The Arctic wetlands are a ticking climate bomb, which can emit large amounts of greenhouse gases. But now the eight member states of the Arctic Council – which includes Sweden – have agreed to try to curb emissions.
– This is an extremely important step forward, says Marcus Carson, researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute.
He is one of the authors of a new report on the ecological role of wetlands, which was presented at the Arctic Council’s ministerial meeting at the end of last week. That the council was later able to agree on measures that have such a clear connection to the climate issue is something of a breakthrough, he explains.
– There has long been a hesitation in some of the member states to take climate change seriously. But things changed dramatically when the United States got a new president who actually prioritizes the climate issue, says Marcus Carson.
About half of the world’s wetlands are located in Arctic regions. For thousands of years, they have had a cooling effect on the climate by storing large amounts of organic carbon, which would otherwise contribute to the greenhouse effect. But now more and more wetlands have instead started to emit greenhouse gases.
This is partly due to the fact that the permafrost is thawing due to global warming. But in many cases, the main reason is that large wetlands have been drained for, for example, forestry, agriculture, peat mining and roads. In Russia, Canada and the United States, oil and gas extraction also play a major role.
– If you leave the wetlands alone, they will continue to store carbon and help cool the climate. But we humans disturb them, so that they go from being a carbon dioxide trap to instead emitting greenhouse gases and warming the climate, says Gustaf Hugelius, natural geographer at Stockholm University, who has also participated in the work of producing the new report.
Fill the ditches
The effect is great. In Sweden alone, according to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency’s calculations, approximately ten million tonnes of carbon dioxide are leaked per year from drained wetlands, which is about as much as from the entire country’s passenger car traffic.
But by restoring the drained and damaged wetlands with relatively simple measures, emissions can be reduced, the researchers write in the report.
– In Scandinavia, it is mainly a matter of filling in the ditches, so that the water level in the landscape is raised and the wetland recovers. It’s comparatively simple. But restoring after oil drilling can be more difficult, as the ground layer is often more damaged, says Marcus Carson.
Reduced fire risk
In addition to reduced climate emissions, restored wetlands provide a number of other so-called ecosystem services. For example, the risk of large forest fires decreases when the water balance improves, at the same time as the soil’s ability to handle floods increases. In addition, biodiversity is strengthened, as wetlands are an important habitat for a large number of species.
Following the presentation of the report at the ministerial meeting, the eight member states of the Arctic Council agreed on a letter stating that they “welcome the new research report”; that “wetlands and boreal forests play an important role in biodiversity and climate change” and that they “encourage the implementation of the recommendations” highlighted in the report.
– It may not sound so strange, but in diplomatic language it is very strong and clear formulations. It gives a mandate to the working groups to start organizing the work, says Marcus Carson.
“Real goal conflicts”
The big challenge is not the practical work itself, emphasizes both Marcus Carson and Gustaf Hugelius, without resolving all the goal conflicts that arise if land use is to change. In some cases, these are lands where there is no longer any forestry, for example. But in many cases, a restoration will clash with the landowners’ plans to continue using the land.
– It is not realistic to restore all drained wetlands. But forests on drained wetlands are often less productive, so if you take a holistic approach to all ecosystem services, such as the reduced risk of fires, you can probably see the benefit of restoring them. But it is not possible to deny that there are real goal conflicts, says Gustaf Hugelius.
Facts: Arctic Council
The Arctic Council was formed in 1996 and consists of the eight Arctic states Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
It also includes representatives of six Arctic indigenous peoples’ organizations – including the Sami Council – as well as a group of observer countries, such as France, Germany, India, China, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.
The mission is to protect the Arctic environment and to work for economic, social and cultural development in the region.
The work is carried out in six working groups, which include line ministries, authorities and researchers. In addition, there are certain special expert groups.
The Council is chaired by the Foreign Ministers of the Arctic States. Between their meetings, a committee of officials is responsible for the work.
The presidency rotates between the Arctic states, which sit for two years at a time. Since 2019, Iceland has been chairing the country. In 2021, the presidency will move to Russia.
Sweden was chairman 2011–2013.
The Arctic Council has no budget of its own and no legislative power. All projects are funded by the Member States, which also take responsibility for implementing agreed measures.
Source. National Encyclopedia, arctic-council.org, Swedish Environmental Protection Agency
Facts: The Swedish Forest Stewardship Council must look for dry wetlands
On 21 May 2021, the Swedish government commissioned the Swedish Forest Stewardship Council to implement measures to re-wet drained wetlands.
The assignment includes searching for suitable land for re-wetting, evaluating the encroachment and entering into an agreement with the property owner.
Property owners can also voluntarily, for a fee, lease drained wetlands for rewetting.
The costs may not exceed SEK 169 million until 2023.
Source: Government Offices