The lungs of Ireland: a natural solution to achieving net zero carbon’

As the spotlight on the climate crisis intensifies, policy makers are driving measures to restore nature and safeguard the environment for the future.

Dr Hugh Cushnan discusses how ongoing efforts to restore Irish peatlands aim to go above and beyond achieving net zero carbon.

The facts and figures

Globally, peatlands cover approximately three per cent of the landmass. However, they are responsible for storing 25% of the worlds terrestrial carbon. This is almost double the carbon held by the world’s forests, including the major rainforests which are publicly known to be significant in the ongoing fight against climate change.

In their natural state, peatlands act as ‘carbon sinks’. What this means is they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere during formation and lock it away, thanks to waterlogged conditions which retard its decomposition.

However, due to anthropogenic pressures, mainly through drainage activities associated with peat extraction for fuel, horticulture, or reclamation to increase agricultural production, peatlands are converted from ‘carbon sinks’ to ‘carbon sources’. Current estimates predict that degraded peatlands account for 6% of man-made emissions globally.

The aim of restoring these habitats is to reverse the negative trends and ultimately return peatlands to their natural state, where they can play a vital role in the fight against climate change. Restoration provides a wide range of ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration, improvements to biodiversity, provision of clean and stable water supply and natural flood management.

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Peatlands in Ireland

Ireland has a complex history with peatlands. There’s evidence to suggest extracted peat was used as a source of fuel over 1,000 years ago. It remained a consistent foundation throughout the development of the country, playing a significant part in the economic growth of many rural areas. 

Turf cutting was typically conducted by hand, using a turf spade or ‘Sléan’, with communities often helping each other during the summer periods to stockpile fuel for the colder winter months. The introduction of mechanised turf cutting in the mid-20th century saw a rapid increase in the rate of peat extraction, and in-turn escalated the damage done to this habitat across the country.

For Ireland and its bogs specifically, the current estimates indicate a very bleak picture. Two hundred years ago, Ireland had approximately 310,00 ha of ‘Active Raised Bog’ (ARB). This is the term given to raised bog that is actively accumulating peat, and in-turn storing carbon from the atmosphere.

Today, that figure has dropped to approximately 1,700 ha – equating to a huge 99.45% loss of habitat.  This is additionally concerning when you consider the current level of ARB in Ireland accounts for 60% of this habitat found in the Atlantic region of Europe.

The situation is not as bleak for Irish blanket bogs found in mountain areas and lowland areas with high rates of rainfall.  But the most recent estimates suggest that only 28% of the original Irish blanket bog network remains intact with forestry plantations being a major cause of degradation combined with turf cutting.

In the UK currently peatlands store an estimated 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon. This is equivalent to eight years of total UK carbon emissions. In healthy conditions, these UK bogs have the potential to sequester 3 million tons of CO2 per annum. However, current estimates suggest there is a net carbon loss from these sensitive sites due to degradation.

Peatland restoration

Recently, there has been growing awareness and appreciation amongst policymakers and public bodies about the important role and benefits provided by functioning peatlands. This has resulted in a significant change of focus in Ireland – moving away from traditional extraction activities and towards peatland restoration.

This has happened at a local level. Private turf cutters were encouraged to stop domestic turf cutting through compensation and the designation of 55 raised bogs as ‘Special Areas of Conservation’. Additionally, at state level, with the semi-state body responsible for commercial peat extraction, Bord na Móna, announced the end to all peat extraction activities.

The company have recently pledged to rehabilitate 33,000 hectares of raised bog for climate and biodiversity benefits through a five-year programme. The primary aim of peatland restoration is to restore the natural, hydrological conditions through drain blocking. The construction of bunds and berms will also halt the ongoing oxidation of carbon stocks, and where feasible promote the return of ‘active’ or peat-forming conditions.

"In their natural state, peatlands can be best described as the lungs of Ireland. For generations they have breathed in CO2 from the atmosphere and locked it away in our tapestry of peatlands, breathing out essential oxygen in the process. Ongoing degradation threatens to choke these sensitive habitats and release large quantities of CO2 back into the environment. Restoring them to a natural state is a paramount action that needs to be taken in the fight against climate change."

Testimonial

Our role in restoration projects

RPS are currently playing an important role in supporting the restoration of Ireland’s peatlands, acting as consulting hydrologists in collaboration with numerous stakeholders and bodies, such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), Bord na Móna, The Living Bog project and Ulster Wildlife Trust and BirdWatch Ireland, amongst others.

RPS has been involved in the development of the National Peatland Strategy, The National Raised Bog SAC Management Plan 2017-2022 and has developed detailed design of site-specific restoration plans for all designated raised bogs in Ireland.

Involvement in these projects not only aims to achieve net zero carbon but to go above and beyond to achieve ‘Net Negative Carbon’. This is to ensure RPS maintains its commitments to carbon reduction as a global company, whilst also promoting the sustainability of Irish peatlands so they can be enjoyed by future Irish generations and local wildlife.

Across numerous projects to date, the Peatland team in Belfast have put forward designs to block approximately 4,000km of peatland drains across the Island of Ireland. To put this into perspective: this is larger than the total perimeter/ coastline of Ireland, which stands at approximately 3,172km.

Get in touch

The accelerating impact of climate change around the world is of huge public concern. As is the damage to nature with species and habitat loss and the disappearance of cherished wildlife. The restoration of our peatlands is vital in the transition towards a low carbon and circular economy.

At RPS, we have an experienced Hydrology team, specialising in the restoration of peatlands. For more information contact Hugh Cushnan or Francis Mackin

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