Will Russia’s wetlands save the planet’s climate?

Long-term studies by the international scientific community prove that wetlands are even more important for the climate than the planet’s forests. Wetlands are regulators of the planet’s climate, and their carbon stocks are twice the capacity of all the world’s forests. 


The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  agreed  30 years ago that the climate cannot be saved without the conservation and restoration of wetland systems. And for all their influence, wetlands are extremely vulnerable:  over the last half century, one third of the world’s wetlands have disappeared – they are disappearing three times faster than forests. 


But while in Europe more than 90% of natural wetlands have been destroyed, in Russia wetlands are still quite abundant. According to the Institute of Forestry Science of the RAS, the total wetland area of the country (lands regardless of the proportion of peat content) is 3.69 million km², i.e. 21.6% of the territory. Bogs proper (with peat deposits with a thickness of more than 30 cm) occupy 1.39 million km², or more than 8%.


Russian boreal bogs contain on average seven times more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem. Russia ranks first in the world in terms of peat reserves, and according to scientists at the Institute of Forestry Science of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Russian peat bogs contain more than 113 billion tons of carbon.

Wetlands as a way to fulfill climate commitments

In the Russian Federation, wetlands are part of the plan to fulfill national commitments to reduce emissions. According to the new Climate Doctrine of the Russian Federation, the country will be able to achieve a 25% reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions from 2019 levels mainly due to their absorption by forests and wetlands. Both the baseline and intensive scenarios laid out in the Strategy for Socio-Economic Development of the Russian Federation until 2050 include, among other things, watering of previously drained marshes, ensuring their fire safety, and managing their water balance.


The fact that Russia’s plans to achieve carbon neutrality focus on wetlands and forests, rather than on reducing emissions from industry, is not the sole initiative of the state, but a product of UN rules. International agreements allow national plans to use “managed lands” - areas “where human intervention and methods have been applied to fulfill productive, environmental or social functions.”


But scientists responsible for calculating global emissions warn that a number of countries that rely heavily on their natural carbon sinks to reduce emissions often give a distorted picture of how much carbon dioxide wetlands actually produce.  For example, according to the International Marsh Conservation Group (IMCG), Russian peatlands alone (which are a type of wetland) are among the largest contributors of carbon to the atmosphere. So are those of Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.


In practice, depending on land use practices and strategies, wetlands can be one of the largest sinks of greenhouse gases, or they can be a time bomb that can release huge amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.


Runoff or the source?

Not every wetland (as well as not every forest) is a carbon sink. The real scale of the impact of Russian wetlands on the planet’s carbon balance has not been studied in detail. Some believe that the wetlands located in the south of Western Siberia cool the atmosphere, while others believe that, on the contrary, they warm it.

Siberian wetlands are like a sponge; they store a huge amount of greenhouse gases. The West Siberian Lowland contains about 40% of the planet’s intact wetland ecosystems. Occupying only 1.6% of the land area, this region is a storehouse of about one third of all soil carbon in Russia and more than a quarter of it accumulated by all terrestrial ecosystems.

Methane emissions are considered to be a problem associated with wetlands in general, and especially Russian wetlands. This greenhouse gas is 21 times more “aggressive” than carbon.
According to IPCC estimates, the contribution of natural wetlands to the total emissions of natural methane varies from 61 to 82%. 


Studies by European scientists have shown that European peatlands alone could be equivalent to 69% of the annual emissions of European wetlands. “A healthy and complete greenhouse balance in Europe can only be achieved by including the peatlands of the European part of Russia,” they believe. Greenhouse gas emissions as a result of reclamation and subsequent degradation of peatlands, as well as peat fires, currently reach 5% 5% of all anthropogenic emissions. On a global scale, this is more than is produced by aviation, shipping and rail transportation combined.

The West Siberian lowlands have been accumulating frozen peat for many millennia. Thermokarst lakes are called “hot spots” due to high carbon emissions According to the study, The West Siberian lowlands have been accumulating frozen peat for many millennia. Thermokarst lakes are called “hot spots” due to high carbon emissions According to the study, all studied thermokarst lakes in frozen latitudes are oversaturated with methane content. The authors of the study by the UN Environment Program believe that permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the amount of CO2 accumulated in the atmosphere. Moreover, a huge part of greenhouse gases, which have not yet broken free, is stored in the frozen bogs of Western Siberia.

Accelerated thawing of Siberian permafrost may become a global threat to the entire planet, scientists believe. Scientists from Tomsk and Yugra Universities estimate methane emissions from southern taiga wetland systems alone at 0.84-1.57 Mt/year, and CO2 emissions at 67 Mt/year.


At the same time, melting is occurring much faster than expected. The results of studies by the St. Petersburg State Hydrological Institute,  showed, that annual methane emissions from the Russian permafrost region could increase by 20-40% over most of the territory, and by 50-80% in northern locations.


Given that the average residence time of methane in the atmosphere is 12 years, the scientists estimated, that by the middle of the 21st century, an additional annual source of 6-8 Mt due to permafrost thawing could increase the total amount of atmospheric methane by about 100 Mt (or 0.04 parts per million). As a result, this could increase global mean annual temperature by 0.012°C.


Researchers from Tomsk State University were the first to attempt  a comprehensive assessment of carbon emissions from the surface of Siberia’s rivers and lakes in a joint study with Swedish and French scientists.  According to a more recent study by scientists from the St. Petersburg State Forestry University, the intensity of net runoff (positive absorption balance) into Russian bog ecosystems is not high: 37.6 million tons of CO2/year.

According to A. Romanovskaya, Director of the Institute of Global Climate and Ecology, CO2 absorption by wetlands is comparable to the level of carbon absorption in Russian forests, but the balance of greenhouse gas fluxes from them can be close to zero or shifted towards net emissions in CO2 equivalent. As of 2017, experts estimated that for all types of ecosystems in Russia, CO2 uptake by Russian wetland ecosystems is about 860 million tons per year

Research, conducted by scientists from the University of Denmark with the participation of Tomsk scientists on the largest wetlands in Western Siberia, shows that wetland ecosystems on average acted as net carbon sinks, but were also large net sources of methane (CH4). The experts concluded that gains in the “greenhouse gas budget” from one type may be counterbalanced by another.

Managing the unmanageable
One of the main challenges in implementing the Paris Agreement is to help keep as much carbon in vegetation and soil as possible. According to an international study by Dalhousie University published in the Environmental Research Letters journal, conserving and restoring peatlands can help combat climate change both regionally and globally.

It has been proven that drained peatlands turn from carbon dioxide sinks into carbon dioxide sources, especially in the case of fires, when large amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere. It is difficult to give an exact figure of drained lands in the Russian Federation, but according to forestry experts,  Russia is one of the world leaders in terms of the area of peatlands and the scale of their drainage, and the total area of drained peatlands in Russia is at least 5 million hectares.


As scientists from the Institute of Global Climate and Ecology believe, the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ecosystems is through secondary watering of peatlands. In addition, projects to reduce emissions in Russian wetlands may include measures such as afforestation of peatlands and preventing conversion of wetlands to other agricultural uses. These activities are included in the national reporting on anthropogenic sources and sinks of greenhouse gases not regulated by the Montreal Treaty.


In 2010-2013, more than 73 thousand hectares of fire-prone peatlands were re-watered in the Moscow Region (the largest watering program in the Northern Hemisphere to date). Since 2020, data on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as a result of peatland rewetting in the Moscow Region and some other regions have been included in the National Report of the Russian Federation submitted to the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. But comprehensive accounting has not yet been carried out.


Scientists of the Institute of Forestry Science of the RAS have proposed an approach to include watered peatlands in the National Inventory of emission from sources and absorption by sinks of greenhouse gases.

Not easy to do, difficult to calculate
For all the uncertainty about the “net balance” of bog ecosystems, Russia has included forest land (including wetlands) in its plans to achieve carbon neutrality: efforts are underway to test a system to offset industry emissions through the generation of carbon units. This is happening because technology projects in industry are expensive and complicated, while “buying a swamp” is easier.

Russian official climate documents state that the country has great potential in implementing climate projects for secondary watering of previously drained wetlands.

In world practice, the system of reporting on net indicators of “managed land” has not yet been unified. Countries are required to identify land that can be considered ‘managed’ and then calculate the net runoff. Different countries have adopted different systems for this purpose. In the United States, for example, almost the entire country is categorized as “managed,” except for remote regions of Alaska. Russia also considers agricultural land and most forest land to be managed.


As recent studies show, many countries do not provide any information on how they determine the ‘stewardship’ of land. At the same time, ecosystem projects, unlike projects in industrial sectors, have little guarantee of results.  


According to experts, there is a risk of so-called “leakages” in the implementation of such projects.  Risks of recognizing “carbon units” from forest-climate projects arise due to the volatility of project activities, which may lead to the lack of declared reductions or even an increase in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the project. Based on the IPCC estimates, it turns out that for the climate effect it is necessary to guarantee the reduction of emissions or accumulation of removed carbon from the atmosphere for a period of 100 or more years.


There are also risks of falsification. In addition, no one guarantees that the lands will not be burnt down in a fire. The loss of previously achieved results may entail a change of ownership. Therefore, some carbon markets do not allow emission offsets based on carbon units of ecosystem projects.


According to Anna Romanovskaya, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions with carbon units from “non-complementary” activities may lead to an increase in overall emissions on a global scale, rather than reducing them. Therefore, determining the complementarity of projects is one of the most sensitive and challenging issues in project validation (verification).

Issues for credibility
Within the framework of various carbon standards - international and national - more than 100 methodologies for ecosystem climate projects have already been developed and implemented worldwide (Verra VCS, Clean Development Mechanism, American Carbon Registry, Australian Emissions Reduction Fund, Korea Offset Program, etc.). The corresponding database is compiled at the Yu. Israel Institute for Global Climate and Ecology.

It is believed that net runoff studies in wetland areas will help to confirm the reliability. This work is carried out both within the framework of studies of various scientific institutions and at specific natural sites within the framework of carbonic testing grounds. It is not the first year that such work has been carried out in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District (KMAD), Sverdlovsk, Kaliningrad and other regions.


And although there is no single Russian methodology for calculating the net balance of the territory, the first forest-climate project, which has passed validation, has already appeared. Information about it has been entered into the system of the operator of the registry of carbon units AO Kontur. The implementation of the project initiated by Roslesinforg in the Sakhalin region over 75 years should ensure the absorption of 1.5 million tons of CO2-equivalent. The main emphasis is placed on recreating an environmentally significant symbiosis of two ecosystems - swamp and forest, while the habitat conditions for animals and microorganisms will be preserved,” the project description says.

Keeping the goal in mind

According to experts, “the purpose of voluntary climate projects in Russia should be, first of all, to develop technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration and long-term carbon storage based on natural ecosystem management methods for their further scaling up within the activities of federal and regional executive authorities in the implementation of the Low Carbon Strategy.

Ecosystem projects should be implemented not instead of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in industry, but along with them and complement them. At the same time, experts believe that in order to stimulate the competent implementation of ecosystem-based climate projects in the formation of the Russian carbon market, it is advisable at the initial stage to limit the authorized types of climate projects to the most reliable and transparent ones.

For ecosystem additional forest-climate projects to be honest and fair, efforts should be made at the national level in the form of multi-year research, to help restore forests and wetlands - to truly manage them. Russia’s wetlands are the planet’s climate sponge, storing huge amounts of carbon and methane. And it will depend on what climate policy will be, whether it will be “business as usual” or real climate action, whether the absorption potential of the Russian wetlands will be preserved, or whether they will become an additional source of emissions.