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Experts Urge Polish Government to Take Action to Protect Wetlands

POLITICSExperts Urge Polish Government to Take Action to Protect Wetlands

In Poland, there are approximately 1.6 million hectares of peatlands, which are the most effective carbon dioxide absorbers in the world and are also home to many endangered plant and animal species. However, around 85% of them have been drained to increase the area of farmland and commercial forests. Poland, along with the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, is one of the countries with the largest scale of loss of these ecosystems in Europe. Degraded peatlands have transformed from carbon dioxide absorbers into powerful sources of this greenhouse gas. This has resulted in the endangerment of many plant and animal species, as well as exacerbating drought and flood phenomena. Therefore, experts – in light of the World Wetlands Day on February 2 – are making an urgent appeal to the new government to take steps to improve the state of these ecosystems. They are counting on accelerated work on the strategy, as the revitalization of marshes and peatlands is included in the coalition agreement.

“The restoration of marshes and peatlands, announced in the coalition agreement, means paying more attention to their formal protection. They require a new perspective, they need to be treated as marshland ecosystems and restore their natural functions. Currently, many peatlands are degrading, and peat – instead of accumulating – is decomposing, emitting large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Simultaneously, plant and animal species associated with peatlands are dying, and we are losing water retention –” lists in an interview with the Newseria Biznes agency, dr hab. Wiktor Kotowski, professor at the University of Warsaw, board member of Wetland Conservation Center, member of the PAN (Polish Academy of Sciences) Committee for Climate Crisis.

Peatlands are areas with a naturally accumulated layer of peat, i.e., the remains of mosses, reeds, and plants growing in damp places. When beneath water and away from oxygen access, these remnants hardly decompose, developing a layer of peat very slowly. Marshes, i.e., wet peatlands, are a continually expanding repository of plant remnants. And since plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and are largely made of carbon themselves, wet peatlands are the most significant natural carbon stores on Earth – even tropical forests cannot compete with them.

A report developed by the Wetland Conservation Center shows that they perform many vital functions and have a significant impact on the entire surroundings. They are an effective and inexpensive way of retaining water without having to build new reservoirs, as they act like a sponge – they slow down the runoff of rainwater, increasing its amount in the soil. This helps prevent droughts and mitigate their effects. Wet peatlands are also valuable habitats for many animal and plant species, including those under legal protection.

“To the mentioned importance of wetlands for biodiversity and climate change, we need to add another important thing, namely the function of purifying waters. These are the only places that very effectively capture nitrates and phosphates from water before they reach rivers or lakes. We have no other way to clean agricultural pollution between fields and rivers, since we cannot pipe this water to sewage treatment plants. At the same time, we have a progressing intensification of agriculture, we fertilize more and this will continue to progress in the coming years. Therefore, without restoring marshland buffer zones to the rivers, we will not prevent further eutrophication, or enrichment, of both inland waters and the Baltic” emphasizes dr hab. Wiktor Kotowski.

The total area of natural and transformed wetlands in Poland is estimated at 5.7 million ha, or about 18% of the country’s area, of which about 1.6 million ha are peatlands. However, at least 85% of them have been drained to increase their cost of farmland and commercial forest areas. Only about 15% have retained a marshy character and potential peat accumulation capabilities.

“In nature conservation, we talk about restoring ecosystems. And this is the area where peatlands are perhaps the most important, because we have transformed a lot of them – half of them in Europe, in Poland about 85%. We are in fourth place in the European Union in terms of the scale of peatland transformation. As a result of these processes, we not only lost the function of natural marshland ecosystems – such as pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, storing it in the soil, retaining water – but we even caused these ecosystems to perform a negative function – they turned from carbon dioxide absorbers into powerful emitters of this gas into the atmosphere. Previously, they absorbed a ton of carbon dioxide per hectare annually, now due to drainage they emit 20-30 tons of CO2 per hectare annually” says the professor at the University of Warsaw.

According to data from the Wetland Conservation Center in Poland, peatlands – drained for cultivation, forest farming, and peat exploitation – have turned from carbon dioxide absorbers into powerful sources of this greenhouse gas. Emissions from drained peatlands are estimated at approximately 35 million tons of CO2 equivalents per annum, which equals over one-tenth of Poland’s total emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Based on emission permit prices on the ETS market, their cost can be estimated at over PLN 10 billion annually. Furthermore, degradation of peatlands also leads to, among others, the endangered extinction state of many marshland plant and animal species, the loss of water retention (estimated at about 5.39 billion m3 annually), and an intensification of drought phenomena.

“We have straightened the majority of small and medium rivers, as a result of which they have lost their self-cleaning ability, lost their connection with waterside and floodplain areas due to embankments. All this causes the functions of wetlands to be greatly marginalized, and often transformed into negative functions. Regulated rivers and drained peatlands cause increasingly severe floods and droughts. We have no water retention in the landscape, and at the same time after heavy rains, after a few days of intense rainfall, the water runs down these straightened flows quickly downstream, where it generates dangerous rises. So we need to put these remaining wetlands under protection as soon as possible and start restoring nature before these changes turn into a catastrophe” emphasizes dr hab. Wiktor Kotowski.

The expert points out that over two years have passed since the General Directorate for Environmental Protection received the Wetland Conservation Center’s prepared strategy for the protection of wetlands in Poland for 2022-2032. Poland – as a signatory to the Convention on the Protection of Water and Wetland Areas (Ramsar Convention) – is obliged to adopt this document. However, it has still not been officially enacted.

“In the project of this strategy, three main goals are realistically indicated: protection of peatlands and a 30% reduction in their emissions over ten years, improvement of the state of rivers, restoration of at least part of the floodplains and buffer zones to them, and maintenance and expansion of wetland protection within the Ramsar Area network in Poland” says the board member of the Wetland Conservation Center. – “This strategy has passed the first stage of consultation, has been received and stuck in the General Directorate for Environmental Protection or the Ministry of Environment. We don’t know why, anyway it has been lying somewhere in the drawer for two years. Now – due to the change in the governing team – we decided to return to this topic and make this strategy reconsidered. It may require some negotiation, but all Ramsar Convention signatory countries must have such a strategy. Our last strategy expired quite a few years ago and we have to do it. At the same time, there’s a lot of work to do, because some peatlands are protected areas, but most of them are formally agricultural lands, so we have to look for a compromise between agriculture and nature and climate protection.”

Importantly, the benefits of implementing the wetland conservation strategy in Poland for 2022-2032 – estimated based on the monetization of selected ecosystem services (primarily the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and increased water retention) – have been calculated at a staggering PLN 74 billion. These benefits are almost three times higher than the costs of implementing the strategy, which includes approximately PLN 5.8 billion in planned state budget expenditures and around PLN 22.5 billion to be covered from other sources.

“Adopting a wetland conservation strategy is a matter of urgency, as we need to respond as soon as possible to the challenges posed by climate change, but we also need to adapt to the obligations arising from membership in the European Union. We have no more time, the strategy is a document where all this can be planned and wetlands conservation will pay us back with a surplus. Costs should only partly come from the state budget – it comes to redirecting existing EU agricultural subsidies and using funds from other types of European funds. We should take advantage of the fact that there is a climate policy and nature policy with a budget for this purpose in the EU – emphasizes dr hab. Wiktor Kotowski.

Especially since EU law also imposes on us the requirements in the field of nature restoration. This includes the European Parliament’s Nature Restoration Law regulation, which assumes the restoration of degraded ecosystems by 2050. One of the set goals is to restore to a good state 90% of peatlands being natural habitats within the Natura 2000 areas and 50% of peatlands used agriculturally, of which 1/4 is to be re-watered again.

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