience of Indonesia — what the negative impacts are of development on peatlands, and how expensive it can be to restore peatlands after they have been degraded,” says Research Ecologist Erik Lilleskov from the US Forest Service.

Peatlands may only take up a small amount of the world’s land coverage, but their potential for impact is huge. Their role in the battle against climate change is only now beginning to be fully recognized.

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Topic(s) :   Peatlands Climate change Oil palm Wetlands Fire & haze

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