Targets to restore peatlands missed for fourth successive year

The Scottish Government missed its annual target to restore Scotland’s peatland by a wide margin in 2021-22 for the fourth consecutive year. 

Around 8,000 hectares of degraded peat were restored by government schemes last year. This is just 40 per cent of the 20,000 hectares that the Scottish Government said it would restore in 2021-22 in its 2018 climate change plan

It is the fourth year in a row that targets on peatland restoration have been missed and the Scottish Government expects to still be considerably off track in 2022-23.

One expert told The Ferret that the missed targets were the result of a lack of trained contractors and machinery, as well as the short seasonal window in which restoration activities can be carried out. The unwillingness of some landowners to let the work take place on their estates was another obstacle, they added.

The Scottish Government said peatland restoration was a “critical” part of Scotland’s response to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. It claimed “a number of actions” were being taken to “significantly increase” the rate of peatland restoration, including investing £250m in new projects by 2030.

‘Scotland’s rainforests’

The figures come from a Scottish Government monitoring report on its 2018 climate change plan. Restoring degraded peatlands is an important part of Scotland’s plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2045.

When they are in good condition, peatlands act as a carbon store. This means that they absorb carbon dioxide from the air, which prevents it from contributing to global warming.

They have been called “Scotland’s rainforest” because of the amount of carbon that they currently hold. Healthy peatlands are also an important habitat for rare species of insect and plants, and help to improve the quality of drinking water.

But historical land use practices – including industrial cutting and overgrazing – have left around 80 per cent of Scotland’s peatlands in poor condition.

Once they become damaged in this way, peatlands emit carbon rather than storing it. If all of the carbon stored in peatlands was released at the same time, the equivalent of 140 years of Scotland’s emissions would be produced.

Restoration work aims to set damaged peatlands on the road to recovery using different techniques. These include covering dry areas with vegetation, re-wetting bogs which have dried out, and re-introducing special mosses which are key to the formation of peatlands.

The Scottish Government set an annual target of restoring 20,000 hectares of degraded peatland every year from 2018.

Despite this, just 17,000 hectares were restored in 2018-19, 2019-20, and 2020-21 combined. An estimated 11,000 hectares are expected to be restored in 2022-23, meaning that the Scottish Government will still be behind its targets next year.

“Soaring land values associated with Scotland’s unregulated land market, largely driven by natural capital investment opportunities like peatland restoration, threaten communities’ ability to participate in that market…”

Dr Calum MacLeod, policy director at Community Land Scotland

Professor of plant and soil science at the University of Aberdeen, Pete Smith, argued that although it was “great” that the Scottish Government is “ambitious” in its plans to restore peatlands, it is “failing to meet its targets”.

“I understand that this is due to three main factors – not enough trained contractors and machinery to do the work, the very short window to complete the restoration work between the end of the snow season and the start of bird breeding season, and too few landowners coming forward to offer their degraded peatland for restoration,” Smith said.

“The short window for restoration cannot easily be overcome, but there could be more training and “green job” creation, while there also needs to be more awareness and better support for landowners offering land for restoration.”

Peat and private sector cash

Among the solutions touted by the Scottish Government to scale up peatland restoration is a commitment to “increase private sector investment” through the Peatland Code (PC). 

The PC allows companies to quantify the amount of carbon that is absorbed by peatland restoration projects they fund. This carbon can then be used to offset emissions in another part of a given company’s operations, or sold as credits on the international carbon market.

Both offsetting and carbon markets are seen as key to restoring nature and tackling the climate crisis by corporations and some governments.

But recent research has shown that demand for land to produce these credits drives up rural land prices, and means that local populations do not see the full economic benefits of projects like peatland restoration and woodland creation.

Dr Calum MacLeod, policy director at Community Land Scotland, told The Ferret that the Scottish Government needs to be careful that private sector investment does not prevent Scottish communities from securing “significant and lasting community benefits from restoration work”.

MacLeod added: “Soaring land values associated with Scotland’s unregulated land market, largely driven by natural capital investment opportunities like peatland restoration, threaten communities’ ability to participate in that market and by implication, the Scottish Government’s land reform and community wealth building agendas.”.

He said that consultation on a new land reform bill was an “opportunity to put robust legal measures in place to ensure that communities can play their full part in both delivering and benefitting from a just transition to net zero”.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “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 taking a number of actions to increase annual rates of peatland restoration. This includes streamlining our funding to a pipeline of multi-year projects, boosting the confidence of contractors to invest in the people and machinery needed to deliver at scale in this relatively new industry, and facilitating the flow of private finance into restoration projects to significantly supplement our investment.”

Meanwhile, Scottish Greens MSP Ariane Burgess said that “significant progress” had been made with peatland restoration while the party has been in government at Holyrood. 

Burgess claimed that the fact 11,000 hectares are expected to be restored in 2022-23 – more than double what was restored in 2020-21 – was proof of this.

Burgess added: “We need to continue to expand the good work being done on the ground through the £250 million Peatland Restoration Programme. This includes ensuring such programmes are fully staffed and the employment opportunities properly signposted, continuing to develop those essential green skills for use both now and in the future.”

Header image credit: iStock/Alan Morris

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