Protecting peatlands could lead to substantial cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.
Peatlands occupy just 3% of the world’s land and surface area but they store a similar amount of carbon to all terrestrial vegetation.
However, peatlands have been substantially impacted by humans, including drainage for agriculture and forest plantations and this has resulted in the release of the equivalent of around 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year – this equates to 3% of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by human activities.
A research team, led by scientists at the University of Leeds, studied the CO2 emissions from 16 peatland areas across the UK.
Because large populations rely on these areas for their livelihoods, it may not be realistic to expect all agricultural peatlands to be fully rewetted and returned to their natural condition in the near future.
However, the team found that halving current drainage depths in croplands and grasslands on peat could still bring significant benefits for climate change mitigation.
The researchers estimated that this could cut emissions by around 500 million tonnes of CO2 a year, this equates to 1% of all global GHG emissions caused by human activities.
Lead author Professor Chris Evans, of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: ‘Widespread peatland degradation will need to be addressed if the UK and other countries are to achieve their goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as part of their contribution to the Paris climate agreement targets.
‘Concerns over the economic and social consequences of rewetting agricultural peatlands have prevented large-scale restoration, but our study shows the development of locally appropriate mitigation measures could still deliver substantial reductions in emissions.’
Professor Pippa Chapman added: ‘The Humberhead Peatlands are a remnant of a large wetland that used to occupy the landscape.
‘Peat has been drained, cut and extracted from the site throughout recorded history for fuel, animal bedding and more recently horticultural use.
‘This has left the area with too varied a water table to allow peat formation. Work is ongoing to restore these peatlands and return them to a favourable condition and our latest research shows that this regional effort will be of great benefit from a carbon emissions perspective.’
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