How Do We Track the Fortunes of the World’s Peatlands?


Dear people of 2022,

Climate scientists say our remaining chances of keeping the earth livable for humankind depend in part on our ability to pull carbon dioxide out of the sky.

We’ve begun to develop technology that can do this, but using current versions would mean we’re beyond an “in case of emergency, break glass” situation. Deploying it at any effective scale would entail unimaginable costs and engulf areas of land so vast they boggle the mind. Even scientific journals chronicling milestones in the field are threaded with messages that carbon dioxide removal should be seen as an absolute last resort, after every other method of ending greenhouse gas emissions has been exhausted.

The best available evidence suggests these measures are becoming increasingly necessary, so on some level, we’re counting on scientific breakthroughs to make them less painful. But the extent to which we have to use them is a measure of how much humans have failed.

“It’s a tough area to be in,” said Professor Burcu Gurkan, who leads a lab at Case Western Reserve University that works on the frontiers of this science. “I am faced with a very difficult problem that nobody has solved yet. And so if I don’t work on it, who will? Who is going to solve the problem?”

The funny thing is, nature is very good at extracting carbon from the air and storing it underground. Among its best tools for this are the long-neglected landscapes we call peatlands. They’re some of the earth’s most effective reservoirs of carbon, but for decades we’ve been drying them out and letting them burn, propelling nearly two billion tons of carbon into our rapidly frying atmosphere every year. Five percent of our annual greenhouse gas emissions come from the millions of acres of peatland we’ve converted from carbon sinks into carbon sources.

But degraded peatlands can often be healed, restoring their carbon-pulling power. So the question that confronts us in 2022 is: How many of our peatlands can we revive before we have to break the glass?

That question brought us to Scotland, where a hefty premium may soon be placed on carbon kept stored in peaty bogs. As the New York Times reporter David Segal recounts in his latest feature, a billionaire who won his fortune in the environmentally devastating industry of fast fashion is restoring many acres of these peatlands. For a limited time, the Scottish government is offering a generous subsidy for peatland restoration efforts like this, upping the chances that landowners can profit from healing their bogs. Credits for all the new tons of carbon stored in these rejuvenated grounds will be available for purchase. If they fetch a high price, it could suggest that profit motives can be harnessed to keep carbon in the ground. But it could also point to the peatlands’ becoming a sort of luxury good for wealthy investors seeking virtuous-seeming assets, making land that much more expensive for people already living in Scotland.

In some ways, this story is a fun house-mirror version of the situation we reported in February in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where loggers have to turn their sights on the forests that shield the largest network of tropical peatlands in the world. Villagers who are on the front lines of efforts to stave off deforestation are trying to figure out how much value the world places on the peatlands and the communities that protect them.

That we know of the existence and size of this network is a product of the work of Dr. Simon Lewis, Dr. Greta Dargie and their colleagues, who identified those peatlands and are mapping their extent. While the discovery of this still-pristine ecosystem is in many ways a hopeful sign, it has also fueled a cottage industry of consultants, Dr. Lewis said, while little attention or funding is flowing toward the local scientists and communities whose efforts are most critical to keeping these lands in good health.

Will Scotland’s peatlands become luxury commodities even as Congo’s peatlands vie for limited resources? We don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but there are many telling signs. We’d like you to help us find them.

We started Headway — The New York Times’s initiative to explore the world’s challenges through the lens of progress — with a look at how fraught any definition of progress can be. Tracking progress tends to mean fixing our eyes toward milestones on the horizon and watching for the often-contradictory signs of whether we’re heading toward them or pulling farther away.

Earlier this year, we put out a call for peatland experts and enthusiasts to help us get our minds around what it would mean to protect and repair as many of the world’s peatlands as possible; the responses helped us craft a global network of sources we affectionately call the Bog Squad. We shared an illustrated guide to peat’s role and function and asked for your questions. We received more than a thousand. With the Bog Squad’s help, we’ve compiled answers to some of the most-asked questions. And now we’ve got some asks for you.

We’d like to build a collection of signs to track, to help us map this complex challenge over time. You can help out in three ways:

  • Help us find signs to keep an eye on. Our reporting has surfaced several indicators worth the following: What will it cost to keep a ton of carbon in the ground in Scotland in 2023? Or to buy a package of peat moss at your local hardware store? How much funding pledged for peatlands is making its way to local efforts to protect and repair them? You can keep us attuned to others. If you’re in a part of the world such as Canada, Chile or Indonesia — places with both substantial peatlands and sizable gaps in mapping and monitoring their condition — you might be uniquely positioned to help us capture signs that would otherwise be hard to see , or that is worth further reporting.

  • Help us interpret those signs. We’ll be calling on the insights of our Bog Squad to understand what the signs we collect might mean over time. Do they inspire hope or worry? Might they have major global significance or limited local impact? Whether or not you have a unique connection to peatlands, your insight and judgment can help us in imagining reverberations and showing us lessons in hindsight.

  • Tell us about yourself. Are you a longtime peatland enthusiast? A specialist in Arctic fens? Or are you newly awakened to the magic of mud? Do you come from a part of the world with many known peatlands, or with few? We value a diversity of sources, so whatever your connection to this subject, we’d like to know.

Headway’s next several projects will move beyond the world’s peatlands to focus on different kinds of challenges. By marking the signs we intend to track over time, however, we hope to broaden our collective attention span on relatively slow-moving matters like the health of our ecosystems. Thank you once again for your ideas and insights as we pursue this elusive force called progress. We are listening.

The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of Headway’s public square. Funders have no control over the selection of topics, focus of articles or editing process and do not review articles before publication. The Times retains full editorial control of the Headway initiative.


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