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Facing the climate emergency with nature's help

It's been a big week for the climate. Extinction Rebellion have been making headlines with their protests in London, the inspirational Greta Thunberg delivered an impassioned and emotional speech to the EU, and David Attenborough’s sobering documentary Climate Change- The Facts, brought the issue of climate breakdown to a more mainstream audience.

At the end of Attenborough’s documentary, he spoke about what we can do to tackle climate breakdown. Of course there are many things individuals can be doing, but, in reality there needs to be a systemic change to make our economy work in a way that enhances rather than damages the natural systems that life depends on. To make such a change in a short time we need decisive political action. We need a Green New Deal.

One of the solutions to climate breakdown would be to work with our natural world, using solutions which have evolved over billions of years to help the planet regulate itself. Planting trees is an obvious one, not cutting down the rainforests is another. But there is one much closer to home, which could have a massive impact on the UK’s fight against climate breakdown.

I am talking about Blanket Bogs, and peatlands in general. In a nut-shell, peatlands are areas where vegetation does not fully decompose and, in the process, creates peat. In the Peak District, the areas of Blanket Bog that form at the top of the moors, and in all likelihood spread much further than we currently think, are formed by decomposing sphagnum moss.

The capacity for the moorlands that we live near to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere is immense. The UKs peatlands store 5.5 billion tons of carbon, compared to 150 million tons stored by UK woodlands. This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because, if we worked to restore these habitats, we could provide the future of humanity with a carbon sink on a massive scale. A curse because, currently, our moorlands are in disarray. A combination of acid rain caused by the Industrial Revolution, unnecessary drainage, and land managed primarily for shooting including so-called ‘controlled burns’, have degraded our moorland to an area which is eroding at up to a metre a year; destroying peat which would have taken over 1000 years to form.

Losing just 5% of the UKs Peatlands would equate to a whole year’s worth of the UK’s current carbon emissions.

So, what can we do? Another of this week’s events was the launch of Rewilding Britain’s campaign to persuade the government to restore nature at a massive scale in order to tackle climate breakdown.

We know that restoring peatlands locks up carbon; it also reduces the risk of flooding downstream, provides cleaner water and provides habitat for some of our most struggling species. Just looking at the results that the RSPB have had at their nearby Dovestone’s Nature Reserve, demonstrates the possibilities; restoring Blanket Bog has resulted in a fantastic increase in breeding wading birds such as Dunlin and Golden Plover.

In the Peak District, Moors for the Future, among other conservation NGO’s, have been carrying out pioneering moorland restoration. Simply put, we need more of this. But we also need to have a few honest conversations. One of the misconceptions about the moors is that it would once have all been trees. Whilst it is undeniable that there would have been a lot more woodland than there is now, it is also undeniable that peatlands form over tens of thousands of years; in fact the first peatlands to form in the UK after the last ice age appeared around the same time as the first forests. This is an important fact to remember when thinking about rewilding and the potential of planting trees to mitigate climate breakdown.

I’m often asked why we shouldn’t just plant the moors with trees: the answer is that, in almost every way, Blanket Bog is more important to preserve biodiversity, carbon capture, flood mitigation and water quality. Remember the fact about the sheer difference in scale between moorland and woodland carbon storage. Remember also that planting trees on areas of degraded Blanket Bog, could accelerate the loss of carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate breakdown.

It is clear that we can work with nature to avoid climate breakdown. We need ambitious leadership, much, much, more funding and, here in the Peak District, we need to start taking our Blanket Bog seriously.

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