What is the Impact of Peatland Restoration on Local Air Quality and Respiratory Health?

March 26, 2024

Peatlands, the accumulated organic matter in wetland ecosystems, are a crucial component of our planet’s health. Their degradation due to fires, deforestation, and human activities has raised serious environmental and health concerns. This article focuses on the critical value of peatland restoration in improving local air quality and respiratory health, using the lens of multiple scholarly studies and reports.

The Role of Peatlands in Air Quality and Health

Peatlands are not just a forest or a land; they are unique ecosystems that play a vital role in air quality and health.

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Peatlands, which cover around 3% of the Earth’s land surface, are the most efficient carbon sinks on the planet. They store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests, thus playing a crucial role in mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, when peatlands are drained or burnt for land-use changes, they shift from being carbon sinks to carbon sources, releasing substantial amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

These emissions include particulate matter (PM) and gases like carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which significantly deteriorate the air quality. Exposure to these pollutants has been reported to cause acute and chronic respiratory issues, including asthma, bronchitis, and increased risk of lung cancer, as shown in various health-based epidemiological studies (HBE).

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Furthermore, the dense smoke from peatland fires can travel across continents, affecting air quality and causing severe health impacts regionally and even globally. The 2015 Southeast Asian haze, largely attributed to peat fires in Indonesia, was reported to have caused over 100,000 premature deaths due to respiratory illnesses.

The Substantial Impact of Peatland Restoration

Mitigating the adverse effects of peatland degradation requires intensive restoration efforts.

Peatland restoration involves rewetting the drained peatlands and allowing the peat-forming vegetation to regrow. This process reduces peat oxidation and the associated emissions, thus helping restore the peatland’s carbon-sequestering capability and improve local air quality.

Numerous empirical studies have demonstrated the positive impact of peatland restoration on air quality. A paper published in Google Scholar reported that within five years of restoration, a peatland in the Elbe River Basin in Germany showed a 72% reduction in CO2 emissions. Another study in the same basin revealed that restoration reduced NOx and VOC emissions by 67% and 71% respectively, highlighting the significant benefits of peatland restoration on local air quality.

Though direct studies linking peatland restoration to respiratory health improvement are still limited, the indirect evidence is compelling. Health Risk Assessment (HRA) models clearly indicate that reducing air pollution levels decreases respiratory disease incidence and mortality rates.

Peatland Restoration: A Global Priority

Considering the substantial benefits, peatland restoration has emerged as a global priority.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) positions peatland restoration as a cost-effective solution to climate change and a means to achieve sustainable development goals. Besides, numerous countries have already included peatland restoration in their national climate action plans.

In Indonesia, the Tropical Peatland Conservation project aims to restore two million hectares of peatland by 2024. In the Congo Basin, the world’s second-largest tropical peatland, significant funding and efforts are being directed towards peatland preservation and restoration.

In the UK, the Peatland Code is encouraging private sector investment in peatland restoration through a certification scheme that rewards businesses for their carbon offset contributions.

The Role of the Public

Public involvement is crucial in successful peatland restoration efforts and consequent air quality improvement.

The public’s role goes beyond merely supporting these initiatives. It involves active participation in restoration activities, reducing peat consumption and making lifestyle changes that lower carbon footprints.

Furthermore, public awareness and education regarding the importance of peatlands and the impacts of their degradation on air quality and health are vital. The more the public understands about these ecosystems, the more likely they are to support conservation and restoration efforts.

The journey towards peatland restoration is a collective one. It is a significant step towards ensuring cleaner air and healthier lives for all.

Peatland Degradation and Restoration: A Closer Look at Southeast Asia

One of the most significant examples of the impact of peatland degradation and restoration is evident in Southeast Asia.

This region houses the largest concentration of tropical peatlands. During the dry season, these peatlands are particularly susceptible to destructive vegetation fires, which release substantial amounts of smoke haze. These fires, often started to clear land for palm oil and other plantations, degrade the peatland, release stored carbon, and result in severe health effects among local populations and beyond.

Scholarly reports on Google Scholar and preprints.org have detailed the health burden inflicted by these fires. The smoke haze contains a dangerous mixture of PM, CO, NOx, and VOCs. Exposure to these pollutants through inhalation leads to various respiratory diseases. HBE studies and epi studies confirm a significant increase in cases of asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer during and after the dry season when such fires are prevalent.

However, there is a ray of hope in the form of peatland restoration initiatives. In Indonesia, the Tropical Peatland Conservation project aims to restore two million hectares of peatland by 2024. Early reports suggest that such restoration efforts have led to a noteworthy reduction in vegetation fires and associated smoke haze, improving local air quality and reducing the health risk.

Conclusion: The Path Forward

The evidence is clear: peatland restoration has a crucial role in improving air quality and respiratory health.

The process of restoration, mainly through rewetting and encouraging the growth of peat-forming vegetation, reduces the release of harmful gases and particulates. This, in turn, diminishes the health burden on local, regional, and global populations.

It’s important to remember that while peatland restoration efforts are underway in places like Indonesia and the Congo Basin, much work remains. The public’s role in this journey is vital. From supporting restoration projects to making lifestyle changes that reduce carbon footprints, every action counts.

Furthermore, concerted efforts must be made to increase public awareness about the importance of peatlands and the detrimental impacts of their degradation on air quality and health. Ensuring the accessibility of scientific findings from HBE and HRA studies can be an effective way to inform and engage the public.

As we stand in March 2024, the journey towards peatland restoration is ongoing. It’s a collective endeavor towards a future with cleaner air, healthier lives, and a more sustainable planet. The road may be long, but the destination is worth it.