Bog off: is the end of peat burning too little, too late?
When the semi-state company that harvests Ireland’s peatlands recently announced the closure of 17 bogs, the news was greeted as the end of an era. Turning the soggy landscape that covers much of Ireland’s midlands into a fuel source had been a great national project, an ambitious undertaking launched by the republic’s founding fathers in the 1930s. Draining and cutting hundreds of thousands of hectares of turf on an industrial scale generated desperately needed jobs and reduced dependence on oil imports for almost a century.
So there was some nostalgia in October when Bord na Móna, the peat-harvesting company, announced it was closing 17 of its “active bogs” and would close the remaining 45 within seven years. Nostalgia but also acceptance, given the growing awareness that harvesting peat emits greenhouse gases. “Decarbonisation is the biggest challenge facing this planet,” said Tom Donnellan, the company’s chief executive.
The announcement followed promises by the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, to make Ireland a global leader in protecting the planet, backed by a €22bn ($24.8bn) government plan for climate action. A progressive force on social issues, Ireland would also become a beacon for the environment.
The problem, according to environmentalists and academics, is that it is all hot air. Renouncing bog harvesting, they say, is too little, too late – a false solace because the ravaged peatlands will continue to emit greenhouse gases. And the government’s climate leadership pledge, they say, does not cancel out a dismal environmental record that has left Ireland potentially facing up to €600m in fines for missing emissions targets.
As an environmental policy goal, ending the burning of peat should have been “low-hanging fruit”, said Tony Lowes, the director of the group Friends of the Irish Environment. “But we have struggled to truly bring it under control because of its emotional attachment and cultural heritage.”
Environmentalists say this fits a pattern of the state ducking climate commitments. Ireland emits 13 tonnes of greenhouse gases per person a year, the third-highest level in the EU.
Under EU commitments, by 2020 Ireland is supposed to cut emissions by 20% from 1990 levels. The target for 2030 is 40%. Ireland is on track to exceed the first target by 16m tonnes and the latter by 50m tonnes, triggering fines estimated to range from €230m to €600m.
Last month, David Boyd, a UN special rapporteur on human rights, said Dublin’s failure to tackle climate change breached human rights. He made the comments in a legal submission to support a court case brought by Friends of the Irish Environment, accusing the government of “knowingly contributing to dangerous levels of climate change”.
Earlier this year, Varadkar raised expectations of a rise in carbon tax, seen as a basic, vital step to curbing emissions. But last month’s budget left it unchanged at €20 a tonne.
Critics said the government flunked climate commitments for fear of a voter backlash.
Richard Bruton, the minister for climate action and environment, acknowledged last week that Ireland was “far off course” and announced a plan to make every department responsive to climate change.
RORY CARROLL IS THE GUARDIAN’S IRELAND CORRESPONDENT
Men cutting turf near Cong, Ireland