Stacked peat turf in Connemara. Photo: Tim Graham/Rex
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Getting bogged down: why we all need to fight the peat wars

94 percent of our peat bogs have been destroyed. Saving them is a vital step in securing our planet's future.

Late last year, under cover of Christmas, the Scottish government continued its push to locate 103 large wind turbines on precious peatlands in Shetland. No climate scientist in the world would advocate the opening up of peatland for any purpose at all – peat bogs sequester four times as much carbon as forests – but with a small environmental group, Sustainable Shetland, pitted against a large development company and its own government, many fear that this project could go ahead.

Windfarms are regarded by many – especially deep ecologists – as a dubious source of energy (being intermittent, they must be backed up by fossil fuels, which suits the energy companies very well). We have known for decades that the destruction of peatland leads not only to habitat loss, but also to the release of vast quantities of greenhouse gases. In Britain, this is a huge problem: 94 per cent of our raised peat bogs have been destroyed over the past few centuries, first for agricultural and forestry “improvements”, then to supply the garden trade – even though good alternatives are easily available.

As the researchers William J Sutherland and John D Reynolds noted in 1997, “If developed countries are unable to protect such an important habitat from such a trivial threat, then one wonders how we can solve more pressing problems of exploitation elsewhere.”

Worldwide, enormous areas of peatland are still being lost to agricultural development, drainage schemes, overgrazing, and exploitation-based infrastructure development projects such as roads, electricity pylons, telephone masts and gas pipelines.

All this might be forgivable if we did not, like gardeners, have viable alternatives to the destruction. From a climate viewpoint, we know that any further disturbance of peatlands must be avoided: an estimated two billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions is reported annually. So why do we continue to locate windfarms on wild peatland – and why did the Royal Horticultural Society have to repeat its warning, just months ago, that gardeners were still piling up significant amounts of peat in their potting sheds?

One reason, clearly, is that our politicians simply do not have the will to act, because their electoral campaigns and post-government executive careers are underwritten by some of the worst polluters and resource pirates on the planet. Some of our NGOs are in the same boat; infiltrated by moneymen and lobbyists playing to entrenched ideological positions, many have lost sight of their original purpose. All of which goes to underline what many of us already suspect: that it is up to us citizens to intervene – not as voters, but as consumers.

The very designation we resist most is the key to our power. Besides boycotts of environmentally destructive products (eating less meat and processed foods would slow forest and peatland destruction), we can learn to love the dark and switch off the superfluous lighting that surrounds us, returning (as Jun’ichiro Tanizaki outlines in his celebrated essay “In Praise of Shadows”), to the special pleasures of a less glaring world.

If we could learn to enjoy a less floodlit, less air-conditioned, less overheated world, we could prevent the further loss of peatlands to the highly suspect fossil-fuel/wind-turbine paradigm, and a few improvements to our diet would slow the losses to industrial agriculture. Meanwhile, we could do even more good as we cultivate our (organic, bee-friendly) gardens, by withdrawing consumer support from those corporations that, in spite of the warnings of the past 20 years, continue to supply peat products that degrade the thing gardeners are supposed to love most: the natural world. 

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.