Bog off: is the end of peat burn­ing too lit­tle, too late?

The Guardian Weekly - - Spotlight - By Rory Car­roll

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

GETTY/IS­TOCK­PHOTO

Men cut­ting turf near Cong, Ire­land

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