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ENVIRONMENT: Making Wetlands Count

Lowana Veal* - IPS/IFEJ

REYKJAVIK, Sep 18 2009 (IPS) - Iceland wants wetland restoration to be assessed for emission reduction units at the summit to work out a new deal on climate change in December in Copenhagen.

Wetland near Reykjavik. Credit: Lowana Veal

Wetland near Reykjavik. Credit: Lowana Veal

Wetlands are areas where water is present on or near the surface. They are an important habitat for birds, and help control floods.

In Iceland a number of drained wetlands have been restored, including parts of a bird sanctuary near the South Icelandic town Eyrarbakki, where ditches were blocked in 1997 to stop water draining away.

"Those who undertake such activity would have to put in place a comprehensive inventory of wetlands, both undisturbed and drained ones," Hugi Olafsson, director of policy and international affairs at Iceland's Environment Ministry told IPS. "They would have to be able to present credible information on carbon credits and debits from draining and restoration activities."

Olafsson, who has been researching the issue extensively, added: "Iceland, as well as other Annex I countries (industrial nations, under the Kyoto Protocol), has in the last decade or so developed a good inventory for activities in forestry, and Iceland has also conducted pioneering work in accounting for re-vegetation. There is therefore considerable experience in place to model a wetland inventory."

Afforestry was proposed as a means of binding carbon to the soil (through the process of photosynthesis, whereby trees take in carbon dioxide) to offset carbon dioxide emissions produced by industry and individuals in everyday life. When wetlands are restored, they too bind carbon to the soil and slow the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

More carbon dioxide is released when wetlands are disturbed or destroyed than when forests are cut down. This is especially the case with peatlands, which contain dead organic matter (peat) with a carbon content of over 50 percent. These form under wet conditions where lack of oxygen hinders decomposition; wet conditions therefore limit the release of carbon dioxide.

There is a new focus on peatlands in climate change negotiations because of their high carbon content, which is released into the atmosphere when peatlands are damaged or drained. This is the rationale for including wetland and peatland restoration as a means of securing credits by Annex-1 countries in the new commitment period due from 2012 following the Kyoto Protocol.

Peatlands and wetlands account for about 3 percent and 6 percent of the earth's surface respectively. (All peatlands come under the category of wetlands, but not all wetlands are peatlands.)

A 'global assessment on peatlands, diversity and climate change' produced last year by the international non-governmental groups Wetlands International and the Global Environment Centre showed that carbon dioxide emissions from drained and damaged peatlands amount to more than 3,000 million tonnes annually, or over 11 percent of global fossil fuel emissions.

Carbon dioxide continues to be emitted from damaged or destroyed wetlands for decades until all of the peat is used up, unless the habitat is restored.

Rewetting peatlands can lead to an increase in methane emissions, but this is nearly always counterbalanced by a much larger decrease in carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (N20) emissions. Besides carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane are the two other greenhouse gases known to cause global warming.

In order to create more land for agriculture, Icelandic farmers drained a considerable portion of wetland habitat during the latter half of the 20th century, mostly by building drains.

It is difficult to quantify the extent of emissions from drained and damaged wetlands, but it is estimated that carbon dioxide emissions from these amount to almost half of those released from fossil fuels and industrial processes in Iceland.

These emissions can be significantly reduced if draining ditches are blocked and water levels raised. If wetlands are restored, the biodiversity of the original wetland too can be restored to a large extent.

"Lowering the water table by means of drainage of peatlands leads to rapid decomposition of the organic carbon of the peat," says Susanna Tol from the Dutch headquarters of Wetlands International. "The oxygen allows aerobic decomposition to take place, which is 50 times faster than anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition.

"Carbon dioxide emissions from drained peatlands generally increase with increasing drainage depth and warmer climates. The process of oxidation can be halted with the restoration of the peatlands. This is done by rewetting the drained peatlands, so restoring the hydrology."

The proposal has been raised at climate change meetings since the idea of wetlands restoration was first introduced as an activity akin to LULUCF at the Accra climate change talks in August 2008. LULUCF (Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry) is an activity allowed under the Kyoto Protocol as a way for countries to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. By planting trees, changing agricultural practices or re-vegetating land, sinks or reservoirs are produced that bind carbon and greenhouse gases to the soil. LULUCF is therefore permitted as an accounting method for countries reporting their net greenhouse gas emissions.

"We have received many positive comments, and feel we have good support for the proposal," says Olafsson. "We got many technical questions on how the proposal would work in action, and how we can guarantee against poor accounting, double accounting and possible later reversal of climate gains.

"Such critical questions are good and necessary in order to develop the idea into an operational proposal. We have not heard anyone opposing the proposal as a matter of principle, but we realise that it will be hard work to develop it further, along with many other proposals regarding LULUCF."

Iceland is committed to a reduction of at least 15 percent of greenhouse gases by 2020 relative to 1990 levels. In effect it can count a reduction of 25 percent, as it is currently allowed to release an extra 10 percent of carbon dioxide under the Kyoto Protocol because of the Iceland Provision. This was granted to Iceland because it had so little heavy industry at the time and because nearly all of Iceland's energy comes from renewable energy.

The country was allowed to increase its greenhouse gas emissions by some 1.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from new industrial projects, in addition to its extra 10 percent under Kyoto. The Iceland Provision may become irrelevant in January 2013 when European regulations on emissions from heavy industry take effect.

A part of Iceland's goal for reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 will be achieved by binding carbon through tree planting and re-vegetation. If wetland restoration is allowed as an LULUCF activity, Iceland expects to be able to reduce its emissions further.

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