For Peat’s Sake: Are We Overlooking a Valuable Carbon Sink?

Have you ever been out on a refreshing country walk, and suddenly you find yourself ankle-deep in mud? We know it’s not pleasant. But what if those bogs – the desolate setting of many a gloomy scene in literature ranging from Wuthering Heights to Lord of the Rings – could actually be the key to reducing carbon emissions? 

Peat bogs cover 3% of the Earth’s surface. They can be found everywhere from Thailand to the Congo Basin, to right here in the UK. Peat is formed as plants decompose in waterlogged conditions and form peat soil. This soil can reach metres in depth as more layers are added. In fact, peat stores more carbon than the world’s forests. 42% of land-based carbon storage is in peat soil.

Carbon Sequestration and Other Peatland Benefits

Peatland drainage and degradation for agricultural land use is common in areas such as Somerset, but their restoration is becoming a priority.

The potential of peat to store carbon is vast. A new salt-water peatland, which was constructed for flood mitigation in Somerset, can store more carbon in six years than a forest would be able to in a century. However, the carbon-storing properties of peat can go awry if it is tampered with. 15% of the world’s peatlands have been drained for agriculture, mining or fuel gathering, and when peat is drained it begins to emit carbon rather than sequester it. One tenth of carbon emissions from the land-use sector come from damaged peatland, which stacks up to more daily emissions than the entire US economy. 

Beyond carbon sequestration, peatlands are also beneficial for flood mitigation, drought prevention and stopping seawater incursions. Peatlands are also key habitats and benefit biodiversity greatly. The Fenor Bog in Ireland hosts 118 plants and 214 invertebrate, bird and mammal species within less than 1km2

Peat Bogs in the UK

Nowhere is peat more powerful than in the UK. Blanket bogs, fenland and raised bogs can be found up and down the country and cover 12% of our land mass. Britain’s peat bogs store 580 million tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of 20 years worth of our carbon emissions.They also provide a quarter of our drinking water. 

However, two thirds of the UK’s peatlands are considered degraded. In Greater Manchester and Merseyside, for example, 98% of peatland has been destroyed. Rare birds like hen harriers and dunlins rely on British peat bogs, as well as emperor moths and jewel beetles, and a vast array of plants, especially mosses, that reside in what some call ‘the rainforests of the UK’. 

The populations of dunlins (left) and hen harriers (right) that inhabit peatlands are decreasing.

There are plans to restore some of the UK’s peatland habitats with projects focused on Northumberland, Greater Manchester, North Yorkshire Moors, East Anglia and Dartmoor. The UK government’s Strategic Peatland Action Plan is aimed at restoring peatland as a vital site of biodiversity and carbon sequestration. £250 million will go to restoring Scottish peatland over the next 10 years, some of which is unique and being considered for world heritage status. 

Carbon Farming

The ‘nature-based solutions’ approach to climate change is a big part of the UK’s net-zero strategy and peat is a part of this. The concept of ‘carbon farming’ is slowly taking root; the idea that farmers may be paid as custodians of land which sequesters carbon by the government. This is a complex picture as 15% of peatland which has been drained in the UK is scrubland which has been used for tree plantations, usually of conifers. This puts peat at odds with popular mantras about tree-planting. 

Due to the acidic, low-nutrient conditions, peatlands are not subject to the carbon-producing bioprocesses of forests.

However, we know that peat is more effective than forests at storing carbon. The acidic, low-nutrient conditions mean it is not subject to the same carbon-producing bioprocesses that forests are. Over the last fortnight, a special peat pavilion was featured at COP26 where activists, politicians and farmers could mingle and discuss ideas. 

The value of a much maligned boggy landscape continues to be reassessed, and hopefully the key role peat has to play in our future will not be overlooked. 

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