The Importance of Protecting & Restoring Peatlands

The Importance of Protecting & Restoring Peatlands

The Importance of Protecting & Restoring Peatlands

by: Jay Reese | July 26
, 2023

For generations, people have viewed peatlands and wetlands as unproductive, waterlogged areas that could be altered or drained for more productive uses, such as cropping or construction. Phrases like ‘bogged down in the details’ or ‘a mire of a situation’ reflect the historical negative connotations of these habitats. While these ecosystems may not seem productive from an anthropogenic lens, peatlands store twice as much carbon as all the forests in the world combined, [1] despite only accounting for three percent of the earth’s landmass. Preserving and protecting these essential ecosystems is crucial to managing carbon emissions and achieving sustainability goals. 

Partially degraded peatlands may have large pits dug from peat harvesting. These pits fill with water and become small ponds.

Introduction to Peatlands 

Peatlands are a type of acidic wetland ecosystem in which the soil is so waterlogged that anaerobic conditions occur. This inhibits the decomposition of dead plant matter, causing an accumulation of peat, which is made up of partially decayed plant matter and is rich in carbon. Several different types of peatlands are often categorized by their water sources, including but not limited to moors, bogs, fens, swamp forests, marshes, and even permafrost tundra.

These ecosystems can be found across the planet, from lowland coastal areas to high-elevation mountainous regions and in every climatic zone [2]. Due to its high carbon content, peat has a variety of uses, including fuel, substrates for planting, and filtration media for industrial processes. Because of its multiple benefits in human society, peat bogs are overexploited, as the peat harvests much faster than it naturally regenerates. Peatland degradation also occurs when the land is drained by artificial means to be used for grazing, agriculture, or development. Because of this, 15 percent of the world’s peatlands have been fully drained, and even more have been subject to peat harvesting and partial drainage [3].

When peatlands are drained, they can no longer fulfill their role as a carbon sink and instead become a source of CO2 emissions. For example, when drained, tropical peatlands emit an average of 55 metric tons of CO2 per hectare per year [4]. Specifically, when the organic peat material mixes with oxygen (a result of draining), its decomposition rate accelerates tremendously, releasing large quantities of CO2 and contributing to global warming. Drained peatlands also become more susceptible to wildfires, highly emissive events that can devastate the ecosystem and environment. For example, in Indonesia in 2015, over half of wildfires occurred in degraded peatlands. Peak carbon emissions from these fires exceeded the daily rate for the entire United States economy [5]. In total, emissions from degraded peatlands make up five percent of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions, a staggering amount, considering drained peatlands make up less than 0.4% of the land on Earth [5]. As these numbers suggest, peatlands are crucial in the global carbon cycle. Accordingly, plans to avoid catastrophic climate change must include better management of peatlands to maintain and restore their role as an essential carbon sink.

Peat forest fires are notoriously difficult to extinguish as they burn primarily underground. Once burned, it can take hundreds of years for peat to reaccumulate in the ecosystem.

Elements of Successful Peatland Projects 

The most essential step in rehabilitating degraded peatlands is restoring the original hydrology of the site. Often peatlands are drained artificially through the construction of drainage canals. Damming these canals can be a highly effective measure to restore the original hydrology and eliminate the risk of further drying and subsidence. However, more than restoring hydrology alone is needed to reclaim the site in highly degraded peatlands. Additional reclamation efforts may be necessary to restore the site to its original function, such as reintroducing native plant species. The work required to restore each peatland varies depending on the level of degradation experienced at the site. However, the climate benefits of peatland restoration far outweigh the costs, making peatland restoration an essential and cost-effective strategy for meeting our climate goals.

The Verra Registry has two methodologies related to peatland restoration: VM0027 and VM0036. The first methodology applies to project activities in which drained tropical peatlands are rewet by constructing permanent and/or temporary structures (e.g., dams) which hold back water in drainage waterways. There are yet to be any projects registered with Verra using this methodology. VM0036 applies to project activities implemented to rewet drained peatlands in temperate climatic regions. There is one project currently under validation on the Verra Registry utilizing this methodology in China, which anticipates the rewetting of nearly 1,300 ha of drained wetlands.  

Benefits of Peatland Restoration

There are many benefits associated with restoration works that target peatlands. The most obvious benefit is the reduction of CO2 emissions accompanying peatland rewetting and the maintenance of this essential carbon sink. However, the benefits of these projects go far beyond emissions alone. Rewetting peatlands greatly reduces the risk of destructive wildfires and significant flood events affecting populated areas. Wildfires on degraded peatlands can persist for long periods, leading to negative impacts on regional air quality, so mitigating this can improve the health of surrounding communities. Like other natural wetlands, Peatlands also act as a sponge, absorbing water quickly during wet periods and releasing it slowly during dry periods, so they play an important role in flood mitigation. When peatlands are dried and the peat soils compacted, they lose this ability to regulate flood waters and can increase the risk of disastrous flooding affecting local economies and livelihoods.

There are also vital community benefits associated with protecting and restoring peatlands. Indigenous communities, for example, rely heavily on peatlands for their abundant natural resources and cultural significance and are deeply affected by peatland degradation. Restoring peatlands is essential in protecting indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and cultures. In conjunction with the reduced natural disaster risk, these projects can profoundly improve the well-being of nearby communities. These projects also have many benefits associated with biodiversity because peatlands are unique ecosystems with specialized ecological communities that rely on waterlogged, carbon-heavy soils to survive. Plants that thrive in these conditions have known uses for local communities, including medicinal purposes and food sources. They also support a unique makeup of insect and animal communities and are essential ecosystems for maintaining biodiversity on our planet.

Bogs, a common name for wetlands that accumulate peat, typically can be found in cooler, Northern regions in areas where glaciers transformed the landscape.

Project Opportunities

Exploring emerging project opportunities within the nature-based solutions space means assessing both risks and rewards of potential peatland projects and reviewing the findings to make informed decisions for engaging with partners on peatland restoration.

There are many ways to preserve and restore degraded peatlands and create benefits for all stakeholders, including communities that rely on these ecosystems. The voluntary carbon market has proven valuable in securing funding for nature-based solutions projects, and peatland restoration projects are no different. There have been many successful peatland restoration projects across various carbon registries, all harnessing the free market’s power to fund these vital restoration projects.

Peatland restoration projects take work. They require meticulous planning, high-level diligence, and many resources. However, the climate benefits of these projects are undeniably extensive, and the added benefits to communities and biodiversity make these projects highly worthwhile. We are eager to see the opportunities for preserving and restoring peatlands because protecting our peatlands is protecting our future.

[1]  Peatlands store twice as much carbon as forests – here’s what we can do to save them
[2]  What are peatlands?
[3]  Peatlands store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests
[4]  Destruction of Tropical Peatland Is an Overlooked Source of Emissions

[5]  Peatlands and climate change

About the Author

Jay Reese is a Penn State University student and Project Development Intern at ClimeCo. They are working towards a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Resource Management, with minors in Environmental Engineering and Watersheds & Water Resources. Jay’s time at ClimeCo focuses on providing essential support to the team in all phases of project development. With graduation in December, Jay is eager to continue their career in a field that helps people and the planet. As a part of their undergraduate studies, Jay studied abroad in Ireland. While abroad, they had the opportunity to visit a peat bog and learn about the substantial climate and biodiversity benefits of protecting these ecosystems.