Once the peat is cut and dried, it can be burned as fuel.

Power Source

People in Ireland have used peat for fuel for centuries. Families used simple tools to cut brick-shaped blocks of peat soil from the bog. They laid the bricks out across the ground to dry in the breeze and summer sun. When dried, people carted the peat home. They burned these large stockpiles during winter to warm their homes.

In the last hundred years, that harvest has moved from simple tools to larger machines. In addition to using peat at home, Ireland began burning millions of tons of peat each year in power plants to generate electricity. Today, nearly eight percent of Irish electricity is generated by burning peat, and more than 70,000 households still use peat to heat their homes.

While this is an important part of culture and the Irish economy, it is also releasing thousands of years of stored carbon into the atmosphere. When carbon reenters the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it further warms our planet. Then bogs become carbon sources, not carbon sinks. Peat is a fossil fuel, but an inefficient one. Peat is actually worse than other fossil fuels in terms of carbon emissions. Burning peat for fuel emits more carbon than coal does. Yet, it produces less heat or electricity. Compared to natural gas, peat releases twice the amount of carbon dioxide.

A man stacks bricks of peat to dry.

Some Irish homes are still warmed by peat fires.

Laws to
Protect Peat

In 2019, the Irish government made a climate action plan. It called for reducing carbon emissions to protect peatlands. However, it is difficult to ask people to change their way of life, especially if it has been part of their culture for generations.

People who use peat to heat their homes often have a deep love for the fires it makes to warm their homes. Burning something else, says Mary Leybourne in Cloghan, Ireland, just wouldn’t feel the same. She loves the smell of these fires. “It brings you back to the old days,” she says.

Peat is also a cheap fuel source. Some households might struggle to pay for other types of fuel, like oil. Still, while cultural change may be difficult, if Ireland wants to reduce its peatland carbon emissions and have bogs in the future, people will need to change the way they think about and use their bogs.

A local landowner helps me to identify bog plants.

Insect-eating sundew plants thrive in a bog.

A Future for Bogs

In Ireland, both those who cut peat and the conservationists have something in common: a love for the bogs. Even though the two groups have different visions about the future of the bogsthe turf-cutters want to use peat and the conservationists want to preserve itthey both feel strongly connected to these wetlands.

In Cloughjordan, Ireland, peat user Albert Austin had cut the local peat bog for decades and had many fond memories of harvesting his peat. When he was asked to stop harvesting a bog called Scohaboy Bog, it was a big change for him.

Through conversations about bog conservation, he decided to sell his section of the bog to a government conservation program so that it could be preserved. He is proud that his community will have a bog into the future, one that the next generation can enjoy, too. Scohaboy Bog has now transitioned from a site of peat harvesting and forestry to a recovering wetland! These conversations continue all over Ireland as communities work to protect their wetlands, bog by bog.