Text and photos by Hans von Sonntag | 25.05. 2023
Above, snowshoes work just as well on swampy peatlands.
Not yet. Not on a mentionable scale. But inevitably, it will. We are in the middle of global climate warming. Earlier than ten years from now, things will tighten up considerably. Like really. We must act now to prevent the worst.
The Royal Geographical Society was founded in 1830. It started as a dining club in London.
Besides many other big names, Charles Darwin, David Livingstone, and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton received support from The Royal Geographical Society, which hosted our workshop on conservation finance in its stately headquarters on 16 May. Like our famous forefathers, we asked how a nature-based system works. But as time has passed since their inquiries and humankind has taken over, this essential question now needs an amendment: how to fix a natural system when it’s broken? That nature-based system is peatlands.
Cattle grazing on degraded peatlands in North Germany. A typical standard use of peatlands soil across Europe’s peatlands. Note the drainage ditch.
As climate warming is pressing for swift action, and drained peatlands are among the worst offenders by emitting more than 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year (about 5% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions), the pivotal question is this: how to rewet peatlands and turn them from losers to heroes on a large scale in no time because that’s precisely what’s needed: large scale rewetting (can’t be repeated too often–large scale rewetting, ASAP). For sure, this cannot be done with public funding alone. We need private money as well.
Participants taking a break at the event “Green finance workshop: Is the conservation sector ready?” at the Royal Geographical Society on the 17 May
Paul Leadbitter, North Pennines AONB (middle) and his team restored over 35.000 hectares in the last 17 years; behind on the wall, dignitaries of the venue.
Ali Sutherlands, Akshay Regmin, and Emily Hickson (all Climate Catalyst) were the driving force behind the second event jointly with the UNEP’s Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI), “UN Innovation Lab Unlocking Private Sector Action for Peatlands”, at the Royal Society of Arts on 18 May.
Dianna Kopansky (GPI) represents the critical global view on the peatland issue in the workshop’s European context.
The almost unending aspects of that question were discussed at two workshops organised by North Pennines AONB on 16 May and Climate Catalyst jointly with UNEP’s Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI) on 17 May. The idea was that the collective intelligence of people from public agencies, non-governmental organisations and the private sector, with their different experiences and views, would create positive energy, new friendships, and creative solutions. Did that work out? Yes, it did. But we should start at the beginning.
Degraded peatlands are terrible greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters; rewetted peatlands are not. Thus, drained peatlands must be rewetted to reach the Paris Agreement goals.
Most dry, degraded peatlands are used for agricultural purposes. Landowners earn money with them, and so do farmers and communities. They are financial assets.
Peatland owners, many of them farmers, must make ends meet with their land and wish to pass it on to the next generation because this has been their way of life for centuries. For most of them, selling their land is not an option.
A cracked Typha spadix. Behind an experimental Typha field in North Germany. A collaboration between a local farmer and the Greifswald Mire Centre
To make peatland owners rewet their land, they must be offered business models that generate at least the same income on wet peatlands. Do we have that? There’s no panacea. But there are options. And all of them have caveats.
Instead of draining peatlands and grazing cattle or growing maize on them, farmers could grow specialised plants on rewetted peatlands (paludiculture), such as Typha, that could be used for insulation or disposable dishes. But the market is not there yet because dry farming produces these raw materials cheaper.
We could use rewetted peatlands as sites for solar power plants. That requires solving technical challenges, such as the construction of panels and on-site grid connection in swampy soils, as well as trade-offs with climate and conservation objectives. Peat mosses and plants need as much light as the solar panels above them. Plus, not all communities want solar farms in their area.
We could rewet peatlands, figure out how much GHG emissions we avoid, and sell the delta of before and after as carbon credits to corporations or investors. But the value of carbon credits depends on the accuracy of the measured amount of avoided GHG and the risk the investor sees in their investment. Currently, the UK’s Peatland Code sells for approx 20 £ a ton of CO2 equivalent. That is a fifth of what companies must pay for obligatory ETS carbon credits in the EU. Clearly, carbon credits from rewetted peatlands bear risks to investors.
Flowering heather in September, Abbeyleix bog, Ireland
Assuming that only a few rewetted peatlands are suitable for paludiculture or solar farms, carbon credits seem to be the most promising funding source for peatland restoration because, in theory, they could be generated on almost all degraded peatlands.
Dan Hird, Nature Finance, introduces the audience to the mechanism of a voluntary carbon credits market.
The Lüttwisch spring fen, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany. The 22 hectares of peatland are 4,500 years old and now under restoration, financed by the Berlin company Idealo for ESG needs.
So how does the voluntary carbon credit market work? In a nutshell, there’s a seller (the landowner), a buyer (the investor or corporation), and an intermediary connecting them and bringing the needed expertise to the table, e.g., how to do the actual rewetting. But there are a few problems that must be resolved.
As the price of voluntary carbon credits knows only one way, which is up, they have a speculative aspect. Already today, some peatland owners hold back rewetting projects as they want to wait for a better carbon credit price.
We hence need a mechanism that incentivises peatland owners to rewet now by letting them participate in future upsides of carbon markets.
There’s the issue of investors cherry-picking sites with the lowest cost-benefit ratio. That will lead to a checkerboard landscape, leaving the ugly ducklings degraded.
Only bundling swaths of land into an inclusive project can solve this issue. An intermediary with expertise is needed that brings together investors and landowners in a sustainable rewetting project.
Peatland carbon credits can only be traded in voluntary markets. These markets are less regulated than emission trading systems, so investors see them as volatile and risky. And there is the issue of permanence. Will the landowner keep the restored peatlands wet? What if wildfires or floods affect the site and nullify the investment?
Local communities should invest in their people’s peatland carbon credits to back their value by demonstrating their belief in the rewetting of their peatlands to private investors. And regulatory frameworks on national and international levels are sorely needed to set market rules. Some revenue generated from selling carbon credits should be put into an insurance fund to mitigate man-made and natural risks.
Boardwalks are a signature for intact raised bogs for obvious reasons. This boardwalk is part of the Abbeyleix Bog Project
So, what do we need to make all that happen?
First, we need a strong story about peatlands, their power and vulnerability, and their role in the fight against climate warming. This story must be compelling and catchy to be picked up, especially in corporate ESG circles and affected communities. Corporations want quality. They cannot afford to be accused of greenwashing. That should be a vital aspect of the peatland stories, too.
Second, the buyer, the seller and the intermediary should clearly understand their roles in that game. Especially the intermediary, primarily NGOs, must have the means to develop projects and bring them to market. That means their income must be stable. No company would work under the precarious conditions most NGOs are forced to do.
Beyond the landowners, carbon credit buyers, and communities, other local parties should know about the benefits of healthy peatlands. This concerns water companies, breweries, or any other business connected to peatlands. At a later stage, biodiversity credits and blue (water) credits may be stacked or bundled with the respective carbon credits to finance peatland restoration.
A backyard in Kensington, London. Without question, there’s still a long way to go to make cities climate neutral. But degraded peatlands are a much larger climate problem in certain European areas. In Germany, a highly developed and fossil fuel energy-hungry country, degraded peatlands add 7% to the country’s footprint.
On the second day of our back-to-back workshops, I was part of a breakout group discussing: “Corporates are not adequately identifying, assessing, measuring or reporting their emissions or biodiversity impacts associated with peatlands.”
We figured a Peatlands Business Toolkit could be essential in partnering with corporates to rewet peatlands on a large scale. And we thought a good cop/bad cop scheme would greatly help. What if there was a Peatlands 500 list of the worst actors?
That was our (admittingly escalating) pitch to the audience:
“The Peatlands 500 are bad offenders in destroying peatlands and adding gazillions of tons of GHG to the atmosphere by working on degraded peatlands. If they continue doing so, they will face doom and gloom on multiple levels, from stakeholder shame and blame to obsolete business models. To remedy that, we offer them the Peatlands Business Toolkit. That toolkit shows them a viable path out of their misery by helping them invest in a peatlands restoration project.”
Sounds like a plan, doesn’t it?