Article of the Month

Peat: The Little-Known Climate Superhero

Photograph of a vast expanse of blanket bog with hills in the background
Blanket bog at Fleetwith Hay Stacks behind Cumbria ©Natural England/Paul Glendell 2000
Lucy Woodward

You’ve all heard the story of Peter Parker, aka Spiderman. Even The Hunger Games’ Peeta gets a fair amount of credit for a somewhat lacklustre main character. But no one’s talking about the real hero of the hour, Peat. In terms of protecting our planet, Peat’s doing everything he can. He’s busy capturing carbon in the soil, maintaining biodiversity, and reversing the effects of climate change left, right and centre. Who is this guy?

Well, Peat is partially decayed vegetation (no wonder he doesn’t get much attention). They might not sound like much, but peatlands are actually one of the most valuable ecosystems on Earth, vital for regulating water flows and soaking up 0.37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO?) every year. To put that into context, 0.37 GT equates to the volume of 148,000 Olympic sized swimming pools. That’s huge.

These peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store and have been formed over millennia; carbon from the atmosphere is fixed in plant tissues and locked safely away in the soil. Peat is also crucial for preventing seawater intrusion, which allows for safe drinking water, as well as minimising flood risk and preserving biodiversity.

Damaged peatlands release vast amounts of carbon dioxide

But despite his best efforts, Peat is under attack. Overexploitation of peatlands means that about 15% have been drained due to agricultural conversion, burning and mining. Aside from reducing their capability to capture our emissions, these damaged peatlands release vast amounts of carbon dioxide themselves, approximately 1.3 gigatons annually, accounting for 5.6% of global CO2 emissions. Comparing that to a single country’s emissions, it’s more than Japan emitted in 2018!

It’s not just the increased emissions that pose problems either; over the last 75 years, 82% of the Bornean orangutan population have died out with a major cause being loss of their peat swamp habitat.

Clearly, we need to do more to protect this natural ecosystem, and fast. New UK regulations to protect English peatlands have taken a step in the right direction and could help the UK reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The measures prevent “the burning of heather and other vegetation” in peatlands that are more than 40 cm deep in certain conservation and protected areas.

The UK is home to 13% of the world’s blanket bog (a type of peatland such as that shown in the featured image), so the regulations put forward by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), have the potential to make a significant difference. The measures have received support from various groups including Natural England, who lauded the “better protection for our globally important peatlands”.

Photograph showing the Thorne Moors with a fluffy white Hare’s-tail cottongrass in the foreground and background

Re-wetted abandoned peat workings on Thorne Moors. The flowers are Hare’s-tail cottongrass. ©Natural England/Peter Roworth 2008

However, there have also been criticisms of the measures from certain environmental groups who say they do not go far enough to prevent damage to peatlands. One such organisation is Rewilding Britain, which welcomes the changes but believes that the “outdated and damaging” practice of heather-burning should be rejected completely to allow moorlands to become “much wilder, richer environments”.

Heather burning is the practice of setting the peatlands’ top layer of vegetation on fire to promote new growth of shoots, which feeds grouse and livestock. If our hero Peat were a human, that would look like giving him a haircut with a blowtorch. Which sounds like an even more questionable idea than that lockdown trim from your sister, if you ask me.

Jokes aside, heather burning has actually been proven to improve biodiversity, and in formulating the new measures, Defra appears to have listened to land managers to ensure that it can continue to be practiced under the right conditions without affecting the underlying peat. Despite this seemingly understanding approach by Defra, other environmental groups such as the Wildlife Trust also have concerns. They have called for the ban on peatland burning to apply to all peatlands, not just those deeper than 40 cm, and criticised the length of time taken to introduce even these measures.

It’s imperative that other countries follow suit with similar protective measures for their peatlands

Peatland restoration is essential for reversing global warming and preventing catastrophic climate change, however, a typical barrier to climate-conscious initiatives is often their cost. Aside from the obvious point that a disregard for the environment in policymaking is unsustainable, (and ignoring the problem produces significantly greater costs down the line) in this case, economic concerns about protecting and restoring peatland are misplaced, since it’s an extremely cost-effective method compared to other carbon-reducing technologies. It’s imperative that other countries take advantage of this and follow suit with similar protective measures for their peatlands.

So, that’s Peat, the little-known climate superhero. Fighting off floods, providing homes for wildlife, and sequestering carbon dioxide, all whilst being attacked by the people he’s trying to protect. Relentless greenhouse emissions mean he can’t exactly have a day-off, but at least in the UK we’ve agreed to stop setting him on fire now. Don’t say we don’t treat you, Peat.

Lucy Woodward

Featured image by Natural England via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In article image by Natural England via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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