After the smoke clears, damage still emerges from last spring’s wild and vast fires around Fort McMurray in Alberta. The NYT Science Times (August 9, 2016) reported how fires like these are destroying Earth’s peat deposits, releasing volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Long-dead plant material in peat holds ancient carbon, which photosynthesis removed from the air. Worldwide, buried peat holds 30% of all carbon dioxide.
Most know peat only as dried “peat moss” used to enrich flowerbeds. Canada harvests 40,000 acres of peat moss, exporting 90% to the USA for gardeners. Peat is dried when mined. Exposed to the air, the peat oxidizes and its stored carbon is released. In Alberta, peat covers 65% of the oil sands. Cleared to permit surface mining, Alberta’s peat releases upwards of 47.3 million tons of stored carbon into the air. The wild fires ignited this exposed peat, and set peat in the ground ablaze. Fires are still smoldering, awaiting winter rains and snows.
Peat fires burn all around the world until rains extinguish them. Beyond billions of dollars in economic damage, natural systems are impaired. NASA provides an online observatory revealing the extent of these fires. This summer’s Siberian wild peat fires burn on.
Companies unlawfully burn peat in Indonesia to convert wet peat forests to palm oil and pulp plantations. Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions from burning peat are today equal to all the climate-changing emissions of China or the USA. Each year since 1997, the smoke from these fires causes air pollution locally in Riau and across the Straits of Malacca in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Southeast Asia’s peat emissions are adding one gigaton of carbon dioxide a year. The Indonesian “Haze” is well documented, as in NASA’s 2014 recorded images.
Although peat deposits exist in all Earth’s regions, peat covers only 3% of the land surface. Peat has accumulated to depths of 30 feet or more. While drained or degraded peat areas are found today on 0.4% of the lands, these areas currently contribute 5% of total greenhouse gas emission. Their volume of emissions grows daily.
Mining of peat is an additional cause of the destruction of peat deposits and carbon emissions. Peat is mined like coal in Ireland and in each Scandinavian country to fuel electricity generating plants. A new peat-fired power plant has opened in Uganda. The untapped peat in Central Africa is huge. Peat bogs in the Congo exceed the entire landmass of Great Britain.
Some countries are taking steps to limit disturbance of peat deposits. Finland, New Zealand and Great Britain are debating ending their exploitation of peat in order to help stop global warming. Since 1989, Kew Botanical Garden in London has banned the use of peat, although the U.K.’s annual emissions of carbon dioxide from mining peat for use in compost remain at 400,000 tons. To stop air pollution of Moscow and halt ongoing greenhouse gases releases, Russia is re-wetting peat areas drained in the 1920s by the USSR. Russia’s protected wilderness areas hold the world’s largest preserved peat habitats. Peat is protected in federal parks lands of Alaska.
Alternatives exist for every use of peat. Countries could legislate to ban peat sales and restore damaged peat deposits. States like New York or Massachusetts have already done so by adopting strict wetlands laws. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions provides a strong reason to ban sales of peat moss, and prohibit peat mining in Minnesota and nationally. Emission-trading schemes can help finance transitions from peat abuse to peat preservation.
Peat preservation is critical. Paleoecologists mine peat for knowledge, learning how plants thrived and died over the 11,000 years since the last Ice Age. Peat reveals how climates change. Accumulating slowly at 1 mm/year, peat is an irreplaceable record of life on Earth. Peat areas also host essential biodiversity. Indonesia’s peat loss jeopardizes its Orangutan and Sumatran tiger habitat. In less than ten years, the Kampar Peninsula lost 43% of its peat, releasing 1.9 gigatons of greenhouse gases. Indonesia has lost 18.5 million hectares of forests, an area twice the size of Ireland.
United Nations climate negotiators so far have ignored the plight of peat. At the 2015 Paris climate negotiations, Singapore stated that, “emissions of these fires by errant companies in Indonesia are more than the total CO2 emissions of Germany. This is comparable to the emissions of Japan.” It is sobering to reflect that Southeast Asia’s peat emissions are matched by those in Canada and elsewhere.
This month, the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature met in the USA for the first time. The 5,000 IUCN delegates in Hawai’i adopted a call for the worldwide protection of peat. Some efforts have begun. The United Kingdom is studying a “Peat Code” to finance peat restoration and preservation by payments to offset other gas emission. In Germany, “MoorFutures” are being offered in Bavaria for investors to finance peat offsets.
Much is at stake. If the climate warms and the peat is allowed to dry and burn across Africa, Asia, Siberia and elsewhere, run-away emissions can result. Aware of mounting environmental degradation, a year ago the nations in the UN General Assembly adopted a new Sustainable Development Goal, to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems” by 2030. For peat’s sake, let us get on with it.