A GLOBALLY IMPORTANT CARBON STOREHOUSE
In a world that desperately needs climate solutions, we cannot afford to overlook the huge role played by natural climate solutions. One of the most important opportunities from a Canadian perspective is our ability to protect one of the world’s greatest natural tools to fight climate change: the vast, carbon-rich peatlands spread across Canada.
WCS Canada is taking the message about the importance of peatlands to the international climate negotiations in Glasgow. We will be presenting new research on the importance of peatlands and on our newly revised storymap that takes people on a virtual tour of these vitally important ecosystems. Our work also outlines the numerous threats facing peatlands: from destruction through mining and road building to the threat of drying out by higher temperatures, being destabilized by permafrost thaw or being burnt by more frequent and intense fires.
When many people think of natural solutions to climate change, they might think of towering old growth forests or the Amazon rainforest. But we also need to look at the immense amounts of carbon stored below the surface in soils in natural systems like peatlands and wetlands.
Peatlands in Canada – water-saturated areas composed of tightly compressed plant material that has built up over centuries – are estimated to store 150 billion tonnes of carbon. That’s equal to 25 years of Canada’s current greenhouse gas emissions. The vast peatland areas – more than 1.1 million square kilometres – that stretch across the boreal zone straddling the country’s midsection are a globally important and irreplaceable carbon sink.
Only three percent of the planet’s surface is made up of peatlands, but 25% of this area is within Canada. Despite their relatively small area on a global scale, peatlands store close to a third of the total carbon found in soils worldwide. That means Canada has an outsized opportunity to help the world address climate change by conserving peatlands. Right now, however, only 10% of the peatland area in Canada is formally protected, and other policy safeguards are inadequate outside protected areas.
Many peatlands in Canada are in the homelands of Indigenous Peoples, who have relied on these lands for millennia for clean water and sustenance. Many Indigenous communities across the boreal region are working hard to have Indigenous-led protection and stewardship recognized by provincial and federal governments.
Stronger policies to safeguard peatlands and support Indigenous-led protections is not just an opportunity to keep carbon in the ground, it is also an opportunity to address the biodiversity crisis that is being made worse by climate change. For example, the second biggest peatland complex in the world is the Hudson Bay Lowland. This vast area, along the Hudson and James Bay coasts in the far north in Ontario, is home to a great variety of life, including many nationally rare plants. Wildlife species of national conservation concern found here include caribou, wolverine, polar bear, lake sturgeon, red knot, and Hudsonian godwit. It is the location of several Key Biodiversity Areas that include critical stopover habitat for millions of shorebirds and waterfowl. Protecting peatlands will protect the land, the water, and the habitat for these animals.
Recognizing the climate and ecological importance of peatlands is just step one. We must quickly follow up with concrete measures to better steward these vital carbon stores. We need to better quantify where peatlands are and which areas are at the highest risk of human-caused disturbance. And we must better measure and track their role in absorbing and storing carbon and how this is being changed by growing climate impacts.
Peatlands truly are ecological gems that need greater care. We are focusing a great deal of scientific attention on peatlands and surrounding wild landscapes because these are globally important areas for people and the planet.
Our presentation on the importance of Canada’s peatlands at the COP-26 Global Peatland Pavillion in Glasgow is available to watch here:
Read our research on the value of peatlands in Canada:
Photo credits: Banner | Mike Oldham