By Taanvir Sood
Peat, also known as turf, is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter. In peat landscapes, year-round waterlogged conditions slow the process of plant decomposition to such an extent that dead plants accumulate to form peat. Large amounts of carbon fixed from the environment into plant tissues though photosynthesis is locked away in peat soils. The peatland ecosystem covers 3.7 million square kilometres (1.4 million square miles) and is the most efficient carbon sink on the planet since peatland plants capturing carbon dioxide naturally released from the peat, maintaining a net equilibrium. Peatlands store up to 550 Gigatons of carbon, 42% of all soil carbon despite covering just 3% of the Earth’s land area.
However, peatlands are slowly disappearing. Peatlands are being destroyed because it is being extracted unsustainably from landscapes. Peat is used excessively as fertiliser to nourish plants and is possible to buy large bags of it at retail warehouse stores unchecked and in an unrestricted manner. Peat landscapes are also destroyed to make space for grazing areas for sheep and cows. These already polluting animals increase their carbon emissions further as acres of peatland are destroyed to grow grass for grazing pastures. It is also used to purify water as it removes 99.9% of petroleum and heavy metals from contaminated water. This is due to its hydrophobic properties, allowing to absorb twice as much petroleum per pound than activated carbon. Peat is also known as the forgotten fossil fuel. It is often used for domestic heating purposes, household cooking and even used to produce electricity as an alternative to firewood. However, it is the most damaging fuel in terms of global warming. It has a lower calorific value (meaning it produces less heat) and yet it produces higher carbon dioxide emissions per unit. It is the least climate efficient way to produce electricity, yet it was used extensively in countries such as Ireland. Dried peatlands are also prone to forest fires such as the fire in Indonesia in 2015. This destroyed large areas of animal habitats and generated over 600 million tons of carbon dioxide. These wildfires also contribute significantly to carbon emissions.
Luckily, degraded peatlands can be restored to prevent the further breakdown of stored plant materials. The primary method of restoration involves re-wetting or restoring the natural flow of water and soil saturation. The main challenge however is economic since altering drainage patterns and local hydrogeography can be costly. The technology needed already exists but only 18% of the total mitigation potential for peatland restoration can be implemented at a low cost. Peatland restoration also takes a long time as peat takes at least 100 years to form. However, peatland restoration would prevent the release of 394 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, equivalent to the 84 million passenger vehicles per year. The restoration of peatland would go a long way in solving the climate change and global warming crisis we are facing and action to save it must be taken now.