The longest distance between two places in Ireland is the gap between urban and rural dwellers. This latest frenzy shows the hallmarks of that divide, but also reveals a trend in political life: conceding ground to special-interest groups with no regard for the long-term costs.
When you mix grannies (very gently) into the mix, emotions will inevitably run high. So we have some TDs jumping to the rescue of people who are determined to keep burning turf because their families have been doing it for generations. Meanwhile, other politicians insist that the cost of cheap fuel is too high when compared to the environmental damage caused not only by air pollution but also by the devastation of peatland ecosystems.
Chief of the Greens Eamon Ryan was forced to defend his proposed legislation by saying “don’t put your grandma in jail for burning peat” – and who in their right mind would support a measure that punishes grannies?
So what’s planned isn’t a blanket ban, but a veto on the commercial sale of turf contained in a yet-to-be-seen bill banning smoky fuel that’s due from Mr Ryan’s Department of the Environment. Apparently, if you cut the lawn yourself or get it from a neighbor, the Turf Squad won’t bludgeon your door down when smoke signals rise from the chimney. But industrial-scale machine-cut turf that ruins valuable moorland is on the minister’s radar.
It sounds reasonable, all things considered. But others in the coalition are sullen. Leo Varadkar has been whining about good faith, and the turf issue has evidently caught some by surprise. He says it’s like telling the French they can’t drink wine, or the Italians they can’t eat pasta — pretty far-fetched in the analogy, since widespread central heating means the proportion of people who keep warm with grass is relatively low.
Taoiseach Michael Martin is busy making soothing noises. But the coalition isn’t quite halfway there, meaning now is an ideal time to push difficult but important legislation as close as possible. As the date for the next parliamentary elections approaches, it becomes more difficult to introduce environmental reforms.
Turf has a cultural resonance in Ireland on par with thatched cottages and Aran sweaters. Books like the 1934 children’s classic The peat cutter’s donkey by Patricia Lynch or Seamus Heaneys dig – “My grandfather cut more peat in a day/than any other man on Toners Moor” – emphasize its importance. The aroma of peat acts as an instant nostalgia trigger.
tradition counts. But other things too. Traditionally we refer to the maintenance of the turf as cutting, drying and piling it. But what about saving the bog, saving the planet?
Racing is cheap fuel, its appeal manifested in an era of skyrocketing fuel bills and a generally rising cost of living. There is a perception in some communities that peatlands are a natural resource that they should be able to use, especially during times of high energy costs. Indeed, there are valid reasons to burn peat, especially in low-income households or when homes are not retrofittable or peat has been mowed in a particular bog for generations.
But are these reasons really valid enough? What about the air pollution to be tackled and the loss of the priceless peatland ecosystem?
Ireland is fortunate to have about half the world’s peat bogs. But these habitats, which support biodiversity and take thousands of years to form, can be damaged by humans in a short time. Experts like Dr. Martin McHugh of the University of Limerick states that machines cutting lawns do more damage than an individual hand cutting sod with a special spade or sléan.
The latter method, according to Dr. McHugh the least invasive method for the bog. He says Moore is best thought of as “a giant sponge that holds water”; Machines slice beneath the bog’s surface, ruining its ability to hold water.
We know what is right: protecting the planet. But we don’t always find it convenient. There are always reasons not to do the right thing, and sometimes there are good reasons. But they can never be as convincing as charting the right course for future generations.
Unfortunately, Ireland is already off track to meet its 2030 carbon emissions target. That says Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir from University College Cork (UCC).
“It is very worrying considering that 2021 was a year where we were still experiencing the restrictions related to the Covid pandemic,” Prof Ó Gallachóir told RTÉ prime time. Lockdown meant fewer trips were made, but emissions were still higher than the target we set ourselves.
Whether it’s introducing bike lanes or bus lanes that take up space for other road users, a plastic bag tax that costs consumers money, or an indoor smoking ban that restricts personal freedom, there are always losers when there are winners. The overall benefit for society must be the goal.
The peat issue is another example in a chain of examples: Everyone is happy to support the fight against climate change – except when it affects them personally. If every lobby group agrees, no uncomfortable measure will ever be enshrined in law. And the climate issue is parked in the safe and secure knowledge that it will bite us again.
We know that turf generates huge CO2 emissions and is a finite resource rather than renewable energy. The government has committed to phase out their use and must not be dissuaded from doing so. Interest groups do tend to have a point of view – they cannot be dismissed entirely. But politicians in the Dáil are supposed to act in the national interest rather than the local one, and the climate must come first.
Now, if there’s wobble on relatively small changes, how on earth can big changes be delivered? For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has discussed non-motorized cities, a radical proposal. Compared to the magnitude of the challenge ahead, resolving the turf dispute is hardly a tall order.
Let’s be as fair as we can to the families affected while remembering that the long-term value of protecting the bog dwarfs any benefit to individuals from cheap fuel.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/we-shouldnt-get-bogged-down-in-a-turf-war-when-the-planets-future-is-at-stake-41555297.html We shouldn’t get bogged down in a turf war when it comes to the future of the planet