Peats and bogs are our Amazon - let’s protect, not burn them

Brazil is a long way from the bogs of Ireland, but there are striking parallels with their rainforests and our peatlands, says Kathriona Devereux
Peats and bogs are our Amazon - let’s protect, not burn them

FOR PEAT’S SAKE: We need to wean people off peat as a source of heating, says Kathriona Devereux

IRELAND’S peatlands and bogs are our equivalent of the Amazon rainforest! We need to scrabble to protect them, not burn them.

It would be difficult to find anyone who agrees that chopping down the Amazon rainforests is a good idea.

Seeing vast stretches of the Amazon in flames makes most right- minded people shudder at the level of destruction.

The forests are cut down to make way for vast banana, palm oil, sugar cane, tea and coffee plantations, as well as cattle ranches. The soil does not sustain crops for long, so farmers cut down more rainforest to make way for new plantations.

When the land is converted from rainforest to farmland, it can no longer function as a climate regulator.

In areas of the Amazon that have been deforested, there have been long-term decreases in rainfall and increases in temperature during the dry season, turning what was once a forest that absorbed carbon dioxide into an emitter of planet-warming carbon dioxide.

The Amazon is estimated to contain about 123 billion tons of carbon above and below ground, and is one of Earth’s most important land-based carbon reserves, but because of the ongoing destruction of the forests, it now emits more than a billion tonnes of carbon a year.

If that destruction is not halted and its enormous carbon reserves get released to the atmosphere, it will have grave, worldwide consequences.

Brazil is a long way from the bogs of Ireland, but there are striking parallels. Listening to the heated arguments on the radio about the forthcoming ban on turf cutting, I waited to hear someone pipe up with the fact that Ireland’s peatlands are our equivalent of the Amazon.

There should be T-shirts, posters, badges and bumper car stickers emblazoned with ‘Bogs are our Amazon’ to spur action to save our peatlands.

Last year, I interviewed Dr Catherine Farrell from Trinity College Dublin, who introduced me to the idea that Irish peatlands are our equivalent to the Amazon in their importance as a climate regulator.

Farrell has spent her career restoring and protecting degraded peatlands. It’s important work because peatlands are really good at storing carbon, and if the world needs anything right now (apart from the removal of a despotic lunatic in Russia) it’s an easy way of storing carbon.

Peatlands make up just 3% of land on Earth, but they store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests combined.

About 20% of Ireland’s land mass is covered in peatlands, so they are crucial for our climate commitments. When they are functioning correctly they act as vast stores, but if they are drained or degraded or burned, they become enormous emitters.

Ireland’s peatlands are in a bad and deteriorating condition and are now a net source of emissions rather than being the carbon sink we desperately need.

For years, we viewed peatlands as wastelands, just poor land that we tried to convert to grasslands, or forestry. We dug them up as a fuel source, tried anything to extract some monetary value from them.

But now that we understand how important they are for carbon capture, for filtering and slowing the flow of water, and for supporting rare and threatened habitats and species, we need to start treating them as a priceless natural resource as precious and important as the Amazon.

On the surface, restoring peatlands is not that hard - perhaps controlling the grazing of animals, felling trees and re-wetting them, blocking drains and leaving nature do its thing in restoring the landscape are relatively straightforward measures, but every location and community has different relationships and requirements of the peatlands and that’s where things get complicated.

According to the Central Statistics Office, peat is used by only 5.3% of Irish households for heating, however it is used by 23.6% of households in the Midlands and 37.9% of central heating systems in Offaly households use peat.

That’s a lot of people who need to change how they heat their homes.

Working with communities and individuals is crucial to help people transition to a more sustainable way of heating their homes, or extracting value from their land that doesn’t degrade the peatland. People are going to have to be paid to leave peat alone and be compensated as custodians of the earth.

This realisation that communities will need to be compensated for leaving a natural resource alone is happening around the world.

The country of Congo in central Africa is home to the biggest network of tropical peatlands in the world, covering an area almost twice the size of Ireland and storing more than 30 billion tons of carbon - the equivalent of 20 years worth of carbon emissions from the United States!

These are different peatlands to Ireland’s bogs and there is no tradition of using them as a fuel source, but the peatlands are home to lots of trees that have a monetary value.

This vast Congolese peatland is relatively untouched for now, but in an area of extreme poverty, the lure of an income from tree felling or other economic development is understandably hard to resist.

The Congolese government needs more money to protect this crucial natural environment from illegal logging and to recompense the custodians of the peatlands for leaving them alone.

While the radio waves logged calls from unhappy turf cutters, Big Tech companies such as Stripe, Meta and Alphabet announced a $925 million investment in carbon removal technology.

If the world is to have any hope of cooling the planet, humanity needs to suck up more than a billion tons of carbon dioxide a year. Large scale technologies to do this don’t exist yet.

The nerds of Silicon Valley are hoping to change that, but I couldn’t help thinking that some of that money would be better invested in Brazilian, Irish or Congolese farmers to leave the land be.

But I forgot that in the Big Tech world of ‘buy this, use that’, there’s no money to be made from leaving stuff alone!

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