From Issue 2
When people talk about land-based solutions to climate change you might think of planting more trees, but I want to talk to you about a lesser known and important carbon store: peat bogs, wetland ecosystems that also happen to be the most powerful land-based carbon sinks on Earth. What is peat? Peat is formed from a type of moss, specifically sphagnum moss. Over many years as the moss grows, it layers on top of itself and decomposes gradually into peat soil. A peat bog can be up to 8 metres deep and 10,000 years old. It absorbs carbon like a tree but, unlike a tree, which releases its carbon when it dies, peat bogs can lock in carbon forever if left undisturbed.
Peat bogs make up 3% of our earth’s land area. Worldwide, the remaining area of near natural peatland (>3 million km2) contains more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon, representing 42% of all soil carbon, exceeding the carbon stored in all other vegetation types, including the world’s forests. Peat bogs are rare habitats that attract species of insects and birds found nowhere else, such as the Marsh Harrier. These birds hunt the frogs and dragonflies that live in the bog. Marsh Harrier numbers are increasing, but as peat bogs are destroyed, the Marsh Harrier is losing its habitat. If we lose the peat, we lose the Marsh Harriers.
When sphagnum moss dies the carbon created during its lifetime is trapped by the moss on top of it. Not only do peat bogs store carbon forever (unless the bog is damaged), but they store more carbon than trees. For example: in the UK our peat bogs store double the carbon than all of our existing forests, but peat bogs are formed over thousands years and are fragile, vulnerable to human activity, because of it. In Scotland at a place called Strathy Point in 2019 there was a peat fire that took a week to put out. During the time the fire was burning it DOUBLED the whole of Scotland’s carbon emissions.
Scotland’s peat bogs are up to 10,000 years old, created after the last ice-age, but this globally important habitat and incredible carbon store is under threat from human activity. Peat is a common material in compost and as peat is extracted from bogs, carbon is released instead of stored. Peat forms very slowly, growing at a rate of only 1mm per year, which means it would take a 1000 years to make 1m of peat that can be removed in only 30 minutes.
The UK did commit to ban peat sales in compost by 2020. That legislation was decided in 2011, which you would think is some good news in the fight to prevent climate change. Unfortunately, just recently, politicians delayed taking action and now they have kicked the can down the road to 2024. This is very typical behaviour from governments, delaying tough decisions. Doubtless, in 2024 they will delay taking action again. I think we need to better hold our leaders to account. We need to have legislation that requires action in much shorter time periods, within 5 years say, so that they can be made to take responsibility for their decisions before the next election.
What can we do to save our peat bogs? Well, we can all stop using peat based compost in our homes and ask the big commercial growers to use the available alternatives to grow plants and crops. We can demand alternatives to peat based compost from our garden centres. It is now possible to grow greenhouse crops without using soil at all. How amazing is that? We can all raise awareness and campaign for peat. We need everyone to contact their MP’s and political leaders, telling them why peat is so important and why it needs protection. Ask them to ban peat in compost for both commercial and domestic use. Not in 10 or 20 years time, but now.
Let’s see if we can’t hold them accountable and see if we can’t get some real change.