Turf is one of the worst polluting fossil fuels. The Irish turf-burning industry could learn something from Pope Francis
In April, Russia closed the spigot on natural gas pipelines to Poland and Bulgaria after both nations refused to pay for the gas in rubles, accelerating an energy crisis that is reaching across Europe.
While for years there have been conversations in the European Union about transitioning away from fossil fuels, those plans have gathered urgency because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Recognition that every liter of gas and oil imported from Russia is contributing to the destruction of Mariupol or the siege of Odessa has focused minds across the European Union.
Such conversations lack the same urgency in Ireland as they might have in Germany or the Baltic States. The majority of Ireland’s natural gas supply comes from the United Kingdom, so an abrupt boycott of Russian gas across the European Union would not immediately threaten supply in Ireland, though it would surely mean higher energy prices for all.
While for years there have been conversations in the European Union about transitioning away from fossil fuels, those plans have gathered urgency because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Before the invasion, E.U. dialogue around energy transition had been shaped by the climate catastrophe. Around that context, the heat wave unfolding across Pakistan and India would have been a more likely subject of worry. But the Russian war in Ukraine has shifted attention and priorities. Now energy planners are increasingly concerned with the need to enhance the energy and political security of the European Union itself.
One might imagine that Ireland could play a central role in those plans because of its green energy potential. The prominent Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole recently pointed out that Ireland’s “maritime territory of more than 420,000 sq. km. has the best wind speeds for offshore energy generation in the whole of the E.U.”
But the conversation in Ireland this week has not been dominated by discussion of obstacles to wind farms nor by analysts’ suggestions for overcoming grid backlogs that Ireland’s dated energy infrastructure will create when it is forced to handle vast amounts of wind power. Instead, the nation’s political attention is centered on a local fossil fuel, a marginal resource even in Ireland: turf.
While it may not be well known outside of Ireland, the summertime practice of cutting turf from local boglands is a culturally significant exercise, perhaps most famously captured in the bog poems of Seamus Heaney. In one of his most revered poems, “Digging,” Heaney reflects on how the familial tradition forged around digging is continued by his own work with words: “My grandfather cut more turf in a day / Than any other man on Toner’s bog.… Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.”
The arduous task involves cutting “sods” of peat, known as turf, from the bog using a specialized spade, then drying peat sods out and transporting them home. One of my own earliest memories involved a summer family “holiday” largely dedicated to storing dried turf.
The conversation in Ireland has not been dominated by discussion of obstacles to wind farms. Instead, the nation’s political attention is centered on a local fossil fuel, a marginal resource even in Ireland: turf.
What was not widely recognized in my childhood is that turf is one of the worst polluting fossil fuels available (that is, one of the worst offenders in terms of impact on climate change), generating more carbon emissions than even coal while creating less heat. The high rates of particulate matter thrown in the air by turf burning also mean that it is especially damaging to the human respiratory system. The familiar smell of a turf fire is a source of nostalgia for many, but it is a harbinger of suffering for people with asthma and other chronic conditions.
And all too often, Irish boglands were valued only as sources of turf—land that could not be built or farmed on, instead treated like wasteland. From that perspective, cutting the turf each year was an expression of rural practicality, or making some good out of land that could all too easily be disregarded. What environmentalists in recent decades have shown is that this operating assumption is backward. Rather than being a waste of space, in the age of rampant greenhouse effects, boglands represent priceless storehouses of carbon, buffers of flood water and vibrant homes of rich biodiversity. Cutting out the turf, and then, worse, burning it, is doubly self-defeating in the effort to reduce carbon emissions.
Considering the role of turf-cutting in Irish cultural memory and its environmental impact in the age of climate catastrophe, some kind of clash should have been anticipated. Yet the European Commission made no allusion to turf-cutting as a cultural practice in its call to limit the burning of turf in Ireland. That oversight was replicated when the Irish government announced plans recently to phase in what would in the end be a ban on commercial harvesting of peat.
To be clear, the proposed move did not ban the cutting of turf, just the selling of it. Yet an immediate public backlash to the proposal prompted a swift modification. The revised policy not only protects the right of families to cut peat from their own bogs, but also allows small-scale trading of turf with neighbors to continue. Government leaders had faced internal dissent, not just from backbenchers but from cabinet ministers appalled at the potential electoral consequences of any move that challenged the tradition of cutting turf.
The widespread objection to what might be seen as a straightforward and rational environmental move is not even grounded in the actual use of turf. Less than 5 percent of Irish households use such solid fuel products as their primary source of heat.
The broad rejection of the ban may be an expression of a rural backlash against a Dublin political culture that is perceived to be driven primarily by urban concerns, without a proper appreciation of the life in traditional Irish farming communities.
Destroying bogland is the Irish equivalent of burning the Amazon.
Opposition parties were delighted to highlight the government’s proposed ban of an affordable source of home heat as the prices of oil and gas seem set to climb higher and when government-backed retrofitting of housing is not yet widely available (though it should be noted that such a plan has already been launched and explicitly prioritizes people at risk of energy poverty).
Christians observing this latest debate might wonder if both sides might benefit from drawing on the resources offered by Catholic social teaching. In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis calls for a transformation in environmental policy so dramatic that he describes it in terms of an “ecological conversion.” But his seemingly utopian call is not politically naïve.
Alert to how fractious these decisions can be, the pope advises policymakers to develop and implement transparent and dialogical processes for charting the way forward on alternative energy. He is clear that “the local population should have a special place at the table” (No. 183) because they best understand the impact of decisions.
This recent clash might suggest that the consultative measures that have been deployed by Irish environmentalists are not achieving their aims—and equally that those who insist on drying bogs and cutting them up to burn them could benefit from hearing more clearly Francis’ argument in “Fratelli Tutti,” which might be summarized: “If God is your Father, then every human being is your brother and sister.”
Destroying bogland is the Irish equivalent of burning the Amazon, and while the small landholder in Connemara is not directly culpable for the devastating heat waves India and Pakistan are enduring, they are at least as complicit as every other fossil-fuel burner in the energy-consuming West.
To adapt may be painful, but it is an act of care for those who are already suffering far greater pains because of carbon emissions. In “Fratelli Tutti,” Francis teaches: “Solidarity finds concrete expression in service… And service in great part means ‘caring for vulnerability, for the vulnerable members of our families, our society, our people’” (No. 115).
Ireland’s turf battle reached a climax on April 27, when the coalition government, including traditional powerhouses Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael with the Green Party, easily defeated an opposition move to overturn the turf ban, but only after making a commitment to halt its implementation until at least next year. With Russian forces’ territorial ambitions in Ukraine wreaking energy havoc across continental Europe, Ireland’s turf war demonstrates that as much as contemporary Irish society may revel in its progressive international reputation, parochial issues still have the capacity to dominate the local political process.
If this dispute is anything to go by, Ireland is unlikely to easily embrace its potential as Europe’s green alternative to fossil fuels. It may be a long time before wind farms trouble the sight lines of famous Irish panoramas.