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Protecting peat: Lydia Cole discusses the role of tropical peat forests as freshwater carbon stocks

November 20, 2013
Degraded peat swamp forest behind an area cleared for an oil palm plantation. ©Lydia Cole

Degraded peat swamp forest behind an area cleared for an oil palm plantation. ©Lydia Cole

With the UNFCCC conference in its second week in Warsaw, carbon is in the limelight. While high-profile market-based initiatives such as REDD-plus focus on forest carbon, freshwater ecosystems with significant stocks – such as peatlands – are comparatively overlooked in carbon finance. But Lydia Cole argues these unique wetlands are a critical piece of the emissions puzzle. Cole’s work focuses on tropical peat swamp forests, which hold the most dense terrestrial carbon stocks on the planet – about 500 Gt in 4 million square kilometers, just 3% of the terrestrial surface. Cole, who recently completed her DPhil at Oxford’s Biodiversity Institute, is the first subject of BioFresh’s “Young Thinkers” series, showcasing the work that early-career researchers are doing at BioFresh-linked universities.

An ecologist by training, Cole became interested in tropical peat swamp forests during her master’s studies at Oxford, as she studied the issues surrounding palm oil production. Initially focusing on the role of Imperata grasses in taking over degraded areas, she transferred her energies to peat swamp forests after traveling to Sarawak for fieldwork and seeing the rapid rate at which extensive tracts are being drained for agriculture. Through counting fossil pollen preserved in peat cores dating back up to 5,000 years ago, she studied the role of fire and human land conversion and concluded that while fire had always been a part of peat swamp forest ecosystems, it had rapidly increased in the last two hundred years, coinciding with significant human land-use change and a likely loss of resilience in the ecosystem. Once peat swamp forests are drained for agriculture, the stored organic carbon, normally protected in the water-logged environment of an intact peatland, becomes exposed to the air and oxidizes and produces carbon dioxide. The areas also become much more susceptible to fires, which release even greater amounts of carbon dioxide – globally, equivalent to at least 6% of fossil fuel emissions every year. “It’s really a disaster that they’re being converted,” says Cole.

Lydia Cole has studied the resilience of peat swamp forests in Sarawak, Malaysia, using pollen cores

Lydia Cole has studied the resilience of peat swamp forests in Sarawak, Malaysia, using fossil pollen cores

After finishing her degree, Cole is spending several months testing the waters of the business world, working with Rezatec to develop a means to quantify carbon stocks held within peat. If this is successful, peatland conservation projects may be able to join in global carbon markets. “Not being able to quantify the carbon is  slowing down the potential to conserve peat swamp forests,” says Cole. “Big businesses are becoming more comfortable with forest carbon, but very few people know about peat carbon.” Cole will be working with Rezatec for 8 months, trying to find a way to simplify the complex process of calculating how much carbon is stored in peat. “I’ve always wanted to be very applied, to feed research into very practical conservation issues,” Cole says. “The next 8 months I see as a way of assessing one aspect of potential [peatland] conservation.”

Although currently peatlands aren’t a popular carbon-trading option because of uncertainty in how to measure the carbon being stored, Cole says that there are several reasons why they match well with carbon markets. For one thing, in Sarawak she found that in general the peatlands have fewer land rights issues than other forested areas, because there are fewer people living or extracting resources from them. There are also co-benefits – for example, they supply water to several of the major cities, because in their intact state they remain wet all year round. In some areas there is also the potential for eco-tourism, as species such as orangutans may retreat into intact peat swamp forest refuges. But perhaps the best incentive is the urgency of the issue – peat swamp forests are some of the most vulnerable areas to conversion, particularly in nations such as Malaysia which are aggressively pursuing oil palm agriculture.

Why peatlands? Cole says that she often gets that question from friends and colleagues. “They just couldn’t understand why I was interested in this muddy, swampy, mosquito-ridden ecosystem, coming from the UK,” says Cole. But aside from being fascinated with the peat swamp forests themselves, the fact that not many people are interested – in Malaysia or elsewhere – means that there’s the potential to make a difference. Peat forests are a particularly important carbon sink, and a particularly vulnerable one, but for Cole they highlight the threats facing many ecosystems. “To be someone who does care, I feel it’s important that I keep caring, keep working towards a positive change,” she says.

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