Peatbog Mismanagement Leads to CO2 Emissions

In Britain alone, damage caused by bad peatland management is leading to annual greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to around 660,000 UK households, according to a recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) highlighting the poor state of the world's peatlands.

Scotland's far north - a sea of peat, 80 kb
Scotland's far north - a sea of peat
© Dan Bailey

Peat hags may be a chore to walk through, but it seems we'd be better off with more and healthier bogs in our hills.

'Wetlands provide many important ecosystem services, including water regulation, biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration and storage' say the report's authors. 'Because of the enormous size of the peat carbon pool, its high sensitivity for disturbance, the large emissions from a small land area (which continue long after conversion) and the virtual irreversibility of peat carbon losses, any further degradation of the peatland resource should be prevented. Peatland conservation, restoration and better management are low-hanging fruits for climate change mitigation...'

There are three main types of peatland in the UK - blanket bogs, raised bogs and fens, all protected under international and national wildlife law. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan lists 23,000 km2 of peatland habitat covering about 9.5% of the UK, with the majority in Scotland.

Over 80% of these peatlands are in a degraded state, the report claims, due mainly to past drainage, fire and grazing, while 2000km2 of Scotland's deep peat is also affected by forestry planting and a sizeable area has been damaged by peat cutting.

Why does this matter?

On a local scale the degradation of habitats is bad enough, but there's a global angle too. Within the UK peatlands represent the single most important terrestrial carbon store with deep peat bogs containing over 3200 Mtonnes of carbon, approximately twenty times that of UK forests. Semi-natural and natural bog peatlands may remove approximately 30-70 tonnes of carbon per km2 per year from the atmosphere, claims the FAO report, so healthy peat bogs have a net long-term cooling effect on the climate.

But the UK's damaged peatlands are already releasing almost 3.7 Mtonnes of CO2 annually, equivalent to the average emissions of around 660,000 UK households. These emissions are likely to increase with further peatland deterioration as the climate changes and more land comes under development.

The good news is that large scale habitat restoration and re-wetting could reverse the trend. Securing 10,000 km2 of peatland under re-wetting and restoration management would equate to 1% of the annual greenhouse gas reductions which need to be made from now to reach the UK climate change target for 2027. Compared to most emissions reduction measures better peat bog management is pretty low-tech stuff, and can be done very cheaply. Basic measures such as blocking drains, reducing grazing and burning and removing forestry plantations will go a long way.

Most developments on peatland are likely to have a negative impact, from simple ditch digging to major windfarm construction projects that can affect the hydrology of large areas and lead to peat drying. The report does not touch on upland industrialisation, but perhaps it's time these costs were more carefully weighed too?

Successful peatland restoration in Britain could serve as a useful model for other countries where this type of habitat occurs, says the report, including Ireland, Norway, New Zealand, Tasmania, Atlantic Canada, the Pacifc Northwest, Southern Chile, Argentina, the Falklands and Spain.

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