Scottish ministers refused to join with their Welsh and English counterparts in supporting proposals for a ban on the sale of peat-based compost across the three nations, we can reveal.
Internal emails obtained by The Ferret under freedom of information law show the Scottish Government discussed potentially cooperating on plans to ban compost last year, but later decided against participating.
Our findings have prompted fresh concerns that the Scottish Government is not acting quickly enough to protect the country’s peatlands, which play a vital role in combating climate change.
Conservation charity Plantlife claimed that time is “rapidly running out” to meet a recommendation of the independent Climate Change Committee that the extraction and sale of peat should be banned by 2023.
Plantlife also warned that new planning proposals from the Scottish Government “leave huge loopholes” which would allow “Scotland’s precious peat bogs to continue [to] be destroyed.”
However, the Scottish Government told The Ferret that it remained “committed to a ban” and would be launching a consultation “in the coming months.”
Peat plays an important role in fighting climate change because it stores large amounts of carbon.
Scotland’s peatlands are estimated to hold the equivalent of 140 years’ worth of the country’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to NatureScot, the Scottish Government’s nature agency.
But when peatlands are damaged – by burning, draining or extraction – they release large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which contribute to the heating of the planet.
The SNP’s 2021 manifesto included a commitment to “ban the sale of peat-related gardening products”, but no proposals have yet been brought forward.
In December 2021, the UK and Welsh governments launched a consultation on plans to end the retail sale of peat-based products.
The proposals did not extend to Scotland, but the consultation document noted that “the Scottish Government is committed to taking forward work to develop and consult on a ban on the sale of peat related gardening products.”
In August and September 2021, Scottish Government officials and the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) were discussing “Scotland’s potential involvement” in the plans.
In November 2021, however, Scottish Government officials told Defra that “Scottish ministers are not minded to join such a consultation.”
Jenny Hawley, policy manager for Plantlife, accused the Scottish Government of having “no plan of their own” and of passing up the chance to help enact a UK-wide ban.
“There can be no further delay to the long-awaited ban on the sale of horticultural peat,” she added. “Despite the commitments in both party manifestos and the programme for government, there is no sign of ministers keeping their promise.”
Find more of our stories on Peat extraction and the Environment, by clicking here.
Peat continues to be extracted from several sites in Scotland and several companies involved have recently sought permission to continue mining for years – or even decades – into the future, despite environmental concerns.
The issue of peat extraction was addressed in the Scottish Government’s proposed new National Planning Policy, which closed to consultation earlier this year.
The policy states that “development proposals for new commercial peat extraction, including extensions to existing sites, should not be supported”. However, it also says extraction can go ahead if certain conditions are met.
These conditions include to allow new peat extraction if it is “supporting an industry of national importance to Scotland and there is no reasonable substitute,” and if the area and time of extraction are “the minimum necessary.”
Plantlife’s Hawley warned that this “would leave huge loopholes in the law, allowing Scotland’s precious peat bogs to continue [to] be destroyed, releasing carbon and devastating wildlife, for decades to come.”
Her concerns were echoed by Bruce Wilson, public affairs manager at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, who said the commercial extraction and sale of peat for horticulture needs to be ended “quickly”, with “clear movement on a ban by 2023.”
He also called for the planning proposals to “make stronger provisions for the protection of peatlands”. ”We urge the Scottish Government to provide greater clarity on what it is doing to protect peatlands within the planning system,” Wilson said. “If there is to be an exemption for an ‘industry of national importance’ for peat extraction, the rationale must be clearly and convincingly laid out.”
Is the Scottish Government resisting?
Dr Janet Moxley, a soil scientist, said it seemed “strange” that the Scottish Government is resisting a UK-wide ban on the sale of horticultural peat when both the SNP and the Greens included commitments to introduce this in their manifestos.
She added: “Large scale peat extraction in Scotland is mainly for horticultural use, and generates emissions equivalent to 4 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide each year, which is the same as 2,500 cars. There are perfectly viable alternatives to peat for growing plants, so these emissions are completely avoidable.”
Dr Moxley also warned that planning proposals, as they stand, could allow peat extraction for use in compost to continue. She added: “The major concern is that if this loophole is created, it will be almost impossible to control what the eventual end use of the peat is, particularly if it is exported, so it could amount to a back door for export of horticultural peat.”
In response, a Scottish Government spokesperson said ministers are committed to a ban that is “ambitious, realistic and tailored to the specific needs of people in Scotland” adding that in the coming months, it would launch a consultation to this effect.
The spokesperson added: “Peatland restoration is a critical part of Scotland’s response to the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, supporting a just transition to net zero. We are committed to significantly increasing the rate of restoration in Scotland and have invested £250m to fulfill our commitment to restore 250,000 hectares of peatland by 2030.
“Peat is a non-renewable, natural resource extracted from peatlands and continuing to extract peat for horticulture is at odds with our restoration aims. That’s why we have also committed to phasing out the use of peat in horticulture through a ban on the sale of peat[-related] gardening products.”
Photo thanks to Jen Stout.