by Scott Smith, Communications Director
Unless you’re a fan of single-malt Scotch or poor Heathcliff wandering the Yorkshire moor, or possibly the boggier parts of Harry Potter, you probably don’t think much about peatland.
Yet peatlands are the world’s largest natural terrestrial carbon store. Although they constitute only 3% of the earth’s total surface land area, peatlands contain 42% of all soil carbon and exceed the carbon sequestered in all other vegetation types, including the world’s forests.
Peat is the undecomposed remains of organic matter. Ranging from the boreal forests of the far north to the tropical swamp forests of Southeast Asia, peatlands are defined by soils that are continuously or seasonally saturated with water. The waterlogged soils prevent the breakdown of leaves, wood, roots and other organic material in the soil, allowing carbon to stay trapped underground. In some regions, peat soils are many feet deep and thousands of years old.
Don’t feel bad if peatlands have flown under your eco-radar until now; the world’s largest tropical peatland was discovered beneath the forests of the Congo Basin only in 2017. As for peatlands in the U.S., Minnesota has more than peatland any other state in the U.S. except Alaska, with over 6 million acres, covering 10% of the state.
And while peatland’s ability to store and purify water is ever-more crucial, it’s their role as carbon sinks that make them so critical to solving the climate crisis, in ways both good and bad. Peatlands around the world have been drained for development or for fuel or in misguided attempts to convert “useless swamp” to other ends and means.
Worldwide, nearly 2 million acres of peatlands are lost each year, an area almost as large as Puerto Rico, according to The Wetland Book. In England, more than 90% of the bogs have been damaged or destroyed; the latest estimates for wetland loss in New Zealand are 90% in the past 150 years.
When peatlands are drained and developed, the organic carbon they contain is suddenly exposed to the air and rapidly decomposes, releasing vast amounts CO2 into the atmosphere. Damaged peatlands contribute about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from the land use sector. And because dried peat itself is highly flammable, peat fires in Siberia, Canada and elsewhere – often linked to climate change – are increasingly common, hard to extinguish, and release megatons of CO2. Fires in Indonesian peat swamp forests in 2015, for example, emitted nearly 16 million tons of CO2 a day, more than the daily emissions from the entire U.S. economy.
The good news is that once the effort is made, peatland can be restored, at relatively low cost, bringing positive changes to greenhouse gas losses to the atmosphere far more rapidly that replanting forests or other remediation efforts.
The Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, an important stopover for migrating snow geese and tundra swans, spans 110,000 acres of North Carolina. But prior to becoming a refuge in 1991, many of the region’s peat soils were ditched and drained for development. The degraded peat soils dried out, releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere, according to a case study compiled by Nature4climate.org. The dried peat also spawned large wildfires in 1985 and 2008. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners have been working to reestablish the natural hydrology of the region, installing levees and water control structures to stop the drainage, while still allowing soil moisture to fluctuate naturally as a result of rainfall and evaporation.
“All drained peatlands in the world have to be re-wetted,” Hans Joosten, a peatland ecologist at the University of Greifswald in Germany, told Virginia Gewin, for a 2020 article on nature.com, “How peat could protect the planet.” Joosten points to Indonesia as exhibit A. In recent years, the country has drained millions of acres of peat swamp forests, mostly to supply the world with palm oil, which is now ubiquitous in many products.
The unsustainable palm-oil boom across Southeast Asia has led to massive deforestation, uncontrolled wildfires of the dried peat and the decline of the Bornean Orangutan population by 60% over the past 60 years, forcing the species to be listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Peatland restoration efforts are under way in countries around the world, with Scotland leading the way. Even Indonesia has pledged to restore 10% of the roughly 20 million hectares of the country’s original peat swamp forests.
The protection and restoration of peatlands is vital in the transition towards a low-carbon and circular economy, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
We at Friends of Animals couldn’t agree more. You can do your part to protect peat, starting in your own backyard. The absorbent qualities that make it such an effective storehouse for water and carbon also make peat moss a sough-after mulch or soil amendment for potted plants. Stop buying potting soil composed of peat (aka sphagnum moss). There are alternatives made from recycled newspaper, coconut shells, sustainably harvested redwood fiber or processed compost.
There are also sustainable alternatives to palm oil used for cooking, among them canola oil, sunflower seed oil and olive oil, as well as avocado. You can also substitute vegan butter for palm oil; visit friendsofanimals.org for Miyoko Schinner’s delicious recipe. For other products, like soaps and beauty items, check the label for palm oil or pseudonyms like “palmate” or compounds like sodium lauryl sulfate that contain palm oil as a derivative. The vegan and palm-free soaps, shampoos and lotions made by The Fanciful Fox Handmade Soaperie in Brooklyn, N.Y., are well worth checking out as wholesome alternatives. Ecco Bella, based in West Orange, N.J., offers a line of vegan and cruelty-free beauty products that are made without palm oil, with the exception of “a tiny amount” for their vitamin E that is certified sustainable from small growers.
You can also take action by visiting the Rainforest Action Network’s website, www.ran.org, to join their effort to end conflict palm oil by holding the “Snack Food 20” to account, a campaign that Friends of Animals has been covering since 2014. The way some palm oil is produced is leading to massive peat swamp forest destruction, orangutan extinction and climate change, says Nicole Rivard, editor of FoA’s Action Line magazine. “It’s in 50 percent of the goods we use every day, so put down that Oreo cookie and pass on that bowl of Frosted Flakes.”
For peat’s sake – and the planet’s!
Chef Miyoko Schinner’s Vegan Butter Recipe
MAKES 1 POUND
· ½ cup rich soy milk, almond milk, oat milk or commercial non-dairy milk
· 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
· ½ teaspoon sea salt
· 1-½ cups refined coconut oil (don’t use extra virgin, or it will taste like coconuts), measured after melting
· ¼ cup liquid oil – canola, grapeseed or olive
· 2 teaspoons liquid lecithin
Combine all ingredients in a blender and process at a medium speed for about one minute. Pour into a container of your choice – something made of silicon is great, as it will pop out easily, but any storage container will do (line it with wax paper first for easy removal). Set it in a refrigerator for a few hours until hard.
This recipe is from in Miyoko’s cookbook, The Homemade Vegan Pantry: The Art of Making Your Own Staples (Ten Speed Press, 2015, $18.59).