Net-zero virtually impossible without more ambition on peatlands

7 August 2020

Emissions from UK peatland could cancel out all carbon emissions reduction achieved through new and existing forests, unless the government takes action on restoring and rewetting our peatlands, according to new analysis from CPRE, the countryside charity.

The government’s plans to capture carbon emissions through tree planting will be severely undermined unless radical action on peatland emissions is taken, according to new analysis of land use figures from CPRE, the countryside charity. CPRE is therefore calling on the government to view nature-based solutions in the round and maintain current ambitions on tree planting but do much more to invest in peatland restoration and supporting the farming industry to shift to sustainable practices where farming on drained peatlands.

Less than one-tenth of peatlands’ contribution to the climate emergency is currently accounted for in overall UK greenhouse gas emissions reporting. But at least 18.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, mostly carbon dioxide, are emitted from peatlands every year in the UK. England, with a quarter of the peatland area, is responsible for 55% of these emissions. Based on current government tree planting ambitions (30,000 hectares per year by 2025), an estimated 18.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions would be captured through new and existing forests annually, but not before 2050 to 2055. That’s why action to stop emissions from degraded peatland must go hand in hand with other natural solutions like tree planting.

Peatlands can store vast amounts of carbon in a stable form for millennia if not degraded forming some of the greatest carbon sinks on the planet. But the government’s current commitment to restore 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025 does not go far enough. CPRE is calling for the government to commit to urgent and sustained action on peat and peatlands in its forthcoming England Peat Strategy by:

  • Bringing to an end further degradation of peat by 2030 in line with existing commitments to sustainably manage all soils by 2030
  • Committing to ambitious national targets for rewetting and restoration of upland and lowland peatlands in England to secure their carbon stores by 2030
  • Supporting a managed transition away from the destructive use of lowland peat soils over the next decade as part of green recovery by investing in wet farming research, applied projects and developing new markets for wet farming products.

Tom Fyans, director of campaigns and policy at CPRE, the countryside charity, said:

‘It’s no wonder that peatlands are often referred to as the UK’s rainforests. Properly managed peatland stores huge amounts of carbon and water and provides a haven for plant- and wildlife. But continuing to neglect these natural carbon stores could backfire. The government has paid too little attention to emissions from peatland – as things stand, they aren’t even properly included in current emissions monitoring. This seriously threatens the effectiveness of other nature-based solutions, like tree planting, in tackling the climate emergency.

‘We need to harness the power of all of our natural allies in the fight against runaway climate change. With the right investment, peat could play a pivotal role in tackling the climate and nature emergencies. For this we not only need much greater levels of investment from government in restoring or rewetting peatlands, we need a strategy for a fair and managed transition to move businesses away from dependency on destructive use of peatlands. Incentivising alternatives to harmful exploitation could be the difference in ending the UK’s farming and land use contribution to the climate emergency.’

It’s estimated that there are over three billion tonnes of carbon stored in the peatlands in the UK – equivalent to all carbon stored in the forests of the UK, Germany and France put together. Only 22% of the UK’s peatlands are estimated to remain in a ‘near-natural’ state and so not contributing to global heating. Peatlands’ capacity to store carbon, floodwaters and provide a haven for wildlife is immense. So much so, the ONS reports that restoring 55% of peatlands to near-natural condition is estimated to have a present net benefit value of around £50 billion.

Richard Lindsay, head of environmental and conservation research at the University of East London’s Sustainability Research Institute, said:

‘Peatlands have long been the Cinderella habitat, hidden in the shadow of forests when it comes to carbon, water and biodiversity, yet they represent the UK’s most extensive terrestrial semi-natural habitat, peat-dominated catchments provide as much as 70% of all drinking water, they contain an unrivalled record of our distant past and uniquely allow us to come face-to-face with our ancestors, and thin peat just 30 cm deep can contain as much carbon within a hectare as all the carbon contained in a hectare of tropical rainforest.

‘It would be the ultimate irony if we were to destroy our carbon-equivalent of rainforest by planting trees on such peat in order to capture carbon. Equally, it makes no sense to be burning these ancient landscapes regularly for sport4, when just restoring a living layer can add 60 tonnes of carbon per hectare to these iconic landscapes.

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Notes to editors

About the analysis:

  • UK net emissions from peat are estimated by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to be from 18.5-23 MtCO2e pa (2017) but up to 2020 only 1.3 MtCO2e have been reported in the UK’s GHG inventory
  • England, with a quarter of the peat area, emits 55% of the emissions or 10.1 million tCO2e pa (Committee on Climate Change)
  • Intensive lowland use of peatland is largely responsible, emissions per hectare from drained and fertilised cropland are 39 tonnes CO2e per hectare pa and intensive grassland 30 tCO2e per ha pa
  • The government’s level of ambition for peatland is as yet unclear, except to restore 35,000 ha by 2025 under the £640 million Nature for Climate Fund. Peat emissions will not fall significantly unless a high level of ambition is set
  • Using the lower figure of 18.5 MtCO2e emissions pa even on the CCC’s medium ambition of rewetting 25% of lowland and restoring 50% of upland peatlands, offsetting UK peatland emissions through tree planting would use up the total net negative CO2e emissions from all UK forests both current and projected:
    • For 20-25 years to 2045-2050 on current planned planting rates for the UK – to increase tree planting to 30,000 ha a year by 2025; this roughly equates to the CCC medium ambition scenario for tree planting – achieving 31,000 ha trees planted pa by 2023 continued until 2100;
    • Our analysis is based on Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) research for the Committee on Climate Change: pp33-34 for afforestation ambitions and p36 Figure 3: Time series of forest carbon emissions for the three ambition levels CCC low to high peat ambition levels are set out on p42-43 and total net emissions in Table 20.