Scotland has got stuck in the bog.

Year after recent year, it has been the same story of missed targets on the important process of peatland restoration. We know that 80 percent of our peatland is degraded or damaged.

We also know, according to a 2020 RSPB report they release the equivalent of “5% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions every year – more than the annual emission from all HGVs on UK roads.” Yet still there is no momentum. Inertia appears to have us in its grip. It’s as if we set out on some ambitious peatland journey, and have found ourselves sinking into the moss, feet wet and dragging.

Last year, for the fourth consecutive year, the Scottish Government’s target of 20,000 hectares of peatland restored annually was missed by an embarrassingly wide margin. According to official government figures less than half the target was restored, at 8,000 hectares.

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That figure seemed bad enough – but then, news emerged last week, published by The Ferret, that the true figures were even less. Only a little more than a quarter of the stated goal, just 5,630 hectares, had been restored. That figure should be a source of shame and concern. Yet it has sunk into the bog of missed targets with relatively little fanfare.

Our peatland failure, however, hasn’t gone unnoticed by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), which when it delivered its progress report on Scotland’s net zero plan earlier this year, highlighted the issue. “Scotland,” the report declared, “is still not delivering on key milestones such as energy efficiency in homes and peatland restoration.”

On peatland, it said, we were “significantly off track” – by comparison, say, with afforestation, on which we are only “slightly off track”. We might like to make our excuses. We might like to look at peatland as its own special case, with unique challenges, but it also fits into a pattern of targets not met. Each goal has its own set of issues.

With peatland, what most experts cite as holding us back is lack of machinery and contractors. Even the CCC blames “barriers such as skills shortages and contractor availability.” The recent Ferret article also quoted an expert who cited “unwillingness of some landowners to let the work take place on their estates”.

But also key in any large scale transformation like this is determination and drive – and that still seems to be missing. People aren’t obsessing over damming peat drains in the way that they are over planting trees.

That lack of necessary drive is apparent in the fact that there is still no ban on the sale of peat-based compost in Scotland, though in England it will be banned in horticultural outlets from 2024. Though the SNP’s 2021 manifesto included a commitment to such a ban, no proposals have yet been brought forward.

But the other thing about peatland restoration is that on this, the Scottish Government is not, as it is in many areas relating to climate, “ambitious”. Rather its targets are relatively small compared to what the Climate Change Committee deems necessary, less than half their recommended 45,000 hectares per year. The CCC is right to be that ambitious.

Consider this Tweet, published by the RSPB in 2020: “If restoration efforts are not substantially increased across the four countries of the UK, then degraded peatlands will emit twice as much carbon as tree planting could capture if the Committee on Climate Change’s UK forestry targets aims were met.”

Famously, a tenth of the world’s blanket bog is in Scotland. 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon are stored within our peatland, the equivalent, it has been calculated of 140 years’ worth of Scotland’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. What we are talking about here is not so much a carbon capture facility, but an emissions reduction necessity. There has, in recent years, been progress on many levels.

We now have, in Scotland, our first Peatland Assessment and Restoration course. We have a government that talks about working with “partners to increase private sector investment in peatland restoration via the Peatland Code” (a certifying system giving credits for emissions avoidance). We have a bid to make the Flow Country into a UNESCO world heritage site.

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We have also heard the stories of the great land rush, of private landholders and investors jumping on the opportunity to see, as a New York Times piece last year observed, 80 percent of their outlays on peatlands reimbursed by the government, then go on to profit in carbon-credit sales.

“In effect,” the article declared, “Scotland has said: 'Bill us for the digging, and keep all the gold you can mine.'” That gift of free gold can seem an outrage. But so does our lack of progress – and the figures say it all. When it comes to peat, we are caught in the slough. We can’t afford to stay here and sink.