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Could Marshlands Bury Climate Change?

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Peat, also known as turf, is found in bogs or marshlands and is formed from decaying vegetation. The scent of a turf fire reminds me of home, but within the nostalgia of that sweet smoke is a high level of carbon dioxide (CO2). What if peat, something that reminds me of home could save humanity’s home, and help preserve the entire earth? This is what environmentalist scientists are betting on. 

They discovered that peat essentially eats carbon, gobbling it down and storing it deep within marshlands. Trees also take in CO2, breathing it back into our atmosphere as much-needed oxygen, however, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN): “Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store. They store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined.” This makes the absorption ability of peat greatly significant in terms of combatting CO2 emission rates. Now being recognised as the most significant. 

Because of how much carbon peat can store, “Damaged peatlands are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for almost 5% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. Peatland restoration can reduce emissions significantly.

Carbon dioxide can’t go anywhere. Once released it rises and becomes trapped in the Earth’s Ozone layer. These greenhouse gasses continue to heat the Earth with every emission. We have been aware of this for a concerning amount of time, every second of which more gas is released. Peat is the unlikely hero, able to absorb and store this carbon. Restoring peatlands now appears to be as vital as tree planting. As of winter 2021, it was estimated that 15% of peat worldwide has been lost. However, vast amounts of peat still exist and its restoration and expansion should become the central focus when we look at the current climate crisis. 

The IUCN stated that “Countries should include peatland conservation and restoration in their commitments to international agreements, including the Paris Agreement on climate change.”  

The British government announced in October last year a strategy to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Making Britain one of the first places to put a central focus on peat, pledging to spend £1 billion-plus by 2025 on peat restoration and woodland replanting. However, Britain was originally focusing on trees and ended up planting them on the cheapest, easily sought-out land- marshland. The peat would have to be drained to plant those trees, so the government must undo a lot of peat destruction ironically caused by previous attempts at conservation. 

The treatment and restoration of peat, therefore, must be done properly. 

Care-Peat is an Interreg North-West Europe (NWE) project made of twelve partners to reduce emissions and restore different peatlands in North-West Europe. The project involves Belgium, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Care-Peat runs from 2019- 2023 and they are trying techniques to re-wet land and plant sphagnum moss which forms peat over time. Lancashire Wildlife Trust (who are part of the scheme) explain:

 “As this grows and covers the site we will work with Manchester Metropolitan University to monitor greenhouse gas levels to see how quickly the site can be transformed from a carbon emitter to a carbon store.”

Care-Peat expects that by 2023, around 8,137 tonnes of carbon emissions per year will be prevented from losses and stored in the 7 pilot sites. This is quite the expectation and Care-Peat’s aim only reiterates the importance of peat carbon capture, an importance that previously went unknown. 

Lancashire Wildlife Trust concludes that “After 2023 we hope that nature conservation and other organisations all over the North-West Europe region will take forward further measures, resulting in the restoration of many more peatlands – and the more peatlands are restored, the more carbon is saved. In this way, peatlands can become an important natural partner in climate policies across North West Europe.”

As seen with this ‘carbon farming’, the future of farming is preserving the likes of peat so it can thrive, expand and store carbon. England and Wales aim to end the selling of peat for gardening purposes by 2024. If all goes to plan and peat remains a growing priority, the draining, burning and bagging of peat could become a thing of the past. The smoke of turf fires will remain nostalgic in a new way because its time will have come to an end. A new era of fresh-planted sphagnum moss marshes will be welcomed by Earth’s atmosphere, as future, carbon-eating allies.

Peatlands and climate change | IUCN

Care-Peat partnership | The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside (lancswt.org.uk) 

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