Protecting peatlands—carbon-dense swamps and forested wetlands found worldwide—are crucial to President Joe Biden’s forest conservation plan announced Tuesday at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow.
Peatlands are among the “critical ecosystems” the White House plan says are essential to turning down the heat on climate change—a move hailed by U.N.-affiliated organizations promoting peatland protection at the 26th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The U.S. announcement is significant because peatlands have been “used and abused” for centuries, said Stuart Brooks, peatland chair for the International Union for Conservation of Nature and head of policy for the National Trust of Scotland, speaking at COP26.
Peatlands, found globally in forests and swamps primarily in the Northern Hemisphere, store vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the air, which is released when they’re burned or destroyed.
In North America, peatlands are in forests along the East Coast, such as Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, and throughout Canada and Alaska. They also are in the Amazon and central Africa, and, in Indonesia, they’re being drained and converted to palm plantations.
The White House plan to protect forests worldwide more broadly comes as 100 countries agreed Tuesday to halt deforestation by 2030 and to finance forest and ecosystem conservation globally.
The U.S. plan seeks to boost private sector support for forest and peatland conservation, build government capacity to manage forests, and inspire governments worldwide to set conservation goals with climate change in mind.
Preserving existing forests is essential to combating climate change. The land—including the most carbon-dense forests like the Amazon—absorb along with the ocean about half of all human climate pollution, said Deborah Huntzinger, a climate scientist at Northern Arizona University.
As deforestation stunts the ability of carbon dioxide emissions to be stored in trees, forest soil, peat bogs, and other land-based ecosystems, more of that pollution gets into the air and warms the planet, she said.
“Efforts to preserve and potentially strengthen the land carbon sink is important component of climate mitigation,” Huntzinger said.
The White House forest conservation plan has gained cautious approval of scientists drawing the connection between forest protection and solving the climate crisis.
“The plan comprehensively recognizes contributions from forests, rather than trees, and also recognizes the value of other ecosystems in storing carbon, including wetlands and grasslands,” said Carla Staver, an ecology professor at Yale University.
The plan’s details will determine if they end up making a difference for climate change, said William Anderegg, a biologist at the University of Utah, whose work focuses on climate change and forests. “The science is quite strong that we need to stop forest loss as quickly as possible to meet climate goals.”
The White House forest conservation plan differs from earlier forestry solutions for climate change supported by Republicans in the U.S. and the timber industry, including the global initiative to plant 1 trillion trees as a way to store atmospheric carbon.
Supporting that effort, 99 congressional Republicans, and three Democrats, have sponsored the proposed Trillion Trees Act (H.R. 2639), which promotes forest restoration initiatives as a climate mitigation measure. But it also supports logging by promoting carbon storage in harvested tree products, such as timber used in home construction.
Republicans say the White House’s forest conservation plan and the proposed Trillion Trees Act compliment each other.
“It’s particularly great to see other countries recognizing the importance of forestry,” said a House Natural Resources Committee Republican aide. “The U.S. is a leader in sound forest management, and we want to continue exporting those ideas to the rest of the world. The Trillion Trees Act is a big part of that puzzle.”
The Trillion Trees initiative supports the global effort to halt deforestation.
“Yes, we must restore forests and plant trees to achieve the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. But at the same time, if forests continue to disappear at the current catastrophic rate, all this work will be to no avail,” John Lotspeich, Trillion Trees executive director, said in a statement.
However, White House plans to protect existing forests and peatlands are expected to have a far greater positive effect on the climate than planting trees, Anderegg said.
“The climate impact of protecting and conserving intact forests is far larger and more immediate than widespread planting of small trees, so the proposal is on strong scientific ground in prioritizing and focusing on that,” he said.
The White House plan recognizes that carbon storage is balanced by biodiversity and other important ecosystem functions—something that’s missing from the Trillion Trees plan, Staver said.
“Intact ecosystems already store substantial carbon, which took a long time to accumulate,” she said.
—With assistance from Dean Scott.