Belarus has taken another important step towards the implementation of its commitments under the Paris Agreement – a new law “On the protection and use of peatlands” has been adopted by the country.
The law establishes the legal framework for the protection and sustainable use of peatlands and their resources; conservation and improvement of their biosphere functions, water protection and other functions; satisfaction of economic, aesthetic, and other needs of present and future generations. The law will contribute to the realization of citizens' rights to a favorable environment and natural resources management, fulfillment of the obligations of Belarus under international treaties in this area.
Under the Paris Agreement, Belarus has undertaken voluntary commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 35% by 2030. This also includes the country’s commitments on rewetting and disturbed peatlands rehabilitation that will help to reduce CO2 emissions across the country. The new law will contribute to the fulfillment of these commitments, as it will ensure the preservation of natural peatlands and the сarbon accumulated in them.
“Around 60,000 ha of inefficiently drained Belarusian peatlands have already been restored within the International Technical Assistance projects. Today Belarus is rightfully among the world leaders in ecological restoration of peatlands. We are sure that the new law on peatland protection will help Belarus to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement and will enable us, in close cooperation with our partners, to make a significant contribution to sustainable development and the effective fight against climate change at the regional, national and global levels,” Andrei Khudyk, the Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of Belarus, said.
The adoption of the law was preceded by the large-scale work. The first step was the inventory of all Belarusian peatlands carried on within two UNDP-GEF projects – "Peatlands-2" and the current "Wetlands” project. The next step was the development of the Strategy for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Peatlands and the Scheme of Peatlands Distribution by Type of Use through 2030. The documents were adopted by the Belarusian Government in 2015. They made the basis for a new law that, for the first time in the world, establishes at the legislative level the complex legal framework of protection and sustainable use of peatlands.
“For more than 20 years, UNDP together with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of Belarus and other partners has pursued a purposeful policy in the field of sustainable management of the Belarusian peatlands that are of international importance. Six large-scale projects have been implemented and have become the basis for the adoption of the law. This is a unique experience for the whole region to preserve vulnerable natural ecosystems, which Belarus can share at the global level. We are sure that the new law will become an innovative tool that will allow Belarus to contribute significantly to the effective fight against climate change at the global level,” Alexandra Solovieva, UNDP Resident Representative in Belarus, said.
“The climatic significance of Belarusian peatlands was taken into account during drafting the new law and the documents preceding it. The restoration of the hydrology of peatland ecosystem allows it to perform one of its main functions, namely the climatic one, which is to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and release oxygen instead. Large-scale work on the restoration of disturbed peatlands has already enabled to reduce peat fires, which are the main source of carbon dioxide in Belarus. This has drastically changed the situation with CO2 emissions in the country. The problem of the use of peat soils in agriculture still remains a significant source of CO2 emissions from peatlands. The new law once again draws attention to the fact that peat soils should be used exclusively for perennial grasses and only in exceptional cases for plowing. All these measures should increase the contribution of peatlands to climate improvement,’’ Alexander Kozulin, the head of international cooperation department at the Scientific and Practical Center of The National Academy of Sciences of Belarus for Biological resources, the scientific coordinator of the UNDP-GEF “Wetlands” project, admitted.
Restoration of disturbed peatlands in Belarus
In 2019-2021, the current “Wetlands” project is expected to develop the long-term plan on sustainable use of all the 260,000 ha of Belarusian drained peatland forests. The decisions on restoration/wise management of each peatland will be made within the project. The rehabilitation of inefficiently drained peatlands will help to stabilize the groundwater table, prevent the soil mineralization and drying out of peat soil and will have a positive effect on rivers and meadows close to the project areas.
The 5-year “Wetlands” project launched will allow to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions by 3,199,577 t CO2-eq/20y. This will be achieved thanks to the restoration of 12,456 ha of disturbed inefficiently drained Belarusian peatland forests, avoided deforestation, rewetting of the extracted Dakudaŭskaje peatland and replacement of fossil fuels with peatland biomass.
Disturbed peatlands: the scale of environmental problem
Drained and disturbed peatlands change from being a carbon sink to the carbon source and are affected by loss of soil carbon and soil fertility. Disturbed peatlands and peatland forests produce between 5-15 tCO2-eq/ha/y.
Significant areas of disturbed peatlands have been formed in Belarus as a result of peat extraction, drainage of peatlands unsuitable for economic use and intensive agricultural development of drained land. Such disturbed peatlands have little potential for further economically efficient use because of different reasons, including the degraded peat soils that were previously used in agriculture, inefficiently used peat deposits (143,300 ha) that have been removed from commercial operation, as well as 89,900 ha of natural peatlands with significantly disrupted hydrological regime.
The hydrology of most of these areas is disrupted (i.e. groundwater table much below surface). Inappropriate management (or complete lack of management) of the groundwater table in drained peatland forests results in degradation of habitat, drying out of peat soil, release of carbon dioxide through soil mineralization, loss of small rivers, and cause peat and forest fires.
Large areas of drained forest peatlands have lost their productive capacity and can no longer be used effectively for forestry. A drop in the water table by 0.5-0.7 meters, as a result of drainage, has caused the biodiversity decline.
The role of Belarusian peatlands in biodiversity conservation and the reduction of CO2 emissions at the regional and global levels
Belarusian peatlands are home to more than 40% of bird species, 35% of insect species and more than 15% of wild plant species included in the Red Book of the Republic of Belarus. For such globally endangered species as the Aquatic Warbler, the Great Spotted Eagle, the Great Snipe the Belarusian peatlands are critically important for global survival.
The natural state of Belarusian peatlands allows to obtain a list of ecosystem benefits:
- save more than 7 billion cubic meters of fresh water;
- provide sustainable water supply for rivers and lakes;
- save about 500 million tons of carbon in the peatlands;
- ensure annual removal of about 900 thousand tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere;
- ensure the restoration of more than 10 thousand tons of biological resources, such as cranberries, per year;
- to develop eco-tourism focused on the recreational potential of peatlands.