Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action


Professor Hans Joosten:

I will go fast. As all of the members will know, our planet is getting warmer and warmer, with decreasing food and water security and growing social breakdown, conflict and migration. The frequency and severity of disasters is rapidly increasing, with enormous losses of life and money. In the Paris Agreement, we unanimously agreed that this situation must be ended. The Paris Agreement has made the world simple. We now have one common goal, to limit climate change to below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on warming of 1.5°C of 2018 spelled out what this means for greenhouse gas emissions. It means that CO2 emissions have to reach net zero by 2050, that there must be a net sink thereafter, and that methane emissions must reduce by 50% and nitrous oxide emissions by 20%.

This means we all also have to change our behaviour with respect to peatlands. In natural peatlands, mires, the production of biomass is larger than the decay and, as a result, dead plants accumulate as peat. This peat is conserved by permanent water saturation. Natural peatlands are therefore always wetlands. Peat accumulates over thousands of years and stores concentrated carbon in thick layers. The annual global peatlands carbon sink is not that large, equalling only 1% of emissions from fossil fuels. This means peatlands will not save the world and we will have to do it ourselves. The importance of peatlands is in their carbon stock. Peatland is peat land.

Peatlands are the most space-effective carbon stores of all terrestrial ecosystems. Nowhere is so much carbon found per hectare as in peatlands. A 15-cm-thick layer of peat contains per hectare more carbon than what is considered to be a high carbon stock tropical rainforest, so if we want to protect tropical rainforest, we also have to protect every 15 cm and more of peat.

The people's problems are caused mainly by drainage. That has to do with the fact that peat is like pickled gherkins conserved in water that is a little acidic. When you remove the conserving water the organic matter rots away to carbon dioxide. Peatlands are therefore like bombs. As long as you do not touch them, you can easily sleep on them, but if you light the fuse, you go to hell.

As for the framework of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, we have done large meta-analyses and the relationship is clear: the deeper the water table, the higher the greenhouse gas emissions. For central Europe we have a simple rule of thumb: ten is five, that is, every 10 cm drop in the average water level leads to 5 tonnes more of greenhouse gas emissions per hectare. To give an example, deeply drained grassland on peat in a temperate zone emits 29 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare per year, a number that does not say anything but that is equivalent to the emissions of an average car driving 145,000 km every year. As a consequence, the food print of the products generated on such land is immense: 1 kg of cheese from peat meadows contains 45 kg of CO2 equivalent, and 1 l of milk equals the CO2 content of 2 l of petrol. If you like to drink a glass of milk in the morning, think that you might as well drink 1 l of petrol. One hectare of oil palm on peat emits 60 tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year, which is equal to 50 economy-class return flights from Berlin to Jakarta. As a result, drained peatlands globally, which is only 15% of the total peatland extent, emit 2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. That means that 0.4% of the land of this planet produces 5% of all global emissions.

On the screen is the new map of peatland emissions per country that we presented last week at the climate convention. The committee will see that even Ireland, which is rather small as a country, lights up on this global map. The light that comes from Russia, China and Indonesia is very impressive. If this is expressed as a proportion of emissions from drained peatlands relative to fossil fuels and cement, Ireland's contribution becomes even more evident. It is in the same category as that of Belarus, Mongolia, Indonesia and Uganda.

Worldwide, it is agricultural use that is the main cause of peatland drainage and emissions. Some 80% is caused by agriculture. In Germany, 6.7% of agricultural land is on organic soils, but this causes 40% of all agricultural emissions, including methane from animals and nitrous oxide from fertilisers. Everywhere in the EU it looks the same or even worse. In the EU, 3% of agricultural land is responsible for 25% of all agricultural emissions. In Ireland 7% of agricultural land is responsible for 32% of all agricultural emissions. That can also be expressed in monetary terms. In Germany peatland agriculture causes annual climate damage of €8.5 billion and gets €400 million in European Union subsidies for that, so the committee can see that the polluter pays principle is put on its head. We pay peatland agriculture while it causes massive climate damage, and in that way we frustrate sensible solutions.

Rewetting, as was said before, solves most of these problems and provides additional ecosystem services. The Paris Agreement implies that, until 2050, we will have to rewet all drained peatland in the world, meaning 20,000 sq. km per year. For the European Union this means rewetting 5,000 sq. km per year until 2050. If I say that, people often say it is illusory or naive. Then I say that Finland drained 3,000 sq. km every year in the 1970s. It therefore seems possible with the right narratives and the right aims.

The best example currently is Indonesia. In 2015, that country had 20,000 sq. km, or 2 million ha, of peat fires that killed 100,000 people, brought 500,000 people into hospital and caused domestic damage totalling approximately $20 billion, $30 billion or $40 billion. Then the president decided that something had to change. He created a task force directly under his responsibility, and in the period 2017 to 2022, Indonesia has rewetted 37,000 sq. km of peatlands. That is almost 20 times as much as the whole of Europe in its entire history. Indonesia is a developing country that was forced to take action. The rewetting was not all optimal. That is why I have put the word in inverted commas in my presentation.

Rewetting in Europe has tended to focus on the easy stuff: abandoned and low productive land with few emissions. However, we have to go to the core of the problem: intensive agriculture and forestry on drained peat. The goal is clear, but how to reach it? For Germany we have developed a transformation pathway starting now, where almost all peatland is drained, and early in 2050, when almost all peatland will be rewetted. It is clear this is not an individual but a societal challenge, similarly large as phasing out fossil fuels. We need a peatland master plan. As Harald Grethe, one of the advisers to the Government in respect of agriculture, said recently to farmers, in future they will either cultivate their peatlands wet or they will not cultivate them at all.

After rewetting there are only two options. The first is to make new wet nature, which is good for biodiversity and other ecosystem services, but if we also need biomass production, and for that purpose peatlands have been drained, we have to go to paludiculture, meaning wet agriculture and forestry. The problem is that most polluted production lines need another ten to 15 years of development for their large-scale implementation.

The interim solution lies in carbon credits. Ever more institutions, countries and cities adopt net-zero emission targets and they cannot reach those on their own yet, so they need offsets. Then rewetting becomes interesting also because carbon prices are rising rapidly. They have risen 20-fold in the past ten years. Prices will keep rising from €200 to €700 per tonne, according to studies of the German environmental ministry. We therefore have to give emission rights for drained areas and carbon certificates with government price guarantees until 2045. Then farmers can decide whether to continue as before or to rewet at some point in time, with or without paludiculture. This will give time for paludiculture to develop well, flanked by abundant research and development. After 2050, everything must be wet or the farmer on continuously drained peatland must buy expensive certificates. This situation leads in the medium term to protection of trust. It is not the fault of the farmers that they are on drained peatlands - that was a cultural achievement - but in the longer term we have to go to the polluter pays system. That is a fair balance of interest.

The last issue to address is methane after rewetting. If you have to choose between carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide from drained peatlands and methane of rewetted peatlands, you always have to go for the methane because methane is a strong but short-lasting greenhouse gas, whereas CO2 is a weak greenhouse gas but it accumulates. In the long term CO2 is always worse. The grey line on the graph on the screen pictures what happens when we do not rewet the peatlands. The committee will see an increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with increasing radiative forcing. If we rewet in this model, in the year 2000 we see a slight increase in the radiative forcing to start with but in 2030 we see a breakeven point is already reached. Even if methane emissions are initially ten times higher than under natural conditions, which sometimes happens, we see that these lines cross already in 2035. In the long term CO2 is always worse.

The message for Ireland, therefore, is clear: keep wet peatlands wet and make drained peatlands wet again, and if you have to use them, use them wet as paludiculture.

There will be no Paris without peatlands. Peatlands must be wet for the climate, land and people.