Study finds vital peatlands neglected

BARCELONA, Spain Wed Nov 4, 2009 10:13am EST

Illegally logged timbers float in a river in a peat area in the Mengkatip district of Indonesia's South Kalimantan April 25, 2009. REUTERS/Ferry Latif

Illegally logged timbers float in a river in a peat area in the Mengkatip district of Indonesia's South Kalimantan April 25, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Ferry Latif

BARCELONA, Spain (Reuters) - Draining and burning of the world's peat bogs accounts for about 5.5 percent of global carbon emissions but are currently excluded from governments' climate targets and U.N. talks, a study found on Wednesday.

Peat stores around twice as much carbon as all the world's trees, but compared with the well-publicized issues of fossil fuels and forests, the sector was the "Cinderella" of climate change policies, said Hans Joosten at Germany's Greifswald University, co-author of the report.

"We call for mandatory accounting of emissions from peatlands," said Susanna Tol of the environment group Wetlands International, presenting the findings on the sidelines of November 2-6 U.N. climate talks in Barcelona. Reporting was only voluntary now, she said.

"So far these emissions have not been addressed" in U.N. talks meant to agree a global climate deal in Copenhagen in December, Tol added. The 175-nation meeting in Barcelona is the final session of preparatory talks before Copenhagen.

Layers of peat up to 20 meters (about 65 ft) thick accumulate as plants rot in wetland areas. As the vegetation is water-logged, it doesn't decay and release the stored carbon dioxide into the air, a major cause of global warming.

But landowners and farmers are draining peatlands, notably in South East Asia, to plant oil palm plantations to meet rapidly growing demand from the food and biofuel industries.

Tol said peatland emissions must be included in far higher profile U.N. talks to design a framework for cutting emissions from the destruction of rainforests, often in peatland areas. The study echoed the findings of an article published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Geoscience, which found that draining peatland in South East Asia alone produced carbon emissions equal to a quarter of those from global deforestation.

That study put CO2 emissions from deforestation at 12 percent of the global total, not 20 percent as widely thought.

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Curbing carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels has received the lion's share of governments' climate change attention so far, for example under cap and trade schemes to penalize industry or steps to promote renewable energy.

A palm oil boom in Indonesia has meant that in 2008 its carbon emissions from peat were one and a half times greater than burning fossil fuels, Wednesday's study said. The country is the top peatland emitter, followed by Russia and China.

The study estimated that last year global carbon dioxide emissions from draining and burning peat amounted to 2 billion tonnes annually, or about 5.5 percent of the global total. Since 1990 those emissions have grown by 25 percent.

Continued draining or burning of peat is not an option, given that it stores about 446 billion tonnes of carbon, or twice as much as the world's forests, Greifswald University's Joosten said.

The world could limit peatland emissions both by limiting deforestation and peat drainage, and boosting wet farmland, for example harvesting of mosses, he added.

(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)