A team of scientists said that Canada’s vast and mostly intact peatlands – the largest peatland carbon stock on the planet – must be protected if the world is to achieve net-zero global CO2 emissions by 2050. Presenting their findings at CoP26 Peatlands Pavilion in Glasgow, the team noted that unless peatlands are protected, ongoing land conversion and looming mineral extraction will lead to losses of mostly irrecoverable carbon.

Peatlands cool the global climate by accumulating large quantities of soil carbon over thousands of years. One-quarter of the world’s northern peatlands are in Canada, providing a global carbon service that is increasingly recognized as a critical part of nature-based solutions to combat climate change. However, land use change and other disturbances threaten these globally significant stores of soil carbon that will take centuries to recover.

The scientists, representing the University of Alberta, WCS Canada, and other Canada-based universities and research organizations, said that inadequate policy safeguards to avoid conversion and degradation, and the limited quantification and reporting of peatland greenhouse gas emissions and removals, increase the vulnerability of these peatlands. Targeted policies from local to global scales will be needed for improved decision-making and incentivizing the long-term carbon management of northern peatlands.

The scientists said their findings exposed ongoing threats to the Hudson Bay Lowland as a case study. The region, primarily located in Ontario, spanning west to Manitoba and east to Quebec, is considered the second largest peatland complex in the world. It is currently under direct threat from mineral extraction. Environmental assessments are in progress for three projects that would collectively provide all-weather road access through intact peatlands, between the provincial highway system and the Ring of Fire -- a world-class mineral deposit – more than 300 km away.

Said Justina Ray, President and Senior Scientist of WCS Canada, who presented at the event: “As the steward of the world’s largest peatland carbon stock, Canada needs to implement strategies and policies that can keep this irrecoverable carbon in the ground as much as possible.  These efforts can also serve as a model for other countries.”

Noting that a significant amount of Canada’s peatlands lies within the traditional territories of many First Nations, Ray added: “Initiatives that specifically protect peatlands through Indigenous stewardship, and apply the principle of disturbance avoidance rather than trying to mitigate carbon releases are being led by numerous Indigenous communities. These community and science-based policy initiatives need to be supported by governments if they want to meet climate targets.”

In addition to being the world’s largest terrestrial carbon stores, peatlands hold a significant volume of freshwater that supports a network of rivers, lakes, and other wetlands. This freshwater is critical for diverse plant and animal species in peatlands, which provide vital habitat for a host of different bird species, fish, mammals, amphibians, and water-dependent insects.

Said Dr. Lorna Harris, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Alberta and lead author of the paper: “The climate crisis will not be resolved without attention to the essential role of nature. The avoided conversion along with restoration of northern peatlands are key components of global climate change mitigation strategies. Proactive safeguarding of peatland carbon stores can have enormous co-benefits by conserving biodiversity and ecosystem integrity, potentially at vast scales.”

In addition, improved quantification and reporting on peatland carbon stocks and greenhouse gas emissions and removals to fill knowledge gaps is needed to inform land-use planning that could accelerate policy action.

Said Harris: “Canada’s peatlands, as well as other peatlands such as in Congo Basin and in Patagonia, are essential for carbon storage. They provide a global carbon service, cooling the climate by taking carbon from the atmosphere and storing it for thousands of years. Amid a growing recognition that the climate crisis will not be resolved without attention to the essential role of nature, the avoided conversion and restoration of peatlands are key components of global climate change mitigation strategies.”

In addition to highlighting Canada’s peatlands at the pavilion, critical peatlands in Patagonia were the subject of a webinar by WCS Chile, Ministry of the Environment Chile, University of Tierra del Fuego Argentina, Ensayos, Manfred Hermsen Stiftung. The group conducted a virtual session on the Patagonian Peatland Initiative to highlight sites, people, and activities, as well as key messages about local peatland ecosystem services and their global importance.