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6 November 2021updated 08 Nov 2021 12:19pm

Craig Bennett: “The peat issue is where I really pull my hair out”

The CEO of the Wildlife Trusts on his frustration with the broken promises that are failing to protect nature.

By Philippa Nuttall

“If we can’t solve an issue like stopping the sale of peat in our garden centres then we have to doubt whether we can tackle global issues.” Saturday 6 November is nature day at Cop26 and Craig Bennett, the CEO of the Wildlife Trusts, is “extraordinarily frustrated” by the total lack of progress on so many issues relating to nature protection and climate change. 

Bennett is no stranger to international climate negotiations. Deemed “one of the UK’s top environmental campaigners” and “the very model of a modern eco-general”, he was previously head of Friends of the Earth in the UK. Today, as head of the Wildlife Trusts, Bennett is in charge of 46 independent conservation charities across the UK which have a combined total of 850,000 members, 2,300 nature reserves and 98,000 football pitches of “wildlife-rich land”. 

Bennett is clear about what needs to happen to stem global heating and the disastrous loss of biodiversity globally. He has a list of demands for governments who are meeting in Glasgow; from stopping the burning of fossil fuels, to restoring peat bogs, to ending fishing boats bottom trawling — the controversial practice of dragging giant nets across the ocean floors that scoop up anything and everything.

None of this is new, and Bennett is concerned that the lack of movement on these issues does not bode well for the likelihood that global leaders will finally step up.

“It is crystal clear we need to raise the impetus and go to the next level on climate action,” says Bennett. “Current commitments are nowhere near enough to stop runaway climate change; we need a much greater level of commitment to stop burning fossil fuels.”

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He also wants more emphasis on the role nature can play in mitigating climate change and in helping people live with the levels of warming we are already experiencing. Forests and healthy soils can all suck carbon emissions out of the atmosphere, while trees can provide cool shelter from soaring temperatures and help stop soil erosion during increasingly frequent downpours. 

Nature-based solutions are on the table in Glasgow today, but Bennett says “the nature and climate crisis are still seen as too separate”. He would like to see governments stumping up more cash to finance nature protection as part of commitments to bring down emissions, but insists “nature is in addition not instead of” actions to slash reliance on fossil fuels. In short, planting trees will not offset emissions from coal, oil and gas.

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At a global level, the lack of action on nature is frightening. The world hasn’t fully met any of the 20 biodiversity targets agreed by governments a decade ago. And while there have been some local successes in bringing back species that were on the brink of disappearing, many issues are also stuck. Peat is a case in point.

“Peat bogs are some of our most important wildlife habitats and biggest carbon stores in the UK,” says Bennett. “Yet, 80 per cent of our peat bogs are in a degraded state and are releasing carbon into the air when they should be sucking carbon out. It is madness.”

Having grown up in the Pennines and spent many a Duke of Edinburgh hike stuck in a peat bog up to my knees, it is hard to hear that almost nothing has changed since I left home 20 years ago.

“Selling peat in garden centres is the same as selling tropical timber in terms of the climate and nature,” says Bennett. “Fisherman bottom trawling is another long-maligned practice that releases carbon into the atmosphere, when the seabed could be a carbon store.” says Bennett. “Protecting sea grass and our coastal habits, supporting farmers to increase the natural generation of woodland, providing a prosperous future for farmers and fishermen, while helping to tackle climate change and not make the situation worse. Surely that’s the way forward?”

For Bennett, the status quo is totally untenable. “It has to change,” he says. “There are extraordinary levels of frustration that all we have is an incremental, incredibly slow pace of change from governments to date.”

But it is the peat issue where “I really pull my hair out,” states Bennet. “Seeing commitments from businesses to get to net-zero emissions by 2040/2050 is all very well and good, but so many retailers have let us down,” he says. Referring to promises made by various retailers ten years ago to phase out the sale of peat. “Now is the time to deliver on issues that have been bubbling around for years and for which there is complete scientific consensus. We need to get on with it and stop talking about it.” The UK government finally announced earlier this year that it will ban the sale of peat, instead of relying on voluntary agreements, by the end of this parliament.

In a timely reminder to leaders and Cop26 negotiators, Bennett adds that this lack of change “is a reminder that just having promises and targets is not enough, we need to see delivery on the ground whether is it on nature or climate policies”.

“Net zero needs to be turned into a target, a strategy, a plan. It is detail and delivery that matters. That is what we need to see coming out loud and clear out,” says Bennett. And, despite the various pledges made in Glasgow this week, he insists that “not enough money is going into putting nature into recovery or is being spent on the climate crisis”.

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