Protecting and restoring peatlands can reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 800 million tonnes per year – equivalent to Germany’s annual emissions – according to a report released by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI).

The report calls for investments of up to $46 billion annually by 2050 to slash almost half the emissions caused by draining and burning peatlands.

The 'Economics of Peatlands Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Management' policy report, authored by Edward Barbier and Joanne Burgess of Colorado State University, identifies that the leading causes of peatland mismanagement are undervaluation and underinvestment. Filling key information gaps on peatlands, the report details the economic and environmental opportunities to boost public and private investments in peatlands protection.

Reducing GHG emissions

GPI will share the first-ever baseline map to assess their location worldwide on the sidelines of the ongoing UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.

According to GPI, what is clear is that peatlands cover only 3% of the global land surface area, but store at least twice as much carbon as all of the world’s forests. They are also a critical home to many endemic and threatened species.

Co-author of the report, Prof. Joanne Burgess, said: “Investment in peatlands is a triple win for people, the climate, and biodiversity.
“Peatlands need to be central to global investments in nature-based solutions, as part of a global strategy that ends the underpricing and underfunding of these crucial ecosystems.”
The report indicates that peatlands provide multiple ecological, economic and cultural benefits to communities around them, including sustaining water supplies and controlling pollution and sediments.

Over 2,300km² of peatlands deliver potable water to 71.4 million people worldwide and in Ireland and the UK, peatlands supply around 85% of all drinking water.

Dianna Kopansky, UNEP global peatlands coordinator, emphasised that “peatlands are an ecosystem at risk, with 15% of them being drained for grazing, agriculture, forestry, and mining".
"They contribute disproportionately to climate change, are essential for water security and are important places for nature and people.
"Another 5-10% of peatlands worldwide are degraded through vegetation removal or alteration. Infrastructure development is a further driver of peatland decline," she added. The coordinator added that if unchecked, the conversion of peatlands in tropical regions could double to about 300,000km² by 2050. "Drained peatlands are highly prone to wildfires that emit planet-warming greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants,” she added. “Peat oxidisation from fires accounts for 5% of all human-related emissions. Turning them into a global carbon sink, would require rewetting 40% of drained peatlands.”

Mismanaging peatlands

The report finds that the principal cause for peatlands mismanagement is the undervaluation of their economic contributions.

It explains that commercial activities and policies that degrade and convert these high-carbon ecosystems often ignore or fail to take account of their benefits to society.

In addition, global peatland conservation and restoration suffers from chronic underinvestment, according to the report. Chief environmental economist with UNEP, Pushpam Kumar said: “Demonstrating and capturing economic benefits of carbon storage potential of peatland provides sound basis for restoration.
"The monetary value of the peatland offers excellent justification to financial institutions and other economic sectors that costs associated with restoration of peatlands are indeed investment in sustainability and wellbeing."
The report indicates that the required annual investment in conservation is $28.3 billion and $11.7 billion, but much more is needed for rewetting and restoring peatlands.

Investing in cost-effective peatland restoration would have massive economic benefits, reducing global GHG emissions in tropical peatlands alone by 800 million tonnes per year – equivalent TO 3% of global emissions.

The authors recommend ending the undervaluing of peatlands by adopting policies, regulations and other actions that ensure the full value of peatlands is taken into account, e.g., by removing subsidies and other forms of financial support to agriculture, forestry, and other economic activities that excessively degrade or convert peatlands. The authors also recommend ending the underinvestment in peatlands by increasing private and public funding for the protection of peatlands globally.