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Global progress to tackle the climate crisis through peatland action to be presented at UN Climate Conference

Delegates to the UN climate conference (COP25) in Madrid this week will hear about research led by CRE’s Professor Mark Reed, showing that countries around the world are beginning to conserve, restore and sustainably manage their peatlands.

Peatland restoration strategies

Peatlands are the world’s largest carbon store, holding more than twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. However, damaged peatlands are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Countries are gathering in Madrid to work out how they will make cuts to emissions promised under the Paris Agreement. Peatland restoration is widely regarded as a cost-effective option. It would bring benefits for wildlife, water supplies and livelihoods.

Prof Reed, Dr Mercy Ojo and Dr Dylan Young from the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University conducted the research. This was also in collaboration with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Committee on Environmental Management and UK Peatland Programme, and the United Nations Global Peatland Initiative.

The IUCN and Newcastle University team have been monitoring progress towards a 2016 IUCN resolution. This was reflected in resolutions on global peatlands earlier this year by UN Environment and the Ramsar Convention.

Many countries responded to the survey. They had or were developing national strategies to protect and restore their peatlands. Eight out of 11 priority countries with the largest area of peatlands and highest emissions from them had a national strategy. Two had a strategy under development, one had no strategy and eight did not respond to the survey.

A total of 27 national peatland strategies were found. Most of these included:

  • co-ordination of action to protect existing peatlands
  • work to assess the distribution
  • condition of peatlands and policies to support local communities

Few included policies to sustainably manage peatlands, monitor greenhouse gases, stop peat extraction or leverage private investment in restoration.

Linked to this work, Prof Reed is chairing a working group for the United Nations Global Peatlands Initiative. The aim is to identify national research funding opportunities and policy-relevant research priorities. They can then be co-ordinated internationally with funding from the UN system.

The group has identified 23 priority research questions on many topics including:

  • climate change
  • peatland degradation
  • blended finance for peatland restoration

Barriers to policy development

One of the key barriers to developing peatland policy is with mapping the location and condition of the world’s peatlands.

One of the world’s largest peatlands was only discovered in 2016. This was under remote tropical forests in the Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo.

However, attempts to better identify and protect peatlands like these are being hampered by problems with data. For example, it can be difficult to directly compare policy options. This is due to researchers using different evaluation methods.

It is also difficult to combine insights from different studies about the same issue, for the same reasons. Some studies do not fully or consistently report the data, either.

As a result, many decisions in policy and practice are informed by the results of individual studies. These may then be contradicted by the findings of subsequent research.

In response to this, the Newcastle team with Dr Gav Stewart and Dr Dylan Young, are leading a new process. The aim is to standardise the collection of environmental data. It can then be combined from multiple studies and sites to better inform policy and practice.

After starting with UK peatlands, the group is now replicating the process across other peatlands as part of the United Nations Global Peatland Initiative. They will then explore the potential to extend the approach to other areas of environmental science.

Conference delegates will this week see the most important variables that have emerged from the pilot process in the UK. They will also have an opportunity to get involved in the international process to identify the most important variables that are needed to be measured in tropical peatlands.

Devising new data collection methodologies

The group is now planning to identify a menu of methods for measuring each variable. This can make it easier for future researchers to conduct meta-analyses of multiple studies. In their menu, the group aim to identify methods that can be used by non-researchers and those with limited resources.

Dianna Kopansky from the UN Global Peatlands Initiative said, “It is crucial that we standardise how we collect and report data. Particularly if we are to map where the world’s peatlands are, and what condition they are in.

"The United Nations Global Peatlands Initiative and the International Tropical Peatlands Centre want to enable researchers from around the world to generate and share data more effectively to inform international policy. This is an important step towards establishing the state of the world’s peatlands in a Global Peatland Assessment.”

Mark Reed from Newcastle University said, “If we are serious about evidence-based policy and practice, initiatives like the identification of core outcomes for tropical peatlands, are of crucial importance.
"This initiative won’t instantly enable us to harmonise data to create accurate global peat maps. It won't provide evidence synthesis to support the next decision policy-makers need to make.
"But we must stop and think about how we collect and report data now. Especially if we want the data we collect to enable more evidence-based policy and practice in years to come.”
Peatlands, the world's largest carbon store.

published on: 6 December 2019