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FOR PEAT’S SAKE! Leading scientist rebrands himself to boost awareness of climate-critical peatlands

At critical time for the planet, The Nature Conservancy’s Peter Ellis is now PEAT Ellis

Peat bogs blanket TNC's Cranesville Swap Preserve in West Virginia
Cranesville Swamp The permanent cool, wet setting of the preserve has created a peat bog – consisting of wet spongy ground and decomposing vegetation with poor drainage. © Kent Mason

As the world races to avert runaway climate change, one leading scientist has decided to put his money where his mouth is and help raise awareness of one of the most powerful unsung heroes in our toolbox of nature-based solutions to the environmental emergency.

As of today, Peter Ellis – lead Natural Climate Solutions scientist for global environment non-profit The Nature Conservancy (TNC) – will take the dramatic step of rebranding himself to shine a light on the enormous carbon-absorbing potential of peatland landscapes.

‘Peat’ Ellis, as he’ll henceforth be known by friends, family and scientific peers alike, was part of the research team that in 2017 first mapped the full potential of ecosystems like forests, wetlands and mangroves to provide around a third of the carbon absorption and storage necessary to contain global warming to safe levels.

“Our 2017 study caught the climate world’s attention but also manifested in a rather myopic fixation on tree-planting as some magic cure-all to humanity’s predicament,” Ellis explains. “This isn’t totally unjustified – forests remain a fantastically powerful nature-based means of removing excess carbon from the atmosphere. But, as we saw again at COP26 last autumn, trees now dominate the media narrative to the extent that other critical NCS landscapes have too often been crowded out of the conversation. Nowhere has this been truer than unglamorous but inescapably important peatlands, in my opinion – hence I felt it was time to do something radical about it. Even if my wife isn’t entirely on board yet with my decision to literally drag my name through the mud...”

Despite accounting for just 3% of Earth’s surface, peatlands – vast, ancient deposits of rotted vegetation that blanket much of sub-Artic latitudes, along with regions like SE Asia and Africa’s Congo Basin – are collectively reckoned to hold over twice as much carbon as the world’s forests combined, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). However, mismanagement of these landscapes is increasingly turning these powerful carbon friends into climate enemies, reckoned to account for around 5% of all human-driven greenhouse gas emissions.

“Peatlands aren’t just critical to maintaining a stable climate – they also provide habitat for a huge range of species, as well as giving many brands of whisky their iconic flavour,” explains Nisa Novita, a TNC scientist who studies the peatlands of Southeast Asia, where large-scale drainage for oil palm cultivation has caused extensive degradation of these landscapes and notorious wildfires. “I hope and expect that the forthcoming IPCC Working Group III report (expected 4 April) will include a significant focus on the potential of peatland restoration in its exploration of climate mitigation priorities, but in the meantime I can’t thank Peter enough for taking this bold and selfless step to promote peat’s importance. I only wish my own name could be adapted so easily for climate change purposes!”

To learn more about TNC’s pioneering scientific work on nature-based solutions for climate change, please visit: https://www.nature.org/en-us/what-we-do/our-insights/perspectives/natural-climate-solutions/

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.