Restoring UK’s peatlands sooner rather than later would offer ‘largest economic benefits’

·3-min read

Restoring the UK’s heavily degraded peatlands sooner rather than later would offer the greatest economic benefits for society, a study suggests.

Peatlands are waterlogged environments where plants decay very slowly, eventually forming a carbon-rich soil called peat.

When peat bogs are healthy, they are capable of storing vast amounts of carbon. Across the world, peatlands cover just 3 per cent of the Earth’s surface, but store one-third of its soil carbon.

But when they are degraded – through overgrazing, draining for agriculture or pollution – they switch to being net emitters of planet-warming CO2. In the UK, around 80 per cent of all peatlands are degraded, with the greenhouse gases they release accounting for around 5 per cent of the country’s total emissions.

The new research, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, focuses on Scotland – where 20 per cent of the land surface is covered by peat.

It finds that restoring Scotland’s pealtands by 2027 rather than between 2039 and 2050 would provide an additional £191 million in societal benefits for the country.

This equates to the average Scottish household benefiting by £77.76 each year, the research says.

Dr Klaus Glenk, study lead author and leader of the sustainable ecosystems team at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), told The Independent: “We found delaying peatland restoration action has a cost to society.

“This could be due to several reasons. One is that the delayed restoration might mean that peatlands have less time to build up a healthy cover of peat moss and develop into a healthy ecosystem that can withstand future climate change better.

“The second reason means delaying things means you don’t get the additional benefits of peatland restoration, which include better water quality, better wildlife habitat and the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”

The research explored the economic implications of delaying peatland repair using data from a large survey that asked the public about their willingness to pay for restoration work.

“We conducted what’s called a ‘stated preference’ survey,” said Dr Glenk. “That’s one of the methods that can be used for valuing environmental goods and services that don’t have a market price.”

This involved coming up with hypothetical scenarios for peatland restoration in Scotland and asking people about their willingness to pay for ecosystem repair.

The findings come as the government is coming under increasing pressure to take action on the UK’s degraded peatlands.

The government has pledged to restore 32,700 hectares of peatland every year by 2025. But its own climate advisers say the area of land restored should be more than double that – around 67,000 hectares a year – if the country is to meet its climate goals.

Prof Julia Martin-Ortega, study author and researcher at the University of Leeds, said the findings show that efforts to restore peatlands in the UK should not be postponed.

“Peatland restoration should be a priority,” she said, “The more we delay it, the more we lose, not just in terms of the benefits to the environment, but in monetary terms to society as a whole.”

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