A major scientific review has shown that peatlands release almost as much greenhouse gasses across the UK than are captured by all our woodlands and forests.

In Scotland, peatland emissions are believed to marginally exceed those sequestered by trees.

Dr Rebekka Artz, a key scientist on the review, said: "Scotland has a lot of forest and natural woodlands, but at the moment the peatlands are still offsetting all of that net greenhouse gas emissions uptake by our forestry.”

The review, led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) and supported by Dr Artz and other experts from The James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, has led to an update on how greenhouse gas emissions from peatlands are estimated and a significant expansion of the Peatland Code.

"Around 13 percent of Scotland’s entire territorial emissions," said Dr Artz, "are estimated to come from peatlands. That is an astonishingly high figure.”

Healthy peatlands capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and deposit a small amount of carbon as peat each year. However, around 80% of the UK’s peatlands have been significantly affected by the way they are managed.

The Scottish Government has committed £250 million to peatland restoration – but this is a fraction of what is believed needed to achieve current targets.

This data review stands to be key in enabling the finance to drive forward peatland restoration since it has paved the way for the Peatland Code, the primary mechanism for private funding and generation of carbon credits for peatland restoration, to be aligned with the UK greenhouse gas inventory.

Dr Artz said: “We’re looking at cost of restoration of on average around £1400-1500 per hectare – so the £250 million that Scottish government can put on the table is not going to restore all our damaged peatland. The effort to align the greenhouse gas inventory with the Peatland Code, which is the instrument that enables monetisation of rewetting effort, is a big step forward because it gives landowners and land managers an incentive to restore.”

The IUCN UK Peatland Programme estimates that, across the UK, there is a £560 million gap in the funding needed to restore the UK’s degraded peatlands has been estimated.

Launching the review, Renée Kerkvliet-Hermans, Peatland Code Co-ordinator for the IUCN UK Peatland Programme said: “I am delighted that the availability of fen peatland emissions data through this project has enabled us to expand the Peatland Code to allow a suite of additional lowland fen peat restoration to be enabled through private investment. I expect we will see a lot more restoration projects getting underway as a result of these changes.”

The Herald:

Restored peatland at Forsinard Flows

Scotland has had, from 2018, a target of restoring 20,000 hectares of degraded peatland every year, but it has repeatedly missed those targets.

Last year’s Climate Change Committee report highlighted this failure in Scotland's net zero progress - declaring it "significantly off track". 

Dr Artz observed that while the new estimate for peatland emissions is lower than previously, this is mostly because of new data, not because of any significant reduction through restoration.

She said: “We’re not yet making a major dent through restoration. Uptake has been slow. We need to grow capacity in terms of skills and available pool of machinery. Hopefully, this review will play a part in building a network of interested parties in investing in this and bringing the emissions estimates down."

"There has been some progress but it’s happening very slowly. It’s slow because obviously, the changes take a little while. To restore 100 hectares of land is quite challenging.”

As part of this review, data from a network of monitoring towers were used to calculate the emissions from peatlands and look at how they can be linked to different types of management.

What the data broadly has shown, Dr Artz said, is that “the more heavily productive the land is made the more strongly you see emissions coming out of the peat.”

The most significant of these land management methods in terms of impact is drainage. This is because the lowering of the water table exposes carbon on the surface to oxygen leading to strong net losses. Across Scotland, a million hectares of peatland have been drained, and so far only 75,000 hectares have been restored.