Plans to mine peat for a decade ‘breach climate targets’

New proposals to mine peat at a site in South Lanarkshire are “not consistent” with the Scottish Government’s targets to cut carbon pollution, a leading climate scientist has warned.

A planning application submitted by fertiliser multinational, ICL, would extend peat extraction at Sandilands, near Lanark, for a decade from 2024, when it was due to finish.

Pete Smith, a biology professor at the University of Aberdeen who served as a lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has submitted an objection to the plans. “The proposed extension of peat extraction at the site is clearly unnecessary and counter to the government’s environmental targets,” he argued.

But ICL warned that demand for peat was high and the targets might not be met. It was important to have “a contingency plan” to “safeguard” the future peat market, the company said.

Alarm over peat extraction plans in south west Scotland

Peatlands play an important role in efforts to fight climate change because they store large amounts of carbon. But when they are damaged or mined they become a major source of pollution, contributing to the warming of the planet.

In February 2020 the Scottish Government announced it would invest £250 million in peatland restoration over a 10 year period. This was part of its “plans to help us deliver the transformation we need across society” to transition to “net-zero” climate emissions by 2045.

The Scottish Government also supports a UK-wide objective to end the use of peat in horticulture by 2030.

However, the commercial extraction of peat for use in horticultural products is continuing at a number of sites across Scotland. Several applications are being considered which could see it extended for many years to come.

In some cases, including at the South Lanarkshire site, the extraction of peat could be allowed to continue beyond the date the government has set for phasing out its use in horticulture altogether.

Smith highlighted this issue in his objection to the development at Sandilands. He pointed out that it “would extend peat extraction at the site until 2034,” even though “the Scottish Government’s target date for ceasing horticultural peat use is 2030.”

He stated: “Continued peat extraction is not consistent with the government’s legislated commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Given these twin government targets, this proposed extension of peat extraction at the site is clearly unnecessary and counter to the government’s environmental targets.”

Smith called instead for peat extraction to end, and for restoration of the site to get underway immediately. “I understand that the operator submitted a restoration plan for this site with their previous application in 2013,” he wrote.

“This restoration plan should be implemented immediately rather than extending the extraction period for a further 10 years and damaging the peat, and the climate, further.”

Smith – who is also director of science at ClimateXChange, an expert body which advises the Scottish Government on climate policy – takes the same view on other peat extraction sites in Scotland.

He told The Ferret: “Peat extraction has no place in Scotland’s future, so current extraction sites should not be renewed, and restoration plans should be implemented at the end of the current extraction period.”

Although South Lanarkshire Council has yet to make a decision on ICL’s application to extend peat extraction, documents available on its website show that in February 2020 the council decided that “the proposal does not have the potential for significant environmental impacts.”

As a result the council has ruled, in a decision known as a “screening opinion”, that no environmental impact assessment will need to be carried out.

Environmentalists have expressed concern about both the application and the views the council has expressed so far. “We are extremely disappointed that yet another application has been submitted to continue peat extraction in Scotland,” said Alistair Whyte, head of conservation at the charity, Plantlife Scotland.

“Peat locks up carbon dioxide in the ground so it can’t contribute to climate change. But digging it up releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We’re in the midst of a climate emergency, as recognised by the Scottish Government.”

He added: “Why, then, has South Lanarkshire Council decided that the proposal does not have the potential for significant environmental impacts? We need decisive leadership on this issue now.”

Dr Janet Moxley, a soil scientist, has also submitted an objection to the South Lanarkshire proposals. “Peatlands are a globally rare habitat supporting a unique assemblage of plants and animals,” she said.

“Peatlands in Scotland are estimated to store around 1,620 megatonnes of carbon. In order to prevent damage to the climate, it is essential that this carbon remains in the peat.”

South Lanarkshire Council’s head of planning and economic development, Pauline Elliott, said: “Peat extraction has taken place at this site since the 1960s. The current application seeks a further extension to the timescale approved in 2013 which was to complete extraction by 2024.

“A screening opinion carried out at that time found an environmental assessment was not required. This was reviewed before the new application was submitted and as circumstances had not changed a similar view was taken.

“To date 22 letters of representation have been received including comments from professor Smith and they will be taken into consideration in determining the application.”

Company ‘contingency plan’ in case peat targets missed

ICL, which had global sales of over $5 billion in 2019, describes itself as “a world leader in specialty fertilisers, bromine and flame retardants.” Headquartered in Tel Aviv, Israel, it has mining and production sites in Israel, Europe, North and South America and China, and employs about 13,000 worldwide, according to its website.

ICL runs several peat extraction sites in Scotland to produce material for the compost it manufactures and sells to professional horticulturalists and amateur gardeners. On its UK website, it advertises its Humax Original compost as containing the “highest quality peat – sourced from our peat moor in Scotland.”

According to ICL, peat had been harvested at Hillhouse Farm near Sandilands since 1963, and the company bought the site in 2011. The area has not been designated a site of special scientific interest for nature conservation, the company pointed out.

In a statement to The Ferret, ICL said: “At the end of the extended licence period, ICL will comply – as always – with any planning obligations restoring the moss in line with the planning consent. ICL is not in breach of any regulations in connection with peat harvesting.

“While fully supporting and working with the latest research to phase out peat usage in professional growing media (GM), ICL in the meantime continues to support UK professional horticulture and forestry by, where possible, sourcing local peat rather than importing from mainland Europe.”

The company stressed that it supported research and development into alternatives to peat, and had committed “significant investment” to the production of professional grade alternatives. But it argued that that it needed to plan for targets to end peat use being missed.

“The voluntary target to phase out peat use in the amateur gardening market by 2020 has not been met. Demand for professional-grade sustainable peat-alternatives is high and exceeds current supplies,” said ICL.

“With the precedent already set in the amateur gardening market, ICL believes it is important to have a contingency plan in place to safeguard GM supplies for professional horticultural food production, forestry and ornamental production beyond the voluntary target date of 2030.”

The company argued that gardening and green spaces were were important to public health, and that over half a million jobs were supported by the UK horticultural industry. “Having a strong and vibrant horticultural industry is essential to underwrite the government’s 25-year environmental plan, its biosecurity ambitions and climate change in general,” it concluded.

Scottish and UK governments have no records on commercial peat digging

In May The Ferret revealed that ICL, the company behind the South Lanarkshire site, is also seeking to extend peat extraction by ten years at two of its other sites, both in Dumfries and Galloway. If successful, these applications would see mining continue after 2030.

The Ferret has also reported that Highland Council gave permission in late 2019 to extend peat extraction by another operator at a site near Inverness. This means that an additional 10,000 – 20,000 tonnes of peat will be extracted every year for the next decade.

Freedom of information requests have disclosed that neither the Scottish or UK governments have complete information on where peat extraction is taking place, or the volumes that are being mined.

Full statement on peat extraction by ICL

ICL STATEMENT 030620 (Text)

Photo thanks to iStock/ligora.

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