I thank the Chairman, Deputies and Senators, ladies and gentlemen. Peatlands are unique ecosystems in the context of the global carbon cycle. This is because in addition to being home to rare biodiversity, peatlands are the largest and most concentrated global store of carbon of all terrestrial ecosystems, containing twice the carbon of the forest biomass. The accumulation of vast quantities of carbon occurred over many thousands of years is thanks to the permanently waterlogged conditions that prevent the complete decomposition of organic matter. In Ireland, peat soils are the largest carbon store containing an estimated 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon. Total global carbon dioxide CO2 emissions from degraded peatlands currently amount to a third of the total emissions from the land use, land use change and forestry, LULUCF, sector and is equivalent to 5% of the total global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. In Ireland, peatland drainage for either domestic turf cutting, energy, horticulture, agriculture and forestry releases carbon that under normal conditions would have remained in storage within the peatlands. Burning peat is a source of air pollution and drained cut bogs no longer function as a refuge for rare species nor as a repository for historical artefacts, for example.
Natural peatlands have acted, and continue to act, as carbon sinks but drained peatlands and related activities account for emissions of some 11 million tonnes of CO2 per year in Ireland. This equates to total emissions from the energy sector in 2018. The total emissions from the 11 million tonnes is composed of power station peat burning, domestic turf cutting, horticultural peat and, most important, from the drained peat bogs.
A key figure to bear in mind is that 1 ha of drained bog, whether cutover or cutaway, emits six tonnes of CO2 per year for each year that it remains dry. Less than 50,000 ha of the original 310,000 ha of raised bog in Ireland remains uncut. More critically, only 1% is in an active condition, meaning it is sequestering carbon by accumulating peat. There are more green parks in Dublin city than there are active, peat forming raised bogs in the country. The same threats have also decimated the original 774,000 ha of blanket bog, with now less than 28% likely to be in conservation value, barely holding on to their carbon stores. The proportion of active areas is still unknown in those blanket bogs but it is likely to be critically low and decreasing each year as a national management plan for the network of blanket bogs SACs has not yet been established.
The protection, restoration and rewetting of peatlands is in line with national and EU obligations. Undrained and uncut bogs are amongst those that are accorded priority habitat status in recognition of the extent of historical destruction of such habitats across Europe. It is a legal requirement to preserve all peatlands that are still mostly uncut and undrained and to aim to restore the high bog or uncut part. The network of 53 SAC raised bogs is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the carbon store of peatlands. While the proper restoration of this network will lock in 28 million tonnes of carbon, the high bog within the NHA network also requires action. What about the blanket bogs? Members should recall that the area of blanket bog is three times greater than the area of raised bog. As such, Ireland could lock in ten times more carbon in the designated blanket bog network if only the management plan required by law under the habitats directive could be implemented for these rare ecosystems.
I turn to restoration and rewetting. When rewetted, degraded peatlands stop emitting and instead lock in their carbon store. Better still, when they are restored, peatlands can even return to acting as natural carbon capture systems. To clarify, even if peat cutting were to cease and no efforts were made to block the drains, peat will continue to decompose and release carbon to the atmosphere until rewetted. The minimum intervention is therefore to rewet. Before I go further, I will clarify a few terms, namely, "restoration", "rewetting" and "rehabilitation", as there is confusion about them. The following definitions come from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's wetlands supplement for 2014. The supplement states that peatland restoration aims to permanently re-establish the ecosystem that existed before disturbance or land-use change. The restoration of drained peats almost always requires rewetting. The latter is the deliberate action of raising the water table on drained soils to re-establish water saturated conditions. Rewetting can be accomplished by blocking drainage ditches or disabling pumping facilities and managing the water table so that it remains close to the surface. Rewetting can have several objectives, such as wetland restoration, and may allow other management practices on saturated peat soils, such as paludiculture, or wet agriculture. Rehabilitation can involve a large variety of practices which may or may not include rewetting.
Restoration of our protected peatlands and rewetting of drained bogs are considered by the UN as low-hanging fruit and among the most cost-effective options for mitigating climate change. In both restoration and rewetting, the water table must be managed. Abandoning or re-flooding drained peat soils under the heading "rehabilitation" is not a climate-friendly action as both approaches release huge amounts of greenhouse gases. The feasibility of peatland restoration has been demonstrated in a number of countries, including Ireland. We have found that cutover bogs can be fully restored to return their carbon sequestration and storage function, as well as their unique biodiversity. In Canada, scientists and those in the peat industry have worked together to licence peat extraction but that has come hand in hand with a commitment to fully restore the site after the short period of extraction has ceased. The Irish industry must be regulated and look to such international standard. Industrial cutaways have been drained and have emitted CO2 for as many as 70 years and cutover bogs have done the same for centuries. Restoration should be supported where conditions are adequate but where that is not possible, the minimum required intervention should be rewetting.
Peatlands and future climate change are important aspects of this topic. Drained peatlands are extremely vulnerable to even modest climate change impacts and are projected to become even greater hotspots of greenhouse gases as the peat dries out, cracks or burns. Rewetting of these degraded bogs has been shown to be a climate-proof, effective mitigation strategy, provided that extreme drying events like summer drought do not become a more frequent occurrence. Importantly, the longer a rewetted bog is established, the more resilient it will be to climate change.
Our recommendations are as follows. The restoration of active bog habitats within all raised and blanket bogs SACs must be implemented rapidly in order to be climate-resilient. Rewetting is a low-hanging-fruit mitigation measure that must be applied to all publicly owned peatlands, wherever feasible. It is not sufficient to stop peat extraction or ban unsustainable uses of peatlands. Rewetting is a mitigation measure that should also be included in the range of governmental climate adaptation tool kits to help landowners to farm carbon. This action is critical to safeguard the future of the massive amount of carbon locked in all peat soils and which will bring associated ecosystem services, including water quality and regulation and biodiversity. Regulatory frameworks and legislation across governmental agencies must be put in place to ensure the sustainable management of peatlands and to support voluntary mechanisms, for example, funds, certification, payments for ecosystem services. Local communities should be supported by adequate funding to help them participate in the rewetting and restoration of their local bogs which are part of our social fabric and cultural heritage. The rewetting of industrial cutaway and large cutover bogs is a low-cost intervention approach that would support immediate and effective climate change mitigation measures. Such mitigation measures should be integrated as requirements in association with other sustainable after-use options to avoid exacerbating global warming. Given the policy vacuum in this area, I recommend that a task force be establish to oversee the after-use of cutaway peatlands in accordance with climate and sustainability objectives.
Our wet living bogs are crucial weapons in our efforts to avoid climate catastrophe. I thank the committee for inviting me to make this presentation.