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Does the government’s long-awaited England Peat Action Plan deliver?

Paul de Zylva, Senior Nature Campaigner at Friends of the Earth, Graeme Willis, Agriculture Lead at CPRE and Jenny Hawley, Policy manager at Plantlife assess the merits of the England Peat Action Plan released today,

May 2021

In January, we published our views on what is essential for the government’s England Peat Action Plan. Today the plan is finally here. After so much anticipation how does it fare against our asks?

The short answer is ‘fairly well’. We’re delighted to welcome most of the announcements made in the Action Plan today, many of which reflect the hard graft by Link members and others over many decades.

However, the Plan stops short of committing to binding targets for the protection and restoration of our peatlands, and the burning of peatlands remains as a loophole. Until proper targets are in place - or hard commitments are made otherwise - and the funding and burning issues are resolved, the job isn’t over.

Below, we assess the criteria we came up with at the start of 2021 against the new Peat Action Plan:

Criteria 1: A ban on horticultural uses of peat, including compost and other growing media

The Government has stated its intention to phase out all amateur uses of peat, such as for gardening and potted plants, by 2024 with other commercial uses of horticultural peat ending by the original date of 2030. This is a major step forward. To start this move, there will be a public consultation this summer.

Two other options outlined alongside a potential ban are a point-of-sale charge on peat sales and reporting by the peat industry of its action to phase out peat. A point-of-sale charge would give strong signals about the harm caused by peat being dug from important habitats simply to put into gardens and window boxes. It could also help stimulate the market for the truly peat-free composts which exist but tend not to get stocked at the most competitive prices. It is unclear whether more reporting would bring about any reduction in peat use.

Both are considerably weaker and less effective than an absolute ban and rapid phase-out. We are heartened that the Government favours a ban on amateur sales, and it must see this through to a total ban throughout the horticulture sector.

Criteria 2: A ban on burning of peatlands as a management practice

Earlier this year, the Government introduced legislation to ban burning on upland peat in protected areas such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. This was a step in the right direction but sites protected by the partial ban only cover about 9 per cent of England’s peatlands, burning remains a threat to most upland peat moorlands.

To stop both the harm to soils and species and the emissions caused by burning on peatlands every year, there must be a total ban.
The Peat Action Plan commits to an eventual phase-out of burning, but without a firm deadline this damaging practice could continue for many years when we need to take climate action now to get on track to reach zero emissions by 2050. More harm to peatlands by burning weakens the UK’s ability to show leadership on climate change.

Criteria 3: Setting clear, coherent and ambitious targets for peatland restoration

The Action Plan recognises the need to restore all upland peat to good condition, and to restore lowland peat ‘where appropriate’ while ensuring the rest is sustainably managed.

The Plan restates the commitment made in the Budget last November for a multi-million pound push to restore 35,000 hectares of England’s degraded peatlands over the next 4 years using the new Nature for Climate Peatland Grant Scheme. That is a very welcome addition to the government’s 2018 allocation of £10 million to restore some 6,500 hectares of upland and lowland peatlands.

We still need to see long term restoration of most of England’s peatlands with the funding commitments to match. The plan stops short of promising binding targets for peatland restoration. Without them, we have no certainty that the concerted action on peatland restoration or sustainable management of all peat soils will happen any time soon.

As with burning, the failure to restore all peatlands allows degraded peat to continue leaking climate changing emissions undermining the UK’s aims to restore nature and cut and store carbon. It also makes it harder for the government to meet its 2018 pledge that all soils would be being sustainably managed by 2030.

Criteria 4: Creating incentives and policies that restore the water table on lowland peatlands and move low-value agriculture to other soils

While the Plan didn’t announce incentives, it does commit to the sustainable management of all peatland soils, stating an important aim to ‘keep peatland wet’, which is positive, and essential because peatlands only function and store carbon if they are wet.

As well as the modest £640 million Nature for Climate Fund, money from the Environmental Land Management (the Sustainable Farming Incentive, Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery schemes) will be a key policy driver of this aim.

The government has asked the Lowland Agriculture Peat Taskforce to make recommendations in 2022 on the sustainable management of lowland peat. We hope this will drive a rapid transition to sustainable economic uses on re-wetted peat soils and we’ll be watching this eagerly.

The emissions from lowland peat dwarf those from the uplands and farming could do so much more for carbon and wildlife, with the right measures in place - this remains an open, unfinished chapter in the journey to sustainable management and restoration.

Criteria 5: Protection of peatlands from inappropriate tree-planting

New guidance will be produced with the Forestry Commission UK to deter the planting of trees on peatland, which we know is a damaging practice. Again, we are yet to see how stringent these guidelines will be, and how effectively they are enforced. It is still not clear that the FC is itself ending the bad practice of planting trees on peatlands.

Additional, spatially targeted, funding for peatland restoration on top of the modest Nature for Climate Fund
Peat restoration takes time and needs long term commitment including proper funding. The lack of certainty about peatland restoration after 2024-5 is an on-going concern.

There is a new Nature for Climate Peatland Grant Scheme, but we will need to know more about the amounts and duration of funding before we can decide if it will match the scale and urgency of need.

Meanwhile, £500 million of the modest £640 million Nature For Climate Fund will go toward the government’s Tree Action Plan which has been launched alongside the Peat Action Plan. The allocation of just £50 million for peatland restoration both highlights how little money there is for proper action when durable ring-fenced funding is needed because restoring damaged peatlands is not a quick fix.

The necessary ongoing funding for peatlands could come from a dedicated fund, a proper share of funds such as the levelling up fund (to create jobs in peatland restoration), funds from the new Environmental Land Management schemes and private investment. We look forward to exploring these with Defra and Treasury.

Criteria 6: Financial support for partnerships and for project planning and preparedness, before capital works begin

Underlining the need to get real about funding, part of the funding needed will be for the actual work of organisations and partnerships restoring peatlands on the ground and investing in the knowledge and skills they have gained from proven peatland restorations. The government will need to factor in funding of these partnerships over time.

Better use of existing data and mapping of peatlands to inform decisions about where and how to invest in their restoration and protection.
This is a really positive part of the Plan. The Government will undertake a country-wide assessment of the extent and condition of all peat soils, including those in protected sites, by 2024.

Better mapping and data will really bolster the understanding of the state of England’s peatlands, and improve evidence for strategic targeting of key areas for action, and for land managers who own or work on peatland, boosting their ability to make better decisions for their land which will be less harmful for nature and climate.

Keeping watch

The long awaited Peat Action Plan goes a fair way to making up for lost time in letting peat sales continue beyond the government’s 2020 phase out date. The plan contains some major commitments in places, with good intentions to secure peatlands’ role as natural habitats, as carbon stores, and for water quality and natural flood protection.
The plan’s gaps and its short term framing means NGOs will need to continue monitoring and pushing the government and its agencies to ensure they and others deliver.

Follow @Love_plants and @JennyHPlantlife, @friends_earth and @pauldezylva and @CPRE

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.