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Peatland protection and restoration is gaining momentum in the global Climate Protection discussion

Discussions on peatland protection, restoration and the phase out of peat extraction are spreading like wild fire.

Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, where governments committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, policy-makers have been busy with questions of how to best reach this goal. In this new context, peatland ecosystems are increasingly being recognised as a crucial component in national strategies to mitigate climate crisis and achieve the Paris Agreement goal.

LIFE Peat Restore (https://life-peat-restore.eu/en/project/), an international peatland restoration project coordinated by NABU, hopes to contribute to the discussions and raise awareness to the important role peatlands play in the mitigation of climate crisis through the promotion of workshops and panel discussions. Additionally, the project is actively contributing to this goal by restoring 5,300 ha of degraded peatlands across five northern European countries.

Peatlands and climate

Within the context of climate crisis mitigation, the main reasons behind the growing relevance of peatlands lie in its unique capacity to store significant amounts of carbon for indefinite time, in its natural state; or to become a significant source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when degraded. In fact, drained peatlands are GHG emissions hotspots; one hectare of drained peatlands emits six tonnes and more of CO2 for each year that it remains dry.

Moreover, peatland protection and restoration is a highly efficient mitigation measure, since a relatively small area of peatland can have a great mitigation impact. Undoubtedly, it is an inexpensive and effective mitigation measure for Governments to undertake. For example, as the IPCC Special Report on Land Use highlights (see our article on it https://life-peat-restore.eu/en/life-peat-restore-and-the-special-report-from-the-international-panel-on-climate-change/), the protection of healthy peatland areas delivers immediate and effective results, by keeping carbon stored.

According to findings from the Report, afforestation or reforestation does not continue to sequester carbon indefinitely; in contrast, peatlands can continue to sequester carbon for centuries. Moreover, among the carbon rich ecosystem, peatlands store around 26% to 44% of estimated global soil organic carbon, while only covering 3-4 % of the Earth’s land area. They are such carbon-dense ecosystems that degraded peatlands (0.3% of the terrestrial land) are responsible for a disproportional 5% of global anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Peatland restoration is an efficient and effective climate crisis mitigation tool at the disposal of governments

Such unique ecosystem features explains why the IPCC Report identifies the reduction of peatland drainage and restoration of drained peatlands as priority actions areas, as they offer the most mitigation potential, along with other social and environmental benefits. However, immediate action should be taken, as: “Some response options will not be possible if action is delayed too long; for example, peatland restoration might not be possible after certain thresholds of degradation have been exceeded…”

Germany and peatlands

Already, 10% of the European peatlands have been lost irreversibly, with of the remaining 44% being degraded. In Germany, the figure ascends to 95% of degraded peatlands. Considering these discouraging figures as well as the growing pressures stemming from climate crisis, large-scale restoration of peatlands in Germany and Europe is urgently needed.

Although the Federal Government recognised the need to safeguard and restore peatland functions as well as progressively reduce peat use (e.g. in the Climate Action Plan 2050 from 2016, https://www.bmu.de/fileadmin/Daten_BMU/Pools/Broschueren/klimaschutzplan_2050_en_bf.pdf) or in the National Strategy on Biological Diversity(https://www.bfn.de/en/activities/biodiversity/national-biodiversity-strategy.html), as early as 2007); not enough has been achieved and progress is too slow.

In order to achieve a meaningful reduction of GHG emissions on the path to carbon neutrality until 2050, the restoration of degraded peatlands must be implemented at a national scale. It is imperative that policy-makers prioritise this action, as it requires immediate action.

Mentioning also peatlands as significant carbon sinks, you find here the demands of NABU to the COP25 in Madrid (https://www.nabu.de/imperia/md/content/nabude/klimaschutz/191209_nabu-hintergrund_cop25_final.pdf) and in alliance with more than 60 other organisations of the German civil society to the German Government (https://www.klima-allianz.de/publikationen/publikation/mp2030/).

Germany and peat extraction

Nowadays in Germany, nearly all peat extracted is destined for horticultural uses – around 50% for professional and 50% for private gardeners. However, peat extraction is not sustainable; peat grows at an incredibly slow pace (only 1 mm a year!) and cannot keep up with the intense rate of peat extraction. Indeed, according to the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, “if extraction goes on at the current rate, the peat stocks approved for extraction in Germany will be used up in ten years at the latest”. There are already viable alternatives to peat. Countries that had little peatland from the outset have long used other media.

In recognition of the need to stop peat extraction, the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) have developed a Peat Reduction Strategy. Although the plan seeks to gradually reduce peat extraction and eventually phase out its extraction altogether; there is no binding schedule for peat reduction. The strategy is not ambitious enough and does not reflect the urgent need to take action; moreover, it follows a mainly voluntary principle.

Germany should take a leading role within the European Union formulating and adopting a national peat phase-out strategy. Switzerland and the United Kingdom have already adopted official peat phase-out strategies.