A global wetlands expert has called on the Scottish Government to develop peatland restoration as “a new rural industry“.

Hans Schutten, programme head of Climate-smart Land Use at Wetlands International, said: “I believe that this should be a new rural industry and that the government should focus to facilitate that. How do we benefit communities? How do we create more jobs? That’s what Scotland and the Scottish Government should think a little bit more.”

That industry, he said, should be "set up for the people that live in the rural economy", and have, at it's heart, “a different way of looking after our land, in which we can make value for the communities and for the young people that live there”.

Among the ways, he said, UK and Scottish Government should facilitate it, he said, are by "priming the pipeline".

"They can make sure that the training is there. They can make sure that there is a minimum price for carbon. They can make sure that the regulation is there so it’s not too difficult to do.”

Mr Schutten praised the work of Peatland Action, which has already restored around 42,00 hectares of land. 

But, he noted, “That’s not nearly where we need to be. It needs to up the game. It’s really good that Peatland Action kicked it off. They’ve got all the knowledge around how to do it, but I think they are struggling on how do we move it from that to a different order of magnitude. Scotland needs to think about the million hectares that we need to do.”

“I think we need to look beyond nature as an endpoint and think about how it can also support the local economy. That’s where I think things can start moving forward.”

An example he gives of restoration supporting local jobs is a Wetlands International project funded by Stella McCartney Beauty in Wester Ross.

“Stella,” he said, “created a new beauty line and 1% of net value of sales is going towards peatland restoration in Scotland, not because of the carbon but because of the alignment between the product being skincare and peatlands being the skin of the earth.”

The Herald: Hans Schutten, Programme head of Climate-smart Land Use at  Wetlands International

Hans Schutten

That project, delivered by Caledonian Climate, has created local jobs. Mr Schutten said: “The work of the digger drivers is done by young people coming from college and being trained up. The project manager is from the Highlands, the ecologists live within the area, the finance people work from within the area and we’re working there together. You’ve got a situation whereby the money is flowing towards the communities that are actually doing the work, rather than it sitting with people that already have a lot of money.”

But such restoration, done at scale, costs. “The bulk of the money,” he said, “can’t come from government, because they haven’t got the cash. There is not enough money from the purse to go round. It needs to come from private business. You’re talking about 20-50 times what the Scottish government is putting on the table that we need to restore it all.”

One of the reasons it costs so much is, Mr Schutten highlighted, because of the scale of what is involved in terms of work.

“You have people doing the work on the ground, surveyors, the contract with the landowner, and then there’s the need for community benefit. There’s also the design of it, the maintenance. Multiply it up over the area that needs to be restored and you very quickly come to a value that's 20 times what the Scottish government has put on the table.”

The Scottish government has promised £250 million in investment up till 2030.

However, Mr Schutten noted, there are already good foundations in place - the Peatland Code for instance, providing  “a carbon measuring system that is solid scientifically”.

The Scottish Government is also already embedding the idea of community in its nature-based solutions strategy, which, he said, "is not happening everywhere". 

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Private investors, he said, are already knocking on the door. “The money is out there. The businesses want to do this. We just need to make sure that we put in the right framework, the training and maybe a minimum price for carbon. Government needs to put the regulation there and then let it go."  

He is keen that "we don't get the same happening in the UK as happened with Verra", the world's largest carbon credit provider, which, earlier this year, was heavily criticised for providing questionable credits.

"We don’t want," he said, "it to become the Wild West in which the communities don’t benefit and things are not done right.

"What we also need to be most careful about is that the money that comes in doesn’t become a replacement activity for big companies that do not want to decarbonise." 

But, he said, it's also important that the money ends up with the people who are doing the work.

"That is key. That is why I am talking about a new rural industry, whereby the machines need to be sold by somebody, they need to be serviced by somebody. It’s not only the ecologists, the project managers, or the financiers, it’s the surveyors, the designers, the drivers, the whole supply chain, and the aftercare and management. That’s perfectly doable but they can only do that if the amount of money flows in.”