NEW THINKING NEEDED Rewetting and restoring bogs could give many rural communities a dividend, if incentives were in place.
Nature and rewilding
Things are hotting up. Last year, 2019, saw the highest sea temperature on record. It was also the second-hottest year on record. The hottest decade on record was 2010-2019. “We’re breaking more records than Usain Bolt, but there are no gold medals for dangerous temperature rises, or the floods and fires that come with it,” says Rosie Rogers of Greenpeace UK.
Climate breakdown is a distinct possibility if the world doesn’t act, and act fast. To borrow a phrase used by President Michael D Higgins at the National Biodiversity Conference in February 2019, “If we were coal miners, we’d be up to our knees in dead canaries.” He was referring to the old mining practice of bringing canaries down the mines – if there were lethal gases, the canaries would die before the miners, providing a warning to exit the tunnels immediately.
If you hear someone talking about the climate crisis, but don’t hear or feel the urgency, then beware the messenger. ‘Greenwashing’ is a cynical method by which government and politicians avoid the real argument by using deceptive green-sounding spin. There’s no substance to it. It’s headlines for headlines sake, and nobody’s got time for that.
This is a source of genuine concern, when there are better, more sustainable ways of doing things. A good example from the outgoing government’s Climate Action Plan (published last June) was the announcement that Ireland was going to plant 440 million trees over 20 years – an incredible 22 million trees a year. It made headlines around the world, and for a brief period, I felt proud. But on further inspection, all was not well with this plan.
Even if it was easy to get farmers to sign over their land to permanent plantation for two-thirds Sitka Spruce and one-third native woodland, the resulting clear felling of all the trees would recycle the carbon back into the atmosphere in 33 years’ time – that’s the type of recycling we don’t need. Think of the eye-watering fines for not meeting our carbon footprint targets that would follow (Ireland had to pay €150 million last year to buy carbon credits for missing the 2020 target).
Many plantations are also planted on peatland, which is way more useful to this country if rewetted and restored for carbon storage and carbon credits. Every piece of peatland ploughed up with heavy equipment releases carbon into the atmosphere, exasperating the problem. Allowing nature sequester carbon into native woodlands – the ideal solution – this is not.
Continuous-cover forestry is the norm in many countries where clear felling is illegal. The Department of Communication, Climate Action and Environment must know the facts. That’s their job. They get the best advice from world-class experts, I’ve been told on many occasions.
There’s only ten years left to hit targets by 2030 to keep global warming below 1.5°C. Wasting our time and theirs doesn’t make sense. Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan MEP was in Westport recently to support Mayo Green Party candidate Saoirse McHugh and her canvassers (myself included) in the run up to the election. Ming is one of the most prominent champions of the small, non-commercial turf cutter in this country, and it was interesting, from a rural Green perspective, to hear his views on this in light of the climate crisis.
He has always been against large-scale commercial turf-cutting, he said. He also told us that he had tentatively approached as many small turf cutter he could and asked each of them, “If you were given proper generous compensation, would it be more acceptable to you, instead of saving the turf?” Every single one of them replied, “Anything is better than this – this is bloody hard work.”
Initiatives that compensate small turf cutters would incentivise them to stop cutting. This would make a lot of sense. Rewetting and restoring peatlands would give many rural communities a dividend.
Bigger countries need to offset their carbon footprint. We’ve got the peatland. Peatlands make up only 3 percent of the global land area, but they store 30 percent of the world’s soil carbon. Our peatlands could be a goldmine for carbon credits, if the next government stops wasting their time and ours with spin.
The danger with greenwashing is we’ll miss out on many opportunities. Star quality – cute hoors making cute moves – when it’s our lives on the line? Nobody’s got time for that.
> Pat Fahy is Biodiversity Officer with Westport Tidy Towns.