The role of peatlands in the UK's Green Recovery

July 23, 2020


“We hope that we will soon be witness to a marked and lasting improvement of the situation, knowing that in order for that to happen we must all do our part. This is a crisis demanding collective action.” IUCN European Regional Office 

Recognition that collective change is needed for the recovery from the current global pandemic is not only pertinent but inextricably linked to the global biodiversity and climate change crises. To recover from any one of these crises requires acknowledgement and immediate decisive action. A ‘Green recovery’ – that puts environmental health at its heart – would simultaneously tackle climate change, turn the tide on biodiversity loss and address the threat of future zoonosis pandemics, all of which are symptomatic of wide spread, sustained environmental destruction.   

At the beginning of 2020, UN Conference of Parties for both Climate Change (COP26 in Glasgow, UK) and Biological Diversity (COP15 in Kunming, China) were due within the calendar year to address the progress of the Paris Climate Change agreement and Strategic plan for Biodiversity 2011 -2020 respectively. The conferences were also to make decisions on the way forward for climate change action and the global biodiversity framework post-2020. Both events have been postponed until 2021. This presents the opportunity for Parties to develop their post-pandemic recovery strategies with new socio-economic models that are climate neutral, resilient, sustainable and inclusive, essentially sparking a self-perpetuating positive environmental, economic & employment feedback loop.

The UK, as host of COP26 and the first major economy to pass law to meet net zero greenhouse gas emissions before 2050, is perfectly placed to change the status quo with its push towards economic recovery post-CV-19. There is wide spread recognition that action is needed across all sectors to meet net-zero but halting biodiversity loss requires greater acknowledgement in policy and legislation.  
The current necessity to generate investment and employment creates the opportunity to drive innovation and steer towards global environmental recovery and vice versa. Forward looking sectors including protection, restoration and enhancement of nature and wildlife, have a critical role to play to ensure environmental and economic sustainability.     

The concept of nature-based solutions is not new. Many of us rapidly reached out to our local outdoor green spaces and wildlife encounters when lockdown kicked in – looking for solace, distraction and sense of place. The green environment is critical for our physical and mental health, well-being and own resilience, which in turn maintains the wider economy. A decade before this pandemic Defra estimated that if everyone had access to green space it would save health services £2.1 billion a year (Defra’s Climate Change Plan, 2010). 

Peatlands include the largest remaining semi-natural habitats in the UK and are an important feature of some of the UK’s best known and most visited green spaces: national parks; nature reserves; walking routes and wildlife watching hotspots. Recreation on UK peatlands generated an average estimated expenditure of £204 million per year between 2009 – 2017 (UK Natural Capital: Peatlands, 2019).

Education, engagement and infrastructure is however need to ensure people are accessing green spaces and nature responsibility and that revenue generated through tourism isn’t outweighed by the costs of visitor pressure. The most visible environmental and economic cost of people visiting UK peatlands over the last few months has been the increased risk of wildfires through activities such as the use of disposable BBQs. Wildfires on peatlands cause air pollution (air pollution is estimated to “reduce the average life expectancy of people living in the UK by 6 months, at an annual cost of £15 billion” Defra, 2010), threaten wildlife (especially during breeding seasons which often coincide with periods of hot weather & dry conditions), draw on the resources of fire brigades, amongst others, and exacerbate climate change.  

Revenue generation through nature and wildlife tourism depends on habitats in good ecological condition. 80% of UK peatlands are in a damaged and deteriorating state. The UK Peatland Strategy aims to conserve 95% of the least damaged peatlands (i.e. protect those still in the best condition) and restore or bring 80% of the remaining damaged peatlands under restoration management by 2040. Peatland conservation already provides thousands of jobs, often in rural economies, generates revenue and unlocks private investment. Increased long-term investment is however needed to deliver the scale of nature-based solutions required for the UK to meet net-zero and restore valuable habitats to good ecological condition. This essentially includes sustaining and enhancing the employment of people, partnerships and organisations working to protect, restore & enhance peatlands which in turn help stimulate local economies, levelling-up communities across the UK and improving public health & well-being. 

Peatland Restoration can also protect homes and livelihoods from larger magnitude flood and wildfire events, with healthy peatlands aiding natural flood management and mitigating wildlife risk when compared to damaged peatlands. There is also a tangible benefit to the provision of drinking water for peatland dominated catchments with an estimated asset value of £18,366 million (ONS, 2019).  

Whilst it is vital to ensure the protection and restoration of healthy peatlands for environmental and economic sustainability our Green Recovery must include more. The UK should be world leading in creating and supporting thousands of jobs as well as stimulating private investment through the Environment Bill and Rural Development Funds post- common agricultural policy (CAP). In England the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMs) should support sustainable agricultural livelihoods by enabling a shift to wetter ways of farming. Drained peatlands are currently responsible for 4% of UK GHG emissions – 60% of which is from drainage based agriculture (CEH, 2017). Whilst the agricultural productivity of the Fens alone is estimated at £1.23 billion (NFU, 2019) the overall ecosystem service contribution of agriculture in UK peatlands is negative, with an estimated cost of £47.5 million over a 5 year average (ONS, 2019). Ensuring future eligibility for wet peatlands to receive payments and avoiding support for peatland drainage can not only stimulate a new economy and drive innovation, it could shift the balance of ecosystem services of agriculture on peatlands from a significant cost to economic benefit. 

To meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda we also need new green renewable industries and other climate action (including tree planting) to avoid environmental harm. The move towards climate resilient infrastructure and the transition to a lower carbon future (decarbonising of economy) must include High Environmental Standards including, for example strict planning permissions around wind farm development on peatland and ensuring tree planting doesn’t compromise peatland biodiversity and carbon storage. This transition must also include a continued move away from unsustainable use of natural resources including the extraction of peat for the horticultural industry. As with the inclusion of wet agriculture in the move towards sustainable food system and farming, the move towards peat-free products for amateur gardens and the horticultural industry presents opportunities to drive job creation and increase economic and environmental resilience through the development of new sustainable green industries that help mitigate climate and nature emergencies. 

Cost & benefits of peatland restoration

Figure: Estimated projected costs and benefits of UK peatland natural capital. 
There are of course a wide range of additional ecosystem services provided by peatlands that are much more difficult or inappropriate to assign a financial value to and as such are not shown here. Absence or inclusion here is not indicative of their importance. 
Data taken from UK natural capital: peatlands, Trenbirth. H. & Dutton. A., Office on National Statistics, 2019
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