Maggie Jones on the government's missed opportunity to harness the power of restored and protected peatlands
The challenge to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is often seen through the lens of large-scale energy and transport projects. While such schemes are crucial, we are sometimes guilty of overlooking the vital role of nature itself.
In the UK, for example, we have particularly rich levels of peatlands which store some 3.2bn tonnes of carbon. Acting as a huge carbon sink, these peatlands could offset our carbon emissions and make a crucial contribution to achieving our net zero target.
Sadly, this important natural resource is currently being eroded by habitat encroachment; by the excavation of peat for horticulture and, most damagingly, by the burning of upland peat heather – primarily to create better conditions for rearing grouse for the shooting industry. Burning has the effect of reversing its carbon status by releasing around 260,000 tonnes of C02 into the atmosphere each year rather than soaking it up.
Action to control peatland burning in the UK is urgent and necessary – and this is a widely accepted view. In a damning report last year, the Committee on Climate Change criticised the government’s attempts at reducing land-based greenhouse gases; and advocated a new approach via the legislative opportunities already available. Highlighting how the existing voluntary ban had not worked, they called for rotational peat burning to be outlawed with immediate effect.
Ministers, however, have been less than enthusiastic in their responses. In January 2018, as part of the 25 Year Environment Plan, they committed to publishing an England Peat Strategy later that year. More than three years on, we still await that strategy.
They have published secondary legislation introducing a partial ban, based on the outcome of consultations with landowners and land managers. An ineffective and unenforceable proposal, in response to which I have tabled a Regret Motion to be debated in the Lords later this week.
Our concerns are echoed by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which has flagged up the lack of detail in how the scheme to licence burning will work, and the limited area of peatland covered. And the RSPB, the Wildlife and Countryside Link and others have also raised concerns, pointing out that the ban will only apply to upland conservation areas (for example, Sites of Special Scientific Interest) and as such only covers about 109,000 hectares of the total area of 355,000 –about 30%.
Added to this is a long list of exemptions to a ban on peatland burning, including claims that the practice will aid conservation of the natural environment; or because the land is rocky or on a slope, and therefore difficult to manage by other means. Inevitably, landowners and grouse shoot managers will use such loopholes and upland blanket bog burning will carry on much as before.
The government’s proposal in its current form is a missed opportunity to harness the power of restored and protected peatlands. Not only to provide long term carbon sequestration, but also to deliver a haven for rare wildlife, to mitigate flood risk, and to prevent the spread of wildfires. A golden moment to put nature centre stage in the fight to achieve our climate change targets.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 16th March 2021