Reflections from the COP26 Peatland Pavilion

From the 1st – 12th of November 2021, the first Peatland Pavilion aired in the Blue Zone of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties. I participated through the pavilions online platform amongst 1,704 attendees from over 100 different countries. My initial thoughts of the online platform were that the forum functioned very similarly to the IUCN’s Peatland Programme Conference; this was a relief. As previously stated in these blog series, the online platform used by the IUCN Peatland Program is smooth, efficient, and inviting. For the COP Peatland Pavilion, this was no exception, and may have even ‘topped’ the IUCN’s platform with the comforting introductory bird noises to each session – Might I add that this really made the Peatland Pavilion stand out amongst other thematic pavilions.

45 live-streamed sessions were held at the Peatland Pavilion over the 2-weeks. Whilst I would have relished attending each and every one, I could not put my project on hold for the whole 2-weeks, and so my reflections represent only a few of the sessions from each day. I was overwhelmed with the number of guest speakers present, from Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers, to peatland experts and interested parties. It was heart-warming to witness that the messages individuals, namely Richard Lindsay from the University of East London (who I like to refer to as the Sir David Attenborough of peatland science), have been stressing for decades were truly beginning to influence research disciplines from across the globe. The importance of the globes peatlands were also evident in other research themes, such as the arts and social sciences. It is easy to tunnel vision on how peatlands can be utilised as a nature based solution to the climate crisis with their massive carbon storage capacities. But the COP26 sessions allowed researchers, such as myself, to take a step back and assess the gravity of importance associated with protecting and harnessing the worlds peatlands.

There were a couple of sessions from the Peatland Pavilion which resided closely with my project. The first session was ‘State of Peatland Knowledge – Global Peatlands Assessment & Mapping’ held on Tuesday the 9th of November 2021. Hans Joosten, secretary general of the International Mires and Conservation Group took to the stage and gave an eye opening talk on the most recent mapping efforts in global peatland science. There is no formal definition of peat, or peatland, which has been adopted globally and this makes mapping efforts extremely difficult. For example, northern peatlands are often characterised as 55-65% organic carbon (dry weight basis), while tropical peats may be characterised as 5% organic carbon. If the worlds peat map considered 5% organic carbon, this would represent a massive over-estimate for those areas in the north which classify peat as 55-65% organic carbon. The alternative would be to map the worlds peat considering 55-65% organic carbon, but tropical peat extent would be tremendously under-estimated. Furthermore, peat depth classifications vary across the globe and even in the UK. Scotland classifies its deep peat as ≥50cm, whilst England and Wales classifies its deep peat as ≥30cm. Those tasked with mapping the world’s peat extent do not wish to develop new definitions, and so they have a tough duty of considering all these local classification systems. I look forward to assessing the Peatland Map 2.0 developed by Hans and his team.

The ‘England Peat Action Plan’ delivered on Wednesday the 10th of November 2021 saw MP Rebecca Pow, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State re-announcing DEFRA’s peatland restoration targets which were outlined in May 2021. These included:

  • England to restore 280,000 ha of degraded peatland by 2050 in the efforts for the UK to reach net zero carbon (29Mt of GHG emission reduction).
  • Nature for Climate Fund to support 35,000 ha of peatland restoration by 2025.
  • Bans on peatland burning unless licenced.
  • Bans on planting trees on peat depths ≥30cm.
  • Maps of peatland condition by 2024.
  • Consult banning the sale of peat and peat containing products by the end of this parliament.

England’s Peat Action Plan is ambitious and requires pioneering restoration organisations such as the Moors for the Future Partnership to triple their annual workload. The figures suggested may be possible, but I personally believe further funding must be made available if the targets are to be met in such short timescales. Special consideration needs to be given to the phasing out of peat sales and peat containing products. Peatlands are often found in the rural uplands where they support small local communities. ‘We’, as a discipline, do not want to repeat the actions like those conducted at Bolton Fell Moss, Cumbria where communities felt marginalised by the termination of peat extraction, creating a hostility towards peatland restoration. Plans need to be in place that support communities which will be effected by the peat bans to encourage conservation efforts in the long-term. For example, education and career workshops could be deployed in villages and towns local to industries which are phasing out of the use of peat. Furthermore, I was slightly disappointed to not witness any ‘calibration’/evidence of the targets being met in good time. England’s Peat Action Plan was delivered in May 2021 and I was hopeful to attain some data on the progresses made in the last 6-months which coincided with the targets. This could have potentially contradicted my suspicions of the targets being over-ambitious.

Overall, I would describe the Peatland Pavilion at COP26 as informative, eye-opening, and heart-warming. I especially enjoyed the closing statements given by Mr Richard Lindsay, demonstrating the rollercoaster of a journey it has been to put peatlands ‘on the map’ and for peatlands to have their own pavilion in the blue zone of COP. I look forward to next year’s COP where I expect, hope, and support that another Peatland Pavilion will be present, only this time I aspire to be physically there and sadly missing out on the introductory bird calls!

Peatland Pavilion at COP26.

Published by Jack Brennand

PhD Student at the University of Cumbria.

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