The economic and environmental gains resulting from the restoration project will dwarf costs, scientists say.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Taufankharis
Peatlands in tropical nations are home to vital biodiversity while they also help mitigate climate change by acting as highly effective carbon sinks. In addition, these wetlands serve key economic functions by protecting seashores against erosion and from the effects of storms.
And there is more.
“Draining peatlands reduces the quality of drinking water as water becomes polluted with organic carbon and pollutants historically absorbed within peat. In many parts of the world, peatlands supply food, fibre and other local products that sustain economies,” the IUCN explains.
“They also preserve important ecological and archaeological information such as pollen records and human artefacts,” the conservatonist group adds.
And yet peatlands are being cleared at alarming rates in many nations across Southeast Asia where some 25 million hectares of peatland remains, primarily in Indonesia.
Encouragingly, however, some countries have set out to restore large swathes of peatland. One of these nations is Indonesia, whose government is committed to restoring 2.5 million hectares of degraded peatland at an estimated cost of between $3.2 billion and $7 billion.
Despite the initial scale of that investment, the economic and environmental gains resulting from the restoration project will dwarf costs, argue scientists in the United Kingdom.
Based on satellite data and their computer models, a team of researchers at the University of Leeds estimates that in the decade between 2004 and 2015 peatland restoration could have amounted to economic savings of $8.4 billion.
In 2015 when massive wildfires raged around much of Indonesia, economic losses reached $28 billion, while the six largest fires between 2004 and 2015 caused a total of US$94 billion in economic losses owing to the loss of plantations, forestry and agriculture.
At the same time, the country’s CO2 emissions grew markedly and millions of people suffered various health impacts from increased air pollution.
“Fires are more likely to occur on degraded land
In Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia large fires are regularly lit by farmers to clear land, but these fires can then get out of control, spreading into degraded forests and peatlands.
Fires are more likely to occur on degraded forests in protected areas while drainage canals used in agriculture can make fires nearly five times as likely. “Peatlands can be restored by blocking drainage canals to re-wet the peat and planting trees to revegetate the landscape,” the scientists note.
If the country’s peatland restoration project had been completed by 2015, the total area burned that year would have been reduced by 6% while CO2 emissions would have shrunk by 18%, the researchers posit in a paper. In addition, they say, emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) would have been reduced by 24%, saving as many as 12,000 lives.
In short, large-scale peatland restoration will bring numerous tangible benefits to countries such as Indonesia.
“There are wide-ranging benefits of peatland restoration, from local reductions in property loss, regional benefits to air quality and public health to global benefits from reduced CO2 emissions,” stresses Laura Kiely, who led the study.
“Not only do fires destroy agricultural land and disrupt transport, tourism and trade, peatland fires cause large CO2 emissions. Between 1997-2016, fires in Equatorial Asia — most of which were in Indonesia — were responsible for 8% of global fire carbon emissions in 1997-2016,” the scientist adds.
Not only that but the benefits of peatland restoration in Indonesia would have some global implications as well.
“Indonesian peatlands store an estimated 57 gigatonnes of carbon, roughly 55% of the world’s tropical peatland carbon. There is clearly a worldwide benefit to restoring and safeguarding Indonesian peatlands,” Kiely says.
Indonesia’s government-sponsored peatland restoration project will require careful monitoring mechanisms because locals’ support for the initiative will be key to its success. Challenges also remain.
“Future climate change will put Indonesian peatlands — and peatlands all over the world — at greater risk to further degradation and fire,” says Dominick Spracklen, a professor of Biopshere-Atmosphere Interactions at the university.
“The efforts being made by the Indonesian government to restore their peatlands could be leading example in the years to come,” he adds.