Saving soggy peat bogs becomes a weapon in the fight against global warming

Scotland's peat bogs recognized for their vital role in storing carbon

As delegates from more than 100 nations haggle over solutions to the climate crisis at the high-stakes COP26 U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, carbon dioxide, a main culprit in global warming, is quietly seeping into the air from a surprising source just a short drive away. As part of our "Eye on Earth" series, Mark Phillips went to the Scottish Highlands to learn about another effort to restore nature, one soggy scoop at a time.

Cairngorm mountains, Scotland — Stories about climate change often require trekking to some remote corner of the planet, usually to discover the latest worrying effect. But as Mark Phillips climbed up through the Scottish Highlands with conservationist Shaila Rao, he was in search of a solution, or at least part of one.

Peat bogs, a type of wetland, have stored carbon dioxide safely underfoot and out of the atmosphere for thousands of years. 

The peaty terrain of the Cairngorm mountains in the Scottish Highlands is a natural carbon sink. CBS/Justine Redman

Much of the landscape in Scotland's picturesque Cairngorm mountains is covered in the soggy peat, a deep layer of swamp vegetation that has decomposed over thousands of years and which, given the weather in the Highlands, never dries out. When it comes to fighting climate change, that's important.

The entire landscape is a giant, natural means of carbon storage. The spongy ground holds onto a vast amount of carbon dioxide and keeps it out of the air.

Peat, it turns out, is much better at sequestering carbon than even trees. Peat bogs make up make up only about 3% of the Earth's land mass, but collectively they store 30% of all land-based carbon. That's twice as much as the world's forests.

"The vegetation is capturing carbon from the atmosphere, but the saturation of the water in the ground and how wet it is doesn't allow any carbon to be lost — it's kind of sealed up," Rao explained to Phillips. "So over time, more and more carbon is sequestered and stored in this habitat."

And the carbon stays there, safely locked away, said Rao, "until what we see here is happening."

What's happening there, as Rao pointed out to Phillips, is vast areas of peat are being lost.

Some is being washed away by increased rainfall. People have also harvested peat from bogs for centuries to use as fuel - the stuff burns like wood logs once it's cut and dried out. Some is collected for use as fertilizer. But huge tracts of peat wetlands have also been drained around the world so the ground can be used for agriculture.

Rao told Phillips that the problem was clear to see right where they were standing — a hillside once covered right up to the top in peat, much of which has been eroded, with the carbon-clutching vegetation washed down through a gully.  

But as peat's value as a "carbon sink" has been increasingly recognized, people have stepped up to try to save it.

Work is underway to protect carbon-capturing peat bog in the Cairngorm mountains in the Scottish Highlands. CBS/Justine Redman

A major project funded by the Scottish government is using mechanical diggers to re-cover exposed areas of bog with wet moss, to keep the peat underneath from drying out and blowing away. Gullies where peat has been washing away are being made shallower and lined with moss, to slow the flow of water down the slopes and hopefully curb the erosion.

Stuart Brooks, of Scottish Heritage, will be trying to convince others at the Glasgow climate change conference just how important peat bog preservation is.

"We find peatlands, wetlands and swamps all over the planet — about 180 countries," he told CBS News. "In North America and South America, and in the tropics, in Southeast Asia and here in Northern Europe as well."

And while countryside like the peatland in the Cairngorms was long considered almost worthless —nothing but windswept bogs — a funny thing has been happening to land values up in the Highlands: There's a boom in soggy real estate.  

As the peat's real value becomes clear, companies have been falling over themselves trying to buy up chunks of the landscape. Scottish brewery BrewDog is among the firms that have been off-setting their carbon footprint by buying up and restoring peatland to earn carbon credits.

"We made the decision to buy the land because it really was about us kind of taking full control of the process," said BrewDog Brand and Marketing Director Lauren Carrol.

She said that going forward, customers will demand beers produced sustainably.

Back on the peat bog, meanwhile, the efforts to save the planet continued, one shovel-full of moss at a time.

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