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Oil exploration in the Congo Basin is placing the world’s largest expanse of tropical peatlands on the brink of destruction. Once operational, the proposed Ngoki oil field could provide an estimated 983 000 barrels of oil a day, though critics have disputed these claims. The exploration plans mean that the Congo’s current levels of oil production would be tripled, providing debt relief, but placing over 6 000 sq. km of tropical peatland at risk and releasing 1.34 gigatons of carbon– the same as the total annual emissions of Japan.

What are peatlands?

Peatlands are wetlands with a high concentration of peat, which are accumulations of decaying organic matter, providing a wide variety of benefits unbeknownst to most. One of these is their ability to provide effective flood regulation by delaying the flow of water across the landscape, reducing the peak discharge of rivers and therefore the risk of flooding. Peatlands also provide an important source of biodiversity, sheltering and providing habitats for many species. The Congo Basin is home to 14 threatened species, including 3 species of African apes; the peatlands provide these animals with a continued source of food, such as endemic aquatic herbs, and the land could be lost to the oil field.

Benefits of Peatlands

Among the most significant of the benefits of peatlands is their extraordinary ability to absorb carbon. Peatlands are responsible for 20% of the world’s total soil carbon storage – despite only covering 3% of the planet’s surface. Scientists also estimate that peatlands are able to store 370 megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year- the equivalent of the entirety of Turkey’s emissions for 2016. The Congo Basin peatlands are estimated to store as much as 30.6 gigatons of carbon, equivalent to all the carbon stored in the rest of Congo’s tropical rainforests, and 15 years of emissions from the United States.

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However, damaged peatlands gradually emit their stored carbon over time. Experts suggest that emissions released by drained peatlands reach up to 1.3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year. If the Congo Basin peatlands caught fire, which will occur more frequently as the planet warms, it would release up to triple the annual carbon emissions produced by humans all at once.

Land use changes have contributed significantly to the damaging of peatlands, whether through deforestation and/or draining. In particular, draining severely degrades peatlands and the reduced water content renders them especially vulnerable to fires. The 2015 peatland fires in Indonesia released nearly 16 million tons of carbon dioxide every day as it burned, also claiming 19 lives in the process. In recent years, Indonesia has been draining peat areas on a massive scale to make way for oil palm plantations, which cannot grow in the waterlogged soil. It is likely that had the peatlands not been drained to such an extent, these fires would not have occurred.

Peatlands in Congo

In the Congo Basin, only 7% of the peatlands are designated as protected areas, although under the intergovernmental Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, 45% of the total peatland area is protected as a Ramsar Site. Nevertheless, a report has found that around 30% of the peatlands have already been granted for oil and gas concessions, as well as a smaller proportion for mining exploration. Congolese legislation also contains loopholes with regards to habitat protection- so while rainforests are protected, other habitats such as swamps (and consequently the Congo Basin peatlands) are not.

Despite this, the government has vowed to take steps to protect the peatlands, including the establishment of a ‘high-level scientific committee’ dedicated to understanding the ecosystems of the Congo Basin. The Minister for Environment and Tourism, Arlette Soudan-Nonault, has stated that Congo’s commitments towards protecting their forests would not be neglected while downplaying the potential environmental impact of the Ngoki site, claiming that the site was ‘on the periphery of the peat bogs’- sentiments echoed by Congo’s president Denis Sassou-Nguesso. Petroleum Exploration and Production Africa (PEPA), the company in charge of the Ngoki operation has also attempted to allay fears concerning Ngoki’s environmental impact by vowing to establish a treatment site to deal with wastewater. However, this fails to address the matter of emissions, which remains the key environmental concern.

Despite these reassurances, significant controversy still surrounds the project. PEPA’s links to Congo’s ruling elite have come under scrutiny, such as the close friendship between Claude Wilfred “Willy” Etoka, the chairman of PEPA, and President Sassou-Nguesso’s family. Several other critics have disputed the veracity of PEPA’s claims, casting doubt on the actual amount of oil in the Ngoki site and also on the surveying methods used by PEPA.

The Congolese government faces a dilemma between its ecological security and financial security, however history has shown profit to be of a higher priority for governments. As a result of the Indonesian government’s reckless clearing of peat fields to make way for oil palm plantations, the peat fires of 2015 spread a blanket of haze reaching far beyond its borders and all across Southeast Asia, creating record highs for air pollution in Singapore.

Every country has a right to economic self-determination, but at what cost? Draining tropical peatlands to make way for oil fields in the Congo Basin may create an economic boom for the country, but it risks a climate catastrophe as vast amounts of carbon flood the atmosphere- a price that neither Congo nor the world can afford to pay.

What do seagrass meadows and peatlands have in common? They are the world’s most powerful absorbers of carbon dioxide – natural “carbon sinks” that are removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more efficiently than any other organisms in the oceans and on land, helping to mitigate climate change.

You might also like: Going Native to Fight the Climate Crisis

Seagrass and Peatlands
Left: A seagrass meadow in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Right: Humber Peatlands National Nature Reserve, United Kingdom. (Photos: NOAA/ Wiki; Simon Huguet/ Wiki)

How do seagrass meadows and peatlands protect the planet?

A new study, led by Australian researchers from Deakin University and James Cook University, found that seagrass meadows can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at four times the rate than forests on land.

The researchers measured the carbon contained in sediment cores taken from 19 sites along the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef.

These sites represented three different depths: shallow, mid, and deep. The deepest seagrasses lie at nearly 25 meters. To their surprise, the data showed that the seagrasses draw about the same amount of carbon at depth as they do in shallower regions.

Extrapolating the measurements, they estimated that the world’s largest deep-water seagrass near the Great Barrier Reef, equivalent to the size of Switzerland, can lock away up to 30 million tons of carbon.

Climate change is one of the greatest threats to coral reefs, which are highly vulnerable to rising sea temperatures that “bleaches” the corals – a process that can eventually kill corals. Ocean acidification, from higher concentrations of CO2 are also harming the reefs.

“Whenever we find eco-systems that are drawing down lots of carbon, like the seagrass meadows, it is something to be really pleased about because we’re finding ecosystems that have the ability to retire carbon from the carbon cycle, take it out of the atmospheric pool, take it out of the pool that is causing climate change, and retire it once again from the carbon cycle.”, Prof. Peter Macreadie of Deakin University told SBS news.

The Halophila seagrasses are essentially saving their own ecosystem, along with other “blue carbon sinks” like salt marshes and mangroves. On land, peatlands are performing a similar function.

A peatland is an area that accumulates a deposit of dead plant material – often mosses – known as “peat”. Known peatlands only cover 3% of the world’s land surface, but they store at least twice as much carbon as all of Earth’s standing forests.

Known peatlands store at least twice as much carbon as all of Earth’s standing forests.

“From a climate perspective, [peatlands] are the most essential terrestrial ecosystem,” says Tim Christophersen, a senior program officer at the United Nations Environment Program.

The exact global distribution of peatlands is relatively unknown. Unlike rainforests or coral reefs, peatlands have largely been overlooked by policymakers and researchers.

“Many countries still do not know if they have peatlands,” Christophersen says.

They can be difficult to pinpoint as not all wetlands contain peat. To confirm their existence, researchers must be sent to sample the soil, which can be expensive and time-consuming.

While peatlands were previously associated with boreal and temperate regions, as in Minnesota, scientists now know that huge areas of peatlands are found in the tropics.

Distribution of global peatlands. Source: Levi Westerveld/GRIDA

In early 2017, researchers found the world’s largest tropical peatland in the Congo, with an area larger than New York State.

The peatland stores around 30 billion metric tons of carbon, equivalent to three years’ worth of global carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Seagrass and Peatlands are under threat from human activities

In Southeast Asia, where researchers estimate is home to over half of the world’s tropical peatlands, the ecosystem is at risk from deforestation, drainage and conversion for agriculture and infrastructure development.

Peatlands need water to survive. When they are drained, their compressed organic matter begins to decay, converting stored carbon in to CO2 that is emitted into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change.

In August 2015 peatlands burned across Indonesia, after years of deforestation and draining for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations.  The fires were “the worst environmental disaster in modern history” says Thomas Smith, wildlife expert at King’s College London.

peatland fires
Peatland fires in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by: Rini Sulaiman/Norwegian Embassy/CIFOR 

Smith estimates that the fires and smoke killed 100,000 people in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The crisis released more than 800 million metric tons of CO2 and cost Indonesia over US $16 billion, according to the World Bank.

Indonesia has subsequently prohibited any development in the peatlands. Restoration efforts are underway – the Peatland Restoration Agency established in 2016 aims to restore 2 million hectares of peatlands within five years.

Peatlands can be restored by preventing water levels from declining further and by planting native plants in degraded areas, which can assist the peatlands in retaining water.

In the face of climate change, peatlands appear to be capable of withstanding a significantly warmer world and continue to store vast amounts of carbon. A 2016 study found that heating the peats does not result in a loss of carbon or methane below one foot, which means that old carbon may continue to be locked away.

The study was conducted by scientists at Marcell Experimental Forest, a research station in Northern Minnesota that is leading cutting-edge research on peatlands, their large carbon storage capacities and how they might react to a warming world. Their results help to inform the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its climate projections.

Similarly, seagrasses are under threat from erosion and deteriorating water quality from urban development and pollution. 7% of their habitat area is lost a year, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Unlike with peatlands, the restoration of seagrass is “unreliable, difficult and very expensive”, says Richard K.F. Unsworth, marine biology lecturer at UK’s Swansea University. “Conservation is certainly the best bet”.

The “best example of seagrass hope” is in Tampa Bay, Florida, he says. As the town’s population surged in the 1970s, developers uprooted mangrove forests and relocated seafloor silt – including the seagrass growing from it – to create stable land for construction along the shore. The waterways became a dumping grounds for local sewage, which flowed in to the bay, polluting the natural habitat

Tampa Bay’s seagrass recovery from 2010-2014, as seen in aerial photographs. Source: SWFWMD

Local residents took action to clean up the bay and radically improved the water quality in the area, leading to a greater abundance of seagrass now than in the 1950s. Tampa Bay is a shining example of how community efforts can conserve and even restore vital ecosystems.

Given the importance of seagrass meadows and peatlands in mitigating climate change, global efforts need to be ramped up to develop public awareness of their ecosystems services – and to reinforce these powerful carbon sinks.

Featured image by Nanang Sujana/CIFOR


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