For Peat’s Sake – Let’s Get On With It

By Ciara Shannon

Understandably during the first Covid lockdown, Small World Consulting’s Carbon Baseline for Cumbria 2020 report got buried under other news. However, the report’s recommendation that Cumbria becomes Net-Zero by 2037 now deserves some attention.

While Net-Zero by 2037 is an ambitious target – the big solution for Cumbria will come from a massive 400% increase from the sing song sounding ‘LULUCF’ (Land Use and Land Use Change and Forestry) and their net negative emissions.

Surging to a 400% increase in just seventeen years, will mean a substantial rise in land management actions such as peatland restoration, scrub creation, woodland creation and haymeadow restoration etc.

The report also suggests that Cumbria needs to reduce its energy C02 emissions in 2037 by 13% annually; 5% annual reduction in food and other purchased goods emissions and a 10% annual reduction in visitor travel per visitor day emissions.

Source: Cumbria Carbon Baseline Report, 2020. Recommended pathways to Net Zero for Cumbria by 2037

Visitors aside, another key issue the report identifies is that on a per capita basis, Eden residents have the highest production-based transport footprint. But it’s not just them – Cumbrian’s drive around 20% more than the UK average and this is probably a reflection of the unaffordable public transport options and the poor rural coverage here. We need many more EV infrastructure facilities, buses running regularly and going to more rural areas, electrified trains, and far more cycling lanes.

But back to peat. Damaged peatlands are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, but when they are fully-functioning and protected, they also sequester (remove) carbon and they are one of the UK’s largest carbon stores. They also help with reducing the risk of flooding, improve water quality and act as a fantastic host to all sorts of ecosystems.

Peat, while not as glamorous as say carbon woodland management, makes up about 11% of land area in the UK and about 22.9 million tonnes of carbon is stored in the Lake District’s peatlands – equivalent to 84 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.1

Quite rightly then, peat and other LULUCF projects should be regarded as shiny jewels in Cumbria’s crown in its fight against climate change.

There are various peatbog restoration projects already underway. Bampton Commons, Bolton Fell Moss, Wedholme Flow, Roudsea Wood and Mosses National Nature Reserve etc. These and other projects are creating large carbon savings with the highest savings coming from restoring severely degraded peats. However, there are many sites in a very poor state and additional funding is needed to stop further carbon loss and water pollution.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is bampton-common-img_20200122_115846_0-1.jpg
Bampton Commons Peatland Restoration. Photo Credit: Cumbria Wildlife Trust

Peatland restoration received a funding boost in the UK March Budget 2020 and it’s positive that nature-based solutions are rising up climate policy and financing agendas. [How much of the March funding will go /has already gone to Cumbria I have no idea].

For useful reading on this, see the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) recent report that sets out how farming and land use must change to include planting around 30,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland and restoring at least 50% of upland peat and 25% of lowland peat.

Increased success will come, in part, by incentivising landowners and farmers to make the switch to carbon farming and some carbon farming payment tests and trials have already started in the UK as part of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) Scheme payment for “public goods”. ELMS is seen as a real opportunity to tackle the 12 per cent of UK emissions that come from agriculture and land use. 

While peat restoration and other LULUCF projects are very important solutions to help remove and store carbon – it is also important to consider the transition period to ELMs and the complexity of the measuring and managing. Plus, the extensive stakeholder engagement to get the incentives and payments right and the funding flowing.

These points and others could well make it tricky for Cumbria to reach the proposed 400% LULUCF target by 2037. That said, the NFU have set a Net-Zero target by 2040 and you can read about it here.

At the same time, it is important to continue to ramp up efforts to reduce and replace fossil fuel use. Counter to this, and indeed contradictory to the UK’s Net-Zero by 2050 target – is the proposed deep coal mine at Woodhouse Colliery near Whitehaven. While a decision is currently postponed, if it happens it would generate around 8.4 MtCO2e per year (calculated using emissions factors from BEIS, 2017).

This is several times higher than the GHG footprint of all Cumbrian’s 2 and would throw everyone into an ever steeper emission slashing battle.

So far, this project has been justified by Cumbria County Council based on the 500 jobs it would create, “We felt that the need for coking coal, the number of jobs on offer and the chance to remove contamination, outweighed concerns about climate.

This is true – the need for jobs is undeniable, but it is not a stretch to wonder why 500 people from the area can’t be retrained and employed instead in renewables? Just 8 miles or so from Whitehaven there are plans swirling around for a full-scale tidal lagoon on the coast near Workington. This is potentially a very exciting project and capitalises on the fact that West Cumbria’s coast has one of the UK’s highest tidal ranges. 3

The Walney wind farm. Photo credit: BBC News, PA

As we know, offshore wind is doing brilliantly well and off the coast of Cumbria is one of the world’s largest operational offshore wind farm, the Walney Extension generating clean electricity for nearly 600,000 homes. Also being discussed is the (apparently controversial) proposed plans for an even bigger wind farm – by Copeland Council nuclear and energy committee.

Then of course, there is the rain and Cumbria’s great bounty of fast flowing water. Hydro, hydro and more of it will also make a positive difference and it is good to read about hydro projects at Logan Gill, Hause Gill and Hayeswater etc. You can read about Cumbria’s considerable potential to deliver on all things renewable energy here.

I would be interested to know how Council members consider stakeholder opinions. Do they use some sort of weighted matrix to quantify and calculate stakeholder concerns on things like visual impact and more – versus meeting the UK Net Zero target by 2050 and benefits to the local community and economy?

What is needed now is that all of this good work is pieced together in a Net-Zero Strategy for Cumbria and Mike Berners-Lee’s recommendation for Net-Zero by 2037 are discussed widely. Alongside this, there should be a ‘Just Transition’ Strategy that maximises the opportunities of decarbonisation, while giving workers and communities a voice to help make the transition to a greener economy a fair and far-reaching one.

Ps: I first looked into and wrote about peat and other negative emissions technologies (NETs) in 2014/5 for the Royal Geographical Society, HK and you can read it here.

I’ve also written a paper on how Cumbria could raise local funding to pay for local peat restoration projects and sent this to a few organisations for them to take the ideas and run with them.

Image Credit: Yorkshire Wildlife Trust