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Unlocking private finance for wetlands key to tackling climate change

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  • Climate and disaster risks

Jane Madgwick, CEO at Wetlands International

Cherishing the world’s often-forgotten wetlands – its peat bogs and mangrove swamps, salt marshes and river floodplains – could be the missing link to save the world from climate disaster.  The world’s wetlands are even bigger stores of carbon than its forests.  When drained, they release huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). 

So their protection and restoration can provide a major source of nature-based solutions to climate change. While much-needed private finance is growing for reforesting the planet, it remains in short supply for “the great rewetting”.  How can we change that? With the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow imminent, the time is right to scale up private finance for wetlands.

Since the 2015 Paris Agreement to hold global warming as near as possible to 1.5 degrees C, requiring net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by mid-century, governments and corporations have rushed to find ways to reduce emissions and enhance carbon storage. 

Reducing emissions from industry and agriculture must be the top priorities, including emissions resulting from the devastating impact of these sectors on wetlands. This involves, for example, changing land use policies that encourage damaging practices such as growing palm oil on peat. Emissions that may prove impossible to eliminate by 2050 should be offset on the pathway to net-zero. Such offsetting could channel much needed private finance to wetland conservation and restoration, via voluntary carbon markets.

Peatlands are the world’s most extensive wetlands and biggest natural carbon stores.  They often offer the richest and sometimes also the cheapest pickings.  These vast repositories of waterlogged and unrotted vegetation have usually accumulated over thousands of years – typically since the end of the last ice age. They are found everywhere from the Siberian tundra to tropical rainforest swamps.

But many have been drained, for agriculture or urban development.  And conversion continues on a large scale, especially in Asia.  As the peat dries out, the carbon it contains oxidizes and releases CO2 into the atmosphere. 

Around 5 per cent of current global greenhouse-gas emissions are bubbling up from previously drained peatlands. Once under way, the process of oxidation can continue for decades or centuries, unleashing ever more CO2 into the atmosphere.  Yet it can be halted within weeks if the drains are blocked up, allowing rainwater to accumulate and make the peat waterlogged again.

The technical know-how for peatland restoration is well established. Wetlands International has been piloting techniques in Russia for the past decade, working with the Russian and German governments to rewet 45,000 hectares of drained peatlands that burned during a heatwave in 2010, sending a smog across Moscow that killed thousands of people. Experience shows the carbon emissions can be ended for $50 per hectare, keeping some 200,000 tonnes of CO2 a year in the peat. So within a few years, the cost of preventing emissions in this case is below one dollar per tonne.

The peat-swamp conservation and restoration project in the rainforest of Katingan, in Indonesian Borneo, is a collaboration between our technicians, communities, government and business, to generate and sell verified emissions reductions. By stopping drainage for plantations and preventing fires across 150,000 hectares, it is removing 7.4 million tonnes of CO2 per year, while restoring orangutan habitat and providing local livelihood opportunities.

Restoration of other types of wetlands can achieve equally valuable carbon storage.  Coastal mangroves are often called “blue carbon” because they typically hold five times as much carbon as a similar area of rainforest, much of it is the muddy coastal sediments that their roots hold in place.  Once ubiquitous in the tropics, many areas of mangroves have been lost – often to make way for short-term shrimp-pond developments.  But carbon finance could save many and restore more. 

For instance, we are working to restore 2,500 hectares of mangroves cleared years ago for now-abandoned rice fields in Guinea Bissau, West Africa.  In 70 years, this small project could capture a million tonnes of CO2.

The potential to scale up such wetland protection and restoration projects to help the world achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century is huge.  By some measures, up to $300 billion could be effectively spent on peatland restoration in the coming 30 years, with another $15 billion on returning mangroves.  The projects could prevent emissions of billions of tonnes of CO2 each and every year thereafter. 

Many such projects would be feasible even at current low market prices for carbon offsets of around $5 per tonne.  Many more would be feasible if prices rose closer to the $100 per tonne that environmental economists say is commensurate with the actual costs of interventions and benefits for the climate. The fast-growing voluntary carbon market has the adaptability and entrepreneurial spirit necessary to unlock these gains.