This week ecologists from across the UK, Europe and from as far away as Tibet descended upon Bangor University to consider the major challenges and opportunities facing the restoration and conservation of the globe’s peatlands. The meeting was organised jointly by the British Ecological Society and the IUCN UK National Committee Peatland Programme and, alongside fascinating discussion, featured a beer specially brewed for the conference – incorporating, perhaps unsurprisingly, Welsh Bog Myrtle, which can be found on peatlands across the UK.
Despite the vibrant social programme at the meeting, delegates took the issues raised very seriously. As well they might as peatlands face tremendous pressures and threats worldwide. Peatlands cover 3% of the Earth’s land surface but contain 30% of the world’s soil organic carbon. Degraded peatlands account for 6% of the globe’s total annual carbon dioxide emissions, a level which has increased by 25% since 1990. Mankind’s activities have turned peatlands from a net sink to a source of carbon. Professor Hans Joosten, University of Greifswald, speaking on the first day of the conference, expressed his deep concern at these figures by explaining that 80% of the world’s peatlands are in fact still pristine. Therefore, more carbon is being emitted from the 20% of peatlands which are degraded than can be stored by the remainder. Given the threats facing peatlands, the potential to release greatly increased amounts of carbon is therefore tremendous.
Yet peatlands are not only significant as carbon stores. They provide vital habitats for numerous species, whilst also contributing to clean water downstream, buffering against flooding and also providing an important role in cultural heritage. Ben Gearey, University of Birmingham, delivered a fascinating presentation reflecting on the significance of peatlands in preserving archaeological remains such as ‘bog bodies’, trackways, leather and textiles. The anoxic conditions and water-logged environment is responsible; none of these materials would be preserved on dry sites. Dr Geary’s presentation introduced a conflict that many ecologists may not have considered before; that the restoration of peatlands and archaeological conservation could in some cases be at odds. Dialogue and cooperation is needed to ensure that conservation measures do not inadvertently damage sites and records, whilst the ecosystem services framework provides an important tool to value, promote and protect the archeo-environmental resource provided by peatlands.
The precise threats to peatlands depend on their location. However, in general, agriculture is the major threat, particularly drainage and overgrazing by livestock. Peat extraction for energy generation and horticultural substrates are significant threats, as is afforestation of peatlands in temperate zones. Deforestation, for example rainforest clearance in Indonesia and Malaysia to make way for oil palm plantations, is a major threat to coastal peatlands in the tropics.
When drained, peatlands become vigorous sources of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Dry peatlands are also highly susceptible to fire. When ignited, for example by arson or a lightning strike, peatlands can burn ferociously for extended periods of time. Annual peatland fires in Malaysia and Indonesia are a particular concern. In 1996-97 the burning of peatland in these countries accounted for 6% of global carbon emissions, whilst the haze the fires produce each year has major public health implications.
So, as presentations across the conference made clear, peatlands are vitally important but under threat. How can ecologists, practitioners and policy-makers work together to conserve and restore these habitats? Fundamentally, the restoration of peatlands focuses on re-wetting. This is often done through ditch blocking and the removal of trees. Yet with so much pressure on land for the production of food for a growing population, will removing land from agricultural production prove palatable to farmers and to policy-makers? Professor Joosten suggested that paludiculture, or ‘wet agriculture’, could provide a useful solution in some cases. Agriculture, grazing and forestry on re-wetted peatlands is possible, he argued, reducing emissions and producing renewable resources (biomass for fuel for example).
As overarching approaches to peatland restoration, partnership working, well thought out policy and the importance of communicating to the public were the three main messages that delegates took away from the meeting. Peatlands in a single catchment may be managed and farmed by multiple landowners and tenants; working with all of them will be fundamental for success. As will involving local communities; a project by the RSPB on the Lake Vrynwy nature reserve in Wales saw 1,000 school children visit, whilst the organisation ran a demonstration day for local farmers to show the process of drain blocking to re-wet the land.
Industry and Government can be leaders in tackling peat degradation. A presentation from Bord na Móna (the Irish Turf Board), emphasised the importance of engaging land-owners and turf cutters in developing a National Peatland Strategy. Turf cutting and use, practised in Ireland for hundreds of years, is a hugely emotive issue, and there are significant infringements of laws against turf extraction from Special Areas of Conservation. Bord na Mona owns 80,000 Hectares of peat, with 60% under active peat production. The Board aims to produce a rehabilitation plan for each of its 130 sites.
The economic benefits, alongside the biodiversity benefits, of investing in peatland restoration were succinctly presented by Ruth Waters, Natural England. An analysis by Mike Christie, Aberystwyth University, as part of Natural England’s three upland pilot projects, showed that restoration of peatlands in the uplands could deliver £1.31 – £2.96 for every pound spent, whilst for every £1 not spent, allowing the uplands to decline, society would stand to lose £5.20. The development of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes may offer an opportunity to finance the peatland restoration that is needed; an ‘action plan’ for the development of PES in England is expected from Defra before the end of this year.
Significant opportunities may exist for investment in the carbon stocks locked up in the UK’s peatlands. For example, on Wednesday it was announced that Defra’s Ecosystem Markets Taskforce has ranked peatland restoration as the top opportunity for investment in the environment by the business community. Yet if businesses are to pay to restore peatlands, counting this in their company carbon accounts under Greenhouse Gas Accounting Guidelines, it’s important that this has real environmental value. Mark Reed, University of Aberdeen, introduced the ‘UK Peatland Carbon Code’; standards and protocols to ensure that projects aimed at peatland restoration lead to high environmental returns, have real carbon sequestration benefits and minimise trade-offs with other ecosystem services. In order to assess the carbon sequestered by peatland projects, there is a need to develop remotely sensed proxies for carbon stocks – far more cost effective than direct measurement. Vegetation cover can act as a proxy for water table depth, which is itself a proxy for carbon storage, for example. The next stage in the development of the Code is to explore ‘bundling’ payments for carbon sequestration with that for other ecosystem services, such as water provision or flood-risk attenuation.
The development of guidance on peatland re-wetting by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), due to be released next year, could also offer a policy opportunity to capture the carbon value of peatlands as a tool for restoration. However, individual signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have to choose whether to adopt this inventory activity before the next period of the Kyoto Protocol begins in 2013. The IPCC guidance will not be published until the end of next year, leaving the official state of the science behind this ‘uncertain’ until then. The EU is currently negotiating a proposal on Measuring, Recording and Verification (MRV) of emissions for Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) to count towards EU targets. In line with the UNFCCC position, the EU are likely to make this a voluntary commitment for Member States. Peatlands would be far more likely to benefit from mandatory commitments, and the Department for Energy and Climate Change in the UK should be encouraged to push the EU to make this so.
This is a snapshot of the breadth of discussion and dialogue from the meeting in Bangor. The symposium provided a fascinating and wide-ranging overview of the challenges facing peatlands, the partnership projects which are currently taking place around the world to restore these degrading habitats and the policy opportunities that currently exist (reform of the CAP, the EU Nature Directives and the Water Framework Directive) or are on the horizon (PES, carbon markets), to facilitate further work. The IUCN UK National Committee Peatlands Programme highlighted an ambitious target at the meeting: to restore all of the UK’s peatlands. Ecologists and conservationists in the UK are already world-leading in this field. The energy and enthusiasm at the meeting indicated that they will be well able to meet this objective, with adequate financing and the right policy context in which to work.