Restoration as a sustainable and cost-effective method of climate-change mitigation

Posted: 8th December 2023

Photo: George Soare

As world leaders convene in the United Arab Emirates for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) and in advance of Nature Day on the 9th of December, the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme (ELSP) considers cost-effective and sustainable methods to combat the climate crisis. Restoration can improve carbon mitigation potential of habitats as well as providing numerous additional benefits such as flood resilience, increased food security, and improved biodiversity. In the European Union, it is estimated that every Euro invested in restoration delivers eight to 38 Euros in benefits. Understanding and quantifying these benefits is important to maximise synergies and manage trade-offs between climate, biodiversity, and societal objectives in restoration projects, as well as increase political and public support.   

The large-scale restoration of habitats, including forests, peatlands, and grasslands, offers opportunities to tackle the twin crises of global biodiversity loss and anthropogenic climate change. It is therefore critical that restoration projects understand and maximise their climate change mitigation potential whilst still delivering social and ecological benefits. In the face of the pressing need for sustainable solutions, ELSP projects provide a showcase of how ecological restoration and climate action can align on an impressive scale. 

Peatlands  

Peatlands are terrestrial wetlands where waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from fully decomposing, creating peat. As the plants do not fully decompose, the carbon they contain is not released back to the atmosphere and is stored within the peatland ecosystem.  However, when peatlands are drained, this plant material becomes dry and releases the carbon into the atmosphere as CO2. In the EU, while drained peatlands only cover around 3% of the area of its twenty-seven Member States, they are responsible for around a quarter of annual agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Restoring peatlands can avoid these emissions and eventually re-establish their natural carbon sink potential. 

Peatlands in the Koitajoki Watershed in Finland have been degraded by industrial forestry and peat mining, with over 5 million hectares of peatland being degraded since the 1940s. This degradation is primarily caused by “ditching,” involving the removal of vegetation and the creation of water canals for draining peatlands before industrial processing. 

Finland plays a crucial role in hosting boreal and Arctic peatlands, covering over 10 million hectares, roughly 30% of its total land area. Globally, these peatlands store over 30% of the remaining soil-based carbon. The northern peatlands in Finland actively absorb carbon dioxide, acting as a carbon sink in an oxygen-deprived environment. Some of these peatlands have been around for over 10,000 years, highlighting their historical significance. 

The consequences of this degradation extend beyond the loss of habitat and disruption of ecosystems. Downstream impacts on water quality are also noteworthy. The carbon storage and carbon sink capacity of these peatlands have been affected. This degradation has implications for carbon levels, biodiversity, local and Indigenous communities, and water quality. It underscores the importance of adopting sustainable practices and conservation efforts to protect these ecosystems and their contributions to the environment. 

Photo: Mika Honkalinna, Snowchange.

Tero Mustonen, team lead, explains: “The Koitajoki Watershed project is the largest single restoration project in Finnish history. At the heart of the work are actions to restore and restart peatland carbon sinks. As of December 2023, the project has successfully restored 874 hectares of affected peatlands, and by its completion in Summer 2025, it will likely have restored approximately 1,500 hectares of peatlands. To provide a sense of scale, although each peatland requires individual inventorying, a comparable site, Karvasuo peatland, spanning 300 hectares in Western Finland under Snowchange’s Landscape Rewilding Programme, contains around 1.7 million tons of carbon now securely stored on the ground.” 

Restoring ecosystems and natural processes has benefits far beyond carbon sequestration. “In Koitajoki, the restored peatlands serve as central locations along the European Flyway, particularly for wading birds. They function as natural flood control mechanisms for both droughts and floods and play a vital role in maintaining good water quality while keeping mercury at bay. Additionally, peatland restoration empowers local women and other community members as they regain management responsibilities, becoming River Guardians and peatland restoration experts. This contributes to the preservation of unique Koitajoki traditional knowledge, a source even recognised and utilised by J.R.R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings” says Tero.  

Grasslands  

Globally, grasslands act as essential soil carbon sinks and store a third of terrestrial carbon stocks. Through photosynthesis, grasses absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, converting it into organic compounds stored in their above-ground biomass, including stems, leaves, and seeds. The extensive root systems of grasses contribute to soil organic carbon through a process known as rhizodeposition. This intricate network of roots enhances soil structure and facilitates long-term carbon storage in the soil.  

Across Europe, grasslands have been degraded and destroyed due to overgrazing and land conversion for agriculture. Restoration and improved grazing regimes offer cost-effective solutions to enable grasslands to fulfil their carbon mitigation potential.  

The Danube Delta project has restored over five hundred hectares of steppe grassland and revived natural processes through re-establishing natural grazing regimes in the area. “Studies suggest that a major percentage of carbon is stored in underground biomass. However, the role of grassland habitats in Europe is not very well documented and understood even though grasslands are the most depleted type of habitat in Europe. The former vast steppe areas of central and eastern Europe were converted to croplands on a massive scale. What’s left is a bleak fraction of the historically vast landscape” explains Mykhailo Nesterenko, team leader for Rewilding Ukraine.  

The Rewilding Ukraine team are researching the carbon sequestration of the steppe grasslands in the Danube Delta region. They are looking at how a restoration of steppes and different management measures affect the carbon cycle and which roles rewilding and large herbivores have in the cycle. “The data should assist us in developing carbon-based finance for an alternative land-use economy that could compete with crop production, particularly on degraded lands or areas significantly affected by droughts and climate change. This approach would facilitate the restoration of degraded croplands back to grasslands on a much larger scale” says Mykhailo.  

Photo: Maxim Yakovlev/Rewilding Europe.

Forests  

Trees and other plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and then it is stored in their biomass and the soil. When a forest is destroyed, this carbon is released back into the atmosphere and future potential for sequestering CO2 is destroyed. It is estimated that 11% of CO2 emissions worldwide are from deforestation and forest degradation. Replanting trees is a well-known method to remedying deforestation, but it must be done carefully to restore biodiversity, natural processes and natural structure. Biodiversity in forests contributes to the stability and resilience of ecosystems. Diverse ecosystems are often more productive and better able to withstand disturbances such as extreme weather events, pests, and diseases. This resilience is critical to maintaining the ability of forests to sequester carbon in the long term. 

In the Carpathian Mountains, significant areas of land were clear-felled and public funding for forest road construction led to further destruction. The area has also suffered from overgrazing by livestock as a result of EU subsidies, poaching, and overhunting. The ELSP-funded restoration project in the area has planted 1262 ha of native forest on these clear-cut areas. The native, natural seedlings come from Carpathian nurseries or are purchased from specialist producers in the area. Over twenty years (2022-2042), it is predicted that this could lead to a total net emissions reduction of around 236,207 tCO2-eg.   

“We are not, and never will be, better specialists than nature itself”, explains Mihai Zotta, Conservation Director, Foundation Conservation Carpathia. “Ecological restoration work must imitate the structure, natural processes and evolutionary trends of natural habitats as closely as possible. Whether we are talking about hillside forests, riparian alder galleries or alpine shrub habitats, the objectives are the same: to contribute to and speed up the return of the natural habitats that existed in these areas, or to create habitats as close as possible to natural ones. Restoration of forest or sub-alpine habitats is only necessary where human intervention has led to severe changes in seasonal conditions, combined with changes in the microclimate and water regime, accentuated by the general climate change we are currently experiencing.”  

Photo: George Soare.

Restoration and climate change mitigation  

While restoration proves effective in reducing emissions and enhancing the carbon sequestration and storage of habitats, it is essential to recognise that ecosystems vary in their capacity to mitigate climate change. Although restoration alone cannot replace the urgent need for rapid emissions reductions, it plays a crucial role in compensating for inevitable future greenhouse gas emissions. As COP28 unfolds, projects focusing on peatland rewetting, grassland restoration, and afforestation exemplify versatile strategies. Recognising the diverse mitigation capacities of ecosystems, these initiatives have the potential to contribute to the offsetting of future emissions, navigating us toward a more sustainable and balanced planet.  


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