Pilot Project in Belarus
Conservation and sustainable management of peatlands in Belarus to minimize carbon emissions and help ecosystems to adapt to climate change, while contributing to the overall mitigation and adaptation effort
This project aims to address the most critical problems of peatland conservation and management in Belarus, seeking to demonstrate innovative approaches to ecosystem-based climate mitigation and adaptation at peatlands. The project will be implemented in Zvanets and Sporovo peatlands in Drogichin and Bereza district in Belarus. Zvanets and Sporovo are the largest natural fen mires in Europe (single massives of 15,000 and 18,000 ha). With appropriate technologies and equipment, the project will cut shrubs, reeds, and trees at about 3,500 ha during the project life, producing about 2,500 tons of dry biomass. It is expected that the project will result in avoided emissions of 15.6 tCO2-eq/ha/year by replacing fossil fuel use with peatland biomass. Retention (non-deterioration) of fen peatland carbon capacity will amount to 360 tC/ha.
General description of background information
Peatlands are found all across Belarus. Natural peatlands once covered a considerable area (ca. 3 million ha). However 54% of extant peatlands have been drained for agriculture, in a land use conversion process that commenced in the 1950s. The biodiversity conservation, soil protection and climate regulation functions of peatlands were ignored in the process. As a result of drainage, some 0.8 mln ha of drained agricultural peatlands have suffered degradation to various degrees. By 2010, some 250,000 ha of agricultural peatlands had a soil organic content of less than 50%, which meant that their fertility was lost, and arable agriculture could not productively be continued on them. Some 31,100 ha of former peatlands are now so degraded that they have an organic matter content of less than 5%. About 135,000 ha of drained forest peatlands have lost their productive capacity and can no longer be used gainfully for forestry. A drop in the water-table by 0.5-0.7 meters as a result of drainage has brought about changes in vegetation structure and the disappearance of vegetation associations, impoverishment of the species composition, loss of organic content, and release of carbon through mineralization (5-22 t/C/ha/y), loss of local livelihoods (berries, mushrooms, fish nurseries, hunting), flow reduction in smaller rivers, and the gradual eutrophication of rivers and lakes. In late 2011 Belarus has completed a project running since 2006, supported by UNDP and funded by Global Environment Facility on Renaturalization and Sustainable Management of Peatlands to Combat Land Degradation, Ensure Conservation of Globally Valuable Biodiversity and Mitigate Climate Change. The project developed a sophisticated methodology for brining extracted peatlands back from degradation by elevating the ground water level, i.e. by re-wetting them. Following the methodology, the Belarus project recreated 28,208 ha of 11 degraded peatlands in various places across the country.
The restored peatlands prevent emissions of 235,000 of CO2 annually. The value of the project for biodiversity is visible at a glance: already in the second year, there is re-emergence of typical wetland vegetation and a visible increase in the presence of water-birds such as Bittern, Reed bunting, and Sedge warbler. Recreated peatlands have quickly become popular among local communities who have started to use them for collection of cranberries, fishing and sustainable hunting. Some of the restored peatlands were annexed to protected areas and equipped with nature trails, and are now brining income as tourism attractions. As a result of the project, the Government adopted a policy which stipulate that at the end of its “economic life” a peatland must be turned back into a peatland and not into a reservoir or forest as used to be the case before. Whatever economic use the peatland is put to serve, the land-user is mandated to set-aside up-front resources for bringing the peatland back to nature at the end, using the restoration methodology developed by the UNDP-GEF project. By assessment, around 40,000 ha of degraded peatlands have altogether been restored in Belarus as of early 2012. Before restoration, peatland fires were just as frequent in Belarus as in neighboring Russia, inflicting sizeable economic and health damage. After investments, peat fires in Belarus have been showing a steady downward trends, saving the country at least US$ 1 million annually in fire-fighting operations.
A methodology for assessing emissions from peatlands using vegetation as a proxy has been developed. The methodology includes mapping of vegetation types characterized by the presence and absence of species groups indicative for specific water level classes. GHG flux values are assigned to the vegetation types following a standardized protocol and using published emission values from plots with similar vegetation and water level in regions with similar climate and flora. Carbon sequestration in trees is accounted for by estimating the annual sequestration in tree biomass from forest inventory data. The method follows the criteria of the Voluntary Carbon Standard. Based on the methodologies, the Peatland Rewetting and Conservation Standard (PRC) has been developed. Furthermore, a legal and institutional mechanism that would allow Belarus to trade emissions from peatlands at voluntary and regulatory markets is under development. The Marketing Strategy for the sale of Carbon credits has already been developed. There is another threat to peatlands in Belarus. About 500,000 ha of the remaining natural fen peatlands suffer from encroachment of shrubs, reeds, and woody vegetation. From the ecological point of view, this is a negative process, because it involves encroachment of shrubs and undergrowth onto open natural peatland ecosystems (fens and bogs) which had never had so much reeds, shrubby or woody vegetation before. Before 1950s, i.e. before large areas were drained, reeds, shrubs and woody vegetation would be prevented from emergence by local people who would cut wetland vegetation by hand for hay. Once large neighboring areas had been drained in mid-1950s, local farmers got easy access to large neighboring newly dry areas for hay-making, and so cutting of un-drained peatlands fell dramatically as a result, and by 2012 virtually ceased. Although shrubs and woody vegetation are alien to open peatlands, when they emerge and when people do not cut them, their proliferation can be very quick. This is because drainage of surrounding areas leads to lowering of the groundwater table and changes in the nutrient structure of soil and water in a way which favors the spread of shrubs and trees.
By 2012, the proliferation of shrubs and trees onto open fens and bogs has grown a to dramatic extent, threatening the very existent of open fen and bog peatlands as a biotope. This negative succession of vegetation entails disappearance of unique species of flora and fauna found only on open peatlands. The populations of threatened bird species such as Great Snipe, Curlew and Aquatic Warbler have been badly affected by this process. These species are indicators of the overall health of the peatland ecosystems, and their decline signifies the overall degradation of the peatlands they breed in. Furthermore, the proliferation of shrubs and undergrowth in the peatland floodplains of the Pripyat river has become so dense that it started to bar the stream of the river leading to higher levels of spring floods and more devastating consequences for infrastructure and dwellings along the river. Uncontrolled expansion of shrubby and woody biomass at Belarusian peatlands has been increasing over the past 30 years. Therefore, active conservation management (physical removal of shrubs at large scale) is required to maintain the health of peatland ecosystems.
Harvesting and processing of excessive reeds, shrubby and woody biomass for subsequent production of heating briquettes and pellets is one of the best ecosystem-based climate mitigation approaches that can be implemented at peatlands. On the one hand, if a peatland is designated for biomass harvesting instead of extraction, it means avoiding one-time loss of up to 360 tC/ha which would have happened if that ha of peatland was extracted and peat converted into fuel briquettes and ultimately burnt. Furthermore, by assessment of German scientists, some 15.6 tCO2 per ha per year can be avoided if the peatland biomass replaces fossil fuels. Shrubs and trees at most natural peatlands in Belarus will re-grow after harvesting, therefore their harvesting is not a one-off measure, but rather should be considered as a continuing source of biomass. Another alternative use for the reeds harvested at the peatlands is for production of roofing material. Increasing the use of shrubby and woody biomass from peatlands is a clear trend of the energy markets of the future in Belarus, as it is seeking to decouple its dependence on Russian fossil fuels [Belarus currently has only 1.6% of its energy produced from biomass]. Also, the EC energy markets will be accepting more biomass from local sites and neighboring countries, in order to meet the 20% renewable energy target established by the EC. Restoring degraded peatlands and collecting biomass instead of mining peat for fuel or draining them for agriculture becomes a lucrative economic alternative use of peatlands. This is becoming especially evident since in 20 years from now the current peat extraction companies will end up with depleted reserves and will need to be re-profiled to employ alternative technologies for use of resources at peatlands.
EU: 1,400,000 Euro
More information and publications
Project Manager: Mr Vladimir KOLTUNOV (vladimir.koltunov[at]undp.org)