Nature and Biodiversity

Peatlands are under threat. Here's why we must act now to save them

A peatland site in St.Moritz at the beginning of its restoration in September 2019 Image: Laura Saputelli

Laura Saputelli
Sustainability Specialist, Swiss Public Affairs and Sustainability, World Economic Forum Geneva
Peter Staubli
Co-founder and director, Beck & Staubli
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Future of the Environment

  • Peatlands play a huge role as carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots.
  • Centuries of depletion, either by drainage or peat extraction, have put them under huge risk.
  • The damage can be reversed, as current projects demonstrate.
  • We must regenerate damaged peatlands and save those that still exist today.

Wetlands are known by many names such as peatlands, marshes, bogs, fens or mires. What they all have in common is that their landscape is temporarily or permanently saturated with water. But if you think that these areas are just swamps with no significant role, then you are wrong. These landscapes are of special importance - not only for their water storage and purification capacity, but also in their roles as carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots.

Why are peatlands important?

Peatlands are a particular type of wetland that builds up peat by accumulating dead plant material, which is prevented from biodegrading thanks to the water saturation. In peatlands, this constantly growing layer of organic matter (peat) slowly accumulates carbon and permanently sequesters it. And even though little attention has been given to peatlands so far, their hidden potential is enormous. Currently covering around 3% of the earth’s solid surface, peatlands store around 33% of the world’s overall carbon, which represent more carbon than in all forests combined worldwide.

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Peatlands are also hotspots for biodiversity. Although few plant and animal species live in these nutrient-poor, acidic and wet raised wetlands, those that do are highly specialised and dependent on this habitat.

An intact peatland also contributes to a balanced water budget for an entire landscape by helping attenuate floodings during heavy precipitation.

Peatlands are at risk

Peatlands have been at risk for centuries. They are either drained to make way for fertile pasture and cropland, or they are destroyed by the extraction of peat, which is used as a source of energy. When peatlands are drained, their peat is exposed to air and releases its carbon in form of CO2, 20 times faster than it was sequestered.

Peatlands in Switzerland

In the early 19th century, there were around 250,000 hectares of wetlands in Switzerland. This area had already reduced by 40% by 1900; today there are less than 2,000 hectares left. This means that over the past 200 years, more than 90% of the peatlands in Switzerland have been lost. They might be gone altogether within this century if no action is taken.

Restoring peatlands

To avoid this nearly irreversible loss, regeneration measures have been taken in around 30% of the remaining Swiss peatlands over the past three decades. To date, regeneration projects have been financed mainly by the Swiss federal government and the cantons.

As part of its sustainability efforts for the 2019 Annual Meeting, the World Economic Forum also supported the restoration of 2.5 hectares of three different peatlands in the region of the Engadin in the Grisons, two of which are now completed. Acknowledging that an event such as the meeting in Davos by nature consumes finite resources and causes emissions, the Forum wanted to take responsibility for both. In addition to measuring and offsetting these, the Forum also sought to create a positive legacy within the region that hosts the Annual Meeting.

The biggest of the three sites - ‘Salastrains’, in St. Moritz - was drained in the last century by the installation of artificial ditches and its peat was mined for heating purposes. Three restoration measures have been taken in response: First, the installation of watertight wooden dams around the area; second, damming the old drainage ditches; and third, directing the spring water back into the bog area. The peatland area is now rewetted, stopping biological degradation and the release of CO2 emissions, but instead sequestering carbon. Regular plant samples allow us to assess the condition of the rewetted area, and progress of the peat development over time. A final report on this project will be published in April this year.

With only 1 to 10 millimetres of peat being built up per year in a peatland, regeneration measures are indispensable, and protecting the remaining peatlands is crucial.

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