This post is by Ailis Watt, peat policy officer at The Wildlife Trusts.
In 2019, the UK government was elected on a manifesto commitment to deliver “the most ambitious environment programme of any country on earth”. But its recent announcement on peat has, once again, shown that big business interests triumph against this promise, as well as going against the views of the public.
Peatlands are vital habitats, home to some of the UK’s rarest and most specialised species. They are also our largest terrestrial carbon store, locking up more carbon than the forests of the UK, Germany, and France combined.
Forming at a rate of just 1mm a year, peat is a non-renewable resource. Its extraction for horticulture destroys irreplaceable habitats and releases vast quantities of CO2 to our already warming atmosphere. If the twin crises of nature and climate are to be addressed, the government must change its approach to protecting peatlands.
The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recently outlined its highly anticipated plan to tackle peat use in England’s professional horticulture sector. The government consulted on this last year, with responses gathered from amateur gardeners, NGOs, manufacturers, retailers, growers and peat extractors. In its consultation, the government stated that it aimed to end the use of peat by 2028. Despite finding that 95.5 per cent of respondents favoured the ban on peat and peat-containing products in England, we now learn that the ban for professional uses will not be fully implemented until 2030.
Last August, Defra confirmed that, from 2024, it would be banning the sale of bagged peat compost to amateur gardeners in England. This welcome decision signalled long awaited progress. So it’s bitterly disappointing that it has now opted to delay the end of the horticulture industry’s use of peat, such as for potted plants and growing food like mushrooms.
The government has repeatedly failed to address the issue of peat use within the sector, with failed plans for phaseout dating as far back as 1999.
Defra has signalled its intention to implement a “phased reduction in the use of peat” from 2026, with certain technical exemptions granted until 2030. These exemptions will be offered for the production of young plug plants and mushrooms. However, Defra says these technical exemptions may be extended to other products as “understanding of the technical difficulties improves”.
So, while the sale of some peat-containing products will be prohibited from 2026, the structuring of these exemptions creates scope for continued widespread peat use up to 2030.
According to the 2021 Growing Media Monitor, 143,000m3 of peat is used annually by professional mushroom growers, with a further 124,000m3 used to produce plug plants, for seed sowing and propagation. These exemptions will not be insignificant, equating to the extraction of over one million m3 of peat between 2026-2030.
The UK’s horticulture industry has kicked the can down the road on this issue, asserting that technical barriers prevent the move to peat-free, all the while demonstrating its lack of willingness to overcome them. Prolonging the use of peat by a further seven years will not resolve these technical issues, it will simply entrench the industry’s dependence on it. The government must send a clearer signal that a ban is coming and that the sector must adapt.
Peat protection is vital for nature and the climate
Totally banning the use of peat within horticulture would help to address the twin nature and climate crises. Anything short of this will not reflect the outcomes of Defra’s consultation and will be at odds with the government’s manifesto commitment and its environmental obligations.
Continued peat use is irreconcilable with net zero. It will exacerbate the UK’s status as one of the most nature-depleted countries on the planet. The government is spending over £50 million on peatland restoration projects in England and has repeatedly reiterated how important peatlands are to society and the natural environment. So why would it choose to permit the continued destruction of these irreplaceable habitats for use in horticulture? It reflects a willingness of government to bow to the demands of profit-maximising industry, rather than act in the best interests of its people.
Caving in to the industry on the issue of peat is reflective of the government’s wider failures to live up to its environmental promises. The watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, recently warned that Defra has failed to complete legally-required post-implementation reviews of environmental laws on 40 occasions.
The raft of re-baked policies and strategies that were announced on ‘Energy Security Day’ provides further indication of the government’s lack of ambition when it comes to the environment. Its highly anticipated net zero strategy shifted from ‘Build Back Greener’ to ‘Powering up Britain’, and, alongside the recent Environmental Improvement Plan, failed to specifically outline its contribution to achieving net zero.
Even more recently, the government’s plan to ensure ‘clean and plentiful’ water was mixed at best. While proposals to ban plastic wet wipes, more action on water efficiency and increased investment in chalk stream restoration are welcome, overall the plan lacks coherence and detail.
There must be a step change in the government’s ambitions around our natural environment and the climate. It is not too late, but time is running out.