Peatlands are a type of wetlands ecosystem comprised of unrotted plant material. Covering 3% of the earth’s land surface and ranging from a shallow surface layer to more than 8 metres deep, they are the world’s largest carbon store, holding 550 gigatonnes of carbon – 42% of all carbon sequestered in the ground. In Europe, where they are concentrated in the north and east, they hold five times more carbon than forests. Yet public awareness of peat’s environmental importance is much lower than, for example, the level of interest in trees. There is no novel about peat to compare with Richard Powers’ prize-winning 2018 arboreal epic The Overstory.
Activists are desperate to change that. Britain’s huge number of amateur gardeners, whose numbers swelled during the spring lockdown last year and show no signs of falling back, are enthusiastic users of peat – which still makes up around 50% of all growing matter sold. Last week, a group of conservationists and gardeners wrote to the environment secretary, George Eustice, pointing to the failure of a planned voluntary phaseout that was supposed to end garden centre sales of peat compost last year, and called for a ban.
Also supported by the Wildlife Trusts, a ban would force retailers and their suppliers to source alternatives: with bark, wood fire, coir and green compost the main alternatives. With more than 2m cubic metres of peat being used annually in the UK at the last count (in 2018), this is a big gap to fill. But the letter’s author, Prof Dave Goulson, and co-signatories including the Green MP Caroline Lucas, are right to demand action. In a climate emergency such as ours, a permissive “in your own time” approach to ending destructive practices such as peat extraction is reckless. With the government’s voluntary target of 2020 set almost a decade ago, with commercial growers given until 2030, progress has been far too slow.
One traditional objection to ending peat sales has been demolished. While the early alternatives are seen as having put people off, products now on sale equal, and even surpass, peat. There is more work to be done on labelling and certification. A large and prominent “peat-free” hallmark is needed on bags of compost and similar products. Wood fibre and coir (a byproduct of coconut farming) are not environmentally neutral alternatives. Transport emissions and water use must be taken into account, as must cost. Peat is currently cheaper than other products of similar quality, and demand for wood from biomass-energy producers has driven prices up. Investment in recycling to boost the supply of green compost is overdue.
Such technicalities must be taken seriously: the UK horticulture sector is worth £24bn, employs 500,000 people and brings joys to millions. In fact, the popularity of gardening and peat are linked: its use became widespread, along with plastic pots, because it is so light. Old habits die hard. But die they must, as one of the main Irish peat producers decided in January when it announced an end to all harvesting. Now policymakers must follow. Sometimes a nudge is not enough – growers of all kinds need a big push towards greener gardening.