3.1.6 Loss of grasslands, mangroves, wetlands and peatlands

3.1.6 Loss of grasslands, mangroves, wetlands and peatlands

Humans have caused damage across all of the world’s natural ecosystems, including wetlands, grasslands, mountains, tundra, rivers, coastal zones, and oceans.

Natural and semi-natural species-rich grasslands are one of the most damaged ecosystems on Earth, with over 80% having been lost in northern Europe and North America alone in the last century. These grasslands host a unique range of wildlife, and can support low intensity livestock production as well as provide clean water and resources for poor rural communities globally.

An area of coastal ecosystems larger than New York City - nearly 1 million hectares - is destroyed every year, removing an important buffer from extreme weather for coastal communities and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In addition, more than 85% of the wetlands that were present in the 1700s have now been lost, due to a combination of natural factors (magnified by climate change) and human activities such as agriculture and rural development, with 50% of wetlands being lost in the last 100 years and 35% since 1970. Wetlands are extremely important to our planet as they provide natural protection from flooding, storms and hurricanes, as well as being stores of carbon. Wetland types found in coastal areas include salt marshes, bottomland hardwood swamps, fresh marshes, and mangrove swamps.

In the United States alone, coastal wetlands cover about 160,000 square km (40 million acres), and each square kilometre of wetlands along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts is estimated to provide an average of $1.8 million worth of property protection. That’s an estimated $288 billion worth of storm protection provided to the United States by wetlands every year. Yet between 2004 and 2009, in the coastal areas of the Atlantic, Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes, wetlands were lost at an average rate of about 320 square km (80,000 acres) per year. Recent wetland losses are estimated to have increased the property damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017 by $430 million.

A whopping 35% of the world’s mangrove forests may have been lost between 1980 and 2000 and they are now at risk of extinction. Mangroves are amongst the most productive ecosystems on Earth, providing a unique habitat for many species and many benefits for human beings, such as coastal protection and fisheries. They are also a crucial carbon sink. Whilst just 0.7% of the world’s forests are coastal mangroves, they store up to 4 times as much carbon as tropical forests and provide approximately $2.7 trillion in benefits to humans every year. Since 2000, nearly one third of the world’s remaining mangroves have been lost, with their stored carbon being released back into the atmosphere.

Damaged peatlands - a type of wetland that occurs in almost every country on the globe, making up nearly half the world’s wetlands - account for about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Although peatlands cover only 3% of the world’s land, they are the largest natural organic carbon store on land, storing twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. When peatlands dry out, due to global heating or drainage for agriculture, large amounts of carbon dioxide are released.