Having undergone decades of destruction and exploitation, peatlands and their relevance to the climate are still under-appreciated. With assistance from KfW, Tatiana Minayeva and conservation organisation Wetlands International are working to re-wet vast areas of Russian wetland habitat. We met up with the expert in Moscow.
About Mrs Minayeva
Dr Minayeva is a biologist who is passionate about protecting the environment. She coordinates the Russian peatland re-wetting project at Wetlands International, an international NGO. Her work as the scientific director of consulting firm Care for Ecosystems often takes her to places like Mongolia, Uganda and the Arctic. Having worked on peatlands since her degree course, with her doctorate focusing on peatland vegetation, Dr Minayeva finds that wetlands “have a special appeal of their own”.
Why have peatlands been such a source of interest for you, Dr Minayeva?
TATIANA MINAYEVA: They’re very special and complex ecosystems that developed after the last ice age, so around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. A peatland consists of water, plants and peat. A constant overabundance of water ensures the presence of unique plant life specially adapted to the biological conditions. Due to the lack of oxygen, they are not fully degraded after they die. Instead, they build up and turn into peat. This peat is then able to absorb and retain the water like a sponge. This creates a closed system – more water means more plants growing inside, which in turn means more peat capable of storing more water.
So peatlands act as huge stores of water.
That’s right, a peatland will store more water than a similar-sized lake. You could even describe raised bogs as akin to a lake with a dome-shaped surface. This dome-shaped mass can reach as high as five metres in Russia and 21 metres in Indonesia. During droughts, peatlands offer shelter for a whole host of species because they stay wet. During flooding, they help to prevent catastrophic deluges from occurring. They protect permafrost soils from thawing and control the water table. But their carbon storage is even more important. Green plants are the only mechanism in the world that can convert inorganic carbon into organic carbon. That means plants in peatlands take CO₂ from the air and sequester it as long as they remain wet.
How much CO₂ do peatlands store?
Although peatlands only cover around three per cent of the world’s surface, they store twice as many greenhouse gases as all of the Earth’s forests combined. These ecosystems are incredibly resilient, including against climate change …
… as long as human beings don’t destroy those ecosystems.
Unfortunately, it’s true that peatlands are still viewed as dangerous places for people in many places or regarded as useless wasteland. That’s why channels are created to drain peatlands, then extract the peat for energy production and agricultural use. But that doesn’t make much sense in drained peatland areas.
What happens when a peatland is disturbed?
You see a reverse process taking place. The organic carbon is released back into the atmosphere from the peat in the form of carbon dioxide. Worse still, methane is emitted from the water drainage channels as a result of decomposition processes – and this has a greater impact on the climate than carbon dioxide. Once they’ve been destroyed, peatlands turn into carbon dioxide and methane factories. If no-one looks after them anymore, it’s easy for fires to break out there, as we saw in 2010 in and around Moscow. That releases even more carbon dioxide and other toxic substances. People could barely breathe in the city for weeks on end, and many died.
Read more below the image gallery.
Although peatlands only cover around three per cent of the world’s surface, they store twice as many greenhouse gases as all of the Earth’s forests combined.
How are things with Russian peatlands at the moment?
The largest problem is that they officially don’t exist, despite making up a fifth of Russia’s land area. There are forested areas and agricultural areas on peatlands, there are bodies of water, but there’s no specific category for peatlands. There are historical reasons for this – when Lenin adopted the slogan “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” in the 1920s, Russia did not use either oil or gas. Peat was the fuel of the day. For this reason, the peatlands were put under the supervision of the energy ministry and served a single purpose: peat extraction. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the extraction of peat was unprofitable and the companies went bankrupt. Restoring the peatlands to their original condition was the last thing on people’s minds at the time. It’s a paradoxical situation – Russia is the only country in which peatland hydrology has existed as a branch of science. Yet in practice, it was used to dewater the peatlands, not to preserve them.
Is it possible to quantify the damage done?
In the European part of Russia, which extends to the Ural Mountains, five million hectares of peatland has been converted into farmland. Those peatlands are irretrievably lost. Another three million hectares were drained for forestry. These peatlands start restoring themselves almost as soon as people stop taking care of the trees. And a million hectares of peatland has been left abandoned due to peat extraction. Black, dried-out areas that emit significant amounts of CO₂ every year. We can compare them to a powder keg – they could start burning at any time if nothing is done.
“It’s just a case of changing the mindset from draining the peatlands to preserving the ecosystem.”
And that’s exactly where your work comes in.
Yes, with the project that was launched after the fires in 2010. The German Federal Government’s International Climate Initiative (IKI) funds the project via KfW. The project is supported by the Russian government. The Germans alone are providing 6.5 million euros. The IKI promotes climate and biodiversity-related projects in developing countries and emerging economies. The international NGO Wetlands International is implementing the project, on which I’m overseeing the scientific and technical work. We’ve already been able to re-wet 100,000 hectares, including in the oblasts of Moscow, Tver, Vladimir, Ryazan and Nizhny Novgorod.
How expensive is it to do that?
The most striking thing is that restoring the peatlands doesn’t cost that much at all. Per hectare it costs 30 euros for project planning and 30 euros for implementation. Nature takes care of the rest. We take an ecological re-wetting approach. To keep the rain water in the peatlands, we fill the drainage channels with peat and build dams using local materials in carefully calculated locations. That way, the water no longer runs off. Instead, it seeps sideways and down into the depths to re-saturate the dried-out peat. Then the natural peat formation process and the sponge effect come into play.
That’s all it takes to bring the peatlands back to life?
Reaching the peatlands’ original condition takes several thousand years. We get them back into working order much sooner. It takes three to five years for a peatland’s water cycle to be fully restored. But before that, you see plants settling in and the peatland beginning to store CO₂. The plant species change over time, always capturing more and more carbon. But it takes a few years before there are no more methane emissions, as there is still water in the channels.
The project is entering its third phase. Where do things go from here?
In 2019, Russia officially joined the Paris climate change agreement, whose main goal is for member states to develop national climate action targets. Russia is also working out how it will seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in terms of which measures to adopt and to what extent they are applied – this is where our project comes in. Our goal is for the re-wetting of the peatlands to be part of Russia’s contribution to combatting climate change. To make that happen, we have to carefully calculate what we can re-wet each year and how many CO₂ equivalent emissions that will reduce. That’s exactly what we’re working on at the moment.
How can that be measured?
A re-wetted peatland goes through various vegetation stages – from dry to wet. It’s possible to measure how many greenhouse gases a particular area is emitting at each of these vegetation stages. This is done by putting plastic bonnets over the plants and measuring the gas directly on the vegetation. Then figures are then projected for the relevant area. This is an internationally recognised method. We estimate that around five to ten tonnes of CO₂ could be saved per hectare per year.
Which challenges still lie ahead?
There’s still a lack of awareness about ecosystem restoration in Russia and the concept has not been enshrined in Russian law, except for being mentioned in the law on environmental protection. If nature is brought up in that context, it’s in connection with re-cultivation – in other words, restoring it to a usable condition. There’s already scientific expertise in that area – it’s just a case of changing the mindset from draining the peatlands to preserving the ecosystem.
So peatland re-wetting efforts in Russia largely depend on German assistance?
Unfortunately, yes. The importance of ecosystem preservation has been understood for a long time in Germany. In Russia, the whole system needs to be reworked – the legal and political framework, the responsibilities assigned to the authorities, the guidelines on conducting national greenhouse gas inventories. It’s an arduous process, which my organisation and I have to navigate. But if we’re ultimately able to make peatland protection and re-wetting part of the national climate action plan, that would be a breakthrough.
The described project contributes to the following United Nationsʼ Sustainable Development Goals
Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
Water shortages, droughts, hurricanes and floods are just a few of the many consequences of global climate change and causes of migration. Around 20 million people are currently being forced to leave their homes as a result of climate-induced events. Climate change does not stop at national borders and its effects are not limited to individual policy areas, economic sectors or social groups. International efforts to contain climate change must also take into account the many interactions between these domains.
All United Nations member states adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015. At its heart is a list of 17 goals for sustainable development, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our world should become a place where people are able to live in peace with each other in ways that are ecologically compatible, socially just, and economically effective.
Published on KfW Stories: 27 August 2020.