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Early morning mist rising from the canopy of the lowland forest in the Danum Valley, Sabah, Borneo.

Early morning mist rising from the canopy of the lowland forest in the Danum Valley, Sabah, Borneo.

Credit: Nick Garbutt/Nature Picture Library

Peatlands

Call to action:

Protect and restore threatened peatlands, one of the most ecologically diverse and carbon-rich ecosystems on the planet.

Although peatlands comprise only 3 percent of the earth’s land, they make up half of the world’s wetlands and store twice as much carbon as forests. Peatlands occur on every continent, including Antarctica, and people have gathered food, timber, and medicine from them for centuries. They provide essential flood protection and water filtration services for communities. However, they are under severe pressure from industrial activities and the effects of climate change. Many peatlands have been drained for agriculture and development, and others are drying out due to prolonged drought and rising temperatures, causing out-of-control fires. They could release large amounts of greenhouse gases as they further deteriorate and burn, changing from a carbon sink to a carbon source. Peatlands need to be protected, restored, and sustainably managed on a high-priority basis, especially in the tropics.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn why peatlands are critically important and what threatens them. Peat is partially decayed vegetation found in a water-soaked and oxygen-deprived environment. Types of peatlands include mires, fens, bogs, pocosins, muskeg, moors, and peat swamp forest. Peat can be as much as sixty feet thick and preserve up to 3,000 metric tons of carbon per hectare, making them an important carbon sink. Peatlands are refuges for rare and endangered plants and animals, such as sundews, bonobos, flying foxes, and orangutans. Indigenous people use peatlands for fishing, hunting, fiber, fruit, timber, and medicine. Indigenous knowledge and care are essential to the protection of peatlands from boreal regions to the tropics (see Wetlands Nexus and Mangroves Nexus).

Get to know your peatlands and speak out for them. Although they often have historical and cultural significance along with unique biodiversity, peatlands are often underappreciated.

Make consumption choices that preserve peatland. Palm oil plantations on peat are responsible for 1.5 percent of global CO2 emissions. The plantations also damage Sumatran elephant and orangutan habitat. Horticultural peat harvesting, largely in Canada, also causes substantial emissions.

Groups

Farmers, Ranchers, and Landholders

Protect intact peatlands on land you own or use. Draining peatlands for agriculture only works in the short term. The organic soil decomposes, releasing stored carbon into the air, and the soil compacts, resulting in technical and financial challenges.

  • Maintain the hydrology of bogs and fens and put in a buffer strip of shrubs and grasses to prevent fertilizer contamination and reduce invasive weeds. Prairie strips or hedgerows can also provide habitat for birds and pollinators.
  • Don’t overgraze peatlands. Peatlands are easily damaged by trampling and slow to recover. Water buffalo are especially suited to peat grazing.
  • Don’t burn peatlands. The scientific evidence is clear—peatlands do not require burning to maintain their health.

Transition to alternative uses of peatlands. Draining peatlands for agriculture doesn’t work. Consider alternatives such as ponds, paludiculture, or agroforestry for income.

Local Governments, Nonprofits, and Communities

Involve local communities in restoration, monitoring, and maintaining peatlands. A survey of policy makers, nonprofits, and researchers involved in peatland restoration in Indonesia highlighted the need for local involvement. Another study highlighted community input as necessary for beneficial outcomes. Communities are critical to the three main phases of peatland restoration: rewet peatlands, restore vegetation, and revitalize local economies.

  • In Finland, a community-based comanagement council links science-based and local/traditional knowledge, enabling adaptive management of the Jukajoki watershed, including the formerly highly degraded Linnunsuo peatlands. Involving the traditional inhabitants of the area (the Sámi) as part of the socioecology has ensured successful rewilding.
  • In Indonesia, communities are involved from planning, to construction, to monitoring drainage ditch blocking projects. Community fire monitoring can be very effective in preventing fires and catching peatland drainage problems early.

Rewet peatlands. Rewetting is necessary to restore vegetation, as this study in North America and this one in Norway demonstrate.

Revegetate rehydrated peatlands.

Companies

Maintain a peat-responsible supply chain. Illegal drainage of peatlands for palm oil continues with the collusion of major companies such as Procter & Gamble and Mondelēz, while pulp-producing giants Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL) and Asia Pulp & Paper have both been found clearing peatlands illegally. Local communities have protested; their traditional livelihoods are threatened by the plantations.

Governance

Protect existing peatlands and enforce existing protections. Peatland protection is a priority under numerous international agreements. About 12 percent of global peatlands have flipped from carbon sinks to carbon sources, mainly in temperate and tropical areas. Supporting peatland conservation and rewetting is one of the most cost-effective and efficient methods to prevent and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Inventory peatlands and estimate greenhouse gas storage and emissions. Both intact peatlands and those that are drained need to be mapped, including their extent, their depth, and their use. It is also important to quantify changes in emissions from changes in land use.
  • Identify internationally important peatlands to conserve. For peatlands to be managed as hydrological units, an entire watershed may be of international importance due to its biodiversity, its importance to migratory birds, its cultural significance, and its ecological intactness.
  • Manage peatlands as hydrological units, which requires protecting shallow peat as well as deep peat. In Indonesia, deep peat is protected, but drainage of shallow peat is still permitted for oil palm plantations. However, draining shallow peat may also lower the water level in deep peat and creates similar problems. Here is a guide on peatland management published by the International Peatland Society.
  • Enforce existing law. Oil palm plantations continue to expand in Indonesia over the protests of Indigenous people, disregarding their land rights and breaking Indonesian law.

Align land use and agricultural policy with climate change goals. Policies that encourage drainage of peatlands drive enormous emissions. Many countries do not have national peatland policies in place. Paludiculture practitioners universally report that agricultural policy hinders its adoption.

  • End peat use for fuel to reduce its disproportionate emissions. Ireland has committed to stop using peat in its power plants, using a just transition for workers in the peat industry. Finland plans to halve its peat consumption by 2030, and its rewilding efforts are reducing pollution from mined bogs.
  • Phase out payments to agriculture on drained soils and support paludiculture. European Common Agricultural Practices heavily support agriculture on drained peatlands. Supporting paludiculture on rewetted peatlands aligns incentives with the need to keep peatlands wet. There is a particular need for long-term policy to support farmers’ transitions.
  • Make import/export policies favorable to paludiculture farmers. For instance, an export ban on illipe nut in Indonesia that reduced profit to farmers without improving the domestic market should be lifted.
  • Support smallholder farmers with training, policy, and finance. Transitioning to paludiculture requires new skills and machinery, and may need financial support for slow-maturing tree crops such as sago.

Cooperate with other governments to share knowledge and best practices.

  • The Republic of Congo and Indonesia, both of which have enormous peat areas, have an agreement to develop sound management of peatlands. They also agreed to help each other with capacity building and exchanges of information.
  • A cooperative effort between Germany and Russia showed that ecological rewetting was a cost-effective way to restore peatlands and reduce fire risk.

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