If the government wants other nations to step up to the climate and ecological crises, it must show a clean pair of hands on peat.

Paul de Zylva28 May 2024

Britain’s peatlands are unique in many ways. They could be our ally in helping to curb climate change, restoring Britain’s dire state of nature and reducing flood risk. 

But the dreadful state of the nation’s peatlands means they are being prevented from playing their full part – and there’s no mystery why. 

After decades of delay 2024 must be the year that ministers stop giving the peat industry more time to clean up its act. 

The dire state of the nation’s buried treasure 

The UK’s peatlands have been degraded by a combination of decades of harmful peat extraction, bad land-management practices such as the burning of peat moorlands, and a failure to invest in the restoration of all peatlands.  

The UK has behaved as though it can afford to let the best tools in its environment toolkit get rusty and blunt. Yet the costs of protecting peatlands are tiny compared with the costs of letting them decline. The dreadful state of the nation’s peatlands means that instead of continuing to quietly store carbon as they have for thousands of years, they are leaking vast volumes of climate-changing gases.  

Allowing peatlands to switch from being carbon stores to a source of emissions makes no sense on any level. It also undermines the good actions that some sectors of the economy are taking to cut their climate emissions and kick the fossil fuel habit. 

Industrial scale peat cutting
Industrial scale peat cutting © iStock

And as the peat we use is also sourced from Ireland and the Baltic states, the impact is not on the UK’s carbon emissions alone. Peat sold in this country has already released carbon where it was dug up, adding to the global accumulation in the atmosphere. 

Ministers must stop dithering and do three things to stop the peat scandal. 

  1. End peat sales now 

A decade ago, the government declared an end to the sale of peat by 2020. Ministers asked the gardening trade to start phasing out peat and to give their customers a real choice to go truly peat free. 

But the peat and horticulture trade has dragged its feet. Visits to garden centres and DIY stores showed peat sales still booming with few stores offering their customers peat-free choices at a comparable price.

Close up of delivery lorry showing plastic sacks of peat stacked high
Close up of delivery lorry showing plastic sacks of peat stacked high © Paul de Zylva

The irony is that no one really needs to use peat to garden successfully. Garden borders, allotments, patio pots and window boxes will be productive without peat. In fact, peat never used to be used much in gardening. It’s just that peat has been marketed so much, it's on sale everywhere. 

By 2017 it was clear to everyone that the industry was not on track to end peat use by 2020, as ministers wanted. It didn't help that ministers took their eye off the ball and thought they could rely on the industry to regulate itself. We and others told ministers the voluntary approach wouldn't work, but were ignored. 

Despite failing to act, the gardening and horticulture trade has lobbied ministers to give it more time and even to scrap plans to end peat use. 

By failing to stand up to the trade’s delaying tactics, ministers have allowed further erosion of the nation’s peatlands and undermined their own climate and nature aims. Letting the sector act at its own pace means peat will still be in use years after ministers said they wanted it replaced by peat free composts. 

  1. Invest in restoring all of Britain’s peatlands 

The government also needs to get serious about restoring the natural condition of the nation’s peatlands. Letting degraded peatlands continue to leak carbon is counter-productive and makes a mockery of the government's aspiration to lead global action on climate change and get other nations to follow suit. 

To its credit, the government has started to invest in some restoration of peatlands covering a modest 35,000 hectares in England. Peatlands will also get a share of an equally modest £750 million for some restoration projects. It’s a start, but it’s nowhere near enough to repair the damage and will only last until 2025 unless the next government commits to the lasting action that’s needed, not least because peatlands need decades to repair the damage. 

Ministers must get real about proper funding for wholesale peatland restoration. Restoring some peatlands is not good enough, when all peatlands need to be returned to good condition, so they stop leaking carbon and play their full part in storing carbon, restoring nature, and reducing flood risk. 

Restoring peatlands makes sense on many levels, including economically, because doing so will be less expensive than the higher costs to come if peatlands are allowed to decline. 

View of rare crescent pool on peat bog, Northumberland, stream in foreground
View of rare crescent pool on peat bog, Northumberland, stream in foreground © iStock

To put costs into perspective, the government estimates that flooding in recent years cost the economy £1.6 billion. Ministers have given £50 million to peatland restoration from their modest £750 million Nature for Climate Fund which ends in 2025. 

  1. End the burning of peat moorlands 

There’s no excuse to burn peat – it’s a lazy bad practice which has no place in the responsible use of land. 

Burning dries out and degrades the soil and its ability to hold water, including holding back potential flood waters. Burning means the land supports a reduced range of plant species, which in turn support a less diverse range of insects, birds and other wildlife.  

The government has said it will ban burning of peatlands that are in important nature areas, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). 

That’s the minimum you’d expect. But as most peatlands are not within SSSIs, vast swathes of UK peatlands are still at risk of being burned by irresponsible landowners and managers, who claim to be guardians of the countryside. 

Ending the peat scandal is unfinished business. Decades of missed targets and unmet pledges to protect nature cement the UK as one of the world’s most nature depleted nations. With extremes of flooding and more frequent droughts, often with greater costs, ending peat use and protecting and restoring all peatlands would be a quick win for the next UK government. 

Food and farming
Climate change