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10 November 2009 

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Report: Africa's Disappearing Wetlands Produce 'Alarming' Levels of Greenhouse Gas

10 November 2009

Women farm in Central African Republic
Women farm in Central African Republic
At recent climate change talks in Barcelona, an international conservation organization said "alarming" levels of greenhouse gas emissions are being produced by the continual degradation of Africa's wetlands.

Much of the climate change debate up until now has focused on limiting fossil fuel emissions produced by industrialized developed nations.

Now, a new report from the international conservation group, Wetlands International, has found that Africa is also producing significant carbon dioxide emissions. But these emissions are not coming from the continent's industrial sector.

They are produced as a result of Africa's vanishing wetlands areas.

Alex Kaal, Advocacy and Communications Manager for Wetlands International, says the loss of African wetlands is a new and alarming trend. "There are quite considerable emissions from the loss of wetlands - carbon-rich wetlands like peatlands - in Africa. So large that they are equal to about 25 percent of all the fossil fuel emissions in sub-saharan Africa outside South Africa. That means that there are many peat swamps in fact degrading and lost in Africa. That of course in itself is already alarming. But of course it is now causing a quite considerable impact on the carbon in the atmosphere," he said.

Wetlands areas, such as peat bogs, have stored enormous amounts of organic carbon for thousands of years. But wetlands zones are increasingly drained for agricultural or logging purposes. The stored carbon then reacts with oxygen, producing carbon dioxide, one of the most important greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.

The reports says Africa's peatbogs hold 10 gigatonnes of soil carbon. While much of the continent's wetlands zones remain intact, peatbogs in Uganda and wetlands areas in Mozambique, Guinea and Malawi are in danger of disappearing.

As these wetlands vanish, carbon emissions are climbing.

The report says after Iceland, Uganda's diminishing peatbogs produce the highest emissions, relative to its fossil-fuel emission, in the world. Disappearing peatbogs in the Ugandan highlands emit more than seven times the greenhouse gas that the country gives off through burning fossil fuels.

Kaal says preventing the loss of these wetlands and their stored carbon is a challenge. But, he says, it is possible and at a relatively low cost. What is needed is a mechanism similar to the one set up to stop forest carbon emissions. "The huge carbon losses of wetlands are totally overlooked. We call for a similar scheme. A scheme where developed countries support developing countries like in Africa to maintain their wetlands, and restore their wetlands and get credits - money - for the carbon they prevent from reaching the atmosphere," he said.

But many experts are worried that prevention of peatbog emissions will be overlooked during the upcoming United Nations climate change negotiations in Copenhagen later this year.

For Kaal, the issue is urgent. Preserving and restoring wetlands areas is much easier, he says, than trying to get industrialized nations like the United States to lower their energy use.

It would be strange, he says, if the Copenhagen talks focus only on prevention of fossil fuels.

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