Battling global warming with Belarussian bogs
Peatlands are wetlands with a thick water-logged organic soil layer (peat) made up of dead and decaying plant material. They include fens, bogs, tropical forest mires and permafrost polygon mires (continuously frozen peat soil with a polygonal structure). Peatlands are essential to mitigate the effects of climate change because of their carbon storing capacity: They store twice as much carbon as the forests in the world on a tenth of the area. They also store large quantities of water, helping to protect against floods and providing clean water supply.
However, for decades, people have drained and cleared peatlands for agriculture, and as a result, these wetlands (which cover only about 3% of the Earth’s land area) have turned from carbon sinks into emitters of 10% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. In the last century, huge peatland drainage projects in the (former) Soviet Union have negatively influenced local livelihoods, climate, and food and water supply at regional and national scales. In addition, peatland fires began to occur regularly.
The Belarussian environment ministry, NGOs (including APB, BirdLife in Belarus) and scientists are working on long-term restoration solutions. A total of 51,000 ha of Belarussian peatlands have been ‘rewetted’ by international projects in the last decade, once again turning them into carbon sinks. Thanks to the restoration of 17,000 ha between 2009 and 2013, a total of 30,649 tonnes of emissions of carbon dioxide equivalents over the next 22 years have been reduced.
Rewetting involves the partial or entire reversal of drainage by elevating the average annual water table close to or above the peat surface. The aim is to permanently saturate the entire peat body with water. Rewetting also involves reducing water loss by decreasing surface drainage, runoff, seepage and groundwater extraction.
The restored peatlands serve as new habitats for waterfowl and local flora, while also supplying local communities and farms with clean water, recreational and economic opportunities (such as fishing and traditional berry collecting), and a buffer against climate change and peatland fires. Additionally, rewetted peatlands see enhanced evapotranspiration (the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration into the atmosphere), which increases the humidity of the air and reduces temperatures in summer.
The restoration of peatlands also opened up the possibility to reinvest into new restoration projects by trading carbon credits. Former peat factories are also getting involved in paludiculture (cultivating biomass from wet and rewetted peatlands for food, feed, fibre, etc, while sustaining the peatland ecosystem).
This approach was developed and tested by Belarussian, German and English climate specialists, conservationists and government entities under the umbrella of the APB. The negotiations on national legislation on carbon credits are ongoing.
In 2015, The APB Wetland Centre was established in Minsk to continue peatland restoration and raise awareness. It brings together the best science and practical expertise to combine climate and biodiversity restoration with the improvement of local livelihoods and aims to trade in voluntary carbon credits. Many of the pioneering solutions that have been tested in Belarus are now being used in neighbouring countries.
In October 2015, the restoration work in Belarus was recognized by the UNDP Equator Principles as being in the top 8% of global environmental achievements.
It must be noted that peatland restoration is a non-conflict area of activity, where all national stakeholders agree on the necessity and importance of such actions. Nevertheless, the conservation of existing natural peatlands remains much discussed, especially on national plans for continued peat harvesting and processing. But although plans have been approved for continued extraction, due to economic restrictions, they remain as plans only (national parks and reserves are excluded from any exploitation).
Annett Thiele is a landscape ecologist at the Michael Succow Foundation and a freelance partner in the Greifswald Mire Centre, Germany.
Catherine Evsukova is the director of the APB Wetland Centre.