This is because bog plants absorb CO₂ from the air as they grow, then when they die the carbon is locked away in organic chemicals in the soaking peat for thousands of years. They act as vast carbon sinks, as do oil, coal and gas fields. Peat is the largest and most efficient land-based store of carbon, and the world’s second largest carbon store after the oceans. Peat bogs store on average 10 times more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem.
Unfortunately man takes peat and destroys peat bogs for a number of reasons:
- To be burnt as fuel.
- Used in agriculture and gardening to improve soil structure, improve mineral / water retention and maintain acidity.
- Drained and ploughed for farming and forestry.
These activities mean that CO₂ from the peat is released back into the atmosphere, boosting global warming as well as destroying important habitats (click here for more on CO₂).
In Britain more than 45% of the original peatland has been damaged by man, according to a report from Exeter University's Wetland Ecosystems Research Group. Its scientists estimate that exploitation of the bogs results in CO₂ emissions which amount to 40% of the CO₂ produced by all of the UK's cars, buses, lorries, trains and aircraft.
On a global scale a report by Catherine Brahic indicates that burning, draining, and degrading peat bogs emits carbon dioxide equivalent to more than one tenth of the global emissions released from burning fossil fuels, and two thirds of those emissions come from Southeast Asia, primarily Indonesia.
While the figures may look bleak, the good news is that degraded peatlands can be restored, this means that the equivalent of one tenth of the global emissions from fossil fuels could be prevented from entering the atmosphere simply by blocking the man-made channels that drain peatlands to make way for agriculture.
“Protecting and restoring peatlands is a ‘low hanging fruit’ and among the most cost-effective options for mitigating climate change,” says Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, in Bali.
One such project is already underway to restore some peat bogs in Kalimantan, Indonesia (aided by Wetlands International). The project, which involves working with local communities to build dams across the channels that have been dug to drain the peatlands of their vital water, and has already reduced emissions by 6.5 million tonnes per year.
On a more personal level we can all make a difference, every time you go to a garden centre to buy compost for your garden look for ‘peat-free’ products which contain sustainable alternatives. This is not as easy as it sounds as the majority of composts seem to contain some peat, however concerted demand for peat-free products from all of us will soon sort that!