What is the difference between carbon offsetting in the form of peatland restoration versus woodland creation?

While woodland creation and peatland restoration share many similarities, there are some key differences that can be easily overlooked. The most fundamental is that woodland creation aims to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, whereas peatland restoration aims to reduce the greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted by degraded peatlands. Understanding this distinction is important as it sheds light on why these activities are beneficial from a carbon emissions perspective.

In woodlands, carbon dioxide is sequestered through photosynthesis and stored in the forest carbon stock. This comprises of the living biomass, soils and litter within a woodland. Carbon dioxide is in turn released through respiration, deforestation and wildfires. By creating new biomass in the form of new woodlands, the net carbon balance will be positive. Thus, woodland creation can be viewed as ‘creating’ a new carbon store.

In drained peatlands, GHGs are emitted when the peat soils are dried out, decompose and shrink. Then, degraded peatlands become a source of GHG emissions rather than a carbon store. Peatland restoration is therefore aimed at reducing the GHGs emitted by the peatlands through re-wetting and re-vegetating - once the peatland is restored to a more ‘natural’ state (where accumulation of organic material exceeds decomposition), it becomes a store for carbon dioxide.

However, it is important to remember that the objective of restoration is reducing emissions, rather than sequestering carbon. Because of this, there is currently limited financial and policy support for peatlands that are in a healthy condition at present. This situation may change in the future, with an indicator of the possible direction of travel being the inclusion of peatland in ‘modified’ condition into the Peatland Code.

By understanding the principles underlying carbon sequestration and emissions avoidance, we can gain a better understanding of how to reduce emissions in other sectors such as the built environment.

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