In October, Bord na Móna ― an Irish semi-state owned peat harvesting and energy company based in Newbridge, County Kildare ― announced it will close 17 of its 62 active bogs immediately, and its remaining 45 bogs are expected to be closed by 2025.
In Ireland in the 1960s, peat-generated power peaked to 40 per cent of Ireland’s electricity generated by peat burning. This has been substantially reduced and although only 8% of Ireland’s electricity was produced by peat in 2016, it was responsible for 20 per cent of carbon emissions in that sector, since Peat is highly polluting, even more so than coal ― less energy is generated by burning while producing higher carbon emissions.
Phasing out of peat is part of the European Unions target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. The plan comes in the wake of taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s recent announcement that he will“make Ireland a global leader in protecting the planet” and “a beacon for the environment.” Moreover, there is increasing awareness in Ireland of the need to shift to more renewable sources of energy, as well as an awareness of the greenhouse gases emitted by peat that worsen climate change.
The peat industry is currently responsible for 3 to 6 million tonnes of the 62 million tonnes in total of greenhouse gases emitted by Ireland every year. However, some suggest the shift away from peat may be too little too late as the already ravaged peatlands continue to emit toxic greenhouse gases. Others suggest the move by Bord na Móna is a revenue-driven smokescreen and that the company is simply closing down bogs that are already exhausted.
Peat, also known as turf, is naturally found in wetlands and peatlands. The carbon-rich material is made of decomposing plant or organic matter. The project to transform Irish peatlands into an industrial-scale fuel source and reduce Ireland’s reliance on oil imports was launched in the 1930s. Bord na Móna was created in 1946 by the Turf Development Act of the same year, set up develop the peatlands of Ireland with the aim of providing economic benefit for Irish Midland communities and achieving energy security. Whereas the undertaking has created hundreds of jobs over the years and provided a much-needed local fuel source, the era of peat may soon be coming to an end. Moreover, with the planned peatland closures, the company will be responsible for the loss of up to 430 workers to be made redundant, 150 of those expected by April next year.
For the past decade, Bord na Móna has been using biomass as a co-fuel to replace peat, and the country is now hoping to replace peat with biomass completely, although this is not an ideal solution. Nonetheless, rehabilitating harvested peatlands is good for the climate, could improve water quality, and provide homes for threatened species. According to ecologists, the benefits of conserving peatlands are three-fold: reducing emissions from both power plants and exposed fields and, with restored plant life, sequestering more carbon in future peat deposits, which act as a carbon sink. However, there are still another 600,000 hectares of peatlands from which turf is cut to heat local houses with limited plans for rehabilitating these degraded bogs.
The new plans are a positive step away from polluting sources of energy towards more sustainable practices in Ireland. Renewable energy from wind, wave, and solar will also continue to be increasingly incorporated into the grid. However, Ireland’s dismal environmental record could still mean the country will face up to €600 million in fines for surpassing emissions targets.