Chile Recognizes That Carbon-Absorbing Peatlands Can Help Stem Effects of Climate Change

Government should expand protection of these wetlands to help meet its Paris Agreement commitments

Chile Recognizes That Carbon-Absorbing Peatlands Can Help Stem Effects of Climate Change
Chile
Peat bogs in Cape Horn National Park. Although the average depth of the peat bogs in the Magallanes region is 5.5 meters, some of them have reached 12 meters.
Nicolas Piwonka

In the global effort to mitigate the effects of climate change, many governments are looking to nature-based solutions to reduce their net emissions of greenhouse gases and to meet their commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement. For Chile, that has meant a focus on its peatlands, a type of wetland found in cold and cold-temperate zones. Although peatlands cover only approximately 3% of the planet's surface, they store more carbon than all the forests on Earth when moist.

Under the Paris deal, each party sets its own nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to help meet the agreement’s broader global emissions reduction targets. On April 9, Chile presented the update of its NDCs, which include peatlands, to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Specifically, Chile committed to take a national inventory of wetlands and peatlands by 2025; develop by 2030 indicators to evaluate those areas’ capacity to help the country adapt to or mitigate climate change; and “implement actions to enhance the benefits of wetlands and peatlands” in five protected areas of the country, which might elevate safeguards for these resources. Overall, this is a great step for Chile in the protection of these important and threatened habitats.

Peatlands face a variety of natural and human-caused threats, including drying out, which can happen because of low rainfall or excessive heat, and deliberate extraction. As peatlands degrade, they release sequestered carbon into the atmosphere, so keeping them healthy can maintain their capacity to absorb carbon and prevent increased emissions of greenhouse gases. 

Chile’s peatlands are mainly concentrated in Patagonia, covering approximately 3.2 million hectares (7.9 million acres), and 63% of them are within state-protected areas, according to a recent study by the Austral Patagonia Program of the Universidad Austral de Chile. The 1.18 million hectares (2.9 million acres) of unprotected peatlands are outside parks and reserves and threatened by mining extraction. Chilean law classifies peatlands as "fossil substances" under the national mining code, which allows them to be licensed and exploited. Peat is dried and used for a variety of purposes, including fuel, substrate for crops, water filtration, thermal insulation, and an absorbent.

In 2017, 4,383 tons of peat was extracted in the Magallanes region alone, according to a report from the UNFCCC 2019 Conference of Parties.

By including peatlands in Chile's NDCs, the government is acknowledging the ecological importance of these wetlands and could be taking the first step toward much greater protection. Future actions should include removing peatlands from the mining code and integrating more of them into public or private conservation areas. This way, peatlands can make a greater contribution to Chile’s efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Francisco Solís Germani directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work in Chile’s Patagonia region.