For Peat’s Sake: Why Peatlands Merit Strong Protections

Powerhouse ecosystems provide vital wildlife habitat and help fight climate change

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For Peat’s Sake: Why Peatlands Merit Strong Protections
Green patches of leafy mangroves in a peatland litter an area of still dark water, as tall trees with fluffy green tops tower above.
This peat swamp forest in Indonesia is home to a wide variety of native flora and fauna. Recent studies have shown that the world is rapidly losing these carbon-storing wetlands—an area almost as big as Spain has already been drained, destroyed, or degraded.
Auscape Getty Images

With climate change already causing devastating effects around the world, governments are under increasing pressure to take urgent action to stave off even more severe impacts, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). While greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions offers the most direct and effective path to that goal, governments should also pursue nature-based solutions, such as the conservation and restoration of peatlands.

A 2022 report from the Michael Succow Foundation, with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts, provided recommendations on how governments can include these critical ecosystems within their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement.

What are peatlands and why do they matter?

Peatlands are known by various names, including bogs, mires, marshes, and swamps.

While peatlands make up only 3% to 4% of the Earth’s land surface, they store up to one-third of all carbon on earth. On average, peatlands store 1,000 to 2,000 tons of carbon per hectare compared to 140 to 230 tons of carbon stored per hectare by the average forest. Additionally, peatlands provide important climate adaptation benefits, such as absorbing flood and waters from storm surges. They also naturally filter water, which improves water quality for local residents.

Peatlands also provide habitat for some plant and animal species that are found only in these ecosystems. In some regions, including the Caribbean, peatlands often form an interconnected relationship with other coastal wetlands, such as mangroves. For example, mangroves sometimes grow directly on peat soils, accumulating peat under anaerobic conditions. Because both mangroves and peat provide important climate adaptation benefits, they provide even greater climate protection for local communities when both ecosystems are present.

A peatland covered in tall green grass in the foreground. In the background is a line of trees full of darker green leaves, under a white cloudy sky.
Coastal peatlands, like those seen above in Costa Rica, make up only 3% to 4% of the Earth’s land surface, yet they store up to one-third of all carbon on earth.
Jan Peters Succow Foundation

Unfortunately, the world is rapidly losing its peatlands. Recent studies have shown that approximately 193,000 square miles of the world’s peatlands—an area almost as big as Spain—have already been drained, destroyed, or degraded.

What can be done to conserve this critical ecosystem? One way that countries can protect and restore their coastal wetlands, such as mangroves, seagrasses, saltmarshes, and coastal peatlands, is by including them in the mitigation and adaptation sections of their NDCs under the Paris Agreement and in their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs) under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The Succow Foundation report identified opportunities and country needs for including peatlands in countries’ nationally determined contributions, particularly in the Caribbean region. According to the study, 58 countries and territories are home to both mangroves and peatlands; however, only eight of those countries include peatland targets in their NDCs while 35 included mitigation or adaptation targets related to mangroves.

While the report looked at countries globally, it also did a deep dive into peatlands in the Caribbean. Every Caribbean country, except for Guatemala and Panama, has included mangrove targets in its NDC, but only one—Costa Rica—has included peatland targets. But as peatlands are present in nearly every Caribbean country, there is a significant opportunity for Caribbean countries, as well as other countries around the globe, to include peatlands within their NDCs.

A group of people dressed in long-sleeved shirts and hats stand in the middle of a peatland, surrounded by thick green leaves and dense roots.
To protect against further global peatlands loss, countries can follow Costa Rica’s approach to protecting and restoring peatlands, like those seen above, by including them within the mitigation and adaptation sections of their nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement and into National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Jan Peters Succow Foundation

Recommendations for peatland restoration and conservation

The Succow Foundation study identified priority activities that countries, and supporting organizations and partners, should engage in to ensure countries can make strong peatlands commitments in their NDCs. These recommendations included:

  • Investing in robust peatland mapping, with a strong emphasis on ground truthing and work to fill data gaps.
  • Training local teams and building capacity to carry out field research to increase the understanding of peatlands.
  • Setting up measurement, reporting, and verification systems to monitor how much carbon is stored in peatlands within the country over time, or including peatlands in countries’ existing greenhouse gas inventories.
  • Undertaking pilot peatland conservation and restoration projects in areas with mangroves.

How Belize is leading on peatland mapping

Building on some of the information in the report as well as the comprehensive mangrove carbon assessment that Pew and its partners carried out in 2021, the Succow Foundation and Pew, in collaboration with the government of Belize, will carry out a peatlands mapping project to increase knowledge of peatlands within 100 kilometers (around 62 miles) of the coast. This effort will include an estimate of the carbon stored within Belize’s peatlands and will potentially assist with the conservation and restoration of this critical ecosystem in Belize.

This project is expected to start this year and will include in-country training for local coastal wetland practitioners.

“We are excited to start the first ever peatland mapping mission to coastal peatlands in Belize in close cooperation with the government of Belize and support from Pew,” said Jan Peters, managing director of the Michael Succow Foundation. “Besides filling white spots on the global peatland map, we are thrilled to share peatland knowledge and field research methods on these fascinating ecosystems with our Belizean partners and learn from them about specific properties of their peatlands.”

Kim Jensen works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ advancing coastal wetlands conservation project. 

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