A single wildfire on peatland in Northern Scotland could have released carbon equivalent to six days’ worth of Scotland’s total greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, according to new research.

Analysis for WWF by Ricardo estimates the impact of a wildfire on the scale of the one which burnt for almost six days on part of the Flow Country in May this year.
The Flow Country is estimated to store 400 million tonnes of carbon and is under consideration for World Heritage Site status for its globally-rare type of blanket peatland.

The study used an approach based on International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) methods and estimated that 174,000 tonnes of carbon was lost from the peatland into the atmosphere during the fire.

This figure is the equivalent of 6.2 days of daily average greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland. The fire burned for almost six days in May 2019, across more than 5,000 hectares.

WWF Scotland is now calling for urgent action to protect and restore peatlands, described as “vital carbon stores”, including increased, multi-year funding from the Scottish Government of at least £20 million per year.

“We’re facing twin climate and nature crises. People and nature in the UK are already feeling the impacts of climate change, and we have little time left to act if we are to avoid its worst effects. This analysis puts into stark figures the importance of our peatlands and the huge cost to climate and nature when something goes wrong. Reports suggest that the vegetation is recovering well, at least in some areas, and we’ve had a lucky escape – this fire could have been even more damaging for our atmosphere.

“How we manage and care for our peatlands influences their effect on climate change, as well as fire risk and how the habitat responds, so protecting and restoring peatlands needs to be a vital part of our response to both the climate and nature crises. That’s why we need to see increased, long-term funding for peatland restoration in the next Scottish Government budget.”

WWF Scotland said that the level of climate emissions from peatland wildfires can depend on the severity of the fire and prior condition of the peat. Healthy peatlands in good condition will release around five times less carbon during wildfires, compared to a peat bog that has been drained. More severe fires will leave bare peat, damaging the ability of peatlands to take carbon out the atmosphere, and needing restoration to return the peatland to good health more quickly.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Restoring peatland has an important part to play in delivering the our climate change ambitions. The impact of peatland degradation on climate change cannot be overstated – particularly in Scotland, where around 25% of the country is covered in peat soil. If all of the C02 from that peatland were released then it would be the equivalent of more than 120 years of our emissions being released at once.

“We are committed to delivering the peatland restoration targets set out in the Climate Change Plan. We are currently updating our Climate Change Plan which will set out detailed actions to deliver on our climate change ambitions.

“In addition, as set out in our Programme for Government, with increased temperatures and changes to our weather, there is an increased risk of wildfire in Scotland.
“The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service will develop a wildfires strategy to ensure it can respond to these new and increased risks.”