Restoring the world’s depleted peatlands now rather than later would have massive economic benefits to society, according to new research.
A new study has for the first time calculated the monetary costs of delaying restoration of a natural resource that plays a huge environmental role globally, including in reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Researchers investigated how improvements to peatlands that have suffered from drainage, erosion or burning would be beneficial to society. They put a monetary value on the societal benefits of restoration, which includes reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, increased water quality, and improved wildlife habitat.
Focusing on Scotland, where 20% of the surface is peatland, the research concluded that restoration would provide £191m annually of societal benefits for the country if it took place by 2027, rather than between 2039–2050.
Alternatively, if restoration work took place between 2028–2038 rather than 2039–2050, benefits would be reduced, but were still significant, at £116m.
Professor Julia Martin-Ortega, from the University of Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment, is a co-author or the paper, published in Global Environmental Change.
She said: “We should be restoring peatlands now, rather than postponing it.
“As the climate crisis gathers pace, policy makers are deciding on when and how to invest in ecosystem restoration.
“Peatland restoration should be a priority. The more we delay it, the more we lose, not just in terms of the benefits to the environment, but in monetary terms to society as a whole.”
Peatlands, also known as bogs, quags or mires, cover over 400 million hectares globally – 3% of the Earth’s surface.
They store a third of the world’s soil carbon, making them the largest and the most space-effective carbon store of all terrestrial ecosystems. Apart from carbon storage, peatlands provide multiple benefits such as clean water and support for wildlife.
Peatlands have been historically used for fuel, and peatland landscapes have been affected by burning, drainage and forest plantation.
This has resulted in very large parts of peatlands being damaged and their benefits being undermined or threatened.
It is thought that by as early as 2050, the majority of carbon currently stored in UK peatlands will be at risk of loss, and that this risk is aggravated considerably by 2080.
An earlier study showed that restoring peatland generates social benefits, and that these benefits are larger than the costs of the restoration. This new research shows that a very significant amount of those social benefits would be lost if restoration is postponed.
The study was carried out by researchers at the University of Leeds, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), University of Exeter, Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research in Germany, and Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland (BioSS).
Research paper lead author Dr Klaus Glenk, who leads the Sustainable Ecosystems Team at SRUC, said:
“Delaying restoration action may not only result in further ecosystem degradation, but also negatively impact on ecosystem resilience.
“Peatlands with a healthy cover of peat moss are expected to be less susceptible to future climate change.
“This also implies that substantial additional greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate global warming in the long term might be avoided by restoring peatlands earlier rather than later.
“Our study indicates that the enhanced robustness of peatlands against future climate change is an important factor for greater benefits of early, rather than delayed, restoration action.
“Our research shows that the annual allocation of investments within the multi-annual programme has significant consequences for overall benefits.”
Peatlands are being degraded to levels that means they could release more carbon rather than they currently store.
But halting this process would have both environmental and financial benefits, according to the study.
The research ream analysed the benefits of peatlands restoration by 2050, and also by 2080, assuming a hypothetical peatland restoration programme in Scotland.
Restoring now (before 2027) rather than later (2039–2050) would gain an estimated average of £77.76 per household per year in Scotland.
The researchers found that peatland restoration in Scotland in the near future rather than postponing it would lead to a societal benefit of £191 million per year.
Dr Glenk added: “Delaying peatland restoration not only means more carbon loss to the atmosphere, but more economic loss.
“Not only do we need to restore peatlands, but we cannot delay it or we will actually lose out in terms of benefits to society.”
The research is published amid major decisions being taken regarding planned investments in peatland restoration.
In Scotland alone the Scottish Government has since February 2020 committed an investment exceeding £250 million over the next ten years.
The researchers say the global importance of their findings become evident when considering that CO2 emissions from almost all drained peatlands in the world would have to be stopped to achieve climate-neutrality by 2050 as implied by the Paris Agreement.