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Land Use

Peatlands

Harvested peatlands in Ireland as seen from a drone. Peatland ecosystems cover 17 percent of the Irish Republic and have been hand cut— what was known as “working in the moss”—for fuel and winter warmth since Roman times. Today, machines employed by the state- owned company Bord na Móna have replaced people, leaving boglands irreparably damaged. In 2015, the company announced it would phase out all peat cutting by 2030 and make a transition to sustainable biomass, wind, and solar power.

Peatlands, also known as bogs or mires, are neither solid ground nor water but something in between. Peat is a thick, mucky substance made up of dead and decomposing plant matter. It develops over hundreds, even thousands of years, as wetland vegetation slowly decays beneath a living layer of flora and in the near absence of oxygen.

Although these unique ecosystems cover just 3 percent of the earth’s land area, they are second only to oceans in the amount of carbon they store—twice that held by the world’s forests, at an estimated 500 to 600 gigatons. Protecting them through land preservation and fire prevention is a prime opportunity to manage global greenhouse gases.

Because peatlands’ typical carbon content is over 50 percent, they become powerful greenhouse chimneys if disrupted. When peat is exposed to the air, the carbon it contains gets oxidized into carbon dioxide. It can take thousands of years to build up peat, but a matter of only a few to release its greenhouse cache once it is degraded.

Luckily, 85 percent of the world’s peatlands are intact. Though not as effective as halting degradation before it starts, restoring drained and damaged peatlands is an essential complement to protection.

References

“kind, black butter”: Heaney, Seamus. “Bogland” (1969). In Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996. Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1998.

“bog bodies”: Dell’Amore, Christine. “Who Were the Ancient Bog Mummies? Surprising New Clues.” National Geographic. July 18, 2014.

carbon content [of peat]: Parish, F., A. Sirin, D. Charman, H. Joosten, T. Minayeva, M. Silvius, and L. Stringer, eds. Assessment on Peatlands, Biodiversity and Climate Change: Main Report. Kuala Lumpur and Wageningen, The Netherlands: Global Environment Centre and Wetlands International, 2008.

[role during] Dutch Golden Age: de Zeeuw, Jan Willem. “Peat and the Dutch Golden Age. The Historical Meaning of Energy-Attainability.” AAG Bijdragen 21 (1978): 3-31.

peatlands [vs.] oceans [vs.] forests: Parish et al, Assessment; Scharlemann, Jörn P.W., Edmund V.J. Tanner, Roland Hiederer, and Valerie Kapos. “Global Soil Carbon: Understanding and Managing the Largest Terrestrial Carbon Pool.” Carbon Management, 5, no. 1 (2014): 81-91; Yu, Z., J. Loisel, D.P. Brosseau, D.W. Beilman, and S.J. Hunt. “Global Peatland Dynamics Since the Last Glacial Maximum.” Geophys. Res. Letts. 37 (2010): L13402.

[intact] peatlands…water retention: Joosten, Hans. The Global Peatland CO2 Picture: Peatland Status and Emissions in All Countries of the World. Wageningen, The Netherlands: Wetlands International, 2009.

emit some methane: Strack, Maria, ed. Peatlands and Climate Change. Jyvaskyla, Finland: International Peat Society, 2008.

carbon per acre [vs.] other ecosystems: Parish et al, Assessment.

Fifteen percent [of peatlands disrupted]: Joosten, Picture.

Drained peatlands…emissions: Joosten, Picture.

Southeast Asia…fires and clearing: Page, Susan E., and A. Hooijer. “In the Line of Fire: The Peatlands of Southeast Asia.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371, no. 1696 (2016): 20150176.

Indonesia…in the top five emitters: World Resources Institute. CAIT Climate Data Explorer. http://cait2.wri.org.

[growing] risk of peatland fires: Turetsky, Merritt R., et al. “Global Vulnerability of Peatlands to Fire and Carbon Loss.” Nature Geoscience 8 (2015): 11–14.

mining…extracting…and draining: Strack, Peatlands.

bog [discovered in] Congo-Brazzaville: Morelle, Rebecca. “Colossal Peat Bog Discovered in Congo.” BBC News. May 27, 2014.

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