Posted on August 2, 2022 by Richard Horder
Susan Cooke’s recent post about the importance of peatland for carbon sequestration took me back to my law school days when I spent many hours mucking about Payne’s Prairie. This peat filled location in Alachua County, Florida, was a place with its own quiet beauty and solemnity. Wildlife such as alligators, beavers, and even bison (yes, bison), can be seen there, and over 270 species of birds often call the place home. The biodiversity and beauty of Payne’s Prairie has often staggered my mind. It was not a designated State Park then, but fortunately, unlike many peat areas, it is now protected for future generations.
Besides their beauty, peatlands have moved to the forefront of environmental discussions on climate change. Considered too soggy for crops and too soft for construction, peatlands were viewed as a hinderance to development, and something to be fixed. Today, these terrestrial wetland ecosystems serve as a powerful tool for carbon sequestration. While only representing 3% of land on earth, peatlands store twice the amount of carbon as all the world’s forests combined. In the United States, peatlands are generally broken down into two regions, the northern region and the Atlantic coastal region. The northern region consists of states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois. The Atlantic coastal region consists of the eastern parts of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, and all of Florida.
Peatland is characterized by waterlogged conditions which prevent plant material from fully decomposing. Waterlogged conditions enable peatlands to trap enormous amounts of organic matter underwater in a low-oxygen environment, inhibiting the breakdown and release of carbon dioxide. The large amounts of dead organic matter accumulate over time to form about an inch of peat every twenty years. These peatlands took thousands of years to form but can be destroyed rapidly. When disturbed, the value of the land as a carbon sink is lost and, instead, can become a carbon source. Disturbed peatlands currently account for approximately 5% of global anthropomorphic greenhouse gas emissions.
Global peatlands are used in a variety of ways that are disturbing the resource. In northern European countries such as Finland, Ireland, and Scotland, peat, still a prominent fuel source, has become a significant issue. In southeast Asia, peatlands are drained for oil palm cultivation. In the United States and Canada, peat is used for horticulture. Disturbance causes peatland to degrade and drain, inhibiting the peatlands’ absorbent characteristics. When drained, peatlands are also susceptible to fire, which adds to additional greenhouse gas emissions
Considering the value of healthy peatlands as a powerful tool for carbon sequestration, efforts to protect these environments are gaining momentum in the United States and abroad. While the United States does not have any statutes or regulations specifically governing carbon emissions from peatlands, both the Biden administration and non-governmental organizations are attempting to elevate the discussions about peatland protection.
In November of 2021, the Biden administration announced its “Plan to Conserve Global Forests: Critical Carbon Sinks” to preserve critical ecosystems, including peatlands. The lofty plan strives to end global forest loss by 2030 and restore additional acreage of degraded landscapes and forestlands. Domestically, the Plan promotes collaboration of multiple government agencies to manage protected areas (including peat areas), empower local communities, engage the private sector, and strengthen policy. One hopes that these efforts at more robust regulatory focus of peatlands do not get mired down in controversy.
Non-governmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy are also working to conserve and restore peatland. Through a joint effort with the American Carbon Registry and TerraCarbon, The Nature Conservancy has spearheaded creation of a carbon offset methodology to verify and measure greenhouse gas emissions reduction from the restoration of peat soils. Use of this methodology allows landowners who restore peatlands to document and sell carbon credits on the voluntary carbon market and is being piloted on peatlands in North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia.
As peatland conservation and restoration methodologies are still developing, this will be an interesting time for management of this valuable resource, especially as a carbon sequestration tool.