Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that the loss of the world’s peatlands is a major factor in the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If so, what can be done about it?
—Larissa S., Las Vegas, NV
Peatlands are wetland ecosystems that accumulate plant material to form layers of peat soil up to 60 feet thick. They can store, on average, 10 times more carbon dioxide (CO2), the leading greenhouse gas, than other ecosystems. As such, the world’s peat bogs represent an important “carbon sink”—a place where CO2 is stored below ground and can’t escape into the atmosphere and exacerbate global warming. When drained or burned, however, peat decomposes and the stored carbon gets released into the atmosphere.
A 2007 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study of the role peatlands play in human-induced climate change found that the world’s estimated 988 million acres of peatland (which represent about three percent of the world’s land and freshwater surface) are capable of storing some two trillion tons of CO2—equivalent to about 100 years worth of fossil fuel emissions.
As such, the widespread conversion of peat bogs into commercial uses around the world is serious cause for alarm. In Finland, Scotland and Ireland, peat is harvested on an industrial scale for use in power stations and for heating, cooking and use in domestic fireplaces.