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Nationalise the Bogs

The degradation of Britain's bogs through drainage means that they currently emit as much CO2 as 140,000 cars every year. These natural wonders shouldn't be exploited for private gain, but protected in the common interest.

With the mainstream climate movement fetishising banning plastic straws or going vegan, the ownership of the UK’s peatlands might seem a bit obscure. However, the state of the UK’s peatland has global implications for climate justice. Peatlands are unique ecosystems formed of partially-decomposed animal and plant matter which can sequester and store CO2 on a massive scale. The UK has a large proportion of the world’s peat—13 percent of the world’s blanket bog—and our peatlands currently store over 3 billion tonnes of carbon, equivalent to all the forests in the UK, Germany and France combined.

An estimated 78 percent of the UK’s peatlands are degrading, meaning that they are spewing out masses of carbon, having been dried out through land management activities – drained for agricultural use, extracted for horticulture, or their heather burnt to maintain grouse moors. Despite peat’s ability to store carbon, this poor state means our peatland are a net source of emissions, releasing an equivalent amount of CO2 to 140,000 cars a year. England is a particularly bad offender; despite containing only one quarter of the UK’s peatland by area, England’s peatlands account for 55 percent of emissions.

If all the carbon held in peatlands were to be oxidised, atmospheric CO2 concentrations would be raised by approximately 75 percent – which would be catastrophic. Unfortunately, the state of our peatlands is currently driving us toward climate barbarism.

The other side of this, of course, is eco-socialism. In a natural state, peatlands are wetland landscapes which can sequester colossal amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere; a hectare of natural peatbog can remove 3.54 tonnes a year, and a near-natural fen 5.44. We know it will require action at a national and international level to tackle the climate crisis, namely a socialist Green New Deal that radically transforms and rapidly decarbonises our economy. However, considering that around 12 percent of the UK is peatland, restoring the entirety of our peat to a natural state could play a pivotal role in reducing the UK’s—and the world’s—carbon emissions.

With our peatlands being hugely significant to global efforts to combat climate change, it’s fair to ask how they have could reached such a point of degradation. As with most aspects of climate change, this is a question of ownership. Through years of intentional mismanagement, pandering to grouse shooters, and receiving millions in public subsidies for doing so, wealthy landowners have been to permitted to drive our peatlands to the brink.

Even where peatlands are under statutory designations, or even within national parks, these are unlikely to be well maintained – with the condition of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) actually being worse within National Parks than without. Again, this comes down to ownership, as a vast proportion of National Parks aren’t even nationally owned – as examples, 90% of the Peak District National Park is privately owned, and Cairngorms National Park is entirely in private hands. The National Trust continue to lease out sections of the Peaks to various grouse shooting companies to further the degradation of our peat.

The Tories routinely say they support a ban on heather burning but have failed to deliver anything resembling this. Instead, they have pursued a series of voluntary agreements asking landowners not to burn. Evidently this has not worked.

It is wholly unacceptable for such globally significant land to remain in destructive private hands. Rather than nicely asking landowners not to use peatlands for shoots, or extract peat for profit, we need to get creative with land use. George Monbiot’s 2019 Land For The Many report suggested introducing community right-to-buy to allow community groups to take back control of land that is being mismanaged to the detriment of local people – such as an intensively managed grouse moor that puts the surrounding area at risk of flooding. This is a well-intentioned solution but unfortunately doesn’t reflect the urgency of the situation we face: we cannot reclaim and rewet peatland on a case-by-case basis.

As Ewan MacColl sang in response to a landowner’s gamekeeper in ‘The Manchester Rambler‘, ‘no man has the right to own mountains any more than the deep ocean bed’. If we are to successfully tackle the climate crisis, we must meet head on the ideologies of private ownership and value extraction which underpin it. For the sake of the climate, the entirety of our peatlands must be brought under public ownership now.