A seven-minute Ted Talk I listened to led me to do a little extra reading and to become a lot more concerned about choices being made around our human carbon footprint and its implications for climate change and our survivability. Perhaps one of the worst aspects of our impending loss of sustainability on planet Earth is that we endanger the survival of all species, not just ourselves.
You can listen to the Ted Talk by Vera Songwe, the executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission, here.
The peatlands of the African Congo Basin encompass an area roughly the size of England (56,189 square miles), straddling the border of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They consist of a lush rainforest atop 30 billion metric tons of carbon locked in peat. It’s also possible that beneath the peat lies a further carbon lode—oil. This area is a massive carbon sink.
The Oxford Languages dictionary defines a carbon sink as “a forest, ocean, or other natural environment viewed in terms of its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.” Essentially, it’s an area that absorbs more carbon from the air than it releases. These areas are vital to the efforts to combat the increasing global temperature and with it, climate change.
The people of the Congo Basin live sustainably with the rainforest. However, development of these peatlands is seen by some as a road to economic development, and the Democratic Republic of Congo has said it plans to end its moratorium on logging concessions. If logging leads to deforestation, that alone will release a huge amount of carbon from the sink, accelerating the increase in global temperature.
Peat is also seen as a resource. Anyone with a garden has likely used peat as a carbon-rich soil. It’s also burned for fuel. Producers are looking to the Congo’s peatlands as an area where crops such as oil palm could be grown. Activities such as building roads into the wetlands and draining them for agriculture would cause the massive amount of carbon stored therein to be released into our atmosphere.
On its landing page, The Global Peatlands Initiative defines itself as “An effort by leading experts and institutions to save peatlands as the world’s largest terrestrial organic carbon stock and to prevent it being emitted into the atmosphere.” Clicking on the “Get Started” button leads to the information that “current greenhouse gas emissions from drained or burned peatlands are estimated to amount up to five percent of the global carbon budget—in the range of two billion tonnes CO2 per year.”
In 2020, the United States contributed 4.7 billion tonnes, or 14% to the world’s carbon budget. It’s estimated that the Congo’s peatlands carbon load, if released, would contribute 20 times that amount. It’s not hard to see how that would be disastrous for our planet.
At COP26 (2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference) in Glasgow, Scotland, the world’s peatlands were emphasized, with a focus on preservation, restoration, and sustainable management. Though they comprise only 3% of Earth’s land area, they store more than 33% of the world’s soil carbon.
Scotland, England, and Germany unveiled national peatland strategies and commitments and Chile, Peru, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo strengthened their climate commitments. Their peatlands were part of those commitments.
In addition, since the conference, a number of Global North countries and private foundations have pledged billions of dollars to tropical rainforest countries, including the Congos, to aid their economic development while protecting their peatlands.
These are important initiatives. But it seems important to me that we do our part as individuals in preserving the world’s peatlands. The 2017 Washington Post article “Is this Common Gardening Material Bad for the Planet?” discusses alternatives to peat for gardening. It dismisses coir, or coconut fiber, as this is often harvested from trees grown on drained peat swamps. Among the alternatives presented, compost seems to be the most readily available, though it also mentions finely shredded pine bark, PitMoss (shredded paper with proprietary ingredients, and worm castings (waste from farmed earthworms).
Moving to compost, which I can buy from my local gardening store, seems to me a sustainable alternative to peat. This is something I can do to decrease my own carbon footprint. In the overall picture, it’s a drop in the ocean. But I’ve always maintained that if millions of people contribute their drop to the ocean, we can collectively fill it.
I challenge all my gardening friends out there to do your part to help preserve our world’s peatlands It’s a small change that collectively can make a huge difference. And while you’re contributing your individual drops, please share this newsletter widely. I’ve never had a post go viral. If only one ever does so in my writing career, I would be proud to have it be this one.
In writing this post, I used information from the following websites:
“The ‘idea’: Uncovering the Peatlands of the Congo Basin” by John C Cannon on website: Mongabay: News & Inspiration from Nature’s Frontline January 14, 2022
“The African swamp protecting Earth's environment” | Vera Songwe from Ted Talks Daily March 24, 2022
“Congo Basin peatlands have trapped years' worth of carbon. How can they be protected?” NPR podcast January 14, 2022
The Global Peatlands Initiative
“Global Carbon Budget 2021” from U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program November 4, 2021
“Peatlands in spotlight at COP26” 25 November 2021 UN environment program
“Is this Common Gardening Material Bad for the Planet?” Washington Post Adrian Higgins May 11 2017