climate change

On the eve of COP26, the UK is accused of climate crimes

Heather is set alight on peatlands in the North York Moors National Park for grouse-shooting. Photo credit: Unearthed.

By Anders Lorenzen

As the UK prepares to host COP26, their actions at home could be embarrassing and contradictory at best.

An investigation by Greenpeace UK’s investigative arm, Unearthed, revealed that over one hundred fires have been reported on carbon-rich peatland in Northern England over the course of just four days earlier this month. This is despite a new government ban and the fact that the UK is due to host the major COP26 UN climate summit.

Most of the fires have taken place inside the North York Moors, Peak District and Yorkshire Dales national parks. Wild Moors, which is a campaign group, collected the data and shared it with Unearthed, and has recorded 109 peatland fires as of 10 October which raises questions about the effectiveness of the government ban. The dramatic drone footage captured by Unearthed shows vast smoke clouds rising from moorland in North Yorkshire.

Wild Moors say they’re working on the ground with members of local communities to monitor the ongoing grouse moor burning season. They have revealed that incidents of burning are reported to their monitoring service by eyewitnesses on an almost daily basis. Their investigators also attend moorland locations to log incidents of burning taking place. They are thus able to catalogue the scale, frequency and location of burning on northern England’s peat moors.

UK’s largest carbon sink

Peatland is the UK’s largest natural carbon store on land, ‘locking in’ an estimated 3.2 billion tonnes, as well as providing nesting and feeding grounds for many wading birds and important habitats for rare insects and plants. The fires are deliberately started by landowners to provide younger, more nutritious heather to grouse reared for shooting.

In May last year, the government introduced a ban to curb the controversial practise but it has been widely criticised for being riddled with loopholes. It only applies to areas of deep peat – more than 40cm in depth – that sit within specially protected areas. 

These restrictions mean that only 8% of England’s peatland is subject to the ban.

In July, 105 organisations called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson, ahead of the COP26 climate summit,  to introduce a comprehensive ban on burning vegetation on all peat soils, and on extracting peat for use in compost.

A call for a complete ban on the burning of peatland

Commenting on these tragic and climate-damaging fires, Luke Steele, Executive Director of Wild Moors, said: “The fires have been started by grouse moors landowners on carbon-rich peatlands — an unprecedented increase of five times the number of incidents recorded this time last burning season. It’s illogical to keep this outdated, intensive and environmentally destructive practice afloat for the sake of a cohort of unscrupulous grouse moor owners who can’t break their burning habit. That’s why we’re calling on the Government to introduce an immediate and complete ban on the burning of peatland.” 

Greenpeace UK’s Head of Climate, Kate Blagojevic added: “Just days before the UK is due to host a major climate summit, our largest terrestrial carbon store is on fire. And this is not a natural disaster, but an entirely avoidable one caused by grouse moor owners setting fire to their own land. It’s obvious that the government’s regulations are worse than toothless and completely failed to stop this absurd practice that damages both the climate and wildlife. A comprehensive ban should be introduced immediately along with concrete measures to fully or highly protect at least 30% of our land and seas by 2030. Anything less would be a major embarrassment for the UK government. There are better ways to welcome world leaders to a crucial climate summit than the sight of smoke and flames engulfing our largest carbon store.”

In the run-up to COP26 where the UK has urged other countries to up their ambitions, while at home the country has been embroiled in some embarrassing policy gaffes, which raises the question of just how committed the government is to net-zero.

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