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The big payback from bringing back peat bogs

The draining and burning of peat bogs is a major global source of CO2 emissions. Now, a pilot project in Russia — where wildfires burned vast areas of dried-out bogs last summer — is looking to re-flood and restore tens of thousands of acres to their natural state.

Wild fires that swept across Russia during the record heat wave last summer wrecked crops, triggered a global surge in wheat prices, caused pitch-black smogs that killed thousands of people and — though not much noted at the time — poured huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The gas came mainly from burning peat in wide areas of drained bogs around Moscow.

The world had seen nothing like it since peat bogs burned in Indonesia in 1998, shrouding neighboring countries in smoke for weeks. The Moscow fires were a stark reminder that peat bogs are the third greatest source of CO2 emissions — after burning fossil fuels and deforestation.

Now a global project is getting under way to stench the emissions by protecting the bogs. It will start later this year amid the dried-out tinderbox bogs around the Russian capital, with a project known as PeatRus.

Is the Cinderella CO2-source about to receive the attention it deserves? Drained and burned peat bogs release an estimate 2 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. That is 5 percent of man-made emissions, behind fossil fuel burning (83 percent) and forest loss (12 percent).

PeatRus is the brainchild of Wetlands International, the Netherlands-based NGO. The project has financing from Germany and the political backing of the Russian government — an unusual event in a country where environmentalism is often a dirty word. The aim is to restore about 35,000 hectares (86,486 acres) of dried-out peat bogs and stem CO2 emissions by re-flooding them. It should prevent up to a million tons of CO2 getting into the atmosphere by 2015, and much more thereafter.

The project in Russia forms part of a global plan to fight CO2 emissions from peat bogs revealed at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York last week. At that meeting, Wetlands International committed to “rewetting” one million hectares of peat bogs worldwide, enough to prevent the release of 100 million tons of CO2 in the next three years alone.

Peat is soggy and squishy. It is accumulated organic debris that has built up in waterlogged wetlands over thousands of years. These remains do not rot, because that requires oxygen and the bogs in which they sit contain no oxygen. So the bogs become ever larger natural stores of carbon. Many contain much more than the densest rainforest. But if the bog ever dries out, through drought or drainage, the carbon becomes vulnerable — both to fires, which directly release CO2 into the air, and to oxidation as the air penetrates. Either way, the accumulated carbon hemorrhages into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Most of the fuel for the wild fires that choked Moscow last year was dried-out peat beneath farms created on former peat bogs that were drained in the 1960s. Burning peat caused 90 percent of the smoke, and the tiny particles contained in the peat smoke made it the most dangerous type of smoke too, when inhaled deep into the lungs of Muscovites.

The Russian peatlands restoration project, PeatRus, was agreed in the presence of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a meeting of the two governments in July this year in Hannover. It is funded by the German International Climate Initiative, which gets its money from selling carbon credits. The project’s architect is Wetlands International, which has already been doing pilot peat-land rewetting on 2,000 hectares of the Meschera national park east of Moscow in the province of Vladimir.

Russia is the second biggest emitter of CO2 from dried-out peat bogs. But the biggest emitter is Indonesia, which has a series of giant bogs, some more than 20 meters thick, across an estimated 20 million hectares of Sumatra, Borneo and New Guinea. Those bogs contain as much as 200 billion tons of CO2 — and are Wetlands International’s next target. In terms of carbon emissions, the draining of peat bogs is a far greater problem in Indonesia than deforestation; some 60 percent of the country’s overall CO2 emissions are bubbling up out of its bogs, as farmers and loggers drain them to plant palm oil or timber, or set fire to them as they clear the forests above.

The biggest known release of carbon dioxide from burning peat occurred during the huge forest fires that engulfed the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra in 1997 and 1998. This occurred when fires set by farmers to clear land got out of control during a drought created by a major El Nino event. Rather like last year’s Moscow fires, most of the smoke and CO2 came not from burning trees but from burning peat. Some bogs smoldered underground for several years.

Geographer Jack Rieley of the University of Nottingham in England later estimated that the peat fires in Borneo and Sumatra released between three and nine billion tons of CO2, equivalent to as much as a third of global emissions that year from burning fossil fuels. The fires were disastrous and highly visible, but the greater long-term threat is probably the slow but constant exodus of CO2 from the oxidation of dried-out bogs, as they are drained for cultivation.

I visited the scene of one peatland tragedy in 2007. On the Kampar peninsula of Sumatra, right across the Straits of Malacca from Singapore, is one of Southeast Asia’s largest peat bogs. Until 2002, the 4,000-square-kilometer mass of peat, some of it 15 meters thick, was largely untouched. The place could only be reached by boat. Some 50 Sumatran tigers lived there, along with clouded leopards, elephants, sun bears, tapirs and other rare species. A few tribal villagers took their fishing boats through its myriad waterways.

But then loggers arrived, intent on finding timber to feed two giant pulp mills nearby. Since then, Asia Pulp and Paper has been draining from the north, and Asia Pacific Resources International from the south and west. In 2007, I watched as the companies dug canals ever deeper into the domed swamp, with the dual aim of removing logs on trains of giant barges, and draining the swamp so they could later plant acacia trees on the logged land.

Asia Pacific’s peat scientist Jonathan Bathgate told me how the bog was bleeding to death before us. As his company’s drainage canals lowered water levels, the peat began to dry, the organic matter started to oxidise and carbon dioxide was released into the air. Emissions would continue until all the peat above the lowering water table was gone, he said.

The thick peat on Kampur contains anywhere between one and two billion tons of carbon. Its surface has already collapsed by more than a meter; if draining continues, it could lose an additional four meters within 25 years. Local officials of the environment group WWF says that, despite a moratorium on logging and draining promised by the Indonesian government, the carnage continues.

Some engineers are proposing big technical schemes to flood Indonesia’s degraded bogs. One proposal is to construct dams to restore part of a million-hectare drainage project undertaken by the Indonesian government back in the 1990s in a failed attempt to grow rice in central Borneo — the so-called Mega Rice Project. Julia Jaenicke of Germany’s Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich wants dams to flood 600 square kilometers of the failed farm, which would cut emissions of 1.5 million tons of CO2 a year.

Wetlands International prefers community-based schemes. Besides re-flooding projects, it plans to use micro-credit to encourage local development projects, such as fishing, that do not damage the bogs and may encourage locals to defend them.

Targeting a relatively small number of boggy places around the world could have a big effect. About half the global CO2 emissions from peat bogs come from the quarter of the world’s bogs that are in Southeast Asia, which cover some 13 million hectares. Such projects could make a huge difference to the CO2 emissions of a number of countries. In 15 countries, peat bogs are larger sources of CO2 emissions than burning fossil fuels. They include Indonesia, Uganda, Iceland, Mongolia and Papua New Guinea.

The potential global payback is huge. Stemming the annual 2 billion tons of CO2 emissions from the world’s bogs would cut the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere in a century’s time by 25 parts per million (ppm) from business as usual. Many climate scientists want to curb emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation enough to keep CO2 concentrations, which are currently around 390 parts per million, from rising above 450 ppm. With the contribution of peat bogs, that figure could be cut to 425 ppm.

It is a prize worth having. The Moscow project could be just the beginning.

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