Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.
The most carbon-dense lands on Earth are finally getting the respect they deserve.
The story: Nothing beats peat — at least when it comes to absorbing greenhouse gas emissions, reports William Booth for The Washington Post. Peatlands, also known as bogs, mires or moors, have gotten a bad rap through history — often maligned as decaying and useless wastelands. But, as it turns out, they are the most efficient carbon sinks on the entire planet. These water-logged ecosystems can store massive amounts of climate-warming carbon, capturing it from the atmosphere and locking it up beneath deep layers of plant matter laid down since the last ice age.
“The really interesting thing about peat is that it’s been storing this carbon for thousands of years,” Chris Evans, a biogeochemist at the U.K. Center for Ecology & Hydrology, told The Washington Post. “It’s been doing this before there were human beings, and if you can keep it wet, peat can keep storing carbon for a very, very long time.”
The big picture: The race to save our planet’s peatlands is on. “For centuries, we’ve drained peatlands,” Christian Dunn, wetlands scientist at Bangor University in Wales, told The Washington Post. “We’ve degraded the peat — trashed it, burned it, bagged it — and released just staggering amounts of carbon into our atmosphere.”
Peatlands are found in nearly every country in the world and are responsible for locking away twice as much carbon as all the forests on the planet combined. But scientists estimate that as much as 15 percent of peat has already been lost worldwide. The further destruction of peatlands would present a ticking time bomb, releasing what Dunn calls “a criminal amount of carbon.”
The world’s carbon balance sheets just aren’t adding up.
The story: A landmark Washington Post analysis found that many countries have underreported greenhouse gas emissions to the United Nations, wrote Chris Mooney, Juliet Eilperin, Desmond Butler, John Muyskens, Anu Narayanswamy and Naema Ahmed. The team’s investigation revealed a significant gap between officially declared emissions and the actual amount being released into the atmosphere. The causes are numerous: wildly different reporting standards across countries, underreporting of methane and fluorine gases, and dubious overstatements made by some nations about the amount of carbon absorbed by the natural lands within their borders.
The discrepancies add up to a ton of climate-warming emissions — or more accurately, at least 8.5 billion tons a year, equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions from 1.85 billion cars.
The big picture: World leaders, climate scientists and environmental activists just wrapped up the latest UN climate talks (COP26), where they hammered out plans to slow the climate crisis. But the climate pledges and actions from governments all around the world are being built upon the emissions data provided to the United Nations. If the numbers are flawed, then so is our road map to prevent climate breakdown.
Reinstated protections for threatened owl species help conserve critical old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.
The story: The Biden administration has reversed a Trump-era decision that would have drastically shrunk protected habitat for the Northern spotted owl across the Pacific Northwest by more than 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres), reports Gabrielle Canon for the Guardian. The decree would have opened numerous old-growth forests to logging. Scientists warned that the action would be a death-knell for the tiny, reclusive owls, which have been in decline for decades. The new decision is seen as a major win for biodiversity conservation for a species that has already lost roughly 70 percent of its habitat.
The big picture: Northern spotted owls require mature forests with large trees in order to survive. This has put them at the center of controversies over forest management in Oregon, Washington and Northern California for decades. But recent studies by Conservation International scientists have proven that the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest are critical carbon stores, holding enormous amounts of climate-altering greenhouse gases. Protecting and restoring these unique ecosystems is essential to avoid the worst impacts of climate change — and stem biodiversity loss.
Cover image: A peat bog in England (© MaxPixel)