Bog rehabilitation scheme: ‘This is only a beginning’

Restoration project is significant but Minister accepts much more needed

Turf cutting in Derrygreenagh, Co Offaly. Photograph: Pat Sammon

Turf cutting in Derrygreenagh, Co Offaly. Photograph: Pat Sammon

 

“This is only a beginning,” Minister for the Environment and Climate Eamon Ryan says of the Government’s decision to invest €108 million in a bog rehabilitation scheme on Bord na Móna land. “But it’s not a small beginning,” he accepts.

Peatland scientists and environmental activists, while broadly welcoming this scheme, have raised many questions about its detail, and whether it is ambitious enough to cope with the climate and biodiversity emergency.

Our peat bogs, when intact, not only store carbon but “sequester” (draw down) carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, becoming a “sink” for this greenhouse gas. But when they are drained for peat extraction, they become major carbon emitters. The new scheme aims to help meet our climate targets by rewetting bogs and reversing this process.

Ryan admits some points in the initial announcement by his department were inaccurate. The claim that it could sequester 3.2 million tonnes of carbon by 2050 had been dismissed as wildly optimistic by UCD peatland expert Florence Renou-Wilson and former National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) bogs expert Jim Ryan.

“They are right, we should not have said ‘sequestration’, we should have said ‘emissions avoided’,” the Minister says, adding the department will change its website accordingly – which it has.

UCD environmental lawyer Andrew Jackson has expressed concerns that Bord na Móna might use some of the new Government funding, or its own contribution to the scheme of €18 million, to meet long-standing obligations under EPA licensing that it should be paying out of existing reserves.

“That concern is valid,” says Ryan, but he understands Bord na Móna “will go beyond the rehab plans under the licence. Government funds in this case will only go to that additional work. And it will have to be verified as additional work by the NPWS and the EPA.”

Greenhouse gas benefits

What about warnings that if Bord na Móna pursues planning permission to continue extracting peat for horticulture on other bogs, this will cancel out the greenhouse gas benefits of the scheme?

“I don’t get that sense from the company. They really are looking to switch from ‘brown to green’. They are becoming a climate solutions company now. I don’t think they could get the necessary EU licences, and I don’t see that as the future development of the company.”

How does he respond to calls for an ongoing independent review of the scheme?

“The NPWS already has a reviewing role. But I think that everything to do with land use and climate you have to [have] verification, you have to have transparency, so that there is confidence around the measures we are taking, so yes, absolutely.”

While this scheme does appear to be a step change, environmentalists argue that we still need to think much bigger, in terms of bogs beyond Bord na Móna’s estate, in terms of resources, in terms of specialist staff.

Ryan says he agrees: “I think we do. If you look at our climate targets for reductions in emissions, and ask yourself where can we get the tonnage…bogs can play a very big role. We are only at the start of this, it’s going to be huge and significant for our climate strategy. And one of the great benefits is that it’s a biodiversity restoration project as well, a water quality project, a flood management project, a just transition project, keeping people in jobs, it’s all these things.”