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For peat's sake - the incentives to restore Scotland’s peatland

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 very pledge.

The green-fingered among us might be asking why the UK and Scottish Governments are coming for the compost that gardeners have happily used since the early 20th century?

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 (unless certified as peat-free) can contain anywhere from 70% to 100% peat, the inference is clear. In order to begin the process of healing and restoring our peatlands, the commercial extraction of peat for use in compost must be vastly reduced. Amateur gardeners use approximately two-thirds of the peat consumed in the UK and despite ever-increasing use of peat-free products, the continued high level of consumption has necessitated the ban.

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

What is peatland restoration and why does it matter?

When one thinks of peatland, it would not be uncommon to think of the traditional visage of a peatbog – a vast, grey and waterlogged stretch of land best avoided. However, 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. While restoring peatland is worth it alone for the benefits to biodiversity and the ecosystem, restoration can also boost our efforts in combating climate change.

As above, restored peatland naturally acts as a ‘carbon sink’, meaning it stores carbon present in the atmosphere as a result of pollution. 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% of peatland in Scotland is in poor condition and instead of capturing and storing carbon, they release it into the atmosphere. The long-term degradation of our peatland has turned our biggest natural asset in the effort against climate change into one of our biggest problems.

However, all is not lost and substantial efforts are already underway to restore Scotland’s peatland so its carbon storing ability can be fully utilised in perpetuity. 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.

Funding to restore peatland

In the 2020-21 Budget the Scottish Government pledged to invest £250 million over the next decade into peatland restoration. This is a substantial figure and 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.

Peatland ACTION has already put 25,000 hectares of peatland on the road to recovery and while all progress is welcome, it also highlights the scale of the task ahead. This is why the funding provided by the Scottish Government and other financial incentives are vital to incentivise landowners into restoring their peatlands.

The Peatland Code – selling carbon credits

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, like the similar UK Woodland Carbon 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 landowners via the Peatland Code can sit happily 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. Whilst this is an area in its infancy, with carbon markets not yet mature, 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.

Peat – Scotland’s sleeping giant

To conclude, Scotland is sitting on a sleeping giant that is yet to be fully utilised in our effort to reach net-zero. Given that such a large amount of Scotland is covered with damaged peatland, we as a nation have a huge opportunity to use what is under our feet to protect our climate and hit net-zero. It is also an opportunity for landowners to make peatland restoration a sustainable alternate income-stream by making use of public funding and the untapped potential of carbon markets.

We’re here to help

If you have any questions at all on peatland restoration or have a restoration project in mind, please contact our Rural team, who will be happy to advise.


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Get in touch

Call us for free on 0330 159 5555 or complete our online form below to submit your enquiry or arrange a call back.