Peatlands, agriculture and climate change: High potential for adaptation and mitigation
Peatlands are waterlogged wetland areas with organic soils (peat), which result from the accumulation of dead plant material over thousands of years. Peatlands cover about 3% of the total global land surface (over 4 million km2), which makes up about half of the world’s wetlands. Peatlands occur in over 180 countries, stretching from boreal and subarctic regions to tropical zones, including in high mountain areas1.
Peatlands provide a range of ecosystem services, which are relevant for climate change adaptation (e.g. water regulation) and mitigation (e.g. carbon storage). However, peatlands are being degraded and destroyed at an alarming pace.
This destruction typically stems from the drainage of peatlands for agricultural and other uses. While the use of drained peatland may lead to significant short-term economic profits, its inherent unsustainability may have severe long-term socio-economic consequences. Drained peatlands lose their intrinsic properties in terms of water storage and regulation, and emit enormous quantities of CO2. In addition, drained peatlands inevitably subside – exposing large tracts of land to permanent flooding and rendering them unsuitable for agricultural use, which in turn endangers livelihoods and food security.
Maintaining peatlands wet and in good condition can provide local communities with enhanced economic and biodiversity benefits, contributing to sustainable development. Well-functioning peatland ecosystems also have greater resilience to climate change which may assist local communities in adapting to a changing climate while contributing to sustainable livelihoods.
Climate change will affect all of the world’s ecosystems, including agricultural landscapes. For this reason, it is necessary to adapt land management and use to changing temperatures and rainfall patterns. This is also valid for peat landscapes which are in drained situation much more prone to suffer from weather extremes then when in natural or restored condition.
Policy makers must make the choice between the continuation of unsustainable peat swamp development with short-term economic benefits, or the conservation, restoration and non-drainage land-use options that will provide long-term sustainable benefits for local communities, the economy and the global climate.