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Government under increasing pressure to ban burning on England’s peatlands

One year on from government promises to ban peat burning and a year ahead of the UK presidency of the UN Climate Conference, we're urging Government to 'Ban the Burn'

28 October 2020

  • One year on from saying they would ban burning on peatlands, the Government is still prevaricating
  • With one year to go until the UN climate summit, which is being hosted in the UK next year, the Government can demonstrate climate leadership
  • A ban on peat burning would demonstrate real commitment to the PM’s pledge of protecting 30% of the UK’s land for nature by 2030
Today, a group of England’s leading environmental organisations is calling on the Government to do the right thing for people and nature by making good on its repeated promise to ban the practice of deliberate burning on the nation’s valuable peatlands.

Plantlife, CPRE, the countryside charity, Friends of the Earth, National Trust, RSPB, Wildlife and Countryside Link, The Wildlife Trusts and the Soil Association are calling for a burning ban.
The coalition points out that exactly one year ago today plans were announced by the UK Government to introduce a law to ban burning on peatlands.[1]

Rebecca Pow MP, minister at the Department for the Environment, has said that:
“The Government is committed to ceasing rotational burning on blanket bog…The Government will set out its further plans to restore and protect peat in the England Peat Strategy.”[2]

Yet, the organisations say that no such ban has been brought forward and the government’s long-awaited England Peat Strategy is still not forthcoming.
The latest available data (from Natural England in 2010) suggests that up to 260,000 tonnes of CO2 may be released every year from rotational burning on peatlands in England. Removing this source of CO2 pollution would be equivalent to taking more than 175,000 cars off the road. [3]

The coalition also highlights the Prime Minister’s commitment to protect 30% of the UK’s land for nature by 2030, including 400,000 hectares of new land in England. He did this, saying that: “We must act now – right now. We cannot afford dither and delay because biodiversity loss is happening today and it is happening at a frightening rate.”

Dr Pat Thompson, RSPB Senior Policy Officer, said: “We are in a climate and ecological emergency. One year from now, the world will watch on as the UK hosts the United Nations climate conference (COP 26, Nov 1-12, 2021), where all national governments will be expected to present new pledges to cut emissions. To end burning in England’s uplands demonstrates both UK global climate leadership ahead of our COP26 presidency. [4]

“And proper protection of our peatlands must surely be integral to the PM’s stated ambitions on protecting nature. However despite the PM’s call to act right now, peat burning this autumn and winter will continue to harm moorland in multiple National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty which, under the Government’s calculations, would count as being ‘protected for nature’”. [5]

Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology for the National Trust said: “We welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge to protect 30% of land for nature but this ambition is undermined when burning on peatlands is allowed to continue in so many of the country’s protected areas. Burning has a huge impact on peatlands’ ability to support nature, releases their massive carbon stores into the atmosphere and reduces the role they can play in storing water and reducing flood risk. Allowing this type of practice in areas that are meant to be protected for nature contrasts with the UK’s ambition to lead global action on climate change and restoration of nature.

“For the UK to start playing a credible leadership role when it hosts the UN’s climate change talks next year, it must act to protect our peatlands and deliver on Defra’s stated ambition to ban the burning on peat moorlands. The UK’s peatlands hold 20 years’ worth of the UK’s entire annual emissions, and release up to 6% of UK annual emissions every year because of burning and lack of restoration. But right now the UK does not count these emissions in its national greenhouse gas accounts. Not accounting for the emissions escaping from its burning and mismanaged peatlands can’t hide the very real effect they’re having in the atmosphere, making climate stability harder to reach.”

Jenny Hawley, Plantlife’s Policy Manager, said: “It’s simple. Burning peatland – in the full knowledge that it contributes to both climate and biodiversity emergencies – needs to cease. Government assures us that it is committed to a legal ban but a year has gone by with no meaningful action. Only a fortnight ago, Boris Johnson pledged to protect 30% of land for nature by 2030. Let’s start with the exquisite carbon-absorbing carpets of mosses, cotton grasses, sundews and wild flowers such as bog asphodel, cuckooflower and marsh violet that would thrive and support wildlife on healthy peatlands.”

Crispin Truman, Chief Executive of CPRE, the countryside charity, said: “Peatlands are the UK’s rainforests - locking up over three billion tonnes of carbon, they are one of our best natural allies and one of the countryside’s contributions to tackling the climate emergency. But the government continues to turn a blind eye to the regular burning of vast swathes of peatlands. Now is the ideal time for Ministers to say how and when it will deliver an ambitious England Peat Strategy. Continuing to do nothing could leave us with a backdrop of burning heather for next year's COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, undermining the UK’s claims of international leadership. It's time for the government to step up and stamp out peat burning.”

Paul de Zylva, Friends of the Earth’s Nature lead, said: “Letting the nation’s unique peatlands go up in smoke is senseless and makes it harder for ministers to hit their pledges to restore nature, cut flood risk and store carbon to stave off dangerous climate change. Whatever ministers have been told by lobbyists, burning peatlands has no place in credible nature conservation practice. It’s time to ban the burn and invest properly in peatland restoration.”

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “It has been a year since Ministers recognised the need for a legal ban on burning, and now there is just a year to go to stop this destructive practice before the COP26 climate talks. Peatlands are the UK’s largest store of carbon, and wonderful habitats for wildlife. As we press other countries to save the rainforests, and safeguard 30% of land and sea for nature, protecting and restoring our peatlands is fundamental to the government’s credibility.”

Louise Payton, Policy Officer at the Soil Association, said: “The problem of peat emissions is a grave one and in many areas questions remain, such as how do we drastically reduce emissions from lowland peat areas like the Fens where 37% of English vegetables are grown. A ban on burning peat, on the other hand, is a quick win. It is also an extremely obvious one given it contributes not only to our climate crises, but our wildlife crisis too. It is time to stop delaying“

Nikki Williams, Director of Campaigning & Policy at The Wildlife Trusts said “As one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, active destruction of wildlife habitat not only goes against crucial efforts to halt and reverse nature’s decline; it also flies in the face of the ‘green recovery’ from the Covid pandemic that our society rightly demands. We must see an end to the burning of peatlands, now.”


Notes to editors:

  1. column 31WH &32WH

  2. In a 23 October 2019 reply to a written PQ Rebecca Pow said: “The Government is committed to ceasing rotational burning on blanket bog…The Government will set out its further plans to restore and protect peat in the England Peat Strategy.”

  3. In 2010 Natural England concluded that 260,000 tonnes of CO2 is released from rotational burning on England’s upland peatlands into the atmosphere each year. Average new car CO2 emissions are 124.5g/km and the average number of miles travelled per car per annum is 7,400, equivalent to 11910km. 11910x124.5 = 1,482,795g of CO2. This equals 1.48 tonnes of carbon dioxide produced per car per year on average. Peat burning of 260,000tonnes of CO2 / 1.48 = the equivalent CO2 of 175,676 cars.

  4. Burning peatlands is known to have significant environmental impacts on these habitats.

  5. In 2001-2010 deliberate peatland burning occured in 10 National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and in 5 of them at least 35% of the moorland area was burned. This practice has continued in our protected sites, but current figures on which sites permit peat-burning are unavailable. (Contact RSPB to request this evidence).

In 2010 the government announced a voluntary phase out of peat use as a growing medium by 2020:

In 2018 the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan states: “Improving our approach to soil management: by 2030 we want all of England’s soils to be managed sustainably, and we will use natural capital thinking to develop appropriate soil metrics and management approaches.” (page 27) and “We will… Improve soil health, and restore and protect peatlands – this will include developing a soil health index and ending the use of peat in horticulture.” (page 32) The 25 Year Plan has yet to be enshrined in law because of delays to the government’s ‘landmark’ Environment Bill.
In 2019, the Office for National Statistics highlighted the role and value of peatlands, and where their value is not being properly accounted for in decision making:

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