The European Commission has stepped up the pace of its action against Ireland because of the State’s failure to halt the cutting of peat within Special Areas of Conservation (Sacs).
The commission has told the Government it must take action within two months to end cutting in such areas, or face a case at the European Court of Justice.
The commission noted that it had begun proceedings with a letter of formal notice in January 2011 and followed that with a “reasoned opinion”, the step before going to court, in June the same year. It said dialogue with Ireland had been “long”.
On Thursday, more than a decade after proceedings began, the commission said it had “decided to issue an additional reasoned opinion to Ireland, which now has two months to respond and take the necessary measures”.
The commission said the Sacs were “designated areas of conservation for raised bogs and blanket bogs under the EU habitats directive”. It said the European Green Deal and the Biodoversity Strategy for 2030 both recognised the value of peat bogs, which it said were “vital carbon sinks when healthy”.
“Their protection and restoration assist Ireland in meeting its climate change goals not only in keeping the peat in the ground, but also by avoiding the very high carbon and other air-pollution emissions which are caused when peat is burned as a fuel,” the commission said.
The commission noted Irish authorities had taken action to stop cutting, including by compensating peat and turf cutters. But it said “cutting activities are still ongoing and enforcement action appears to have stalled”.
“Restoration activities have begun on some raised bogs… but this is too slow given the importance of this priority habitat and its precarious state. With regard to blanket bog Sacs, there appears to be no regime controlling ongoing cutting with the cutting for domestic use exempt from control,” the commission said.
However, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), which has been particularly active in efforts to preserve the bogs, said the EU had been too slow to take action, saying the commission had “pressed pause” on its proceedings a decade ago.
FIE director Tony Lowes recalled his organisation won a landmark victory in 2019 when the High Court set aside State regulations that allowed for the industrial extraction of peat from Irish bogs. He said the court case was necessary as the commission “had for some reason pressed the pause button on this 11 years ago”.
Mr Lowes said the environmental charity had also recently made a formal complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency accusing that agency of failing in its duty to carry out enforcement proceedings against peat harvesters.
Commenting on the situation on Thursday, Mr Lowes said the latest moves by the EU were long overdue. “But if they want to pick up on our complaint to the EPA, instead of us making that complaint, that is welcome too”.
The EPA has been asked for comment.