From Climate Savior to Climate Killer: How Peatlands Affect Our Global Climate
Updated: May 22
Peatlands play a critical role in supporting biodiversity and maintaining the stability of our climate. As the largest terrestrial carbon storage, even ahead of forests, they have been accumulating peat for thousands of years, with peat layers reaching up to over ten meters. However, 12% of global peatlands are degraded, and a significant proportion is endangered, resulting in a shift from carbon storage to carbon emission when they are drained.
What are peatlands and why are they so important?
It is crucial to prioritise peatlands in global climate action, as they are essential for meeting climate targets. While they cover only 3-4% of global land surface, they contain a third of the world's carbon stored in soil, twice the amount of carbon stored in the Earth's forest biomass. Moreover, peatlands provide vital habitats for unique and endangered species, with 40% of Earth's biodiversity found in wetlands.
Peatlands are primarily degraded due to draining for agriculture and forestry, mining for fuel and horticulture, pollution, and invasive species. Draining these habitats causes a significant problem, as they turn from carbon storage to emission sources. For example, in Germany, 95% of peatlands are drained, contributing to 7% of total national emissions, equivalent to total emissions from German aviation. Globally, degraded peatlands account for 4% of total emissions.
Although peatlands are natural sources of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, rewetting peatlands re-establishes these methane emissions. However, despite this, climate mitigation through healthy peatlands remains critical.
Unfortunately, global efforts to conserve peatlands are still insufficient, and emissions from degraded peatlands have not yet been explicitly included in mitigation pathways in line with the Paris Agreement. Most countries around the world have also not yet established national peatland plans or policies. Mainstreaming with other policies is lacking in ambition and enforcement. If the health of peatland ecosystems is not part of global mitigation, other land-based mitigation strategies may be less effective than anticipated.
It is, therefore, necessary to prioritize peatlands as an effective adaptation and mitigation strategy. Sustainable use of peatlands can take the form of paludiculture, such as the cultivation of reed, which preserves the peat. However, these actions must be context-specific, rights-based, and promote justice, such as promoting governance systems that empower indigenous stewardship and community-led conservation. Degraded peatland habitats must be restored through rewetting, and perverse incentives that drive peatland degradation must be eliminated. These are just some of the essential starting points that can harness the importance of peatlands for nature, people, and climate to reduce the intensity of the climate and biodiversity crises.