• Peatlands cover about 3% of the Earth’s surface, but store almost a third of the world’s carbon.
  • There are peatlands in more than 180 countries, including Africa, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil and Sweden.
  • They have long been under threat from farming, forestry and fuel extraction.
  • More than $8 trillion will need to be invested in natural climate solutions like peatland restoration between now and 2050, according to the United Nations.

As bogs, swamps and marshes, peatlands may not sound important or appealing. But their role in regulating our climate is “unmatched”, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Here’s a quick explainer on what peatlands are and why they matter.

What are peatlands?

Peat is a type of soil usually found in waterlogged environments. It’s made from layers of decaying plants that have built up over time – often thousands of years. The watery conditions delay the decomposition process. This creates a build-up of carbon. Peatlands are large areas of this spongy wetland soil, which can be several metres thick.

Peatlands can be found in more than 180 countries, including Africa, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, Sweden, China, the United Kingdom and Poland.

Their landscapes vary. Some peatlands are open, treeless bogs, like the Flow Country in Scotland. Others are beneath forests – like in the Congo Basin, Africa. This is home to the world’s largest tropical peatland, Cuvette Centrale, beneath forests of hardwood and palm trees.

Why do peatlands matter?

Peatlands cover about 3% of the Earth’s surface, but overall, store almost a third of the world’s carbon. This is double the carbon stored in all the world’s forests.

With ancient carbon stored over millennia, peatlands are the world’s biggest natural carbon store on land and a vital nature-based solution to climate change.

Conserving and restoring forests, agricultural land and coastal and marine ecosystems can help tackle the challenges of climate change and nature loss and provide around 30% of the emissions reductions needed to limit global warming to 2C, according to the World Economic Forum’s Natural Climate Solutions Alliance.

How are peatlands threatened?

Peatlands have been at risk for hundreds of years. They are drained for farming and forestry. Peat is extracted to be used as fuel. The warming climate can also contribute to peatlands drying out.

Dried-out peatlands are vulnerable to fires, with potentially disastrous consequences for people and the planet. In 2020, peatland fires in Siberia emitted record levels of carbon into the atmosphere, creating a polluting toxic haze.

When Indonesia suffered one of its worst-ever peat fires in 2015, it cost the economy $16 billion and affected millions of people.

Extinguishing fires on carbon-rich peatland is notoriously difficult and is estimated to cost more than $3m per hectare.

About 15% of the world’s peatlands have been drained, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “This has released huge amounts of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, from the carbon stored within peat soils,” the IUCN explains in a brief on peatlands and climate change.

Disturbed peatlands account for about 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to the UN.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.

Are peatlands being protected?

Work is underway globally to conserve and protect peatlands. This includes efforts in Indonesia to restore or rewet 1,000,000 hectares of peatland. Sweden is also restoring its peatlands. These make up about 15% of the country’s land area, but in the past have been drained to produce timber.

Between now and 2050, more than $8 trillion will need to be invested in nature-based solutions like peatland, forest and ocean restoration to tackle the interlinked climate, biodiversity and land degradation crises. This is according to the State of Finance for Nature report, produced by the UN Environment Programme, the World Economic Forum and the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative.

Peatland restoration and other nature-based solutions will need $8 trillion investment between now and 2050.
Peatland restoration and other nature-based solutions will need $8 trillion investment between now and 2050.
Image: State of Finance for Nature/UNEP

Innovative solutions

To help rapidly scale-up nature-based solutions, the World Economic Forum has launched the Accelerating Nature-Based Solutions platform on UpLink, a digital platform launched by the Forum and its partners to crowdsource innovative solutions to the world’s biggest problems.

One of the initiatives on the platform is the Carbon Market Challenge. This is a global call for innovative solutions that will help channel investment finance towards conservation, restoration and land management projects.