Once a dirty fuel, Shetland nurtures peat's climate superpower
What’s the context?
On the Shetland Islands, where sheep graze on peatlands beneath wind turbines, the race to restore a key carbon sink has begun
The sodden, squelchy hills of Scotland's Shetland Islands feel a world away from Dubai's gleaming "future-centric mini-city" where the United Nations' COP28 climate talks are being held.
But the peatlands blanketing more than half of these remote islands, about 100 miles (161 km) north of mainland Scotland, have a critical yet under-appreciated role to play in the drive to prevent catastrophic global warming.
These bogs act as giant carbon sinks, storing more than twice as much planet-heating carbon dioxide (CO2) as all the world's forests combined, locked in by their colourful patchwork of sphagnum mosses and heathers.
As in many other parts of the world, however, years of drainage for farming and peat harvesting have stripped large swathes of Shetland's bogs bare - many scarred as if gashed by a giant knife and left exposed to the elements.
"All this bare peat is emitting huge amounts of CO2," said Sue White, Peatland ACTION project officer at the Shetland Amenity Trust, as she hiked uphill to a peatland restoration site on the main island of Mainland.
"I wish CO2 had a colour actually because then you would be able to see it all pumping into the atmosphere," she said.
Often known as peat bogs, swamps or marshes, across the planet these waterlogged ecosystems of decaying plant materials store at least 550 gigatonnes of carbon, despite making up just 3% of land. That's around 15 times the world's expected total emissions from fossil fuels in 2023, at 36.8 gigatonnes.
But when peat is damaged or extracted for energy use, it releases sequestered carbon - and peatlands are responsible for almost 5% of CO2 emissions from human activity, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Besides climate protection, peatlands are also critical for preserving biodiversity, ensuring safe drinking water, and reducing flood risks - something which became all too apparent to White in the middle of the night 11 years ago.
After heavy rainfall, swathes of peat slid down the hill above her home, blocking a stream and sending water with chunks of peat "the size of armchairs" flooding into her house.
She lost nearly everything on the ground floor and even her car was washed away.
"For days you could see the peat moving down the hillside," she said. "It was just like gravy."
An ecologist by training, White said the peat slide was the start of her fascination with peatlands - she wanted to understand what had happened and why.
"We're doing something wrong in Shetland if this is the kind of thing that happens," she said.
What is peatland restoration?
For many generations, people on the Shetland Islands, which are closer to Oslo than to London, harvested peat for fuel, cutting rectangular slabs from the dense banks and drying them to burn in their homes.
Tour guide and former councillor Drew Ratter, who grew up on Mainland in the 1950s and 1960s, remembers how hundreds of heavy bags of peat were cut each year.
"That was what you had for your heating, cooking, hot water," he said. "It's a great deal of work."
The practice mostly disappeared after the discovery of oil reserves in the North Sea off Shetland in the 1970s, leading to the construction of one of Europe's biggest oil terminals at Sullom Voe.
The oil industry, as well as offshore gas, brought wealth to the islands, creating well-paid jobs and significant revenues for the Shetland Islands Council through dues paid for the use of harbour facilities and land.
Ratter still occasionally cuts a small amount of peat to keep up the tradition, but he understands the need to restore peat "if any notion of achieving net zero (emissions) is in any way realistic".
Driven by peatland degradation, Shetland's emissions from land use are 334,500 tonnes of CO2 each year - or as much as the annual emissions of 75,000 petrol-powered cars, according to a calculator from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Awareness of the need to reduce emissions from peatland is gradually spreading both here on the islands and further afield.
More than 20% of Scotland is peatland but about 80% of it is damaged. The Scottish government is investing 250 million pounds ($317 million) to restore 250,000 hectares of degraded peat through its Peatland ACTION programme this decade.
Shetlanders, like Steven Johnson, are also playing their part to reverse the damaging trend.
After running a construction business for two decades while managing the family croft, or farm, he founded a small business called Peatland Restoration Services in 2020.
This came after learning about the ecosystem from his then-teenage son, who had taken part in a school volunteering day for moss-planting, organised by White of Peatland ACTION.
That prompted Johnson to take a course in peatland restoration, prepare some projects with White, and rent diggers to get started.
In peatland restoration, diggers "reprofile" the damaged edges of bogs to create a gentler slope that reduces erosion. Dams are also built to hold more rainwater on the hills.
Just a few months earlier, former builder Johnson had been planning to drain his land.
"You're conditioned from when you're young to think about draining things, getting rid of water," he said.
A healthy peat is wet, made up of around 95% water - with some peatlands having a lower solid content than milk, White said. Once a dried-out bog is wet again, restorers plant mosses and other vegetation to protect it.
And in a land famed for its durable Shetland wool, White is even exploring using waste wool from nearby crofters to help hold the bare peat in place. Discarded nets from the local salmon industry are already being used to stabilise peat.
For peat's sake
What is happening in Shetland offers a microcosm of the challenges facing peatland restoration worldwide.
Restoration at scale requires a "paradigm change" in how people interact with peatlands, having been taught for centuries by governments and tradition to drain the land, said Jan Peters, managing director of the Michael Succow Foundation in Germany.
"These were really large drainage campaigns driven by kings and states with huge investments," he explained.
Large state-financed programmes are now needed to incentivise "re-wetting" of these lands, as well as the removal of policies that subsidise damage, he said.
Several innovative projects are underway across northern Europe, including on Scotland's bogs, but more information needs to be shared and the public needs to be educated in a way that connects them to these lands, he added.
Dianna Kopansky, who coordinates the Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI) at the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), said countries including Scotland, Indonesia and Germany have recognised peatlands' role in decarbonising their economies.
The GPI was created after devastating fires in Indonesia in 2015 burnt 2.6 million hectares of forest and peatlands.
It has since supported restoration projects on the archipelago as well as in Peru, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Republic of Congo.
In late 2022, the European Union allocated several hundred million euros from its Just Transition Fund to Finland and Ireland to reduce their reliance on peat for energy - including for electricity generation - and to restore exploited land while providing alternative forms of employment in affected regions.
Nonetheless, very few countries include peatlands in their national climate action plans. An analysis of 147 such plans last year found peatlands were specifically mentioned in just 22, including Britain and Indonesia but not the European Union.
Kopansky wants leaders at the COP28 summit to recognise the importance of peatlands in reducing emissions and adapting to climate change, and to set up a taskforce to create global peatland restoration and protection targets for COP29 next year.
"Peatlands need special attention if we are to have any hope at making the goals set out in the Paris Agreement," she said.
A 'green and meaningful' job
The Peatland ACTION programme, which is run by government agency NatureScot, has set more than 43,000 hectares "on the road to recovery" since 2012.
While significant funding is available for such projects, one of the biggest challenges is getting boots on the ground, which is particularly difficult in these remote islands.
According to data from the Office for National Statistics, the islands have 1.12 jobs per person of working age, compared to 0.85 in Britain as a whole.
To accelerate the programme, NatureScot said it is investing in training for contractors and scheme designers and introducing multi-year grants for large-scale projects, among other things.
Shetland has about a dozen machine operators who can work on peatlands, but Peatland ACTION needs 60 to 70 trained workers to reach its targets on the islands, White said.
People need to be made more aware of the value of these ecosystems that have evolved over thousands of years, she said.
"We talk about 'ancient' woodland, that just makes it sound: whoa, this is really special stuff," she said. "We should be talking about our peatlands like that."
Kopansky from UNEP said that young climate activists, in particular, could be inspired to work in peatland restoration.
"It does need to be pitched as a green and meaningful job for rural youth and people that want to stay in their local neighbourhoods," she said.
Wary farmers want clarity
But as Shetland looks to restore its peatland at scale, experts say sceptical farmers will need to be brought on board.
So far, projects on Shetland are restoring just 250 hectares when they need to be restoring ten times that - about 2,500 hectares per year, said Matt Willmott, conservation officer in Shetland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which has three sites on the island dedicated to peatland restoration.
Willmott, who first travelled to the islands as a teenage birdwatcher, is working on a peatland strategy with White and others, to support targets set by the council to reach net-zero emissions by 2045.
The draft strategy identifies developing relationships with crofters as a priority; this would include explaining the potential for restoration and offering guidance on available grants.
But many Shetland crofters say a lack of clarity from government is holding them back.
Eric Graham raises about 950 breeding ewes and 35 cows on his farm just outside Lerwick, Shetland's biggest town. He has started restoring peat on a small patch of his land with the help of Peatland ACTION's White.
Farmers were historically incentivised to keep as many sheep as possible, he said, due to government subsidies offered per head to encourage food production. This often led to overgrazing of vegetation and the drainage of peatland for their animals.
Over the past few decades, government schemes have paid farmers to reduce the size of their flocks, but some crofters remain reluctant to commit to peatland restoration without guarantees on how many sheep they can keep in the future.
For example, Graham, who rents his land, now has one ewe per hectare but some peatland restoration guidance calls for only one sheep per five hectares, he said.
Following that advice would mean a sharp loss of income.
"I totally accept that we are people that can change things, but we must be compensated accordingly," he said.
Some British peatland restoration is funded by the Peatland Code, a voluntary carbon market certification system run by the IUCN.
But many crofters, like Graham, do not own the land they farm and complex arrangements with owners and other crofters blur the lines of who should benefit from private finance sources like carbon credits.
Moraig Lyall, chair of the Shetland Islands Council's environment and transport committee, said the Scottish government had given "no clear steer" and such issues needed to be ironed out for crofters to commit to restoration - adding that carbon credit projects can entail signing up for 50 or 60 years.
"Giving up something that you've done for generations is not something that it's easy to do, especially if it's not clear how you're then going to replace that income stream," Lyall said.
NatureScot said it is aware of the challenge posed by more complex landowner-tenant relationships and is looking at developing a "practical and fair" model, particularly where private finance is being sought via the Peatland Code.
One of Britain's largest wind farms
It's not just farming that competes with peatland restoration across Shetland's windswept land.
An onshore wind farm called Viking Energy, owned by SSE Renewables, is set to have the largest output in Britain when it is expected to come online in 2024.
Its 103 turbines, each 155 metres high, line the centre of Mainland, with the project taking up 96 hectares.
Critics have accused the project of destroying peatlands and causing CO2 emissions, with efforts to move displaced peat and reinstate it in other areas amounting to putting a steak through a mincer, in the words of councillor Lyall.
But environmental site manager David McGinty said most of the land used by the wind farm was already degraded, and any damage will be mitigated by the restoration work Viking Energy plans to carry out on nearly three times the project area.
While some good peatland is inevitably affected, he said Viking Energy's effort is overseen by an environmental advisory group including experts like White and the RSPB's Willmott.
White noted that the restoration work is "very experimental" and she wondered if the affected areas will recover to become fully functioning bogs again. But she added that the advisory group's ideas were being incorporated into plans.
Meanwhile, the wind farm's upcoming completion could help ease one big challenge for peat restoration: a shortage of digger drivers.
Farmer Graham said workers at Viking could be retrained to help provide the manpower needed to get peatlands back in shape.
While few islanders still question the peat mission, they need more support to take it forward, he added.
"It's about adapting people to what's possible," he said. "Everybody will have to chip in if this thing is going to turn around."
Reporting and Photography: Jack Graham
Editing: Clar Ni Chonghaile and Megan Rowling
Production: Amber Milne
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