uk peatlands

UK urged to restore peatlands for their carbon-absorbing properties

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The UK needs to protect and restore its carbon-rich peatlands or risk undermining efforts to tackle its carbon emissions, a report has warned.

The study from Bangor University finds that not only are nature-based solutions to climate change effective, but they can also help to enhance biodiversity, improve human wellbeing and bring economic benefits.

It identified the restoration of the UK’s 2.6 million hectares of peatlands as a priority as they contain around 3 billion tonnes of carbon, but most are in a degraded state and are no longer actively sequestering carbon.

Estimates suggest they could be emitting up to 23 million tonnes of CO2 annually, equivalent to approximately half the amount released through the nation’s agricultural sector.

Restoring degraded peatlands through rewetting and revegetation can reduce and eventually halt these emissions as well as bring benefits in terms of biodiversity conservation and flood protection, the report found.

That could involve a switch to 'wet farming', which would see farmers growing different crops that thrive in waterlogged soils, halting and reversing peat drainage, and ending the burning of blanket bogs to protect the carbon-storing habitats.

“Peatlands are nature’s superstars.” said lead author Dr Christian Dunn of Bangor University.

“If we’re serious about carbon in UK we have to look after our peatlands first. We have to stop draining them immediately, and then begin restoring and managing them effectively.”

Restoring UK woodlands could also have a significant impact on sequestering additional carbon, although the full benefits would not be felt before 2050, the report states. Reducing flood risk, providing shade and cooling, and biodiversity benefits from native woodland expansion are also highlighted as positive outcomes.

Last month, the Woodland Trust warned that the UK’s woodlands, which are a vital carbon sink, are being threatened by numerous environmental factors including climate impacts, imported diseases, invasive plants, mammal browsing and air pollutants.

Professor David Coomes of University of Cambridge and lead author of the Woodlands Chapter said: “For large-scale tree planting to be effective in capturing carbon, we will need to avoid species-rich grasslands, peat and other organic soils. Our focus should instead be on areas of low-quality grassland.

“However, this will reduce the UK’s capacity to produce meat and dairy, meaning a shift in our diets would be needed to avoid importing more of these products and offshoring our carbon footprint elsewhere.”

The report also found that marine environments can offer significant carbon mitigation thanks to the large size of habitats. Saltmarshes and seagrasses are important carbon sinks, and their restoration can contribute to climate mitigation. Saltmarshes also provide coastal protection from sea-level rise and storms and provide high-biodiversity coastal habitats, especially for bird species.

Professor Jane Memmott, president of the British Ecological Society, said: “The Nature-based Solutions report offers a real basis for setting effective policies and incentives that will maximise the benefits of nature-based solutions in the UK for the climate and biodiversity.”

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