The Peat Action Plan 2021: dig deep for peat’s potential, our expert says

Avatar for Graeme Willis
By Graeme Willis
20th May 2021

The government’s new Peat Action Plan says that ‘peatlands should be nurtured, not mined’. Our agricultural lead, Graeme Willis, digs into the detail to see if this intention holds up.

We’re passionate about peat at CPRE. It might seem like unassuming soggy soil, but we know that it’s a quiet, carbon-busting countryside superstar.

So in recent years, we’ve pushed for peat to be given the profile it deserves in tackling climate change.

Peatlands – often overlooked alongside trees, hedgerows, saltmarsh and wetlands – are one of nature’s heroes. They lock up huge amounts of carbon, stabilising our climate, and have done so for millennia.

'They support rare and beautiful wildlife, store and clean up our drinking water and cut the risk of floods.'

And there’s a reason that they’ve earned themselves the nickname ‘Britain’s rainforests’. They support rare and beautiful wildlife, store and clean up our drinking water and cut the risk of floods. For being seemingly simple, stodgy brown stuff beneath our feet, they’re managing marvels and giving us all benefits that we risk taking for granted.

Sodden soils under threat

But peatlands need to be healthy to do all this hard work, and most are degraded.

'But through poor treatment and destruction, we’ve turned them from an ancient carbon sink into a carbon source.'

In 2021, our inventory on greenhouse gases (the harmful gases that cause climate change, including the main villain of the piece, carbon dioxide) shows fully – and shockingly – how peatlands are adding 5% to our emissions of greenhouse gases each year. These wet, sodden soils used to hold carbon in, keeping it safely out of the atmosphere.

But through poor treatment and destruction, we’ve turned them from an ancient carbon sink into a carbon source.

The government’s Action Plan for Peat, published in May 2021, puts down an important statement of intent to restore our peatlands and keep peat wet – and in the ground where it belongs.

Promises for prospering peatlands

We’re pleased to see that the plan recognises how important peatlands are for climate, nature and people. This was crucial, and it’s reassuring to see the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, acknowledge in the plan’s opening statement that ‘…for too long we have taken this valuable natural resource for granted.’

'...for too long we have taken this valuable natural resource for granted.'
George Eustice, Environment Secretary

The plan also recognises the costs of damaging peat, and the economic rationale for restoring it – and of acting now, to prevent peat health worsening and more being lost. We see lots to celebrate here, including the proposed ban on peat in composts for amateur gardening use by 2024 (something we’ve talked about and supported in the past).

We’re also happy to see a plan to keep reviewing the burning of peat, and some important recognition that, once they’re burned, we can’t restore blanket bogs and protect their carbon stores. Our moment to preserve them is now; once lost, these bogs and their benefits are gone forever.

'Our moment to preserve them is now; once lost, these bogs and their benefits are gone forever.'

And there were more great intentions in the plan, such as the commissioning of a detailed map of peatlands to use as a baseline for future measurements, and action on the Great North Bog project to restore great swathes of the North in the Pennines, Lakes Districts and Northumberland.

Much to like, and much to do

There’s much to like here, then, but so much to do. After centuries of degradation our East Anglian lowland peatlands, for example, have lost 84% of their peat. Halting these losses and building a better future for peat won’t be easy.

We need to stop the loss of peatland, stabilise the soil and find ways to farm it sustainably as well as restore it in places like the Great Fen. It’s essential that the government properly define what ‘sustainably managing peatlands’ means, in order to protect and restore these soils.

And we urgently need them to act on all fronts: on garden peat, peat burning, restoring uplands and lowlands, as well as on farming methods that protect peat soils for future use.

There’s no doubt that the Action Plan is a major step forward. It’ll be followed by vital targets in the government’s strategy for net-zero carbon emissions and an implementation plan from Natural England, which advises the government on nature and the environment.

'We need to see action on many fronts, by many people.'

Combined, these should give us a clear pathway up to 2050 and some challenging five-year targets for recovery. To have a hope of real change, we need to see action on many fronts, by many people – and the political will and commitment and the funding to match the scale of need.

Show us the money

The plan sets out its ambitions in promising terms. But, as ever, we need to see the colour of the government’s money to back these good intentions up.

The plan’s commitment of £50million to restore 35,000 hectares of peatlands by 2025 is a positive sign. But that figure is dwarfed by the billions spent on high-speed rail and roads. For the plan to have teeth, we need funding for peat to have parity with trees (a pot of £500million for tree planting was announced in 2021) – and the level of ambition to stay high and unwavering.

At CPRE, we’ll keep an eye on progress on peat – it’s too important to let go. We’ll continue to work with the government to turn this plan into reality and get the gold to go green.

Want to support our work? Join as a member now from just £3 a month.

Storm clouds passing over the windswept peat bog moorland plateau of Kinder Scout, Derbyshire, Peak District National Park, England, UK
Storm clouds passing over the windswept peat bog moorland plateau of Kinder Scout, Derbyshire, Peak District National Park, England, UK Alamy