Between soil and water: Peatlands and their importance for the climate

Growing up in a peatland region in North Germany, I find mires and wetlands beautiful and unique. We often used to go for a walk in the mire and were fascinated by the various shades of colours and variety of plants. Of course, we carefully watched our way, because going astray may be a life risk as you might sink into the ground.

Peatlands have been severely degraded in the past for agricultural purposes and for extracting peat which served formerly as fuel. Nowadays, it is used as soil for gardening. The consequences are devastating. Huge amounts of carbon dioxide are released and are one of the factors driving climate change. It takes thousands of years for a solid mire to evolve, but only a second to destroy it. 

To find out more about peatlands and their role for the climate, I spoke to Tom Kirschey, Head of the International Peatland and Southeast Asia Program at NABU (“Naturschutzbund“: union for nature conservation). According to him, all of our attention is absorbed by the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, circumstances we would not have imagined in our wildest dreams 2 years ago. And yet we face two catastrophes if we do not act now: the biodiversity loss and the climate crisis, including extreme weather events, wildfires, drought, rising sea levels and melting of glaciers. 

Tom Kirschey, Head of the International Peatland and Southeast Asia Program at NABU (photo credit NABU / Tom Kirschey)
  • What does NABU do and how did the organisation evolve? 

NABU is an NGO and was founded in 1899 by a visionary woman, Lina Hähnle, in the city of Stuttgart. At that time, the consequences of the industrial revolution had forced many people to move into the cities. That is why environmental pollution and the transformation of landscapes were already an issue. Lina Hähnle started a German bird conservation union which evolved later with the German reunification into the strong environmental organisation NABU. The internationally-operating union has today almost 900.000 supporters in Germany. New opportunities came up in states of the former Soviet Union, Africa and only a couple of years ago also in Indonesia. I was with the organisation as a volunteer long before I had my current job. People who study biology regularly do not end up in nature conservation. They end up in the pharmacy industry or genetic engineering, but not really focussed on populations or the functionality of ecosystems. I always wanted to contribute to nature conservation and here I am now.

  • What are your tasks in your everyday work at NABU? 

With my team in the headquarters in Berlin, we mostly work with international grants, donors and public funding institutions to restore crucial ecosystems in our focus regions like forests and peatlands. We organise the collaboration in different time-zones, different languages and different cultures. It is quite an interesting and challenging work. I never got frustrated or bored in the last few years.

The landscape of funding for our work is quite diverse. In the European Union, we are lucky because we have for 30 years the public funding program called “LIFE” by the European Commission. In one of these “LIFE” projects NABU is the coordinating beneficiary and I am very delighted to work with experienced partners such as NGOs, universities or private companies. During the last five years, we restored 5.300 hectares of degraded peatlands in five countries and measured the greenhouse gas balances (see here the results). Even today “LIFE” it is the most important source of funding. It requires comparatively huge grants to restore ecosystems as it is only possible on a landscape scale.

Our projects in Southeast Asia are mostly funded by the International Climate Initiative of the German Government and the KfW German Development Bank. In Indonesia together with our partners, we are responsible for managing Hutan Harapan – the Forest of Hope on the island of Sumatra – an area of almost 100.000 hectares. A hectare is 10.000 m² and it takes two days to surround this area by car with constant driving.

If you want to restore ecosystems, you need access to huge proportions of land. This can mean to purchase land or to get the land owner’s permission. In Indonesia, the forest land is all state-owned, but they hand out forest use licenses which include the right to manage the area for several decades. In the past, such licenses were only given to logging companies or for the conversion of forest into plantations. Our partners invented a new type – the ecosystem restoration license. Our hope is that within 80 years – that is the duration in our case – the Indonesian society will see the value of the forest with different eyes. In the meantime, our task is to keep the forest and to restore what has been lost in the past.

Why did you choose to work on ecosystem restoration of tropical rainforests and peatlands? 

Working in a rainforest was a childhood dream of mine. Later on, I learned that the climate implications of those ecosystems are beyond just being nice and colourful, they are crucial for our survival, even if we live thousands of kilometers away.

From an emission-point-of-view, Indonesian forests and peatlands as well as European peatlands are global hotspots. Number one emitter is Indonesia, and the second place is already Europe, the EU in particular. Inside the EU, Germany is at the top, because we have degraded more than 97 % of all of our peatlands. But degraded does not mean destroyed – we have turned the positive climate effect they usually serve for us around. We have now turned them from the net sink into sources of greenhouse gases, most importantly CO2. This needs to be reversed. If we want to become climate-neutral, there is no way around restoring each and every peatland. Not only in Indonesia, but also in front of our own door.

“Hahnenmoor” in Herzlake, North Germany in the region Emsland
  • What does climate change implicate? 

What is most worrying about the climate crisis is the magnitude of the events. There are so-called tipping points in the climate system. If we reach them, it is like with a cup of coffee which you push to the edge of the table, there is a point of o return, a point where the cup will indefinitely fall. And we should avoid getting near this tipping point. For example, if the Greenland the ice shield melts down to a certain elevation, it is all year warm enough to melt further and faster so that we cannot stop it by any measures. This would cause a rise in ocean levels of six meters which is out of our hands to be managed. If you add 6 meters, there is nothing left of the Netherlands and Northern Germany, but in terms of global population more importantly Bangladesh and Singapore. What we have called major catastrophe events which have been occurring every 20 to 30 years are now coming more frequently – draughts, floods or extreme winds. Ecosystems are very powerful allies in fighting the climate crisis and mitigating the effects: they buffer, they store carbon, they provide fresh water, they cool the landscape, they feed us. First and foremost, we have to cut all the fossil emissions such as oil, gas, and coal. The faster, the better. If we overshoot a certain point by inaction, the development will be stronger and stronger and we cannot stop it. People sometimes argue that ecosystem restoration and effective climate protection measures would be too costly. However, they ignore the immense costs of inaction.

Then, we have the natural carbon sinks which in the past have been deployed. Plants are absorbing carbon dioxide by photosynthesis from the atmosphere. Under certain circumstances, the ecosystems are able to store the captured carbon in the soil. If we extract wood from a forest, the carbon will be released into the atmosphere again. Instead, we should leave forests growing on their own and leave the logs in the forest.  Of course, we still need wooden products and it is clear that we have to find a good compromise. In comparison to forests, peatlands are much more powerful in the absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere and long-term storage in the peat. If we restore the net sink function of these ecosystems, this can also help us in mitigating climate change. 

The English sundew (Drosera anglica) can be found in wetlands and is a carnivorous flowering plant – it traps and consumes insects (photo credit NABU / Tom Kirschey)
  • Peatlands are nowadays more and more destroyed for agricultural purposes. Do we need a shift of mindsets in this regard? What is the problem with peatlands management nowadays?

Emissions from degraded peatlands are distributed quite unequally. For example, in Estonia, emissions from the industry and the transport sector are not as big as the emissions from degraded peatlands. But in other parts of the world, for example in Siberia or the Eastern part of Indonesia, all of the peatlands are still very pristine, they are still accumulating carbon and they are in natural shape. Globally speaking, 90 % of peatlands are still intact. The emissions result from “only” the 10 % of degraded peatlands. For now, we are still in a phase where we are over-exploiting and using peatlands which makes no sense also from an economic point of view. 

After the 2nd World War in Germany for instance, people suffered from starvation and the agricultural areas were reasonably expanded. Intact peatlands have been drained at a large scale especially in the 1960s and 1970s in the Eastern part of Germany. Nowadays there is no more economic or human welfare justification to exploit peatlands for overproduction and drive further the degradation of peatlands.

Drainage causes several ways of carbon export from the system. Firstly, the peat gets in direct contact with the air, oxidizes and transfers into CO2 going directly to the atmosphere. Secondly, there is also the so-called Dissolved Organic Carbon or Dissolved Organic Matter (DOC or DOM), long-chained carbon molecules as a by-product of peat degradation washed out through the draining ditch to the next river, flowing into the sea. The Baltic Sea is a good example as it is surrounded by watersheds coming from degraded peatlands. Decades of huge loads of DOC and DOM have polluted the sea and at some point, these carbon rich substances also oxidize. This results in so-called death zones of oxygen-free waters where no fish can ever reproduce. The breakdown of fisheries due to collapse of fish populations in the Baltic Sea is largely a long-term effect of continuous peatland degradation in the watersheds. We have to learn that the ecosystems are interacting with one another. Everything is connected.

Poland, Szczecin Lagoon
  • Why is biodiversity so important? 

Biodiversity is keeping ecosystems functional. Tropical rainforests are a good example. They are the most species-rich terrestrial ecosystems. A forest with a huge diversity of natural inhabitants is more resilient to any kind of external stress. We face a dramatic biodiversity loss. The more species we lose, the more functions we lose in the ecosystem. It is not a zoo where we put valuables in cages and try to maintain them. Ecosystems are crucial for our survival. We are not doing it for an orchid, a bird or a nice landscape. We are doing it for us. Can you imagine how people could argue if we can afford nature conservation and halt the biodiversity loss? We cannot afford losing more biodiversity.

Heather can grow not only on sand dunes, but also on nutrient-poor peatlands – it copes well with a high water table
  • What should we do instead of degrading peatland? 

The agriculture we are used to doing requires a drier environment. We have to learn how to do agriculture under permanently water-locked conditions. There is the special term “Paludi culture”, meaning to grow agricultural products on rewetted peatlands. 

There are numerous products that can be grown on rewetted peatlands. Cattle usually eat certain sweet grass species which require a dry environment. If we restore the peatland and make it wet again, the composition of the plant community will ultimately change, unfavorable for these grass species. Water buffalos can replace the cows because they are adapted to the plant communities which occur in wetlands. This would be a climate-smarter way of how agriculture is done. This is a solution for areas such as Emsland where more than 90 percent of agricultural soil is organic – peat or peaty soil. We need to find solutions for the farmers to keep their livelihoods, but in a smart way.

  • What is the problem when peat is extracted?

Under permanently water-locked conditions, biomass is added every year by the plant growth which is higher than the decay. After a while this added biomass is called peat. Peat from a climate point of view is an important carbon stock. It is a fossil resource like coal, gas, and fuel. In fact coal, lignite, oil and gas are geological deposits originated from peatlands. Peat is not a renewable resource because peat growth is a quite slow process. Extraction of peat means destruction of peatland. The problem is that peat is still seen as a resource and it is still legal to use it. We have to end the use of all fossil resources to mitigate climate change including peat.

In Germany, we extracted peat in the past. Nowadays, most of the peat we consume in Germany is extracted from the Baltic states. We also have to worry because the way we do Horticulture with peat consumption is now exported as a model to China.

The way we produce vegetables is devastating for peatlands. Even if we would all become vegetarians, our carbon-footprint is huge. It is a travesty where we can learn how absurd and unsustainable our lifestyle is. We ship peat from Lithuania to the driest parts of Spain. There, we grow salad and tomatoes in glass houses all year round and ship it back to the rest of Europe. This is ridiculous because the vegetables could also grow on more climate-friendly substrates.

Degraded peatland in North Germany
  • Which programs or initiatives do we need on the international level?

We need a shift of paradigm. At the moment for example in the EU, most of the budget is still spent for CAP – the Common Agricultural Policy, more than half of all the EU taxpayer’s money. If a farmer is rewarded from the common agricultural policy for draining a peatland, comparatively tiny projects for peatland restoration will not change the game. We need to shift the paradigm to a “polluter pays” system as we started it with the industry already: All the agricultural emissions need to be fully accounted for and people responsible for causing them have to pay. Internationally, there are lots of funding gaps. We need to shift away from climate-not-so-friendly agriculture and give value to farmers who want to contribute to climate change mitigation by accepting restoration of peatlands in their areas. This would be the key to success. 

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement and its 1,5°C scenario report, all-natural sinks, including all peatlands and also including 97 % of the German peatlands, need to be restored by 2050 if we want to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement. It has not been sufficient in the past, especially if the EU aims to become climate neutral.

The Kusowo bog near Szczecinek in Western Pomerania is considered as one of the most valuable bogs in Poland (photo credit NABU / Tom Kirschey)
  • It does not make so much sense that there is a contradictory approach by the EU, on the one side to support farmers to conduct agriculture on peatlands, and on the other side trying to restore them. Where does this contradiction stem from?

Contradictory approaches and incoherent policies are always in place when we have conflicting interests. In the past, the value of peatlands as ecosystems has been underestimated for ages. For ages it just has been seen as a wet place with low economic value which is hard to work in. It takes an enormous effort to drain them and to be able to do farming there, often in history using prisoners and forced labor workers. Now it is different. We have just started to open our eyes and to see how valuable peatlands are. Not in terms of the economic value for the farmer, but the value for society and mankind. This is why we have to change the economic system, knowing that there are still interests of landowners and farmers and they will fight for their property rights and their resources. Ideally, the interests of society overweight personal economic interests of the individual.

  •  What would you recommend for us as activists and consumers? How can we support you? 

As a consumer, there are ways of climate-smart behaviour, such as buying alternative peat-free products so that your vegetables and flowers on the balcony can grow as good as they do with peat. This is an educational task where we have to raise more awareness among consumers. We need to speak with the industry so that they change their business models. Unfortunately I am convinced that on a voluntary basis phasing out of peat extraction is not possible, we need strict laws about it in the European Union at least and forbid extraction, import and export of peat immediately. Also, for further carbon footprint intense products like palm oil, we have good alternatives on the market and as a consumer, whenever we can we should avoid buying palm oil. But consumer’s responsibility has to go hand in hand with political guidelines and producer’s responsibility. For these changes political support is crucial as well.

  • How urgent is the action for the climate?

It is most urgent and a pity what is happening in the world. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been strong signs of hope: Young climate activists like Fridays for Future emerged and apart from the deniers were heard by decision-makers. When I looked at the programs of political parties in Germany, before the federal elections last year, all parties except the AfD were committed to protect nature and to become more active for the climate. The people’s perception changed throughout the pandemic and the war. However, the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis do not go away. We have to come back with our attention level to what is necessary and come back to where we have been and where we listened to the demands of the younger generations and Fridays for Future. I really hope they become more visible and better recognized. 

Yes, I hope that too. Thank you so much for the interview! 

Author: Julia Solbach

Editor: Julija Laurinaitytė

Photographs: Anna Joanna Solbach/Julia Solbach

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