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Peat is partially decayed vegetation that has accumulated over thousands of years. (It’s sometimes called “young coal,” because in a few million more years, it would indeed harden into coal.) Typically, peatlands are muddy expanses, saturated with water. They might not look particularly impressive. But their ability to hold vast amounts of water gives peatlands their superpower: the ability to slow global warming. These spongy lands form one of the planet’s most valuable ecosystems.

How Peat Fights Global Warming

Peatlands trap huge amounts of greenhouse gases for very long periods. Because peat is saturated with water, vegetation decays very slowly. As a result, the carbon in those decaying plants stays into the ground instead of going into the atmosphere.

Many islands around the globe have substantial reservoirs of peat. In the Western world, we tend to associate peat bogs with northern places such as Ireland or Scotland. Peat, after all, is what gives Scotch whisky its characteristic smoky flavor—and peat there can be more than 30 feet deep. But almost every country has some peatland. (Canada, Russia, and Indonesia have the most.) In tropical peat forests, trees, vines, and thousands of other plants and animals thrive in the swampy conditions.

Peatlands store about 10 times more CO2, per acre, than other ecosystems. Peatlands cover three percent of the earth’s land surface, but store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined.

The Consequences of Disturbing Peatlands

Unfortunately, people have been rapidly draining, digging up, and clearing peatlands. Ireland, for example, has lost almost 80% of its peatlands. Southeast Asia has suffered comparable losses. Around the world, it’s common for peatland to be drained and cleared for annual crops, oil palm or timber plantations, or grazing. Oil companies are drilling in the Congo Basin’s peatlands. Blocks of peat are also cut up and hauled away by immense machines and burned as fuel in commercial power plants.

When peatlands are drained or cleared, the organic matter is exposed to air and starts decaying quickly, releasing carbon dioxide into the air. The environmental consequences are immense: Peatlands go from being enormous carbon sinks to enormous carbon sources. Currently, damage to peatlands is responsible for the release of nearly six percent of all carbon emissions caused by humans.

In 2019, close to a quarter-million acres of peatlands burned. The fires released huge amounts of carbon dioxide and caused an estimated $5 billion in economic damage to the country.

Disturbing peatland causes other losses as well. Peatlands provide habitat for many diverse kinds of plants and animals. Carnivorous pitcher plants thrive there; so do migrating curlews in Ireland, gorillas in the Republic of Congo, and Sumatran tigers in Indonesia. Southeast Asia’s peat‐swamp forests support a rich variety of plants and animals and are recognized to be of particular importance for biodiversity. Peatlands also mitigate flooding and preserve fresh water. A dried-out peatland is susceptible to erosion and catastrophic fires that threaten wildlife and humans.

Burning peat is especially problematic for the environment and human health. For centuries, people in northern climates have burned peat to heat their homes, but modern power plants use peat on an industrial scale. In Ireland, this use is scheduled to be phased out within a decade, but three power plants there still produce electricity by burning peat. The result is massive air pollution, because burning peat emits high concentrations of particulate matter, and more carbon dioxide than coal and nearly twice as much as natural gas.

Another threat to peatlands is climate change itself. According to a 2020 study, if the climate warms significantly, the ability of peatlands to absorb and hold carbon dioxide will be much reduced after 2050.

Preserving and Reclaiming Peatlands

Conserving existing peatlands and restoring at least some of what has been lost are urgent conservation priorities. The Paris climate change agreement encouraged all countries to include restoring peatlands as part of their commitment to facing the global climate emergency. Scotland has made peatland restoration the linchpin of its plan to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.

The key to successful peat conservation is water—lots of it. In Ireland, Seacology helped fund the restoration of Lodge Bog, working with the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council, which manages the land. Trained volunteers put in structures to block drainage, so the water table will stay high and prevent the release of greenhouse gases. They also replanted peat moss to return the bog to an active state—that is, one that is forming more peat. Restoring the bog will protect breeding habitat for large wading birds called curlews. Their population has plummeted since the 1980s because of habitat loss. The IPCC also hosts school students at its Bog of Allen Nature Center, so they can learn about Ireland’s most threatened habitat and bird species.

Halfway around the world, we worked with a village in Indonesian Borneo that wanted to preserve a large tract of tropical peat forest. Indonesia has lost large tracts of peatland, in part because of the expansion of the oil palm industry. Oil palms need drier soil to grow well, so land is drained to put in huge oil palm plantations. The community we worked with, Rasau Sebaju, used a Seacology grant to build a watchtower so that they could better keep an eye on their peat forest. The lush forest is home to endangered pangolins and the rhinoceros hornbill, a magnificent tropical bird, among thousands of other species.