Thomas Pringle TD

Thomas Pringle TD – No Restrictions On Turf Cutting Without First Considering Human Needs

We need a new vision for the midlands, for sustainable green jobs and for our precious bogs.

Burning peat for electricity emits more CO2 than coal and almost twice as much as natural gas. In 2016, peat generated almost 8% of Ireland’s electricity but was responsible for 20% of the sector’s carbon emissions. Natural peatlands are considered one of the most important ecosystems globally because of their biodiversity value, ecosystem functions, potential for carbon sequestration and storage, and the important amenities they can provide, if managed properly. There is also potential to increase carbon storage from the rewetting and restoration of bogs. However, this will require bold and transformative Government policies and much more funding. The recent budget announcement will fund the restoration of 1,800 ha of bogland over five years. While welcome, that is a drop in the ocean, bearing in mind that Bord na Móna owns more than 80,000 acres and all our bogs and wetlands are releasing up to 9 million metric tons of CO2 annually.

A managed transition is also in line with the citizens assembly proposals where 97% recommended that the State should end all subsidies for peat extraction and use that money on peat bog restoration instead. The assembly also said that there should be a proper provision for the protection of the rights of workers impacted. That is key. By the end of 2019, the Government will have to eliminate the €100 million in annual subsidies which it currently pays for peat-generated electricity through the PSO levy. While this is the correct approach, it will be a significant challenge for Bord na Móna which is the chief employer in the midlands region, and for the affected workers. Approximately 60 bogs no longer needed for fuel must be converted back to wetlands. Up to 400 jobs will be lost unless alternatives are found rapidly. Part of the alternative must be the retraining of workers to so that they may make the changes required to properties across the country, as there is a shortage of workers in the area. This training should be part of the just transition. From what I recall of the climate action committee, Bord na Móna resisted that and it was not something it wished to be a part of. It should be told that it must be.

Replacing peat with biomass, as power companies plan, is not a sustainable solution. It is only possible because of the loophole in the European renewable energy directive that classifies biomass as a renewable source of electricity. This direction is currently being challenged so this may change. The State is acting hypocritically by claiming to act on climate change while proposing to lift protection from bogs and allowing their ecological value to degrade.

Despite all of Bord na Móna’s positive messaging, it has been planning to continue burning peat with biomass until 2027. We have heard how biomass his coming from as far away as Australia, which makes no sense at all. The Government supported this until An Bord Pleanála’s decision last June which pushed the climate and sustainable dimension to the fore of Government policy. We have An Bord Pleanála to thank for that, rather than the Joint Committee on Climate Action or the Citizens’ Assembly or anything like that. That says it all about Government policy.

Following An Bord Pleanála refused permission for the continuation of Bord na Móna’s Edenderry power plant with 30% biomass, the ESB applied for similar permission at Loughrea. New research shows biomass energy is not inherently carbon neutral, although low carbon, but that it can have a climate impact as bad or even worse than fossil fuels and thus, by implication, per unit of energy. Bord na Móna’s stated intention was for the station to run on 100% biomass by 2027 but this is unlikely to be feasible and it is clearly not a sustainable solution. These decisions highlight the need for the State to put in place a just transition task force and heed the recent UN call for a land use plan to end destructive land management patterns.

None of this should come as a surprise. Environmental organisations and trade unions have warned for decades that peat-fired generation would have to cease. Recently I read in The Guardian how the former US President, Lyndon Johnson, was aware of climate change and its causes and what was happening in the mid-1960s. The oil companies were fully aware of what was happening in the early 1980s. At the turn of the previous century, Irish Governments were aware of what was happening, yet nothing was done. At least now there is a plan, despite its shortcomings.

These bodies have called for plans to be put in place to enable a just and timely transition in order that social and employment impacts can be assessed and provided for. The joint committee discussed this matter at length. Its report of last March recommended that a just transition task force be established to do the research, groundwork and mediation that the just transition will require. We advocated a partnership approach so that all stakeholders could engage on an equal basis. Sadly, this recommendation was not adopted in full by the Government, which has taken a completely different approach. It is an approach of sticking one’s head in the sand. We may be appointing a commissioner to oversee a just transition now, but as far as the Government is concerned, that will take care of the everything.

A structure based on social dialogue, consultation, and inclusion will be essential if we are to engage communities and not alienate them. That is especially the case in the county that I represent, Donegal, as a just transition will not stop in the midlands or with Bord na Móna. It will have to move on to the ESB, and to rural counties where people, through economic necessity, use turf. This is something we will have to address. We have high rates of unemployment, social exclusion and fuel poverty, especially since the financial crash in 2008. From first hand experience, I know that many families returned to cutting turf fuel due to the sheer financial crisis in which they found themselves after 2009. We should not contemplate imposing further restrictions on turf cutting without first considering human needs and how these will be met. Social justice and environmental justice must go hand in hand.

I propose that a just transition should be funded for the entire country. The midlands is currently the crisis point but we must be prepared to move it right across the board. That would dedicate resources into home retrofitting to alleviate fuel poverty and bog rehabilitation. The problem is not confined to the midlands, and we should not limit the role of the just transition commissioner to that region only if we are serious about protecting our blanket bogs and ensuring that no one is left behind in the process.

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