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OPINION: There can be no climate action without targets to protect wetlands

by Jane Madgwick | @JaneMadgwick | Wetlands International
Wednesday, 2 February 2022 09:00 GMT

An aerial picture shows villager walks along a paddy fields affected by abrasion in Juntinyuat, Indramayu regency, West Java province, Indonesia, March 13, 2021. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

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Safeguarding and restoring shrinking wetlands is our last, best defence against global warming and biodiversity loss

Jane Madgwick, CEO, Wetlands International

Targets matter. They focus attention. They allow us to hold accountable the people who make them. Calls to fight climate change were vague until the world agreed a goal to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as confirmed at the recent COP26 Glasgow climate conference. Likewise, a wish to halt deforestation has come into focus with the Glasgow deadline of 2030. 

But where does that leave wetlands? The world’s waterlogged peatlands, mangroves, rivers, salt marshes and tidal flats hold – or lose, if damaged – more carbon than all our trees. They nurture – or make extinct, if lost – more biodiversity than forests

Peatlands damaged by drainage are responsible for more than 5% of global carbon emissions, and intact mangrove swamps hold four times more carbon per hectare than rainforests. 

Yet these irreplaceable treasures were sidelined in the commitments made in Glasgow. And they will fare little better at this spring’s UN biodiversity conference in Kunming, China, which aims to set an admirable target to conserve 30% of the planet for nature but says little about what should be conserved and where. 

It is astonishing that we have no global wetlands targets. Nobody is held to account for the extinction of creatures in these watery domains or the carbon leaching from their ecosystems.

Without their protection and restoration, the world has little chance of reaching either its climate or biodiversity goals. And human suffering through floods, fires and droughts will continue to escalate.

On World Wetlands Day, we must heed the call for global targets to protect and restore these Cinderella ecosystems.

Existing protection of wetlands is feeble. Their only would-be defender in international environmental agreements - the 51-year-old Ramsar Convention - has been signed up to by 172 governments but has no teeth. And the degradation and loss of both inland and coastal wetlands has continued regardless.

Only 2.5 million square kilometres are recognized as wetlands of international importance whereas the world’s wet places cover an area five times greater - a twelfth of the planet’s land surface - from the frozen bogs of Siberia to the caiman-populated Pantanal in the heart of South America.

The world may have lost half its forests, but it has seen an estimated 87% of its wetlands disappear. Drains and dams, coastal barriers and canals have done far more damage to nature and its capacity to store carbon than chainsaws.


With other international organizations, Wetlands International has drawn up proposed targets that should be included in a new global agreement on biodiversity protection, promoted as part of “nature-based solutions” to climate change, and backed by the UN’s current decade for ecosystem restoration

Our targets include:

- Keeping intact remaining undrained peatlands, and by 2030 at least 100,000 square km rewetted by blocking drains to lock in their carbon, with five times more restored by 2050.

- With half the world’s coastal mangroves lost, mostly to aquaculture and coastal infrastructure, restoration of 20% of this “blue carbon” by 2030.

- All remaining free-flowing rivers to be protected from dams, levees, sand mining and other impediments.

- Tidal flats to be increased by at least 10% by 2030, by removing sea walls and restoring supplies of silt from dammed rivers. 

- Prioritizing stopover sites along the great international flyways of migrating water birds, to secure at least half of the 7,000 critically important sites identified by ornithologists by 2030.

Protecting and restoring wetlands can be challenging.  A dam or polluting factory upstream on a river can destroy lakes, floodplains, marshes, fisheries and deltas all the way to the ocean. Many of those rivers cross national boundaries. 

That is why international targets and accountability are vital - and also why the benefits of action, for climate, for biodiversity, for human livelihoods and ecosystem protection, will flood across boundaries too.

Some countries are leading the way. The Scottish, Irish and German governments have peatland restoration strategies. Costa Rica is committed to protecting 100%  of its coastal wetlands. Nearly 70 dams were removed from US rivers in 2020. Indonesia is bringing back mangroves for coastal protection and rewetting its forested peat swamps. 

We are working with African governments to safeguard and restore around a million hectares of mangroves. And the Asian Development Bank has launched a Regional Flyway Initiative to protect stopovers for migrating water birds in East Asia.

Safeguarding and restoring wetlands is our last, best defence against climate change and biodiversity loss. It will save species, preserve and clean up water supplies, improve fisheries, revive ecosystems, keep carbon out of the air, prevent fires and safeguard billions of people from the impacts of climate change.

In Glasgow, more than 100 nations signed up to ending deforestation. We call for a similar effort at the UN biodiversity conference in Kunming this year to turn the tide for the world’s wet places.

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