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  • Helena Norman

Peat extraction: a test of Scotland's commitment to climate targets?

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

Multinational corporation ICL, specialising in fertiliser production, high nutrient plant solutions and other horticultural growth optimisation products recently submitted applications to continue peat mining in several sites in Scotland, one of which is near Lanark, and the other in Dumfries and Galloway. ICL requested to extend the mining by a decade, until 2030, on land which has already been mined since the late 1980s. The proposals were opposed by scientists and environmental campaigners amid fears of the contribution to climate change caused by the peat mining activity. Dumfries and Galloway council recorded 51 oppositions to the mining based not only on the environmental issues but also disruptions on a local scale; these ultimately resulted in the applications being rejected.

Peat, found in uniquely formed peatlands, is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter, used in horticultural activities due to its composition of nutrients essential in the optimisation of plant growth. Peat has many ecological benefits, including its ability to store large amounts of carbon. Globally, peatlands store twice as much carbon as all of the world’s forests- as well as being a niche habitat for scarce species. Peatlands have great water storage capabilities which contribute to flood prevention in lowland areas (where peat bogs are often found). And as an archaeological resource, peatlands preserve records of past vegetation, landscapes and artefacts from earlier human civilisation. Unfortunately, since the 1800s, peat has been cultivated, dried and degraded on massive scales for human use, creating fire hazards, disrupting the natural environment and, most worryingly, releasing large amounts of carbon and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Red Moss of Balerno, Edinburgh. Globally, peatlands store twice as much carbon as the world's forests.

Councils taking action, supported and advised by the scientific community, against activities causing carbon release into the atmosphere is a win for the environment and protectors of it, as it demonstrates Scotland’s commitment to meeting the essential, yet achievable target of being carbon zero by 2045, as laid out in the Climate Change (Emissions) act in 2019, spring boarding off the Paris Agreement reached at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The refusal of Dumfries and Galloway council to allow ICL to continue their destructive peat mining activities on Lochwood Moss shows local responsibility in achieving climate goals, and acceptance of the advice given by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, who have stated that sites, such as Lochwood Moss, across Scotland could play a key role in meeting the government’s targets.

ICL responded to the rejection of their application to extend the peat mining with the claim that the impact on carbon levels of continuing to operate at the location would be negligible. Outwardly, ICL appears to be an environmentally conscious company, boasting “progress and plans made to increase [their] contribution to sustainable agriculture through the provision of [their] premium crop nutrition products”. The company is also a member of the “Cool Farm Alliance”, an organisation aiming to enable millions of farmers globally to make more informed on-farm decisions. One of ICL’s top products, polyhalite fertiliser, mined off the coast of North Yorkshire, is apparently a more sustainable alternative fertiliser, due to its unprocessed state and no waste products. However ecological groups have opposed the mining in the North Sea due to the disruption to the marine environment and the unsustainability of the product, which was deposited underground 260 million years ago. The refusal of local government to allow ICL an extension of their mining contract due to environmental concerns has been a moral decision against an environmentally harmful multinational corporation.

Despite this small win for the climate, the Scottish government must not become complacent with their climate targets, and continue to move towards zero carbon emissions by supporting decarbonisation in the public sector, advising on decarbonisation in the private sector, and engaging with international action on climate change.

Image: Scottish Government via Flickr

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