Guest Article #59

Wetlands and Climate Change

This guest article considers the role of wetlands as carbon sinks to mitigate the effects of climate change. It also examines the role of wetlands as important assets in adaptation strategies that increase their resilience and reduce the adverse impacts of climate change on human life.

Wetlands are natural and human-made infrastructures that receive, transport, clean, store and deliver water to a wide range of users – “from the mountains to the seas” – for domestic needs, agriculture, biodiversity, industry and other economic production, as well as maintenance of social and cultural integrity. The Ramsar Convention recognizes 42 types of wetlands, including rivers and their tributaries and floodplains, lakes, estuaries, deltas, peatlands, oases, coastal areas, together with mangroves and coral reefs, and many others.

The role of wetlands as carbon sinks in response to climate change emergency

Wetland ecosystems help regulate climate change by storing and capturing carbon. In particular, although peat only covers 3% of the world's land surface, it is estimated to be the largest carbon store, with an estimated 550 gigatonnes of carbon worldwide. UNEP informs us that managing and maintaining the values of peatlands are quick and cost-effective measures to reduce as much as 10% of greenhouse emissions – the report was released in Bali in December 2007 to call for urgent action from the international community to protect and restore peatlands, the world's single most important carbon store. The report emphasises that clearing, draining and setting fire to peatlands emits more than three billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, equivalent to 10% of global emissions from fossil fuels, according to the multidisciplinary Assessment on Peatlands, Biodiversity and Climate Change, the first comprehensive global assessment of the link between peatland degradation and climate change. (This report is available at: http://hqweb.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=523&ArticleID=5723&l=en).

In addition, according to a new World Bank report, written in partnership with IUCN and other wetland specialists, drainage and degradation of coastal wetlands emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide directly to the atmosphere and lead to decreased carbon sequestration (http://climatechange.worldbank.org/content/degraded-coastal-wetlands-contribute-climate-change). This report confirms the fact that mangroves, tidal marshes and sea-grass meadows remove carbon from the atmosphere and lock it into the soil, where it can remain for millennia. Unlike terrestrial forests, these marine ecosystems are continuously building carbon pools, storing large amounts of “blue carbon” in the sediment below them. When these systems are degraded due to drainage or converted for agriculture and aquaculture, they can release huge and continuous amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The report underscores the importance of managing and maintaining the values of coastal ecosystems so that the range of services they provide can complement existing approaches to natural solutions to reduce the effects of climate change. Such investments have the potential to link to REDD+ and other carbon financing mechanisms, provided that protocols on accounting, verification and reporting of net carbon uptake can be agreed.

The role of wetlands in adaptation to climate change

In planning for adaptation to climate change, we need to link with issues related to ecosystem services, especially the value of food from wetlands and fresh water supply. That is, effective management, including restoration, under climate change scenarios could also support basic human needs for food and water, keeping in mind that increasing demand for food and water could serve to further undermine wetland management.

To that end, continued and enhanced partnerships among many players are needed. In this regard, joint work underway between the Ramsar Convention and various partners, including the UN system, NGOs, and the business sector, is contributing to:

•        improved hydro-meteorological monitoring for adaptive management;

•        increased recognition of the role of wetlands as vital natural infrastructures, because effective management of wetlands provides the most robust and resilient mechanism for managing water under conditions of uncertainty;

•        better understanding of the role of wetlands in relation to both adaptation and mitigation of climate change;

•        increased attention to measures that can be implemented in the short term to increase ecosystem resilience and robustness;

•        enhanced collective action to address management and conservation issues in critical focal areas such as transboundary systems, including rivers and lakes, groundwater systems, mangroves, coral reefs and peatlands; and

•        better understanding, planning and management of integrated systems of human-made and natural infrastructure (e.g. wetlands) to account for climate uncertainties.

The Ramsar Convention is working on the conservation and wise use of 42 types of wetlands as important assets for various sectors – such as agriculture and food security, forestry, energy, water supply, health, urban and rural settlements, infrastructure, tourism, wildlife, trade and transport – that contribute to sustainable socioeconomic development. The Ramsar community at all levels of government and NGOs around the world will continue to seek ways of cooperating and coordinating with officials and experts working in those sectors to help build an integrated, full-spectrum response to the adverse effects of climate change to our planet.