Peatlands once covered a fifth of the country. Today 80-90 per cent is considered degraded, about half due to industrial peat extraction and traditional and mechanical turf cutting and the remainder drained for agriculture, forestry and other land uses.
Damaged or drained peatlands release greenhouse gas emissions, largely through oxidation of the buried carbon and peat fires. Raising the water levels in degraded peatlands (known as rewetting) effectively and rapidly reduces emissions and is the first step towards the longer-term project of restoring their function as natural carbon sinks.
Emissions from drained grassland on peat are estimated at 8.4 million tonnes of CO2 a year and are counted under land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) emissions reporting. The figures tend to be somewhat obscured because peatland emissions are combined with data on greenhouse gas fluxes in forests and other lands in the LULUCF sector.
Emissions from industrial peat extraction account for another 2.3 Mt CO2/yr and are counted under energy sector emissions in Ireland’s national greenhouse gas emissions inventory of about 61 Mt CO2/yr (non-LULUCF).
Work on quantifying Ireland’s carbon reduction potential from better peatland management through rewetting and restoration is scaling up. New research further indicates emissions from drained peatland used for extensive grazing (on nutrient-poor peat) may be substantially lower than previously estimated, alleviating concerns about the extent of rewetting needed to cut emissions from the agricultural sector.
The Politics of rural land use
In Brussels, negotiations are well under way on a new nature restoration law proposing binding targets for restoring degraded ecosystems, including peatlands, on at least 20 per cent of land and sea areas by 2030. It’s the first major piece of nature conservation legislation since the 1992 habitats directive and explicitly links nature restoration and climate action.
It’s a contentious debate. Environmental groups want higher targets. “The peatlands target as proposed are not in line with climate targets,” says Jörg-Andreas Krüger, president of Naturschutzbund Deutschland, Germany’s largest nature conservation NGO with a significant history in wetlands preservation. “By 2030, 30 per cent of EU peatlands should be rewetted. The targets must be in line with net-zero emissions from peatlands by 2050.”
This ambition is challenged by the forestry sector, particularly by Nordic and Baltic countries with major wood, pulp and paper industries. Agricultural lobby groups are also pushing back, with leading agribusiness lobby group Copa-Cogeca expressing concerns about land use, food security, financing, and private property rights. In Ireland, a Copa-Cogeca representative who presented to members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee for Agriculture in October 2022 has since “humbly apologised for misleading” evidence overstating the likely extent of peatland rewetting indicated by the new law.
Member of the European Parliament Jutta Paulus is closely involved in negotiations. “Availability of land is the biggest problem. In some countries, land is divided into small patches with different owners. If only one owner opposes rewetting a peatland, whole projects have to be cancelled,” she says. Cultural barriers are also in play: undoing centuries of tradition of drainage for agriculture, and in Ireland, long-standing turbary rights.
Financial support for the new policies is essential. “Farmers and foresters live from their land, and policy must evolve to provide them with predictable and stable revenues,” Paulus adds.
Public funding for peatlands
Already European money is flowing into Irish peatland projects. Bord na Móna’s Peatlands Climate Action Scheme has received EU grant funding of up to €108 million. It is also the leading beneficiary in the Life IP Peatlands and People project, with partial funding of just under €10 million via the EU’s LIFE programme.
For private landowners, the most significant revenue stream comes from the EU’s farming subsidies programme, known as the common agricultural policy (Cap). With one-third of the EU budget, the Cap is the dominant player in how rural land is used. Recent reforms include an attempt to align environmental concerns with agriculture and greater choice for national governments in how to spend the money. Ireland is set to receive almost €10 billion from the Cap between 2021-2027.
Since 2021 with an initial budget of 20 million (€12 million via the EU’s Life programme), the Life project Wild Atlantic Nature has engaged farmers in the restoration of blanket bog by enabling Cap payments for ecosystem services. Directly linking agri-environment payments to best practice management of peatlands, the project’s innovative scheme has had a take-up rate of 85 per cent (848 farmers) in the first two years of operation.
“Farmers are some of the greatest innovators in society and are a lovely group of people to work with,” says project manager Dr Derek McLoughlin. “We put a lot of emphasis on communication and the opportunity for delivering higher ecological value.” The work is paying off: additional funding has since come from state agencies in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The Cap-based payments facilitated by the project are in the range of €700-€750 million.
A bright future in peatland carbon offsets?
So far, investment in peatlands has come from the public sector and philanthropy. However, ‘’there is a huge amount of interest from the private sector, as restoring peatlands can generate reduced CO2 emissions and allow corporates to buy voluntary carbon offsets,” says UK nature-based investment consultant Dan Hird.
A former head of corporate finance for Triodos Bank, his work now focuses on how to bring in the private sector – either to match fund the public sector or to buy carbon credits from landowners. He’s looking at win-win models: an attractive commercial offer for landowners to restore their peatland, and a mutually accepted carbon price for corporates or investment funds to buy the credits.
Investment values in this nascent market range from £10,000-£12,000 per hectare for badly degraded upland peat bogs and £4,000-£6,000 for less eroded lower bogs with lower wetting. A £50-100 million contract over three years is set to go to market this month, a potentially ground-breaking deal for peatland investment.
Carbon flux metrics for investment
Hird cites the carbon offset certification scheme Peatland Code as a key investment metric. The code sets out the emissions factors — and therefore the investment values — for different types of peatlands, at different stages of degradation or recovery.
Establishing reliable emissions factors means quantifying the emissions avoided from rewetting peatland and measuring the rate of carbon sequestration in recovering and active peatland. These are major themes in current peatlands research, along with the timelines for rewetted peatland to become firstly carbon-neutral, and then as the bog recovers over time, sequester carbon once again.
Since 1993, the EU’s Life programme has co-financed environment and climate action projects. Its original function was to help fund the implementation of the Habitats Directive, the legislation which protects remnants of natural bog in Ireland and across Europe.
Early peatland conservation projects financed by Life, Fermanagh District Council and the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds (RSPB) were located in Scotland’s Flow Country and the Cuilcagh Mountain in Northern Ireland. Almost 30 years on, Kenna Chisholm, RSPB conservation manager, continues to monitor and study the movement of carbon. “Our findings are that the initial trial Life sites are taking around 20 years to flip from a carbon source to a carbon sink,” she says. “Restoration techniques are constantly developing and measurements on more recent sites are suggesting that newer techniques are reducing this timeframe to around seven-eight years to flip from a [carbon] source to sink,” she adds.
Peatlands expert Dr Florence Renou-Wilson recommends prioritising the restoration of the areas protected (about 20 per cent of Irish peatlands) under the habitats directive. “With some rewetting and the right land management, these lands can go into a positive recovery trajectory towards acting as carbon sinks as well as a refuge for biodiversity and for cultural heritage.”
Studies carried out by Dr David Wilson (Wilson et al. 2022) found carbon accumulation restarting within one-two years in actively rewetted cutover bogs. Renou-Wilson cautiously welcomes the private sector interest in peatland. “The research findings are still evolving, and the Peatland Code is in its infancy — we need to have it backed by Government and science.”
Major gaps in the scientific research remain: not least that between 20-40 per cent of Ireland’s peatlands damaged by domestic peat extraction are not reported in national inventories due to a lack of aerial data. But given the original extent of healthy peatland, evolving restoration techniques, and new legislation along with the burgeoning investment appetite, a new dawn for Ireland’s peatlands may well be on the horizon.