Why peat is most damaging fuel in terms of global warming, even worse than coal

Peat was responsible for 3.4 million tonnes of emissions in Ireland during 2016

The fate of peat burning power stations in the Midlands, however, will largely depend on the extent to which the EPA will permit “co-firing of peat with biomass” in coming years. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

The fate of peat burning power stations in the Midlands, however, will largely depend on the extent to which the EPA will permit “co-firing of peat with biomass” in coming years. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

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Peat is the most damaging fuel in terms of global warming; even worse than coal.

It has a lower calorific value than coal (generating less energy per tonne when it is burned) and yet it produces higher CO2 emissions per unit, so it is the least climate-efficient way to produce electricity or heat in Ireland bar none.

As a consequence, the writing has been on the wall for peat production – including the once, much-loved peat briquette – and peat-burning power plants for some years; all because of climate change.

In a scenario where overall Irish greenhouse gas emissions are locked into a rising curve, especially those associated with heat, transport and agriculture, it became impossible to justify use of peat on environmental and sustainability grounds.

As a consequence, Bord na Móna committed to getting out of peat by 2030. Its announcement this week “is acknowledging that climate change is our biggest challenge globally” and commits to closing bogs by 2025.

Peat was responsible for 3.4 million tonnes of emissions in Ireland during 2016, of which 75 per cent was for electricity and 25 per cent in residential heating (which is about 9 per cent of carbon emissions from total fossil fuel use (including coal, oil, gas and peat). Phasing out that heat component will make a big difference to Ireland’s emissions.

The peat issue was so glaring, the Government’s independent Climate Change Advisory Council repeatedly said Bord na Móna should get out of peat a lot sooner than envisaged, though it underlined the need for “a just transition” for workers and communities affected. Its chairman Prof John FitzGerald has gone further, hitting out at the perverse decision to continue subsidising peat-fired electricity generation stations until 2030 – consumers pay for this through the public service obligation (PSO), a levy added to their electricity bill.

Peat is partially decomposed plant material; essentially coal in the making. It forms when plant material is deposited in an oxygen-poor environment, generally one that is saturated with water such as a bog. Its destruction releases vast amounts of carbon, particularly methane, into the atmosphere.

Burning, draining, and degrading peat bogs emits significant amounts of CO2 .

In contrast, bogs – and restored wetlands – have the potential to fulfil a major role in capturing and storing carbon.

The fate of peat burning power stations in the Midlands, however, will largely depend on the extent to which the EPA will permit “co-firing of peat with biomass” in coming years.

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