Restoring Peatlands, Nature’s Carbon Sponges
By Jeanette Rohr
Questions about environmental degradation are not theoretical to Thorsten Permien.
“I’m a child of the ’80s,” says Permien, who heads up a section of the Ministry of Climate Protection, Agriculture and the Environment in the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. “That means I grew up with images of Chernobyl and the growing threat that was the ozone hole.”
Like many other Germans of his generation, Permien got interested in environmental questions after growing up just 1,500 kilometers from the 1986 nuclear plant disaster at Chernobyl, among other concerns about a changing planet. Chemistry was a perfectly logical course of study when he earned his PhD.
“I wanted to approach environmental problems from a scientific point of view,” he says. “As early as the second half of the ’80s, climate change was a known fact. There were many scientific publications that warned about what was going to happen and about the role carbon dioxide emissions played. I knew very soon I wanted to work in the environmental sector and do something about all that.”
Permien could not know it at the time, but restoring peatlands drained for agricultural and other development purposes that are now a major source of carbon dioxide emissions would be his calling. He joined the agency in 1996 and now heads a section at the state ministry for climate protection, nature conservation, and forest management. In 2012, Permien developed MoorFutures, a program that certifies and sells carbon credits based on the restoration of peatlands through a rewetting process.
The efforts by Permien – along with work by others to raise awareness about the importance of peatlands and to strengthen and grow them in a landscape with the potential to stem the effects of climate change in northern Europe – is the subject of the documentary film Peatlands: A Story Underneath. The 11-minute documentary, directed by Max Sänger and Weronika Jurkiewicz, is part of SAP’s Road to Regeneration series produced in partnership with Hot Docs. This article includes still images from the film.
Peatlands call for special attention in part because they are easy to overlook, Permien says.
“When we think of carbon dioxide emissions, it is usually industry, traffic, and air travel that come to mind,” Permien says. “Natural peatlands store carbon dioxide. They pull it from the atmosphere. But when peatlands are dried, the process is reversed. Instead of storing it, they are emitting it into the atmosphere.”
Nina Seifert, a biologist who also appears in the documentary, agrees. Seifert manages the 1,400 real properties of the Succow Foundation, an organization that offers solutions for peatland restoration, among other projects. The foundation was established by Michael Succow, a champion for nature conservation and national parks in Germany who received the 1997 Right Livelihood Award.
“The relevance of dried peatlands is still not a well-known factor, even among those interested in climate protection,” Seifert says. “Restoring peatlands is a relatively easy way of cutting down on our carbon emissions that also has a great influence on biodiversity.”
Like Permien, Siefert has been a lover of the outdoors and environment since childhood, which led her to a PhD in biology with a focus on bird migration. The bird she studied for her dissertation – the Baillon’s crake – prefers wetlands as a breeding ground. “It’s only natural when you witness fragile ecosystems up close that you come to care about what you see every day. It makes you want to protect it,” she says.
Peatlands all over the globe have been drained for centuries to win new areas for agricultural use. Today, about 90% of German peatlands are drained. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where Permien and Seifert live and work, about 30% of CO2 emissions are caused by drained peatlands.
“All the wind farms in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern built to [produce] green energy cannot balance out the carbon dioxide emissions of our dried-up peatlands,” Permien says.
“The motivation to drain peatlands was to feed people,” Permien says, referring to the centuries of replacing the peatlands with crop fields. “But even though we no longer depend on drained peatlands to grow food, rewatering those areas is a huge effort.”
But it’s definitely worth it. Natural peatlands pull CO2 from the atmosphere. For thousands of years, they have been binding and storing carbon dioxide – and continue to do so, provided that they are watered sufficiently.
Both Seifert and Permien have found ways to put their scientific knowledge to use for the restoration of peatlands. SAP Insights talked to them about their work and what viewers should take away from the film.
– Nina Seifert, Biologist, Succow Foundation
Q: How did you come to care about peatlands?
Permien: After doing my PhD, I wanted to work in the environmental sector and took a job offer from the environmental ministry in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Here I’ve been working on a local agenda for sustainable development for many years. The so-called forest share (Waldaktie) was our first try at monetizing ecosystem outputs. The idea was for tourists to offset their CO2 emissions by helping restore the forest as a natural carbon dioxide store. It was extremely successful, so we came to think of the second most important natural carbon dioxide store: peatlands.
Seifert: I did a PhD in biology with a focus on bird migration. I always wanted to turn my scientific knowledge into a [means] for protecting wildlife and their habitat. For my dissertation, I followed the Baillon’s crake from the Peene-Valley in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern all the way down to the Senegal delta, where it hibernates. There I got to witness firsthand the fragile ecological balance being disturbed by water [that was] being drained for rice cultivation.
At the Succow Foundation, I am responsible for the properties owned by the foundation that are relevant for conservation. Apart from the climate crisis, there is also a biodiversity crisis in which rewetting and restoring peatlands plays a huge role.
Q: What makes peatlands so important for climate and the environment?
Permien: Peatlands are among the ecosystems with the highest carbon density. They store about twice as much carbons as forests do. However, the conversion of peatlands into agricultural areas that has been going on for centuries led to drained peatlands emitting CO2 instead of storing it. Rewatering peatlands thus becomes a relatively easy and effective way to stop carbon emissions. Peatlands are also very important for biodiversity.
Seifert: Draining peatlands means these places change, so original species are being replaced by others. Animal and plant species that prefer natural peatlands are usually highly specialized and adjusted to certain pH values or water levels. They cannot survive in damaged peatlands or elsewhere. Draining peatlands has a huge effect on those species, just as restoring peatlands means preserving them. Some of them, such as the cranberry fritillary butterfly and the felwort and bird’s-eye primrose flowers, are as good as extinct in Germany.
Q: What do you do for peatlands in your respective professions?
Permien: At MoorFutures, we offer offsetting instruments developed on the basis of biotopes and support biodiversity and climate protection. Scientists from the University of Greifswald developed a model to calculate the potential for climate protection of renatured peatlands. Into the calculation go water levels, vegetation, and density of peat. Based on these calculations, it became possible to offer carbon credits (certificates). One certificate [from] MoorFutures corresponds to an emissions reduction of one ton of CO2. Each certificate is linked to a specific renaturation project. For each project, only a certain number of certificates are offered depending on the number of tons of CO2 being saved.
Seifert: At the Succow Foundation, we are not quite as strict when it comes to quantifying our results. Biodiversity is more difficult to measure than carbon savings. We support farmers who want to do something for the environment but still want to use the area for agriculture by adjusting their farming methods, for example. Let’s say we come to an agreement that they will not mow a certain field until the skylarks have had a chance to breed there. We are also looking into possibilities for so-called paludiculture – wet agriculture that will permit farmers to use the land while allowing species that are adjusted to peatlands to grow and live there. It is a great way of protecting nature outside of nature reserves, even though it requires many alignments.
Q: What are the greatest challenges in your work?
Seifert: The political goal is to become carbon neutral in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern by 2040 and in Germany by 2045. This means that every single peatland in Germany needs to be rewetted; we’d have to restore 50,000 hectares of peatlands every year to stop their CO2 emissions completely. Unfortunately, legislation or ownership structure gets in the way from time to time. The process of rewetting a peatland sometimes collides with other regulations set in place to protect the environment – for example, when there are trees growing on drained peatlands. We’re being told we have to replant trees elsewhere if we want to set this peatland back to its original state.
Permien: There is an enormous demand for what MoorFutures offers. It has actually become difficult to serve this demand because many peatlands are currently out of our reach. They are private property or owned by communities – and they are being used for agriculture. Farmers obviously are not always enthusiastic about having part of their land rewetted because it often means they can no longer use the area for agriculture. Also, peatlands are very often privately owned by up to 20 farmers. If only one of them refuses to have the land rewetted, it can stop the whole project. But selling their land to the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which buys on behalf of the Foundation for the Environment and Nature Conservation (Stiftung für Umwelt und Naturschutz), is only one possibility for farmers. They may also keep the land and still have it renatured, in which case we’d enter an easement in the land register stating that high water has to be tolerated on this land.
Also, there are challenges in accessing certain types of peatlands. What the film shows is a special case: a very small peatland located in a beech forest on the island of Rügen and very difficult to reach. It’s impossible to work with heavy machinery there; you cannot access it with trucks, so much has to be done by hand. In such cases, we depend on volunteers, and I have the greatest respect for these youngsters who sacrifice a week of their time for these projects – especially as the weather here in northeastern Germany is not always as glorious as when the film was made.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from the documentary film Peatlands: A Story Underneath?
Permien: It’s still not known [well] enough ... how relevant peatlands are for the climate. Dried-up peatlands are by far the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – more than, for example, traffic. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern’s dried-up peatlands emit more than twice of what can be saved by wind farming along the coast.
We really have to make an effort at renaturation of all our peatlands. We’d be foolish not to leverage this very easy method of cutting down on our carbon emissions.
- Thorsten Permien, head of a section of the Ministry of Climate Protection, Agriculture and the Environment in the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Seifert: Talking about peatlands, the typical image in people’s minds is a somewhat spooky place, mist hanging over a dark, muddy water surface – a place hostile to humans where one wrong step can make you vanish. But actually, peatlands are places of abundant biodiversity and worth being protected. Apart from being relevant for battling climate change, they are also beautiful to look at and important for the protection of species. And last but not least, they are completely safe nowadays for people to visit and admire. People don’t necessarily recognize a drained peatland when they see it. They may not realize they live on or are surrounded by former peatlands.
Q: How can one spot a dried peatland?
Seifert: When the earth of the mole hills is very dark, that’s a sign. Also when there are lots of willows or deep trenches between fields.
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