Ireland is famed for its peat bogs. And rightly so, given that 8% of blanket peat bogs worldwide are located in our small nation. Another thing we are famed for is the exploitation of these peat bogs mainly in the form of turf which is burned and used for energy. What you may not know, however, is that peat when burned as a fossil fuel emits far more greenhouse gases than coal, what is generally perceived to be the major culprit in this climate disaster. Our nations attachment to peat fires has contributed majorly to the current crisis we face. We need to change our relationship with the bogs. Yes, they do hold cultural significance. But we can no longer afford to exploit them as we have done. The stakes are too high.
What in fact is peat? It is an accumulation of decaying organic matter consisting mainly of plants. This accumulation usually occurs under low oxygen conditions and waterlogging which slows down the decomposition rate. This is common in areas of standing water as well as areas which experience high degrees of rainfall, such as Ireland. Peat land areas can be major hotspots for biodiversity. For example, the Fenor Bog in Co. Waterford is home to 118 plant species and a further 214 animal species. Beyond their significance as biodiversity havens, peat bogs have played a major role in climate regulation over the last 10,000 years. For this reason, they have come under increasing attention as a strategy to mitigate against climate breakdown.
The carbon storage capacity of peat bogs is far greater than that of trees and other vegetation. While they do produce a small amount of methane as a result of the decomposition of organic matter, the carbon dioxide they sequester is much greater giving them a positive environmental impact overtime. Globally, peatlands store twice as much carbon as all standing forests even though their coverage of the planet’s land is much less. It has even been stated that per hectare, peat contains more carbon than a tropical rainforest. This is because of the plants associated with the peat bog such as Sphagnum moss. It is these plants which slow the decomposition of decaying organic material through the production of phenolic compounds. Some researchers have worked on modifying the different plant compositions in bogs so as to maximise the carbon storage potential, as well as genetically modifying Sphagnum itself to produce more phenolic compounds, thus enhancing carbon storage potential.
Plans announced by the government to rewet some of the bogs are encouraging, but like most of the governments strategies to combat climate change, simply do not go far enough. The climate action plan states that 21% of our land area is comprised of peatlands, of which only 16% are designated for nature conservation purposes. This figure needs to be drastically increased as it is only these Special Areas of Conservation and Natural Heritage Areas which will be restored under the National Raised Bog Special Areas of Conservation Management Plan 2017-2022. Furthermore, damaged bog land actually emits significant amounts of carbon dioxide and another damaging greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. A report by the EPA states that rewetting our peat lands is an effective mitigation strategy to prevent this. So, we should protect our bogs not just for the purpose of carbon stores, but to prevent further emissions.
We should be proud once again of our peat bogs, for they could be our trump card in combating climate breakdown.
Images sourced from https://shanewozere.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/fenor-bog-waterford/