Half a billion tonnes of carbon emissions could be cut from Earth’s atmosphere by improved management of peatlands, according to research partly undertaken at the University of Leicester.
A team of scientists, led by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH), estimated the potential reduction of around 500 million tonnes in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by restoring all global agricultural peatlands.
Peatlands – a type of wetland, where dead vegetation is stopped from fully breaking down – cover just 3% of the global land surface, but store around 650 billion tonnes of carbon, around 100 billion tonnes more than all of the world’s vegetation combined.
Dr Jörg Kaduk and Professor Sue Page, both from the University of Leicester’s School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, are co-authors of the study published in Nature.
Professor Page said: “Our results present a challenge but also a great opportunity. Better water management in peatlands offers a potential ‘win-win’ – lower greenhouse gas emissions, improved soil health, extended agricultural lifetimes and reduced flood risk. For agricultural peatlands, the balance is between climate security, and livelihood and food security. Our study indicates that raising peatland water levels could allow peatland farmers to both reduce the climate impact of their activities and extend the usage of these very fertile organic soils through modified land management. However, this will not be possible in all locations, and will need to be considered alongside other options, including complete rewetting and ecosystem restoration.”
In their natural state, peatlands can mitigate climate change by continuously removing the GHG carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and storing it securely under waterlogged conditions. But many peatland areas have been substantially modified by human activity, including drainage for agriculture and forest plantations.
This results in the release of around 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year – which equates to three per cent of all global GHG emissions caused by human activities.