Wetlands are the unloved carbon sink. They’re smelly, muddy and awkward to walk in. They make for mediocre farmland and worse development.
Still, wetlands are huge carbon sinks. Half of all wetlands are peatlands. A prominent peat scientist remarks that “Peatland is 95 percent water. This means that peat is wetter than milk but you can walk over it. It’s the closest you can get to Jesus Christ.” Peatlands collectively store two times the carbon stored by the world’s forests. Degraded peatlands release carbon. The stored high carbon soils react to oxygen exposure by decomposing suddenly. This sudden decomposition releases most of the carbon that was in the soil in the form of carbon dioxide.
Peatlands are plagued by several factors, both targeted and incidental. Climate change and the resulting temperature rise (already affecting the Arctic) reduces peatlands incidentally. Permafrost, which can extend several meters underground thaws. Ice takes up more volume than water, so the thawed peatland is not as deep. All of the structures built on the surface (houses, roads) sink into the ground.
Peatlands are targeted for small drainage agriculture. Even though they don’t work well as farmland, there is an assumption that it is better to be useful farmland than “useless” wetland. Drainage of peatlands for palm oil is why tiny Indonesia was the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in 2007. Most emissions from peatlands are not reported.
Peat fires make peatlands carbon emission timebombs. Once a fire starts in peatland, it is very hard to stop. The fire can smolder for years under the surface. Peeling back the top of the layer in order to expose the fire simply feeds the flame by providing more oxygen.
Peatland can be reclaimed by the process of “rewetting”. There are only a few projects running. Russia started a project to re-wet the wetlands around Moscow. The summer of 2010 brought many peat fires around Moscow. The resulting smog killed many people. The rewetting project was an emergency measure to protect Moscow.
Currently the UNFCCC does nothing about peatlands. Forests are also carbon sinks, but they are explicitly protected under REDD+. Restoring peatland does not have the high profile of reducing deforestation, increasing renewable energy or implementing adaptation. Conserving the remaining peatlands and restoring the others is necessary to keep a huge volume of carbon out of the atmosphere. It is time to begin the unglamorous work of restoring the peatland.