Peatlands in the northern hemisphere are important areas of carbon capture and storage. This could amount to as much as 500 gigatonnes. The exploitation of these areas and the associated lower water levels mean that carbon escapes into the atmosphere as CO2. This contributes to the greenhouse effect and the consequent warming of the planet. Maintaining these areas well, therefore, is an important factor in the fight against climate change.
The influence of wet peatlands on the balance of gases in the atmosphere is twofold. There are not only CO2 emissions, but also methane emissions which make up to 30% of the world’s methane emissions. Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Methane emissions, however, will decrease when peatlands are exploited.
Influence wet peatlands on balance of gases in the atmosphere
An international group of scientists including researchers from VU University Amsterdam (Ko van Huissteden, Han Dolman) and Wageningen University (Elmar Veenendaal, Arina Schrier – Arina has in the meantime begun work with Wetlands International) have used measurements and calculations based on models to estimate what the possible results of peatlands exploitation will be. They have calculated how the greenhouse balance and therefore the climate within the northern hemisphere will be affected.
“One of the most important outcomes from our research is that within the context of climate change, the ability of wet peatlands to capture carbon and store it outweighs the negative effect of its methane emissions,” says Elmar Veenendaal. “The gain from the reduction of methane emissions is insufficient to compensate against the extra CO2 emissions.” The researchers discovered that transforming peatlands into agricultural land was the worst case scenario in the context of climate effect. The results of the study, which was published in the scientific journal PNAS yesterday, are helping to improve the IPCC’s climate scenarios. Ko van Huissteden says: “Our results also make it clear that people making use of peatlands have a direct and great responsibility with regards to their maintenance. They need to keep them as climate-neutral as possible in order to help combat CO2 emissions and soil loss.”