Peatlands are an incredibly important habitat. While only covering 3% of land, globally peatlands account for nearly half the world’s wetlands and store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. In fact, they’re one of the most valuable ecosystems on earth, critical for biodiversity, water management and mitigating climate change. Here’s what you need to know, and why they need to be protected.
What are peatlands
Peatlands are a type of wetland that can be found in almost every country, with the term ‘peatland’ referring to peat soil and the wetland habitat growing on its surface.
Peat is the surface layer of soil that consists of partially decomposed organic matter, most of which is plant material, which has accumulated in conditions that are waterlogged, oxygen-low, highly acidic and nutrient deficient. Peatlands are waterlogged year-round, which create these conditions and slow the process of plant decomposition to the point that these dead plants form peat. This material builds up over millennia, at a rate of around 1 millimetre per year.
Not all peatlands are the same. They can form peat bogs, moors, mosses, swamps and fens. All these landscapes differ, but all require damp conditions. Some peatlands are as deep as 10 metres and have taken thousands of years to form, and new areas are still being discovered today. For example the world’s largest tropical peatland was discovered beneath the forests of the Congo Basin in 2017.
In the UK, peatlands fall into three general categories:
- Blanket bogs: these receive all their water from precipitation. They’re globally rare, but the UK contains 20% of the world’s blanket bogs.
- Raised bogs: habitats that form in low lying areas, especially in floodplains or basins.
- Lowland and Upland Fens: these habitats receive their water from precipitation and groundwater
Peatlands occupy around 12% of the UK’s land area (with 70% of them being found in Scotland) and are the largest component of the UK’s wetland environment. Current estimates suggest that only 20% of the UK’s peatlands remain in a near-natural state. Globally we’ve lost 35% of peatlands since 1970, but countries are increasingly encouraged to include peatland restoration in their commitments.
Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store. Currently covering around 3% of the earth’s solid surface, peatlands store around 33% of the world’s overall carbon, sequestering more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined.
Worldwide, the remaining area of near natural peatland (>3 million km2) contains more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon, representing 42% of all soil carbon and exceeds the carbon stored in all other vegetation types, including the world’s forests. This area sequesters 0.37 gigatonnes of CO2 a year.
At the same time, damaged/drained peatlands contribute to the release of almost 6% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Restoring peatlands, therefore, can dramatically reduce emissions.
In the UK, losing just 5% of UK peatland carbon would be equivalent to the UK’s entire annual greenhouse gas emissions. Peatland protection is vital to achieving net-zero targets, as a 10-metre deep fenland peat bog can store eight times as much carbon as the equivalent area of tropical rainforest. Restoring and protecting peatland, therefore, is vital to a decarbonised future and can help remove excess carbon from the atmosphere.
In their natural, wet state peatlands provide vital ecosystem services. Peat holds up to 20 times its own weight in water, regulating water flow to reduce risks of both flooding and drought, while also acting as a natural form of water purification. When peatlands do release water it is cleaner because peat acts as a filter; 70% of UK drinking water is sourced from peatlands, with those in good condition supplying high-quality water that requires minimal treatment before entering the drinking water supply.
Draining peatlands, on the other hand, reduces the quality of drinking water due to dissolved organic carbon being released into the water. Removing this organic carbon is costly for water companies, and they are now realising they restored peatlands will help them avoid having to clean and purify water so much.
Peatlands are also vital habitats and biodiversity hotspots. Few plant and animal species live in wetlands because they are nutrient-poor, acidic and wet, so those that do are highly specialised and dependent on the specific conditions of this habitat. Damage to peatlands also results in biodiversity loss. The decline of the Bornean Orangutan population by 60% in 60 years is largely attributed to the loss of peatland habitat.
To perform these critical functions, peat must be wet. Unfortunately, for centuries, peatlands have been cultivated, drained and degraded. Dry peat is easily eroded and washed away, releases emissions, and is a fire hazard.
The problems facing peatlands
Around the world, a lack of awareness of their benefits has led to peatlands being damaged or destroyed by extraction, drainage, agricultural conversion, commercial forestry, peat extraction, burning, mining for fuel, infrastructure development, overexploitation and the effects of global heating. Around 15% of the global peatlands have been drained, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases.
In the UK, where peatlands currently store more than 3 billion tonnes of carbon, 94% of lowland peatlands have already been damaged. Huge swathes are dug up for garden compost, 7% are drained for cropland and the destructive practice of burning of grouse moorlands is still prevalent. This burning is said to regenerate plants for grouse reared for shooting, but studies show it merely dries out soil, degrades natural conditions, releases emissions and leads to more floodwaters flowing downstream instead of being retained safely on the peat moors. Drained peats also waste at a rate of between 10-30 mm a year, at least 10 times as fast as peat formation.
This results in UK peatlands emitting between 18.5 and 23 million tonnes of CO2 annually, which is around 5% of the UK’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. From 2021, peatland emissions will now be included in the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory.
The issues of peat and gardening
Peat is on sale in garden centres, DIY stores, supermarkets and online. In the UK it’s a £5 billion business, as its water-retaining properties and consistency make peat versatile and convenient for growing needs. Most peat that ends up sold to UK gardeners comes from raised peat bogs in low-lying areas, with amateur gardening accounting for 69% of peat compost used in the UK.
Public concern and campaigning led to peat use declining significantly between 1999 and 2009. Around 700,000 tonnes a year is produced in the UK (32%), but campaigning has led to demand now being met by imports from Ireland (60%) and Europe (8%). This hasn’t removed the problem, instead shifting it to other countries where peat should also be protected.
While voluntary targets set by the UK government in 2011 failed to phase out peat use, campaigning has continues. The Office for National Statistics estimated the monetary benefit, based only on greenhouse gas emissions, for restoring 55% of the UK’s peatlands to a good state to at least £45-51 billion over the next century.
What can be done
Urgent action is needed to protect peatlands, and restore the waterlogged conditions required for peat formation, to prevent the release of carbon stored in peat soil. Across the globe, Southeast Asia’s ASEAN Peatland Forests Project supports peatland restoration and reducing fire risks, and The European Union’s LIFE funding has assisted over 260 peatland restoration projects, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has presented 10 strategic actions to protect peatlands. An overarching theme in all these projects is the need to understand peatlands are just as important as forests for our planet.
In the UK, a coalition of organisations, including the RSPB and Friends of the Earth, called on government and industry to replace peat use in gardening and protect peatlands, with many organisations already showing its feasibility. 97% of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)’s gardens are peat-free, while many of the National Trust’s gardens have been peat-free for years.
In 2021 it was announced that garden centres in the UK will be banned from selling peat compost by 2024, with £50m given to support the restoration of 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025.
However, before 2024, this is a very tangible area where consumer choice matters. There are already many alternatives to using peat for gardening: the RHS has advice on what to look for in peat-free alternatives, and multiple peat-free composts have been awarded best buy status by consumer magazine Which?
What you can do (from Friends of the Earth and Plantlife):
- Avoid peat in all forms – bagged compost, in potted plants and other pre-prepared plants and horticultural products.
- Go peat-free – if products don’t say they’re peat-free they won’t be. They will contain peat even if they are labelled as reduced peat.
- Always check wording such as ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘organic’, as they do not necessarily mean peat-free
- Promote peat-free to friends, family, neighbours and community contacts.
- Tell your local retailer to stock and promote peat-free choices, to help all of their customers to go peat-free permanently.
- Cut costs by turning your own kitchen and garden waste into compost. Or contribute these to local compost collections.
- Ask your local retailers to stock and promote more peat-free choices, to make it easier for consumers to go peat-free (if these are national companies, please also email or write to their headquarters)
- Write to your MP to raise concern about the need for more urgent action by the government and industry
- Support organisations that are pushing for peat-free horticulture
Together we can make a difference, protect these vital habitats, and return carbon to the ground where it belongs.