Boosting peatland resilience in Russia to address fire and climate change risks
Hectares of restoration achieved so far
almost 95,000 ha for ecological restoration, climate-smart rewetting and fire prevention
Financed under the International Climate Initiative by the German Government and facilitated through KfW
Measures used in this project
No smoke without fire: Russia’s peatland degradation conundrum
Peatlands are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth. The term ‘peatland’ refers to the peaty soil and the wetland habitat growing on its surface. Despite only covering approximately 3 per cent of the global land surface, peatlands are critical both in the preservation of global biodiversity as well as in their provision of fundamental ecosystem services e.g. the minimization of flood risk, provision of clean and safe drinking water for local populations and the sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere.
In Russia, peatlands cover approximately 8 per cent of the country. Peatlands once played a significant role in the development of Russia’s economy having been drained and converted for many decades for different land uses, such as for agriculture and forestry, fuel extraction and also for peat mining, an activity which has been subsidised by the state. Since the 1990s, however, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, support from the Russian state for the use of peat as a fossil fuel has declined. This has resulted in the abandonment of vast expanses of drained and dried out peatlands covering over nearly three million hectares of land. Today, approximately half of the peat bogs in the European part of Russia are still intact, and while the Asian part of Russia contain more intact peatlands, these areas are rapidly becoming occupied by oil and gas infrastructure.
The dried out peatland areas have indeed been problematic for the Russian state particularly in terms of being a major fire risk and health hazard for local populations nearby. The Moscow region had direct exposure to such risks in 2010 when they declared a state of emergency after a smog, created from nearby peatland fires, took hold of the city and the neighbouring areas. Compounding these risks, and even when not in use, these drained peatlands are emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accounting for over 5 per cent of all anthropogenic emissions. Since mires (marshy land) and peatlands store twice as much carbon dioxide as all forests in the world combined, their destruction is a serious threat to both Russia and the global climate. That is why efforts are underway to rewet large bog areas in Russia.
Towards the recovery of Russian peatlands
Wetlands International with its partners, the Institute of Forest Science of the Russian Academy of Sciences (official research institute in Russia), the Michael Succow Foundation, in cooperation with Greifswald University (both in Germany), alongside local NGOs, academia and regional governments, have been implementing a major peatland restoration project in response to the extensive peat fires that occurred in 2010.
The main goal of the project is to reduce drainage effects in peatlands by blocking ditches with small dams using natural materials so that the peat recovers its natural moisture, also known as ‘re-wetting’. In some pilot sites, the re-introduction of the natural vegetation is applied, while in other areas the vegetation recovers by itself. This form of ecological restoration not only helps to boost peatland’s resilience against droughts but it also helps to reduce emissions from peatland oxidation as well as fire risks and the possibility of smog occurrences. There is also a focus on other ecosystem services and climate adaptation potential by protecting habitats and ecosystems in order to safeguard and preserve biodiversity as well as improve water storage and water quality. The entire project targets approximately 140,000 hectares which covers the areas deemed most vulnerable to fire risk.
The project, which represents one of the largest peatland ecosystem restoration projects in the world, was initiated within a framework of co-operation between the Russian Federation and the Federal Republic of Germany, with a budget of 9.5 million euros from the German Ministry of Environment. The project is currently in its third phase which will run to 2023.
Inspiration behind the project
The 2010 peat fires, along with the related smog which enveloped the Moscow region, is what finally triggered the political willingness, both nationally and internationally cooperation, to address the fire risks and health hazards caused by abandoned peatlands. The first phase of the project therefore, which ended in 2016, was strictly focused on fire risk reduction, which the regional government of Moscow initiated themselves. According to Agata Klimkowska, lead ecologist from WI:
The regional government made a massive investment into the measures and activities that took place after the 2010 fire as they were responding to a natural disaster. The initial activities included the renovation of infrastructure, such as roads and reservoirs. Partial rewetting of the peatland area also began in this first phase.
Beyond fire prevention, the idea was also to mitigate climate change by reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, to safeguard biodiversity and to give an economic boost to the region through tourism and enhance the productivity of the peatlands.
On a mission to rewet and restore damaged peatlands
The project contains six key components to ensure 1) the damaged peatlands are restored back to their natural water-saturated state and 2) the sustainable use of these areas moving forward.
The first component has been the rewetting of the dried out peatlands across selected areas. The second component includes an inventory, using remote sensing and ecosystem mapping, of the degraded peatlands in order to prioritise which areas need to be rewetted first to decrease fire risk efficiently. The third component, led by the Institute of Forest Sciences of the Russian Academy of Science, is the monitoring of the vegetation and moisture status of the peatland as well as reductions of the carbon emission into the atmosphere. The fourth component has a focus on training and capacity building of the project teams, researchers, focal points in the project regions, staff of the Russian government, local governments and the national parks. The final project components cover the communication, policy and advocacy dimensions to help influence the legislation in Russia. Here project advisors support the government on how Russia can meet national and international goals and commitments as well as set up procedures that ensure, for example, that carbon accounting is undertaken. As Tatiana Minayeva, the Chief Technical Coordinator for the project, noted:
The most recent policy process that was fulfilled, and which was considered quite an achievement, has been the submission of the Russia Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) at the end of last year, including the emissions from degraded and rewetted peatlands in the reporting. This shows that, climate wise, monitoring of the greenhouse gases and having hard targets on greenhouse gas emission reductions has become more and more important In Russia.
The current phase of this project is focused on upscaling the results on the ground as well as developing, implementing and demonstrating the economic benefits of restored peatlands. By demonstrating these economic benefits, not only can more informed policies be made on the sustainable use of peatlands but it also helps to position peatlands in the carbon market, which enables companies to off-set or reduce their carbon emissions by using carbon credits that provide funding for further peatland rewetting.
Within the entire project area, approximately 75,000 hectares has already been rewetted using climate smart rewetting - wetting that is sufficient to substantially reduce CO2 emissions from the peat. Within this rewetting area, there is also a target of 35,000 hectares for the restoration of the natural peatland vegetation, including its biodiversity and ecosystem services, back to their natural state. And within this ecosystem restoration target area, there are approximately 9,500 hectares of demonstration sites which demonstrate ecosystem recovery or where sustainable farming technique called ‘paludiculture’ is applied which enables farming on wet peat land, which helps to keep the soil intact. As Ms. Klimkowska noted:
We are experimenting with paludiculture to see what kind of production is possible after rewetting so we do not lose all the income from the land. The priority is to rewet the peatland to keep the soil intact, but also to be able to produce something. We are currently focused on cultivating reeds which can be turned into pellets used for heating.
The purpose of these demonstration sites is also to enable small businesses to come and see how the land is being used and what is possible, production wise, on restored peatlands. The intention is that these companies start duplicating what they see on the demonstration sites in their own business settings, where possible.
While the abandoned and drained peatlands are concentrated in the central part of the most densely populated area of the European part of Russia, their value in terms of ecosystem service provision has not been fully recognised by the local population, meaning that that there has not been much momentum or funds available for their safeguarding. According to Ms. Tatiana Minayeva:
People assume that it's just like that, you don't have to pay for these services because they are free.
Due to the economic climate right now and the knock-on effects of Covid19 pandemic, many regional governments in Russia have indicated their lack of resources to put into peatland preservation after this years annual budget has been spent. This means that the project partners are now actively looking for additional funding from investors, beyond government and donor money. The pandemic has also added another layer of complications to the project delivery:
We have a one year delay on project implementation mainly because we were not able to travel to Russia or within Russia. The trainings and the meetings could not take place and the institutions involved were also delayed with their responses and could not arrange certain things such as sending their staff to the field.
Also the shifting political landscape in Russia has caused uncertainty for the project. As Ms. Klimkowska highlighted:
If the minister or the head of the local government is changing and you suddenly lose the partner supporting the project, then it creates project setbacks. Diplomatic balance and diplomatic communication is very important so we make sure we keep a good dialogue and a good communication on the working level.
Impacts so far
Even though the project has of course encountered obstacles over the last ten years since its inception, the fire prevention and restoration of almost 100,000 hectares of damaged peatlands has delivered a multitude of positive impacts on the environment, economy and society. One of the biggest impacts, particularly for local nearby populations, has been the improvement of the air quality close to these restored peatlands due to less peatland fires and the corresponding smog. Water regulation has also improved thanks to the peatland restoration, which has resulted on to fewer droughts and floods. Local communities also benefit from the project as it provides nature – based solutions for climate adaptation.
Economically speaking, there has not only been a reduction of firefighting costs but there has also been a rise in the economic value of local real estate. These impacts are thanks to the improved conditions for tourism and the increase in recreational use of the peatlands. Hopefully in the future there will be also more interest in shifting to certain niche products that can be grown easily on peatlands (e.g. Typha Latifolia, otherwise known as cattail which is a perennial herbaceous plant that can be used in construction materials or sphagnum moss which is used as a substrate in horticulture) and that can not only be used to replace fossil fuels and plastic-based materials but can also help to restore peatlands back to their natural state. As Ms. Klimkowska commented:
There are now many technologies that can be used to press cattail because it's very porous fibre which can be used for many different purposes including building insulation. I know that insulation material using this plant is already a growing market in Germany.
From the biophysical and environmental perspective, not only has the project been able to enhance local peatland biodiversity but the process of rewetting has been able to restore the damaged soils, including its organic matter, which has helped to reduce carbon emissions.
The target that we have to reach by the end of 2023 is 740,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalents of emission reduction annually. And right now, with the area already restored, we have achieved almost 650,000 (our best estimate) - this includes the results of different measures: including fire reduction, climate smart rewetting, ecological restoration of the peatland and all the demonstration sites, which are the most ambitious rewetting activities.
Keeping peatland in the spotlight
Owing to the huge success of the project, many other regions in Russia have become interested in peatland restoration and the collective benefits that it has. When the third phase of the project finally comes to a close 2023, the idea is that the various Russian stakeholders will take over. As knowledge transfer and investments are still in a demand, and as Ms. Klimkowska noted:
That's why we are working towards building up the incentives to keep the knowledge-based peatland restoration going and upscale it.
Beyond project continuation and funding, the hope and intention of project partners is that peatlands, and rewetted peatlands in particular, as a land-use category on their own, are fully incorporated into the national accounts of Russia. This would then demonstrate the importance of peatlands in official national statistics and thus help to raise the profile of peatlands because of their importance in global carbon cycles.
Agata Klimkowska is an ecologist and advisor for Wetlands International working directly on the Russian peatlands project. Tatiana Minayeva is peatland expert for Wetlands International and the Chief Technical Coordinator of the project.