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Weak ban could leave England’s peatland moors burning during critical climate talks

16 February 2021

  • Environment experts warn that new government regulations have so many caveats that the practice of burning peat – which releases ancient stores of carbon into the atmosphere – could be virtually unchanged.
  • Our peatland moors could be ablaze when world leaders meet in Glasgow for COP-26 climate talks later this year.
  • New polling reveals the public want to see the ban strengthened, and wider peat protections put in place, ahead of global climate talks
  • With the regulations for this ban expected in Parliament soon it is critical that the government addresses these shortcomings now


In a letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment, experts are today warning that the Government’s new partial peat burning ban contains gaping loopholes that could be exploited and could leave the ban almost completely ineffectual.

Around 70% of upland peat will be excluded from the ban [1], with exemptions allowing further burning even in areas ‘protected’ under the ban. Unless remedied, this will mean more CO2 emissions and more damage to peatland ecosystems (which capture around three times as much carbon as all of England’s trees). This leaves the problem of protecting the UK’s biggest carbon sink smouldering on ahead of our leadership of global climate talks. England’s peatlands could potentially be ablaze amid COP26, as it is scheduled in the traditional peat-burning season.

New YouGov research [2] released today by Wildlife and Countryside Link, shows a high public appetite for stronger peat protections:

  • 60% of the British public want to see the Government’s peat burning ban expanded to cover all peatland at risk of being burned, with only 3% opposed
  • 56% also want a ban on the burning of all at risk peatland in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with only 5% opposed

This follows polling from the end of January which revealed that: two-thirds of Brits want promises to protect peatlands included in UK pledges for COP26 (with only 1% opposed).70% want the government to ensure our natural carbon stores, like peat, are healthy and capture as much carbon as possible.

Professor Rosie Hails, Director of Nature and Science at the National Trust said: "This partial ban on burning vegetation on upland peatland is welcome but much of the best habitats for nature and carbon lie outside the existing protected areas where this ban applies. As such it leaves many areas exposed to future burning and fails to deliver the ambition set out in the Government’s 25 year plan. This partial ban fails to reflect the vital role all our peatlands play in tackling the climate and nature crisis and we call on the Prime Minister to expand the ban to other areas and demonstrate the UK's climate and nature leadership this year.

"The National Trust cares for many peatlands and has been working to restore them for years. In places like the Peak District, we have been blocking drains and planting cotton grass, which improves the condition of the peatlands for wildlife like golden plovers or sundew plants, and for people who visit them. Restoring peatlands can also help them to hold more water, protecting historic artefacts and reducing flood risk for communities."

Joan Edwards, Director of Policy, Public Affairs and Marine of The Wildlife Trusts says: “This year, as the UK hosts the global climate conference, COP26, all eyes will be on the UK’s own action to tackle climate change. Our peatlands are a critically important carbon store, often referred to as the UK’s rainforests, and the Government’s own climate advisors say we need to restore all upland peatlands to meet our climate targets. A partial ban on burning peatlands will not achieve this – and it will be extremely embarrassing if our peatlands are still ablaze when the climate conference meets at the end of the year.

“Only around a quarter of the UK’s three million hectares of peatland is in a natural state and, in many cases, it’s being left to voluntary charities to step in. The Wildlife Trusts have restored more peatland than the Government is currently committed to do. The Government needs to show much greater urgency to protect our wildlife and tackle climate change and restoring our peatlands should be top of their to-do list.”

Emma Marsh, RSPB England Director said: "The RSPB agrees wholeheartedly with the recent Government statement that clearly states that the burning of vegetation on blanket bog is damaging to peatland formation and habitat condition. And, further, that it makes it impossible to restore these habitats to their natural state.

"Given the proposed ban relates only to protected sites, a mere 30% of the total area, we fail to see how allowing burning to continue on non-designated sites can be anything other than bad for the climate and bad for nature. We urge the Secretary of State, given that we are in a climate and ecological emergency, to close the identified loopholes and protect all upland peat from burning."

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “Peatlands are rare and amazing habitats that have taken thousands of years to grow and lock away phenomenal stores of carbon, which can then be burnt away overnight. We are glad that the Government has recognised that burning is damaging our most important carbon sink, but concerned that the regulations expected in Parliament soon could fall far short of the action needed.

“We must fix the limits and loopholes in this ban and commit to strong additional peat protections, including banning all sales of peat compost, ahead of the UK’s presidency of the G7 and COP26 talks. A good global deal on climate action depends on us leading by example with decisive domestic action.”

The charities identified a number of serious problems with the announced partial burning ban that need to be addressed:

  • It only applies to upland peatland that is both in SSSIs and the National Site Network (formerly EU-protected sites), this makes up a maximum of 31% of upland peat (blanket bogs) or 8% of all peat in England [1]
  • It also only applies to deep peat over 40cm, excluding shallower sites, and ‘steep’ sites
  • There are a number of very loosely defined exemptions to the ban which will be used as loopholes. In particular the exemption for areas ‘inaccessible to cutting machinery’ could be widely-used to bypass the ban and lead to long legal wrangling, unless tightened

Environment experts are urging the government to widen the ban on peat burning to cover all upland peatland in England, not the 31% outlined in the current ban, and to tighten up loopholes to prevent the widespread bypassing of the ban. It is essential that these flaws in the ban are fixed before regulations for the ban are implemented in law this month.

Conservationists are also calling for wider measures to be announced ahead of COP26, to tackle peat damage caused by intensive farming, forestry and horticulture. These include a complete ban on the sale of peat-based compost in the UK and the rewetting of drained and dried out peat in lowland areas. A Yougov survey last month shows high levels of support for these actions from government, with the strongest levels of support for a peat compost ban among older consumers, who are the biggest purchasers of gardening products. [3]

END

Notes to Editors:

Factfile:

  • Peatlands are the UK’s biggest carbon sink, storing around 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon
  • Globally peat holds twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests (Source UN Environment Programme)
  • Around 80% of the UK's peatland are in poor condition (Source The Wildlife Trusts)
  • Around 260,000 tonnes of CO2 are likely to be released every year from rotational burning on peatlands in England alone (Source: Natural England). Removing this source of CO2 pollution would be equivalent to taking more than 175,000 cars off the road
  • Greenhouse gas emissions from drained or burning peatlands are estimated to amount to up to five percent of all emissions caused by human activity globally – in the range of two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (Source UN Environment Programme)
  • 70% of our drinking water is from peatland river catchments (Source The Wildlife Trusts)
  1. Peatlands cover 11% of England’s land area. (Source Natural England). Total land area of England is 130,279 km2 which = 13,027,900ha 11% = 1,433,069ha. Around 109,043 ha of English upland peatlands (blanket bogs) are in SACs and SPAs in England (104,241ha in SACs and4,802 ha in Bowland SPA – RSPB calculations from JNCC data). So the maximum area protected under the Government's burn ban would be 109,043 hectares. This = 8% of England’s total peatland area.

    Estimates on the extent of upland peat in England vary from 244,536 hectares (ha) according to Natural England, to 355,000 ha according to The Committee on Climate Change and RSPB, with the Great North Bog project team putting the figure significantly higher. The big differences seem to be explained by thinner heather-covered peat soils being wrongly recorded as upland heath, whereas it should be recorded as degraded upland peat.

    If we take the 355,000 ha figure for total upland peatland (blanket bog) area, the 109,043 hectares covered under this ban, (109,043/355,000) is approximately 30.7% of English upland peat. At least 69.3% of upland peatland is excluded from the ban as it is outside protected areas
  2. Wildlife and Countryside Link commissioned You Gov to run GB wide online omnibus polling. In January, total sample size was 1,671 adults. Fieldwork wasundertaken between 22nd - 25th January 2021. In February, total sample size was 1,756 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 10th - 11th February 2021. Both surveys were carried out online. The figures have been weighted and arerepresentative of all GB adults (aged 18+)
  3. In the YouGov survey in January 2021 British consumers wanted to see peat-based compost banned. Only 5% oppose the banning of peat-based compost, with 47% supportive, 22% neither opposed or supportive and 26% unsure. Over 65s are most supportive with almost 6 in 10 (59%) backing a ban (this is important to note as 65-74 year-olds also have the highest spend on gardening products see statista data)

    67% also support encouraging farm and forestry owners to shift from intensive practices that damage peatland areas, with only 2% opposed