For Peat’s Sake: Bogs, Bord na Móna and the Climate

Bogs and Irish culture have been intimately linked for centuries, cropping up in everything from our traditional songs to the work of our most beloved poets. They have provided us with energy, clean water, jobs and a home for our wildlife. Globally, degraded peatlands account for a quarter of all carbon emissions from the land-use sector despite covering only 3% of the land. They also contain 30% of the world’s soil carbon; that’s twice as much carbon as is stored in all the world’s forests. It is estimated that more than 80% of Irish peatlands have been damaged in some way.

My skull hibernated
in the wet nest of my hair.

Which they robbed.
I was barbered
and stripped
by a turfcutter’s spade

who veiled me again
and packed coomb softly
between the stone jambs
at my head and my feet.

-Seamus Heaney

Abbeyleix bog in Co. Laois is a rare example of a bog that has not been utterly destroyed by industrial peat extraction. Many of the peatlands I saw from my window on the bus down here were not so lucky. The barren and lifeless landscape of bogs that have been stripped bare is a common sight in the Irish midlands, and it is becoming more common every day. Abbeyleix very nearly met the same fate back in 2000. If it were not for the dedication and quick thinking of the community, the thousands of species in the bog would be homeless and hundreds of thousands of tonnes more carbon would be in the atmosphere instead of in the ground where it belongs. 

Bogs and Irish culture have been intimately linked for centuries, cropping up in everything from our traditional songs to the work of our most beloved poets. They have provided us with energy, clean water, jobs and a home for our wildlife. Globally, degraded peatlands account for a quarter of all carbon emissions from the land-use sector despite covering only 3% of the land. They also contain 30% of the world’s soil carbon; that’s twice as much carbon as is stored in all the world’s forests. It is estimated that more than 80% of Irish peatlands have been damaged in some way.

Peat forms because the water-logged and acidic conditions of a bog significantly slow the decomposition of bog mosses, also called sphagnum, causing a build-up of organic matter. Emissions from peatlands don’t just come from the burning of the peat; they also come from drainage. When the level of water in a bog (known as the water table) is reduced, this exposes more of the peat to the air. In this dry, oxygen-rich environment, the peat decomposes, releasing all that carbon back into the atmosphere.

Despite owning only 7% of Irish peatlands, the organisation primarily responsible for the industrial extraction of Irish peat is Bord na Móna, a semi-state company which was set up by the government in 1934 under the name ‘the Turf Development Board’. Since the inception of Bord na Móna proper in 1946, the company has been responsible for the development of 80,000 hectares of Irish bogs. Back in 2016, Bord na Móna rebranded themselves with the slogan ‘Naturally Driven’ and tried to position themselves as environmental stewards. The journalist John Gibbons called this campaign “profoundly, irredeemably dishonest” and “an exercise in cynicism”. He also quoted An Taisce as saying “We suggest they drop their new ‘Naturally Driven’ slogan and replace it with the phrase ‘Profit Driven’. Then Bord na Móna would at least be able to sell its business plan with a straight face”.

Abbeyleix bog had been owned by the De Vesci family since the early 1700s. In 1987, Tom De Vesci, who had previously attempted to have the bog designated as a heritage site, was coerced by Bord na Móna into selling the bog. “I was approached many times by Bord na Móna to sell it after my father died in 1983 and I always refused” Tom said in an interview. “But eventually I was informed that Bord na Móna would be taking ownership via a compulsory purchase order at a somewhat lower level of compensation than I would get if I sold it ‘voluntarily’ a few weeks earlier”. In 1989, Bord na Móna cut 66km of drains into the bog in preparation for future peat harvesting.

On Thursday, 20th of July 2000, Chris Uys, a member of the Heritage Company and now development officer for the Community Wetlands Forum, met with Jimmy Dooley of Bord na Móna to discuss plans for a walkway through the bog and to inform Jimmy of concerns regarding its development. The following day, locals noticed unfamiliar pieces of machinery on the bog, which had been delivered to the site by Bord na Móna overnight. Chris Uys raised the alarm in the community that development of the bog was about to begin. That Sunday, local resident Gary O’Keeffe parked a crane in the entrance to the bog under the guise that it had broken down during a bird-watching session in order to keep the rest of the machines out of the bog. By Monday morning, at least 50 people had gathered at the entrance to protest the development, with numbers swelling to around 100 by lunchtime.

After much pressure from the community, Bord na Móna finally agreed to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in April of 2001. They found that the Abbeyleix site was of “little or no conservation value”, an assessment which both the Abbeyleix community and the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council (IPCC) considered “incomplete and inaccurate”. An ecologist by the name of Doug McMillan was invited to carry out an independent assessment of the bog. Having only surveyed 20% of the land, Doug had already found over 500 species, and could reasonably conclude that the bog was home to thousands of species, including a butterfly which was protected by the EU. If Bord na Móna really had carried out an EIA, they had either done a poor job or they had lied about the results.

In 2002, An Bord Pleanála found that Abbeyleix bog was not exempted from the requirement for planning permission. This was the first time in Irish history that a peat development went through the planning permission process. Bord na Móna, in true form, took high court action against both the Laois County Council and An Bord Pleanála. In 2008, an ecologist by the name of Jim Ryan carried out another survey, finding that only 1% of the raised bog was still intact and forming peat. I am stunned when Chris tells me that, like in Abbeyleix, only 1% of active raised bog in the country remains. In other words, we have degraded 99% of carbon-rich raised bog nationwide through drainage and peat extraction. In April of 2009, more than 20 years after they were cut, work began to block the drains in Abbeyleix. In April of 2012, the Abbeyleix community signed a lease agreement which meant that the bog would be in their control for the next 50 years, provided that it was primarily used for habitat restoration. David had beaten Goliath.

I met with Chris Uys in the lobby of the picturesque ‘Abbeyleix Manor Hotel’ on the outskirts of the bog. He has brought with him a textbook on peatlands and a folder packed to the brim with documents. When I ask him why peatlands are so important for biodiversity, he tells me that “the interesting thing about the biodiversity in peatlands is that the combination of plants and… the way they interact has a wider role to play than just purely the biodiversity that is there because it helps to retain water content, it has to do with carbon sequestration, and it supports other ecosystems”. He tells me that bogs are very important for breeding birds and that they link different ecosystems together like a natural corridor.

A walk through Abbeyleix bog feels like a walk through the history of this country. There is a calm here that soothes your aching bones like a hot bath. This is what is known rather robotically as a ‘cultural service’; one of many ‘ecosystem services’ provided by bogs like Abbeyleix. These somewhat stomach-churning terms are used by some environmentalists as an attempt to reframe the ecological crisis we have caused in the parlance of capitalism and thus convince business and industry to act. Gazing out over the endless beauty of this ancient landscape, I can’t help but think that it is downright insane to try and put a price on something that existed for so very long before our self-centred species ever dreamed up the concept of money.

Back in 1997, peat fires forced both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to close their airports for several days. The peat in question was burning over 1,000km away in Indonesia. Scientists have estimated that the CO2 released during this one fire was equivalent to 13-40% of the mean annual global emissions from fossil fuels. The carbon is not the only issue; the vast quantities of smoke released by the fire had serious effects on health, with studies showing decreased lung function in children who were present during the event. According to a study in Archives of Environmental Health, 527 people died in 2 months as a result of the smoke, with 58,000 cases of bronchitis and 1 and a half million cases of acute respiratory infection reported.  Fires like this have happened periodically over the last few decades, with one 2010 event in Russia leading to carbon monoxide levels in the capital that were 6 times the maximum acceptable level.

To the Irish, this all may seem like a distant threat, but were the Wicklow bogs to catch fire, the prevailing wind would carry all that lethal smoke right into the heart of Dublin. John Reilly, the head of the renewable energy branch of Bord na Mona, told me in an interview that “the biggest risk of wildfires is not posed by active peat production areas on drained peatlands, but rather the risk is high on virgin peatlands which are generally covered in vegetation such as gorse and heather”. He said that the major concern when it comes to fires was actually stockpiles of cut peat.

DCU-based peatlands expert John Connolly tells a slightly different story. “In one way he is right that the risk of fire (i.e. fire starting) on a drained industrial peatland may be less if all vegetation is removed. However, a lightning strike could start a fire and in that case drained peatlands are much more vulnerable than virgin (i.e. wet) peatlands”. Dr Connolly sent me a link to a 2016 study in ‘Nature’ which states that “the high burn severity of drained tropical/temperate peatland fires suggests that large-scale peatland drainage and mining in northern peatlands over the last century has also likely made managed northern peatlands more vulnerable to wildfire than natural (undrained) peatlands”. While there is an element of truth in what John Reilly told me, then, it seems that it was not the whole truth.

In 2006, an area of dried and cut peat the same size as Abbeyleix bog caught fire in the Irish midlands, leading to the evacuation of several Longford residents. While it was the stockpiles that caught fire rather than a bog itself, the incident shows how damaging peat fires can be. Smoke from the fire travelled 10 miles north. One Rooskey resident who had suffered from respiratory problems in the past was quoted in the Irish Times as saying “at the moment I am closing my windows and hope that will be enough”. A 2002 study of the Indonesian haze disaster, however, suggests that staying indoors only gets you so far in a situation like this.

They found that indoor concentrations of particulate matter were about half of what they were outside. That was a form of particulate matter known as PM10 because the individual particles are 10 micrometers or smaller in diameter. They could not find any difference, however, in the concentrations of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, which are particles 2.5 micrometers or less. The researchers said that “perhaps the size of particulates was so small as to travel and intrude into any space; the concentration of pollutants was extremely high, and the indoor environments of buildings in Indonesia were rarely exempt from these pollutants”.

When asked about Mr Reilly’s claim that the presence of vegetation increases the risk of wildfires, Chris Uys replies that “from that point of view yes, that is so. But if you are talking degraded peatlands, degraded means that you have dried. For me, there is a higher risk… when the peat below the surface is dry and there is an ignition of anything above, it starts to smoulder underground as well”. Chris tells me that Abbeyleix has suffered from this very problem; “we had a fire at one stage, and you could just see smoke. On nearer investigation it was actually starting to simmer underground. It just keeps going”. While vegetation fires on the surface are manageable, the dried peat below can keep burning for a very long time and release a lot of carbon before it is extinguished.

Thankfully, Bord na Móna have been trying to get out of the peat business for over a decade, with over half of their revenue coming from non-peat-related activities in 2019. John Reilly, who has been doing excellent work building renewable energy infrastructure with the company, tells me that “Bord na Móna developed the first commercial wind farm in Ireland back in 1992, on a joint venture basis with the ESB, so we have some considerable experience in the sector”. They also announced last year that they were closing 17 of their active bogs, with the remaining 45 bogs to be closed within 7 years. However, some have said that this amounts to greenwashing, since the planned closures are of bogs that have been exhausted and are no longer profitable. As UCD peatlands expert Dr Florence Renou-Wilson put it in an interview with the Guardian, ““It’s a bit of a smokescreen. It’s all revenue-driven… they’re are all done and dusted”.

Bord na Móna is not the only company extracting Irish peat, though it is the largest. A company called Harte Peat has come under fire recently for carrying out large-scale peat extraction without a license in the Derrycrave bog in Westmeath. Photos released last year by ‘Friends of the Irish Environment’ showed that Harte had been cutting the peat right down to the mineral layer below, leaving almost no possibility of recovery. Peat that had formed at a rate of about 1 millimetre a year until it was several meters thick was stripped down to the bone in the geological blink of an eye, depriving animals of their homes and future humans of their right to security. This tragedy has played out countless times across the country over generations, leaving us with little more than a silhouette of the beautiful and important landscapes which once dominated the Irish midlands.

The degradation of Ireland’s peatlands doesn’t just threaten our health, it also threatens our wallets. New regulations require that we start reporting the emissions from our peatlands to the EU from 2021. Ireland is already facing hundreds of millions of euro in fines for failing to meet our emissions targets and this will bring us further off target. Chris tells me that “We were fined 150 million for this already… and we’re gonna be fined again until these people stop… Bord na Móna don’t get fined. It’s the government that gets fined. They merrily go on. They can go on for another 30 years if the government allow them. But we get that fine”.

When asked to what extent Ireland will be able to cope with these changes to EU law, Dr Connolly tells me that “the government and the EPA have made some investments in funding research and research infrastructure over the past few years. These investments will allow scientists to provide some of the detail that is required in the legislation, however much more investment is needed in research, infrastructure and rewetting/restoration as peatlands in Ireland are severely degraded and emissions are unknown in many areas”. But does this mean more fines for the Irish government? “It depends. If peatland emissions can be reduced to zero by the start of the 2026 reporting period, then no. However, current emissions are estimated to be about 11 million tonnes of CO2 … The reduction of these emissions to zero over the next six years will be very challenging.”

I ask Chris if Abbeyleix bog became a net source of emissions following the drainage and, if so, if it is back to being a net sink. “Possibly we are not a net sink yet… the higher the water level the less carbon emissions,” he tells me. “Then it gets to a point where it changes and it starts to give out methane emissions. There is a sweet spot where you have the least emissions. The other problem with degraded peatlands is that if you don’t have vegetation formation, (sphagnum), then it does not negate the methane”. The blocking of the drains has not been in vain, however. Whereas only 1% of the active raised bog remained in 2009, Chris reckons that as much as 10-15% has recovered in the intervening decade.

It takes time for peatlands to regenerate; all the more reason to block as many drains as we can as soon as we can. The light is beginning to fade from the grey clouds overhead as I slip and slide across the wet wooden walkways. The first few drops of rain begin to fall once more on the mounds and ditches of Abbeyleix. This beautiful landscape serves as both a cautionary tale and a beacon of hope. It showcases the terrible consequences of degrading our bogs, but is also a reminder that with elbow-grease, dedication and time we can undo some of the wrongs we have inflicted on the natural world.

3 Things You Should Really Know about Climate Change

In recent years, study after study have confirmed our worst fears about climate change and the window for effective action is rapidly closing. Many people now find themselves scrambling to come to terms with the complexities of climate change. Here are 3 things you should know:

In recent years, study after study have confirmed our worst fears about climate change and the window for effective action is rapidly closing. Many people now find themselves scrambling to come to terms with the complexities of climate change. Here are 3 things you should know:

The Snowball Effect

One of the scariest things about climate change is that as it gets worse, new mechanisms are triggered which contribute to and accelerate the problem. Such mechanisms are called ‘positive feedback loops’. The most obvious and dangerous example of a feedback loop is the melting of the polar ice caps. Both land and the ocean are darker in colour than white ice. Since darker shades absorb more heat from the sun, the loss of reflective white ice causes the land, ocean and atmosphere to warm at an accelerated rate. As more ice melts, the earth gets hotter. As the earth gets hotter, more ice melts and a vicious circle is born.

Perhaps scarier is that the permafrost (soil or rock that has been frozen for more than 2 years) currently contains twice as much carbon as there is in the atmosphere. Permafrost is what is known as a ‘carbon sink‘ since it traps huge amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that would otherwise be warming the planet. While there is plenty of CO2 in the permafrost, there is also an abundance of methane, a GHG that is 20 to 30 times more efficient than CO2 at reflecting heat back towards the earth over a 100 year period. Another positive feedback loop is that of forest fires. Each tree that burns releases all the carbon it has taken in over its lifetime and darkens the area where it stood, allowing for more heat absorption. Less trees means higher temperatures which means more fires and more fires means less trees.

Along with ice and trees, soil is another major carbon sink. Recent studies suggest that as the earth heats, microbial activity in soil causes the carbon that has been accumulating over millennia to be released into the atmosphere. Each year, the burning of fossil fuels releases about 10 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. 3,500 billion tons are trapped in the soil. If the earth gets hot enough that significant amounts of this carbon are released into the atmosphere, the consequences will be dire for all life on earth.

Yet another example of a carbon sink that may turn into a carbon source is the ocean. The ocean is currently the largest carbon sink on the planet, having already absorbed half of all the carbon we have released since the industrial revolution. However, the warmer the water is, the less CO2 it is able to hold. In addition to this, water vapour is a greenhouse gas and climate change is sure to bring a huge increase in ocean evaporation. However, this particular issue is not as dire as it seems.

The problem of ocean evaporation has something that is rare when talking about climate; a silver lining. More water vapour in the atmosphere means more clouds which block incoming solar radiation. This is a negative feedback loop which could help to regulate the temperature of the earth. The more water that evaporates from the ocean, the more clouds there are to block the sun’s rays and hopefully help to cool the planet. Research has shown that the reflective properties of the extra cloud cover should actually cool the earth, despite water vapour being a GHG.

Feedback loops illustrate how fragile our climate really is. Given their existence, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is like poking a tiger in the eye. Because of feedback loops, relatively low emissions can have far greater consequences than they otherwise would. It is imperative that we cut our own emissions as dramatically and quickly as possible if we are to avoid setting off these chain reactions that would surely alter the conditions of our planet for millennia to come.

Going Veggie Makes a Difference

Animal agriculture is the second largest source of greenhouse gases after energy production. There is much talk of reducing greenhouse gases by taking the bus or by refusing to fly, but animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all modes of transport combined. Not too long ago on an evolutionary scale, humans accounted for 1% of the earth’s mammals, with the other 99% being wild animals. Now, humans and our livestock make up a staggering 96% of all mammal biomass on earth.

It takes a huge amount of water to raise animals for food, cattle being the worst offenders. Between the water given to the animal directly and the water required to grow food for it, it takes roughly 7,000 litres of water to raise one pound of beef. That means that by eating a portion of beef about the same weight as 3 tomatoes you waste as much water as you would by leaving your shower on for about 15 hours. If you were to eat the 3 tomatoes instead, you would use about 100 litres of water instead of 7,000. Think about that the next time you decide that taking a bath is too wasteful.

Some people say that the effect of animal agriculture on climate change is exaggerated. I say it cannot be exaggerated enough. While animal agriculture accounts for only 11% of emissions directly (methane from animals burping), its effects on the planet go much further than that. One third of all ice-free land on earth is used to raise livestock, and one third of all grain on earth is used to feed them. This greatly reduces the space and resources available to wild animals.

Animal agriculture is a leading cause of deforestation, depriving many wild animals of their homes and access to food. In addition to this disastrous impact on biodiversity, trees are one of the most important carbon sinks on the planet. One acre of forest can accumulate 100 metric tonnes of CO2 over time and we cut down roughly 18 million acres of forests a year. That means that the trees we cut down each year contain between them approximately 1.8 billion metric tons of CO2. To give you perspective, the average emissions per person globally is 5 metric tons per year. In the world’s largest forest, the Amazon, 90% of deforestation is carried out in the name of animal agriculture. In many cases, the forest is cut down and the wood is simply burned just to make room for livestock, releasing all the carbon trapped during the tree’s lifetime back into the atmosphere all at once. By expanding our land use to feed our booming populations, we are depriving the planet of one of its natural defense mechanisms against rising CO2 levels.

It takes about 65 square feet of land to make a quarter-pounder. The average american eats about 62 pounds of beef per year. That works out to almost half an acre of land use per person for beef alone. If you expand that number to include all Americans, over 121,000,000 acres of land are needed for the production of beef each year. That is roughly the size of Spain. In reality, America produces more beef than it consumes. Right now, 654,000,000 acres of america are used for grazing (not just cattle). That is almost the same size as India, a country with 4 times the population. There are only 327 million Americans, but global populations are set reach 10 billion by 2050. If this is not unsustainable then I don’t know what is.

The crux of this problem is that there are only so many resources available to the animals that live here on earth. By redirecting the majority of those resources (like land, water and food) to just a few species (like cattle, chickens and pigs), we completely derail the balance that has existed in the global ecosystem for hundreds of thousands of years. People fail to make the connection between the food we eat and the massive loss of biodiversity which is currently taking place. The truth is that they could not be more linked.

Climate Change is not Binary

When people talk about climate change, the sentiment is often that we need to do something before it is ‘too late’ to ‘stop’ climate change. Unfortunately, that time has already passed. The carbon we have already released will take a long time to have an effect on the climate, and emissions are still rising. There is no way this is going to end perfectly. We have already sealed the fate of countless people by releasing as much CO2 as we have. This, however, is no reason to give up the fight. Many people have become fatalists about climate change, saying that its effects will be terrible now regardless of what we do. So why bother trying? The answer is that climate change is not a ‘yes or no’ question. If anything, it is multiple choice. Our actions now and in the coming years will dictate not ‘whether’ climate change will happen, but rather how badly the effects will be felt by future generations. It is never ‘too late’ to act, because things can always get worse.

I will be taking many of the stats in this section from a terrifying but brilliant book by David Wallace Wells called ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘. According to Wells, it is estimated that at 2 degrees of warming, “the ice sheets will begin their collapse, 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity”…”there would be 32 times as many extreme heatwaves in India, and each would last 5 times as long“. This is the fate we have all but guaranteed for the next few generations of people and animals. Things are going to get very, very bad and there is nothing we can do about it. However, the effects of 2 degrees of warming pale in comparison to those of 3 degrees.

According to Wells, at 3 degrees, droughts in Africa are predicted to last 5 years longer than they do now. In the U.S, wildfires would destroy at least 6 times as much land as they do now. The number of people without access to drinking water or food will continue to increase at breakneck speeds. Recent research suggests that if we immediately meet the goals set out in the Paris climate accord, we will still warm the planet by around 3.2 degrees. Currently, no industrial nation is on track to meet those goals. When it will happen is hard to say, but in the next couple of centuries, humans will be faced with the devastating situation I have just described. But even if we have locked in 3 degrees already, things could still get much worse.

Each degree brings with it new levels of unimaginable suffering for both humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. Our job now is to mitigate as best we can how badly climate change will be felt by generations to come. 2 degrees is better than 3 degrees, true. But 3 is better than 4. 4 is better than 5. 5 is better than 6 and so on. The UN predicts that we are due for about 4.5 degrees by the end of the century. Their worst-case scenario (if we carry on doing what we’re doing) is 8 degrees by the end of the century. With that amount of warming, one third of the planet would be uninhabitable due to direct heat alone and two thirds of our major cities would be underwater. Things will get bad, yes, but they don’t have to get that bad.