Burning issue: Traditional peat fires and their devastating ecological impact

  • Living
  • Tuesday, 28 Nov 2023

Ireland banned the commercial cutting of peat last year, but the practice is still common on the Emerald Isle where many households use peat for heating. — Photos: DOMHNALL FAIRLINE/dpa

THE SMELL of coking peat hits you as you drive west out of Dublin, a distinctive, almost magical scent in central and coastal Ireland.

It is earthy, mossy, sweet and heavy like oak. “It feels very homely when there are few turf bricks in the fire,” says Joe Mulligan, whose family has been using peat to heat his home in County Mayo for generations.

The cosy heat emanating from a peat fire when storms are brewing outside is so appealing that many are tempted to forget the fact that peat has a very high carbon footprint.

“My parents still had to cut the turf by hand, with a so-called ‘sleán’,” says Mulligan. These two-sided Irish spades are now rarely used, replaced mostly by small diggers equipped with special shovels.

The peat is then laid out to dry before being stacked into pyramids and brought away.

“It is still labour-intensive work, you have to get your hands dirty, as it is practically still done like it was done in the past, it’s not as uncomplicated as oil or gas,” says Mulligan. This form of heating however is similarly damaging and leads to significant air pollution.

Poor air quality led Dublin to ditch this historic heating practice despite the Europe-wide energy crisis.

People nowadays may only burn peat in exceptional cases – though a 2022 census shows 70,000 households in Ireland still use the dry peat briquettes for heat.

Peat has a powerful nostalgic draw but Irish politicians and climate activists can’t drop it fast enough, due to the importance of the bogs that provide the peat. They only cover 3% of the land but absorb at least twice as much CO2 from the air as all of the world’s forests combined.

“The peatland stores the carbon underneath the water. That’s where it stays for thousands of years,” says Tristram Whyte of the Irish Peatland Conversation Council. That makes peatlands part of the cycle that helps regulate climate and temperatures.

Peat stacked in pyramids is waiting to be transported away.Peat stacked in pyramids is waiting to be transported away.

Semi-natural ecosystems

Ireland’s raised bogs – discreet, raised, dome-shaped masses of peat in former lakes or shallow depressions in the landscape – are more than 10,000 years old. They are one of the oldest semi-natural ecosystems in Europe.

Protected under the EU Habitats Directive, many rare and endangered animal and plant species live and grow here.

Meanwhile artificially drained peatlands release 1.25 megatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, and 1.3 gigatonnes of CO2 worldwide every year – about 5.6% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Ireland has lost up to 90% of its wetlands, partly through industrialisation. Politicians were long reluctant to phase out the use of peat, with the black gold also key to power generation, supplying about 20% of the country’s electricity.

But thanks to pressure on the government from the European Commission and others, Ireland no longer has any peat power plants. The last one is currently being rebuilt and is set to process biomass instead.

Renaturation is now obligatory, a process aided by money from the EU Reconstruction Fund.

“We are allowed to still cut turf – for personal use it’s okay, but commercial harvesting is not permitted anymore since October 2022,” Mulligan says.

The Emerald Isle has already drastically reduced the export of peat in recent years: from more than one million tonnes still sold abroad in 2016 to just under 400,000 tonnes and falling.

Peat lies on the ground to dry.Peat lies on the ground to dry.

Inconsistent enforcement

The fact that peat is still being exported at all is causing trouble.

Even members of the government complain that the rules are not being enforced consistently. “There is peat being exported, with no planning permission, with no regulation, with no oversight,” said Environment and Climate Change Minister Eamon Ryan. Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust called it a “political hot potato.”

If private extraction were also completely banned, there would be an uproar, says Mulligan. For many, peat is as much a part of Ireland as Guinness and green pastures.

There is an urban-rural divide on the issue. Peat is still used for heating by 27% of households in County Offaly – home to some of the largest peatlands in the country, while in Dublin, fewer than 200 households burn peat, according to a report in the Irish Times.

It helps a little that Bord na Móna, a parastatal company that stopped peat extraction in 2020, is leading by example and following through on its brown-to-green strategy, transforming itself into a sustainable climate solutions company.

The company’s vision is for a climate-neutral Ireland by 2050 – but much change is needed for that. – dpa

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