EarthTalk: Is it true that the loss of the
world’s peatlands is a major factor in the build-up
of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If so, what can be
done about it?
-- Larissa S., Las Vegas, NV
bogs are important “carbon sinks,” storing
on average 10 times more CO2 than other ecosystems.
As such, the widespread conversion of peat bogs into
commercial uses around the world is serious cause
for alarm. Pictured here: Peat production, for use
in domestic fireplaces, underway in the Irish Midlands.
are wetland ecosystems that accumulate plant material to
form layers of peat soil up to 60 feet thick. They can store,
on average, 10 times more carbon dioxide (CO2), the leading
greenhouse gas, than other ecosystems. As such, the world’s
peat bogs represent an important “carbon sink”—a
place where CO2 is stored below ground and can’t escape
into the atmosphere and exacerbate global warming. When
drained or burned, however, peat decomposes and the stored
carbon gets released into the atmosphere.
2007 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study of
the role peatlands play in human-induced climate change
found that the world’s estimated 988 million acres
of peatland (which represent about three percent of the
world’s land and freshwater surface) are capable of
storing some two trillion tons of CO2—equivalent to
about 100 years worth of fossil fuel emissions.
such, the widespread conversion of peat bogs into commercial
uses around the world is serious cause for alarm. In Finland,
Scotland and Ireland, peat is harvested on an industrial
scale for use in power stations and for heating, cooking
and use in domestic fireplaces.
the problem is most urgent in countries like Indonesia and
Malaysia, where economic hardships force people to drain
peatlands to create farms and plantations. Marcel Silvius
of the Dutch non-profit Wetlands International says that
“annual peatland emissions from Southeast Asia far
exceed fossil fuel contributions from major polluting countries.”
He adds that Indonesia, now ranked 21st in the world in
greenhouse gas emissions, would move to third place (behind
the U.S. and China) if peatland losses were factored in.
International estimates that CO2 emissions from drained
or burnt Indonesian peatlands alone total some two billion
tons annually, equal to about 10 percent of the emissions
resulting from burning coal, oil and natural gas. Similar
amounts of CO2 are likely coming out of Malaysian peatlands
problem has worsened in recent years as surging global demand
for timber, pulp and biofuel speeds up the conversion of
otherwise-ignored peatlands to intensively managed tree
farms and palm oil plantations. Silvius says that a ton
of palm oil—Indonesia’s top export and the key
ingredient in biodiesel fuel—grown on drained peatlands
emits 20 times more CO2 than a ton of gasoline. Yet, he
says, protection of peatlands may actually be one of the
least costly ways to mitigate global warming, as it would
cost less than seven cents ($US) per ton of avoided CO2.
like a global phase out of old, energy guzzling light bulbs
or a switch to hybrid cars,” says UNEP head Achim
Steiner, “protecting and restoring peatlands is perhaps
another key ‘low hanging fruit’ and among the
most cost-effective options for climate change mitigation.”
For its part, UNEP is stressing that countries should be
allowed to count protecting peatlands as among their creditable
efforts to reduce their carbon footprints as the world braces
for global warming.
EarthTalk: Has anyone been tracking whether
climate change is causing more loss of human life as it
gets more pronounced?
-- Gordon Gould, Compton, CA
Health Organization research concludes that global
warming is already causing 150,000 deaths and some
five million human illnesses per year, including malaria
and dengue fever.
that global warming is already responsible for some 150,000
deaths each year around the world, and fear that the number
may well double by 2030 even if we start getting serious
about emissions reductions today.
A team of health
and climate scientists from the World Health Organization
(WHO) and the University of Wisconsin at Madison published
these findings last year in the prestigious, peer-reviewed
science journal Nature. Besides killing people, global warming
also contributes to some five million human illnesses every
year, the researchers found. Some of the ways global warming
negatively affects human health—especially in developing
nations—include: speeding the spread of infectious
diseases such as malaria and dengue fever; creating conditions
that lead to potentially fatal malnutrition and diarrhea;
and increasing the frequency and severity of heat waves,
floods and other weather-related disasters.
Backing up WHO’s
findings is a study by Stanford civil and environmental
engineer, Mark Jacobson, showing a direct link between rising
levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and increased
human mortality. He found that the added air pollution caused
by each degree Celsius increase in temperature caused by
CO2 leads to about 1,000 additional deaths in the U.S. and
many more cases of respiratory illness and asthma. Jacobson
estimates as many as 20,000 air-pollution related deaths
may occur worldwide each year with each one degree Celsius
“This is a cause and effect relationship, not just
a correlation,” relates Jacobson. “The study
was the first to specifically isolate CO2’s effect
from that of other global-warming agents and to find quantitatively
that chemical and meteorological changes due to CO2 itself
increase mortality due to increased ozone, particles and
carcinogens in the air.”
For their part,
though, global warming skeptics such as atmospheric physicist
Fred Singer maintain that cold weather snaps are responsible
for more human deaths than warm temperatures and heat waves.
“The elderly die in inadequately heated homes. People
get skull fractures from falls on the ice. Men die of heart
attacks while shoveling snow. People get colds, flu, pneumonia
and other respiratory diseases. Infectious diseases proliferate.
Hospital admissions rise.” Singer, founder of the
Science and Environmental Policy Project, concludes that
since global warming would raise maximum summer temperatures
modestly while raising winter minimum temperatures significantly,
it “should help reduce human death rates.”
A team of Harvard
researchers found otherwise. Their July 2007 study, published
in the peer-reviewed Occupational and Environment Medicine,
found that global warming is likely to cause more deaths
in summer because of higher temperatures, but not fewer
deaths in milder winters. In analyzing weather data related
to the deaths of 6.5 million people in 50 American cities
between 1989 and 2000, the researchers found that during
two-day cold snaps there was a 1.59 percent increase in
deaths because of the extreme temperatures. But in similar
periods of extremely hot weather, mortality rates increased
Environmental Policy Project.
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