Kira Lomas investigates how the restoration and protection of peatlands is a vital component in the fight against climate change.
Photo by Paul Jarvis
Large empty areas of partially decomposed plant matter are not the first sort of environment most people's minds would go to when imagining the forefront of climate change mitigation. However, recently, more and more research has gone into why this kind of ecosystem, known as peatlands, could be a game-changer in the fight against climate change.
A study conducted in 2015 found that, despite peatlands covering just 3% of Earth’s land, they store more than a third of all the carbon stock contained within the Earth's soil. Given that the peat coverage in the UK is estimated to be 10%, much higher than the global average, we have a particular responsibility to conserve and regenerate our peatlands.
The Current State of UK Peatlands
Currently, 80% of UK peatlands have been damaged or affected to some degree. Usually thriving in wetland environments, peat is a highly effective carbon sink - meaning that it naturally stores carbon and prevents the greenhouse gas from entering our atmosphere. However, when that process is disrupted due to human activities such as agriculture, burning, and draining, peatlands are disturbed and the peat itself is removed, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and contributing to one of the most prominent issues of our time – climate change.
To understand how vulnerable and unappreciated our peatlands are today, it is important to know what they are being used for and how these practices are resulting in their decline. From an agricultural perspective, peatlands are suffering repeatedly due to overgrazing and trampling by high populations of livestock, causing long term damage to the land surface, and thus stunting the thriving and growth of the vegetation. Another negative agricultural impact occurring is drainage, which has several implications like increased risk of flooding and fires, both adding to the overall environmental and socio-ethical costs of maintaining the land.
Peatlands’ Positive Impact
As the threat of climate change becomes more severe, researchers and governments have identified peatlands as ideal targets for stopping emissions, with Scotland being one of the leading countries in championing this environmental effort. Covering more than 20% of the land surface of the country, it is evident that peatlands are a vital part of Scotland's ecosystems.
One prominent expanse of land in Scotland dedicated to the conservation of its peatlands is the Flow Country, with its peat bogs alone storing about 400 million tonnes of carbon – an enormous carbon store that would be disastrous to the planet if it happened to be released. Senior Conservation scientists recognise this peatland as a future component to help fight climate change, emphasising its potential to win world heritage status and become a leading example for peatland management.
Overall, the degradation of peatlands in the UK is triggering an ecological reverse into carbon sources; they are emitting rather than absorbing the earth’s carbon, thus posing a real threat to the UK’s carbon footprint. By understanding the significance of restoring peatlands and the valuable services they provide society, the UK will become a step closer to reaching its target of zero net emissions and ensuring the fight against climate change continues, strengthening our environmental future.
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