Peatlands and Climate Change

Upland heather moorland, Tinto Hill, South Lanarkshire, Scotland. Photo: P. Barratt

The waterlogged nature of peatlands means that they perform vital services, even for people who don’t live near them. Globally, peatlands help mitigate climate change by moving carbon from the atmospheric into storage in the form of peat. On local and regional scales, peatlands also act as sponges and water filters, slowing the flow of water from rainstorms and reducing downstream flood intensity.

Peat consists of partially-decomposed plant remains. Waterlogging slows the rate of decomposition and allows dead plant material to accumulate to form thick depths of peat below the living surface vegetation. Over centuries to millennia, this process has resulted in large amount of carbon being moved from the atmosphere into plant tissues, and stored belowground as peat. As a result, although peat covers just 3% of the Earth’s surface, it is our largest terrestrial carbon store. Peatlands and wetlands cover around 10% of global land-surface and contain about a 1/3 of all the organic carbon on the planet. While healthy peatlands sequester CO2, degraded peatlands are net emitters of CO2. More information can be found here:

Climate change and efforts to drain peatlands (e.g. to improve agricultural or forestry potential) are causing this stored carbon to leak back into the atmosphere, which means that while healthy peatlands sequester CO2, degraded peatlands are net emitters of CO2. 33% of global wetlands have been lost, leading to huge historic and ongoing CO2 emissions, whilst 36% of wetlands and 52% of peatlands globally are considered degraded, which means they are releasing carbon.

In the UK and Ireland, damaging management has taken place for centuries and it is estimated that 80% of UK peatlands are in a damaged or deteriorating state. The main threats to peatlands come from forestry, agriculture, burning, over-grazing, peat extraction and drainage. A similar, worrying trajectory is evident in SE Asia, leading to intensified efforts to understand and conserve currently intact tropical peatlands. Here, planting of palm oil on peatland areas is leading to drainage and major destruction of habitats.

Hand-cut section through a lowland raised peat bog, Sluggan Bog, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. Photo: N. Whitehouse
Mechanical peatland harvesting, Goole Moors, south Yorkshire, UK, 1994. Photo: P.C.Buckland, with permission.

Degraded peatlands have further ecological and economic impacts, putting peat sediment into drinking water sources, impacting water filtration systems, reducing local biodiversity, increasing flood- and landslide-risk and impacting archaeological sites, palaeoecological deposits, and cultural heritage assets. More information may be found below:

Peatlands and carbon emissions

Globally, peatlands contribute about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from the land use sector and about 5.6% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. CO2 emissions from drained peatlands are estimated at 1.3 gigatonnes of CO2 annually. 

The UK contains about 15% of all the peatlands in Europe and about 13% of all the blanket bogs in the world. However, the state of UK peatlands is generally poor, with over 80% of peatlands being degraded. If we lose just 5% of our UK peatlands, this would release carbon equivalent to one year’s worth of UK greenhouse gases from anthropogenic sources. More carbon in the atmosphere causes an increase in global temperatures, encouraging a drier, warmer and more unpredictable climate and further decomposition of peatlands. More information may be found here:

Lowland raised bog peats are some of the most carbon-rich ecosystems in the UK. They are now major sources of carbon, leaking CO2 into the atmosphere and carbon particles into water-courses, rather than storing atmospheric carbon below ground. They have received relatively little policy attention and measures to reduce greenhouse gases through re-wetting and restoration programmes are at fairly early stages. There is also a lack of reliable data on the carbon and greenhouse balance of UK lowland peatlands, which are likely to be major sources of UK greenhouse gases[1]. Lowland peats under intensive agriculture (such as where landscapes have been drained and then reclaimed through the addition of other sediments and fertilisers to render them suitable for agriculture) are probably the UK’s largest land use derived source of carbon emissions but there is currently little reliable information on the extent of the peatlands that are buried beneath reclaimed agricultural landscapes [2]

More information on how activities threaten our carbon-rich peatlands can be found below:


Peatland and wetland restoration are high on the international agenda, particularly in relation to the climate emergency. Across the UK extensive targets for restoration are being set by all governments (national and devolved), exceeding 320,000ha by 2030. Overall, this development is positive due to the potential of restoration to safeguard and enhance biodiversity, ecosystem service provision, and carbon storage/sequestration. However, expansive wetland restoration has implications for the preservation and management of the historic environment of wetlands, which play a key role in their archaeological and palaeoecological importance. 

Policymakers in the natural and cultural heritage sectors need access to reliable and well-contextualised studies and data around restoration to allow them to make informed decisions on heritage management and land-use on behalf of the public. 


Political recognition of these benefits and the scale of the climate threat has generated national and global initiatives to restore damaged peatlands and encourage sensitive management of peatlands. This is welcomed by peatland scientists. However, the focus on carbon tends to side-line other aspects of peatland history and value. The cultural value of peatlands – as heritage, as spaces to rethink our relationship with nature – and the role of peatlands as archives – of environmental and cultural history – are far less prominent in peatland policy and management. Here, we aim to redress that balance by presenting evidence of the historic and cultural value of peatlands, from archaeological, art history, palaeoecological and environmental arts perspectives, and illustrate how peatlands can be used to engage wider communities in debates about the value and future of peatlands through the environmental arts.

Althea Davies, Nicki Whitehouse and Tom Gardner

[1] C. Evans, et al. 2017. Final report on project SP1210: Lowland peatland systems in England and Wales – evaluating greenhouse gas fluxes and carbon balances. Report to Natural England. 

[2] C. Qui et al. 2021 Large historical carbon emissions from cultivated northern peatlands. Science Advances 7: eabf1332.