Scotland’s natural capital advantage could be lost unless more ambitious peatland restoration targets are set, according to new research from the University of Stirling.

Scotland’s natural capital – which describes the natural assets that deliver a wide range of services essential for human wellbeing – is three times greater per person, compared to the UK as a whole.

However, this advantage is being undermined by greenhouse gas emissions from degraded peatland, the new study found.

The research revealed that, despite carbon-rich peatlands covering 25% of Scotland, they contribute just two per cent to its natural capital, while emissions from damaged peatlands increase Scotland’s ecological deficit by 40%.

Peatland restoration at the rate currently planned by Scottish Government will only reduce that deficit by seven per cent by 2050.

PhD researcher Nicola Horsburgh, of the division of Biological and Environmental Sciences, said:

“We worked with the Global Footprint Network and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to calculate Scotland’s ‘biocapacity’ – our renewable natural capital of forests, grazing land, crop land and oceans.

"By subtracting our consumption of natural capital from our biocapacity, it is possible to estimate Scotland’s ecological deficit.

“We need a deficit of zero so as not to consume more natural capital than we can renew.

“Peatlands have been steadily locking in carbon since the end of the last ice age. But degraded peatlands release this carbon as greenhouse gases, and we found that this increases Scotland’s ecological deficit by about 40%.

"Peatland restoration at the rate currently planned by Scottish Government will only reduce that deficit by seven per cent by 2050.”

Peatland restoration

However, Horsburgh highlighted that there is reason for optimism – with cost effective restoration options available for most of Scotland’s degraded peatlands.

She said: “Restoring peatland is low-hanging fruit for Scotland’s land use sector.”

The study found that 65% of Scotland’s peatlands could be restored at an average cost of between £2 and £17 per tonne of greenhouse gas saved, over a cost horizon of 60 years.

“The value of the world’s peatlands in the fight against climate change is becoming clear,” added Horsburgh.

“Scotland is leading the way in terms of peatland restoration.

"Yet our figures show we need to go further to make a real difference. Scottish government targets only address 250,000 hectares of the estimated 1.5 million hectares of degraded peatland that we have.”