For peat's sake, protect endangered lands now

ROME • The world's endangered peatlands need better protection or else climate change will spiral out of control, environmentalists said at the launch of an initiative to help prevent their destruction.

Peatlands cover just 3 per cent of the world's land surface, but contain twice as much carbon as the entire biomass of the world's forests. If they are drained or burned, that carbon is released as greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

Environmental data shows 15 per cent of peatlands have already been drained, and more areas are at risk of being destroyed to make way for palm oil crops, pulp wood production and other uses. If this happens, the resulting increase in emissions could raise temperatures enough to thaw permafrost - frozen soil, rock or sediment.

This would in turn cause peatlands in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions to also release their carbon, said the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) which is leading the initiative launched at climate talks in Marrakesh this week.

"It is critical we do not reach the tipping point that will see peatlands stop sinking carbon and start spewing it into the atmosphere, destroying any hope we have of controlling climate change," said Mr Erik Solheim, head of UNEP.

Even with pledges under the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to "well below" 2 deg C above pre-industrial times, the world is heading for a global temperature rise of over 3 deg C this century.

"This will cause misery and chaos for millions of vulnerable people, so we cannot afford to let any opportunity to reduce emissions slip by," Mr Solheim said.

The Paris Agreement that came into force on Nov 4 seeks to phase out net greenhouse gas emissions by the second half of the century.

Peatlands are made up of partially decayed plant material, accumulated under water-logged conditions over long periods of time. They are mostly found in the northern hemisphere.

Peat is burned as fuel, and is highly prized as agricultural land when drained. But it is also highly flammable once drained, and has caused major fires in Indonesia and Russia in recent years. Last year, the toxic haze from peat fires in Indonesia affected 43 million people, UNEP said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'For peat's sake, protect endangered lands now'. Print Edition | Subscribe