Over the past two centuries, wetlands have been damaged through draining, levereing and channelised for agriculture, energy and other industries. Wetlands are home to 40% of the world’s species and provide key ecosystem services to maintain livelihoods, protect from environmental impacts, and offer long-term storage of carbon. These ecosystems are not only defined by the presence of water, but are shaped by the water’s influence on the biogeochemistry of the site. Europe has lost up to 87% of its original wetland area and this is only accelerating.
Peatlands represent half of the Earth’s wetlands, and are defined by a thick water-logged soil layer made up of dead and decaying plant matter. Peatlands are a carbon rich ecosystem that store and sequester more carbon than any other type of terrestrial ecosystem. While having the capacity to store large amounts of carbon in the semi-decomposed matter, human-driven drainage and damage has reversed this, causing today’s peatlands to contribute to over 5% of the world’s anthropogenic GHG emissions (more than the aviation and shipping industries combined!).
The urgency of large-scale action for peatlands is undeniable. At the 2021 annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), dialogues to discuss establishing a European Peatlands Initiative were held. This represented a huge opportunity to advance commitments and action on peatlands across Europe.
Building on previous discussions and exchanges supported by the GPI, GMC, Ramsar and the German government, this dialogue reached out to relevant stakeholders across Europe to understand the need and opportunity of engaging collectively to make an impact for peatlands at scale and at speed. Partners welcomed the opportunity and acknowledged that sharing knowledge, learning from each other in terms of policy approaches, and joining forces through strategic partnerships will help each country work together for their joint purpose of saving the valuable peatlands around Europe.
- Malcolm Noonan, Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform of Ireland, expressed how vital it is to enhance meaningful collaboration across Europe in order to maximise the positive outcomes for our peatlands and management programmes, showcasing Ireland “having the best example of raised bog habitat left in Europe, and also the largest extent of upland blanket bog.”
- Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources of Iceland, explained how peat and peatlands are part of Iceland’s landscapes and economic and social history, being part of their culture. He shared that years back, the government handed out generous subsidies for draining wetlands, and ditches were signs of progress. However, now there is strong government support for peatlands conservation, backed up by the renewed Climate Action Plan from 2020.
- Pippa Hackett, Minister for Land Use and Biodiversity of Ireland, raised the challenge to protect peat soils in Ireland. She also acknowledged the economic value of peatlands through carbon farming and other innovations to reward farmers for their ecosystem benefits. She shared that peatlands and organic soils offer unique opportunities to help achieve the ambitious reduction targets which are required to avoid the disastrous consequences of global warming.
- Svenja Schulze, Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety of Germany, showed that peatland protection is effective and inexpensive, with the priority being the practical implementation of peatland restoration. She recognised the importance of knowledge sharing between countries, noting the Global Peatlands Initiative’s role in helping countries to learn from one another and join forces around the matter of urgency to address peatland conservation.
Other speakers included; Franziska Tanneberger (Director of the Greifswald Mire Centre), Douwe Jonkers (on behalf of Carola Schouten, Minister of Agriculture, Nature, and Food Quality from the Netherlands), Kristina Simonaitytė, (Advisor to the Lithuanian Minister of Agriculture), Andrew Millar (Chief Scientific Adviser for Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture of Scotland), Harm Schoten (Director at Eurosite), Aldert van Weeren (Wetland Product Foundation & Farmer), Shane Regan (National Parks and Wildlife Service of Ireland), Hans Schutten (Programme Head of Climate Smart Land-use from Wetlands International).
Dianna Kopansky, Global Peatlands Coordinator at UNEP, issued a call-to-action: calling on people, governments, farmers, conservationists, businesses, bankers and scientists to gather to increase the ambition and actions for peatlands to meet the climate and nature targets through a European Peatlands Initiative, which can:
- Gather governments of all European peatland countries to work together toward increasing the protection, rewetting, restoration and sustainable management of our peatlands in line with the commitment to implement the UNEA4 Resolution on Peatlands.
- Raise awareness for the importance of peatlands in fighting the interconnected climate crisis and nature emergency.
- Acknowledge the different sectors who are working towards sustainable management of peatlands and join them up.
- Stimulate exchange of knowledge on sustainable livelihoods, wet use of peatlands including recreation, paludiculture, education and help advance the research on alternative sources of growing media.
- Pilot financial incentives to close the financial gap for peatlands
During the event’s closing, Minister of State of Housing, Local Government and Heritage Malcolm Noonan, announced that Ireland will host a workshop in 2022 to further discussions and accelerate collaboration for a European Peatland Initiative. In the lead up to the workshop, Bax & Company will support the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine in Ireland in an exploratory study to understand the potential aims, mission and benefits of a European Peatland Initiative.