Climate negotiators at UN talks agreed to consider letting rich countries cut their climate-changing emissions by "rewetting" degraded peatlands, in the first official sign of global action on the issue.
It was a victory for conservationists who long fought for incentives in UN forestry and land-use proposals to entice governments to stop draining carbon-rich swamps.
"It is really a big achievement," Susanna Tol of the Netherlands-based environmental group Wetlands International said in a telephone interview.
For years, those negotiations focused on slowing deforestation, which contributes 17 percent of annual global warming emissions. Ignoring peat is a big mistake, advocates like Tol say. Draining and burning bogs is responsible for 5.5 percent of CO2 pollution and rising, according to an analysis from Wetlands International.
Peat soils are carbon sinks, absorbing about twice the carbon as all the planet's forests. When drained to grow palm oil crops or for other uses, the carbon oxidizes, becomes CO2 and gets spewed into the atmosphere. Fires frequently burn in dried bogs, further accelerating climate change.
The Kyoto Protocol track at the 193-nation Cancun talks agreed that rich states can "rewet" swamps and count the CO2 credits towards their national targets under a future climate regime.
Advocates were quick to thank the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the progress.
The panel recently said that science has advanced enough to measure CO2 emissions accurately from peatlands. "That was a breakthrough," Tol said. "Countries are now confident that it can actually be done."
Nothing Cast in Stone
Still, nothing is final at this point. "Overall the ... negotiators were not able to spend the time needed on this to get agreement," Florence Daviet, a senior research associate at the Washington, DC-based World Resources Institute, said in an email.
For instance, it still has not been determined if accounting for peatland drainage would be mandatory or voluntary. Tol said a voluntary scheme "is already an achievement," though a binding commitment should be the goal.
Further complicating the picture is the uncertain future of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, putting land-use agreements in that track in jeopardy.
Language in the "Cancun Agreements" suggests everything would get folded into a successor treaty, observers say. Details will be worked out at next year's climate meet in South Africa, and probably beyond.
Either way, the momentum is all set for at least some progress on peat, said Tol. "No country was opposed."
Three countries eager to rewet their peatlands — Iceland, Belarus and Scotland — pushed the hardest for agreement. The 27-nation EU bloc, led by Finland, is the world's second-largest peat emitter, followed by Russia and China.
Indonesia, the third biggest carbon emitter, is No. 1 in peat pollution. The draining and burning of its swamps accounts for 900 millions tons of CO2 — roughly equivalent to the yearly emissions of Germany.
Paying Poor Countries to Preserve Peat
Emissions from drained peatlands have leaped more than 20 percent since 1990, according to data from Wetlands International. Much of the increase has occurred in poor countries, which aren't covered under the Kyoto stream.
To control their emissions, advocates want the coming deal on REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, to cover carbon stored in peat sinks.
The scheme is designed to pay poor nations to preserve standing trees. But environmentalists argue that peatlands, too, are a part of the forest ecosystem.
Draft REDD text from Cancun opens the door to calculating peat and other such "carbon stocks," Tol said. In a promising sign, she added, negotiators asked the UN Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice to select land use and forestry sources that can dramatically cut emissions for possible inclusion in the deal.
Ideally, Tol said, REDD should pay the poor to stop logging and draining bogs, especially for conversion to palm oil plantations. In Indonesia, where palm and pulp production is booming, this is seen as key.
"Given there are many donors that recognize the importance of peatland emissions in places like Indonesia, I doubt this is an issue that will remain on the sidelines," said Daviet.
George Soros Ready to Invest
George Soros, the billionaire investor and philanthropist, recently toured the degraded peatlands of Indonesia. In Cancun, he called rewetting swamps a priority and said he is ready to invest in their recovery.
It was the first time such a high-profile figure flagged the issue on the world's stage. But many in the private sector have long been anxious to begin trading emissions cuts from peatlands in the carbon market. They were excluded from Kyoto's first round from 2008 to 2012.
"There's a lot of interest from the voluntary market," Tol said. The first voluntary carbon standard for peat was recently finalized.
Marcel Silvius, head of programs and strategy at Wetlands International, has said that private sector players like Soros are crucial to jump start the voluntary trade.
"In the absence of compliance markets, private sector initiatives are needed to trigger voluntary market mechanisms that can provide a fair price for emissions reductions and carbon sequestration," he said.