New analysis published today by RSPB reveals the scale of the challenge that the UK’s governments face to restore and maintain our peatlands, which play a pivotal role in combatting climate change.
Peatlands are one of the UK’s most valuable habitats and have a critical role to play in addressing the nature and climate crises. In the UK, peatland covers around 12% of our land area and stores over 3 billion tonnes of carbon. As well as being crucial in mitigating climate change these peatlands also play a vital role in supporting unique plants and rare wildlife, improve our water quality, and upland peatlands also help prevent flooding.
However, of the 2.7 million hectares of peatland in the UK, three quarters are degraded, while only 2-4% has been restored over the last 30 years. Many of these degraded peatlands are in our some of our most iconic landscapes. The RSPB’s new analysis shows that the poor condition of our peatlands results in the release of carbon equivalent to 5% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions every year – more annual emissions than all the HGVs on UK roads.
The RSPB is calling on the governments of the UK to step up and act urgently to introduce a range of ambitious yet necessary policies to control our greenhouse gas emissions. These include committing to setting clear country targets for restoration and rewetting of peatlands to halt greenhouse gas emissions in line with achieving net zero targets. In addition, the RSPB is also calling for an end to destructive practices such as the continued extraction and sale of peat, the conversion of peatlands to forestry and the burning of vegetation on peatlands.
Martin Harper, director of conservation, speaking for RSPB said: “Peatlands are an incredibly important habitat in the UK both for wildlife and for storing carbon. Unfortunately, our analysis shows that they are also in a poor condition and they are haemorrhaging carbon into the atmosphere, instead of storing it safely in the ground. We urgently need to be doing everything we can to restore our peatlands to good health.
Peatland restoration is a devolved issue with different governments at different stages in their engagement with this issue. Some progress is being made in some parts of the UK, but what remains abundantly clear is that all governments need to go further and that across the UK the damaging practices that create the need for restoration—such as burning, overgrazing and commercial extraction – are not allowed to continue.
Next year, with the crucial ‘COP26’ climate conference in Glasgow, the UK needs to be able to hold its head up and demonstrate that it is playing its part in reducing emissions. But it will not be able to do this if our governments responsible for driving peatland restoration cannot show that they have a clear plan for dealing with peatland emissions.
If our peatlands are not restored, they will emit twice as much carbon as would be captured by tree planting in the Committee on Climate Change’s UK forestry targets for 2050. In other words, by continuing to neglect and damage our peat bogs, any carbon benefits of these new woodlands will be cancelled out. To meaningfully harness the power of nature to tackle climate change, we must restore and protect our peatlands.”.
According to a 2019 report from the Office for National Statistics the cost of restoring all peatlands are estimated to be around £8 – £22 billion, but the resulting carbon saving would be worth 5 to 10 times this much.
Dr Pat Thompson, senior conservation officer for RSPB England said: “On our own nature reserves, such as at Dovestone in the Peak District, we are restoring blanket bogs by rewetting the moors and re-introducing peat-forming sphagnum mosses. This is progressing well, and it just shows what can be done. We also know that keeping these places wet reduces the impact of wildfires, as well as slowing the flow of water off the moors which reduces the risk of flooding.
We look forward to the release of the government’s long-promised peat strategy before the end of the year, and with it the confirmation of the ban on burning peatland vegetation. This will signal a strong commitment to these special places.”.
Andrew Midgley, senior land use policy officer at RSPB Scotland said: “Peatlands are an important habitat in Scotland, covering more than 20 percent of the land. With 75 percent of these peatlands degraded in some way, the Scottish Government has already recognised the importance of restoration for both nature and climate and intends to invest £250 million over the next 10 years.
Whilst this is very welcome and an important step, this investment will deliver around 250,000 hectares of restoration work by 2030, which is only a start given that there are well over 1 million hectares of degraded peatland in Scotland. The Scottish Government should absolutely be commended for moving in the right direction, but it also needs to be more ambitious and aim to restore more of our peatlands, delivering rural jobs as part of a green recovery in the process.
Further to this there is an urgent need for greater coherence in peatland policy. The Scottish Government’s peatland restoration efforts will be undermined by ongoing damaging practices such as burning, overgrazing and trampling, commercial peat extraction, and tree planting on shallow peat soils. Such practices will only result in more degraded peatlands in need of restoration, drawing on more public resources in future.
Peatland restoration can be a vital part of helping Scotland meet its net zero carbon target by 2045 but the Scottish Government needs to build upon its existing approach to create a coherent, joined up strategy to fulfil this potential.”.
Speaking for RSPB Northern Ireland, Jonathan Bell, head of land and sea policy, said: “Peatland covers approximately 12% of the land area of Northern Ireland, but only 14% of these are classified as intact, due to a range of pressures such as drainage, overgrazing, afforestation, burning and extraction in lowland areas. Through working in partnership in some of our most treasured landscapes, we’ve seen firsthand the benefits that peatland restoration can bring for climate, nature and people. This vital work must be scaled up to ensure that these habitats can play their important role in addressing the nature and climate emergencies. To do this, we need a peatland strategy which commits to an ambitious programme of restoration in Northern Ireland.”.
Arfon Williams, head of land and sea policy at RSPB Cymru said: “Nature-based Solutions, such as peatland restoration, have a critical role to play in a green recovery for Wales. But to be truly effective, Nature-based Solutions, which includes peatland restoration and tree planting, must be delivered in the right place and in a way that provides the widest range of benefits, to avoid potentially negative impacts on nature. In Wales, we need the Welsh Government to set the direction for delivering a suite of Nature-based Solutions that work for people and nature.”.
The RSPB’s new analysis and interactive story map can be found at: https://arcg.is/0PT8qy