Sitting on a sleeping giant in our efforts to reach carbon net zero - Robert McConnell

The UK Government has recently announced that sales of peat-based compost will be banned from 2024 in England. A similar ban is likely to be announced in due course by the Scottish Government, given that the SNP manifesto for the recent Holyrood election contained this pledge.

Robert McConnell is a solicitor in the Rural Economy team, Harper Macleod​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
Robert McConnell is a solicitor in the Rural Economy team, Harper Macleod​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

So why are the UK and Scottish Governments coming for the compost that gardeners have happily used for decades?

The answer is simple. Healthy peatland is one of nature's most important 'carbon sinks', given its unrivalled ability to store atmospheric carbon. However, unhealthy and degraded peatland is actually a source of greenhouse gas. Given that multi-purpose compost can contain anywhere from 70 to 100 per cent peat, the inference is clear.

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Banning the sale of peat-based compost is only one part of the charge to restore the UK's peatlands. Scotland is leading the way in this respect and the efforts already underway are described below.

What is peatland restoration and why does it matter?

Despite the image of a vast, grey and waterlogged stretch of land best avoided, the reality of a restored and healthy peatland is the very opposite – a green and vital area filled with an array of plant, bird and insect life.

Peatland covers almost a quarter of Scotland, about 1.7 million hectares, storing some 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of an estimated 140 years of Scotland’s emissions. This is approximately three times the amount stored by our forests.

Yet while a peatland can take thousands of years to create, it can be destroyed within a few short decades by way of fuel mining, draining and agriculture. It is estimated that more than 80 per cent of peatland in Scotland is in poor condition and instead of capturing and storing carbon, they release it into the atmosphere. This long-term degradation has turned our biggest natural asset in the effort against climate change into one of our biggest problems.

Support to restore peatland

Given that peatland restoration is a central component to the Scottish Government's pledge for Scotland to be net-zero by 2045 at the latest, there is a growing amount of support, advice and funding available.

In the 2020-21 Budget the Scottish Government pledged to invest £250 million over the next decade into peatland restoration. This highlights not only the importance of restoration but also the political will behind ensuring it works. The first part of this funding is now available with farmers, landowners and land agents able to apply for funding from an initial pot of £22 million.

This funding is for peatland restoration projects with some of the fund being administered by the Peatland ACTION programme, run by NatureScot on behalf of Scottish Government, with a portion of the funding going directly to national parks.

There is another emerging financial incentive for those seeking to restore their peatlands. The Peatland Code is a voluntary certification standard for UK peatland projects wishing to market the climate benefits of peatland restoration and provides assurances to voluntary carbon market buyers that the climate benefits being sold are real, quantifiable and permanent. Essentially, landowners of certified projects can then sell climate benefits (otherwise known as 'carbon credits') as a result of the quantifiable carbon sequestration capability of the project.

The Peatland Code is seeking to create a market in which these carbon credits can be bought, sold and traded. Yet as with the UK Woodland Carbon Code, certification of projects is stringent and ongoing throughout the lifetime of the project (with the minimum being set at 30 years) – this ensures that a third party can buy carbon credits 'up-front' safe in the knowledge that the restoration will be monitored for decades to come.

Any income generated for can sit alongside public funding discussed above. The amount of income to be generated via the Code will depend on the scale of restoration, size of project and lifetime. While this is an area in its infancy, it can be guaranteed that initiatives such as this will be central to incentivise peatland restoration, given that public funding is by its nature finite.

In essence, Scotland is sitting on a sleeping giant in our efforts to reach net-zero

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