Scottish Government must go further to restore peatlands in pursuit of net zero, study finds

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Peatland Scotland

Scotland’s natural capital advantage could be lost unless more ambitious peatland restoration targets are set, according to new research from the University of Stirling.

Scotland’s natural capital – which describes the natural assets that deliver a wide range of services essential for human wellbeing – is three times greater per person, compared to the UK as a whole. However, this advantage is being undermined by greenhouse gas emissions from degraded peatland, the new study found.

The research revealed that, despite carbon-rich peatlands covering 25% of Scotland, they contribute just two per cent to its natural capital, while emissions from damaged peatlands increase Scotland’s ecological deficit by 40%.

Peatland restoration at the rate currently planned by Scottish Government will only reduce that deficit by seven per cent by 2050.

Nicola Horsburgh

Nicola Horsburgh led the research.

PhD researcher Nicola Horsburgh, of the division of Biological and Environmental Sciences, said: “We worked with the Global Footprint Network and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to calculate Scotland’s ‘biocapacity’ – our renewable natural capital of forests, grazing land, crop land and oceans. By subtracting our consumption of natural capital from our biocapacity, it is possible to estimate Scotland’s ecological deficit.

“We need a deficit of zero so as not to consume more natural capital than we can renew.

“Peatlands have been steadily locking in carbon since the end of the last ice age. But degraded peatlands release this carbon as greenhouse gases, and we found that this increases Scotland’s ecological deficit by about 40%. Peatland restoration at the rate currently planned by Scottish Government will only reduce that deficit by seven per cent by 2050.”

However, Ms Horsburgh highlighted that there is reason for optimism – with cost effective restoration options available for most of Scotland’s degraded peatlands. 

She said: “Restoring peatland is low-hanging fruit for Scotland’s land use sector.”


The study found that 65% of Scotland’s peatlands could be restored at an average cost of between £2 and £17 per tonne of greenhouse gas saved, over a cost horizon of 60 years.

The team evaluated restoration projects with a range of capital and ongoing costs, from upland gulley blocking to the removal of forests on peat. They found average mitigation costs range from £2 to £33 per tonne of greenhouse gas saved. For comparison, tree planting costs between £-7 and £41 per tonne of greenhouse gas saved. Values below £66 are considered cost effective mitigation according to the UK Government’s Green Book for evaluating spending.

“The value of the world’s peatlands in the fight against climate change is becoming clear,” added Ms Horsburgh.

“Scotland is leading the way in terms of peatland restoration. Yet our figures show we need to go further to make a real difference. Scottish Government targets only address 250,000 hectares of the estimated 1.5 million hectares of degraded peatland that we have.”

Professor Andrew Tyler, who is also Scotland’s Hydro Nation Chair, oversaw the research. He said: “These are important findings, which show that peatland restoration offers cost effective greenhouse gas mitigation for Scotland. The research links into other University of Stirling projects, such as the Forth Environmental Resilience Array, which can monitor the environmental benefits of nature-based solutions, such as restoring peatlands.”

The paper, Biocapacity and cost-effectiveness benefits of increased peatland restoration in Scotland, is published in the Journal of Environmental Management.

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