Restoring unique Falkland Island peatlands could mean the islands store more carbon than they produce

This post is by Jonathan Ritson of the University of Manchester and Chris Evans of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Reaching net zero by 2050 will require a massive effort across all sectors; from decarbonising energy to changing modes of transport and the way we handle waste. With the scale of change required it is no wonder that there is also a focus on options for greenhouse gas removal in case the rate of decarbonisation is not fast enough. While greenhouse gas removal technologies have their own problems, like mitigation deterrence, discussed previously on this blog, some nature-based schemes also have a wealth of co-benefits which mean we really should be pursuing them anyway.

Peatland restoration is one such technique. In the UK it has the potential to help us meet the net zero target set by the government, as well as preventing flooding, protecting soils and improving biodiversity. But peatlands could allow some areas to go beyond net zero and actually move into net-negative carbon and greenhouse gas balances. Our new report, commissioned by the RSPB and Falklands Conservation, shows how one UK Overseas Territory may have the potential to do just that.

Possibly the most peat-rich place in the world
The Falkland Islands have an unusual ecological history in that up until the 18th century there was virtually no influence from humans or herbivorous mammals. This allowed a huge store of peat to develop, fertilised by guano from the local seabird and sea lion colonies, meaning carbon was sequestered in coastal areas at an impressive rate; the Falklands are possibly the most peat-rich place on the planet.

Once humans colonised the islands, changes to land management practices, principally through livestock introduction and burning, led to the significant loss or degradation of sensitive native vegetation such as tussac grass which is key to peat formation. These impacts mean that the islands’ capacity to continue forming peat and sequester carbon has decreased, as has the habitat for globally important wildlife, including penguins, albatrosses and sea lions, for which the Islands are famous.

This is where the desires of conservation NGOs and those seeking to develop nature-based greenhouse gas removals meet. If the tussac areas can be restored it could increase the habitat for seabirds and mammals, as well as begin to draw down more carbon from the atmosphere. Our report suggests, as a preliminary estimate, that the Falklands might be able to develop 1 MtCO2e of carbon offsets a year through peatland restoration. The Committee on Climate Change estimates the UK will have 33-45 MtCO2e of residual emissions a year in 2050. This means the restoration of a relatively small peatland area in the Falklands could offer significant offsetting potential. What is needed to achieve it is investment.

Restoring peatlands offers immediate climate benefits
While many greenhouse gas removal technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, offer the promise of carbon removals sometime in the future, peatland restoration can start immediately once the right governance and investment structure is in place. What’s more, rather than simply storing carbon, it could provide a whole host of other benefits for nature and tourism on the islands, operating alongside and helping to support the islands’ important farming sector.  

At present the Peatland Carbon Code, the gold standard for restoration projects in the UK, is based on experience in the UK where drainage for agriculture and forestry are major problems. In the Falklands, with few drains and even fewer trees, the issues causing carbon loss are different, as are the interventions likely to solve the problem. Furthermore, the livelihoods and practices of farmers will also have to be considered so that greenhouse gas removal projects are readily adopted as part of modern land management.

The establishment of a broader standard of peatland restoration is needed which can be used to assure the quality of projects in different habitats and conditions. To do this, the UK, and UK businesses, should be supporting these Overseas Territories to develop greenhouse gas removal projects that demonstrate what can be achieved. Doing so would make a net negative carbon Falkland Islands a real possibility.

With the CORSIA agreement for international aviation due to kick in in 2021 there is likely to be increased demand for carbon offsetting. We need to ensure, first, that this does not mean decarbonisation is given less importance. Second, that projects work with local communities and the farming sector to develop climate mitigation solutions. Only then will they be socially and economically, as well as environmentally, sustainable. And finally, projects that provide significant other benefits should be prioritised so that carbon is stored whilst providing habitats for the birds and mammals that make areas like the Falklands so special.

[Photo of coastal tussac grass with sea lions in Cape Dolphin by Chris Evans]

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