peatland

Ministers failing to meet targets to restore peatlands

Less than a third of the Scottish Government’s annual restoration targets have been met over the last two years, prompting campaigners to say plans need to be “dramatically scaled up”.

According to the updated Scottish Government Climate Change Plan, 6,000 hectares of degraded peatland were restored in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. This is well below the latest target set by ministers of restoring 20,000 hectares a year.

In total 25,000 hectares of peatland have been rehabilitated since 2012. The Climate Change Plan earlier set a target of restoring a total of 50,000 hectares by 2020.

Opposition politicians said setting ambitious targets to tackle the climate crisis and then failing to meet them is “becoming characteristic” of the SNP government. 

The Scottish Government argued that missed targets “illustrate the scale of the challenge in achieving peatland restoration at the scale required.” 

When in good condition, peatlands are a carbon store, meaning they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in soil. 

But historical land use practices have led the majority of Scottish peatlands to become eroded and stripped of vegetation.

Once peatlands become degraded in this way, they actually emit more carbon dioxide than they remove and become a net source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

If all of the carbon stored in Scottish peatland were released it would be the equivalent of 140 years of Scotland’s GHG emissions. 

Peatlands currently cover over 20 per cent, around 1.9 million hectares, of Scotland’s surface. Around 80 per cent of this is estimated to be in a degraded state.

According to the Climate Change Plan, degraded peatlands are responsible for the equivalent of six million tonnes of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere every year. This is roughly equivalent to the GHG emissions coming from the entire Scottish residential sector. 

Only four sectors – transport, business, agriculture and energy supply – were responsible for more GHG emissions than degraded peatland in 2018, according to the national GHG inventory

Peatland restoration is a term used to describe a range of land management measures that aim to restore the original form and function of peatland habitats. 

The Scottish Greens environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell, told The Ferret that peatlands are “absolutely integral” to Scotland’s efforts to combat the climate crisis, and that the Scottish Government had a habit of “setting eye-catching climate targets and failing to provide the action to meet them.”

Professor of plant and soil science at the University of Aberdeen, Pete Smith, said peatland restoration had to be “dramatically scaled up”, but a lack of “contractors and trained people to do this work” was a problem.

“What better way to stimulate the economy and also contribute to our net-zero targets, than to invest in a jobs-based, green recovery creating jobs for people working in rural communities to deliver these ambitious peatland restoration targets,” he added. 

A spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Prorection of Birds in Scotland, which is responsible for large peatland restoration projects, said: “We need to see more funding for restoration work, both from government and businesses, more land managers to take up the challenge and to grow contractor capacity and skills to carry out restoration work.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to delivering the peatland restoration targets set out in our Climate Change Plan, which are- rightly designed to be stretching, given Scotland’s world leading statutory emissions reductions targets for the economy as a whole.”

The Scottish Government introduced legislation in 2019 which commits Scotland to reducing its net carbon emissions by 75 per cent by 2030, and to be at net-zero emissions by 2045. 

The term ‘net-zero’ refers to a position in which carbon emissions going into the atmosphere are balanced by their removal by carbon sinks like peatlands. 

The Climate Change Plan notes that the restoration of degraded peatlands has the dual benefit of reducing carbon emissions and enhancing the contribution of peatland to carbon storage. 

Cover image thanks to iStock/Siobhan_Fraser.

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