Ireland’s Turf row threatens Government and climate actions

6 May 2022

As a fuel crisis rages across Europe, Irish politics has been transfixed on a particular form of fuel. Peat, or more commonly known as Turf, has been harvested for centuries in Ireland, has played a fundamental role in the economic development and energy needs of many rural communities. 

Yet, despite its historical and cultural role, the burning of peat has serious impacts on air quality and climate change. For example, in order to cut Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, Ireland’s Climate and Health Alliance has called for a ban on the sale of turf, arguing that it causes more than 1,300 deaths in Ireland from air pollution every year.

However, last week Green Party Leader and Minister of the Environment, Eamon Ryan, was warned that a proposed plan to ban the sale of turf could collapse the coalition government.  

Minster Ryan has come under attack by rural TDs, both in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, wary of how an outright ban could affect their communities. Senior Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen, commenting on the issue, noted that the Minister was left “in no doubt” that the majority of Fianna Fáil TDs disagreed with the proposals. In response, the Green Party’s Neasa Hourigan hit out at Fine Gael politicians, saying that during their time in government they had “done nothing” to tackle the burning of fossil fuels. 

Sinn Féin, meanwhile, seized upon the disagreement, putting down a motion (which was defeated) that would scrap the proposed plans. Pearse Doherty, Sinn Féin’s Finance spokesperson argued in the Dáil that turf is used by up to 30% of homes in some counties and that this is the only source of fuel in some homes. Doherty also went on to claim that more than 2,800 people die of fuel poverty every year. 

If not under domestic pressure to tackle climate change, the Government, is also under pressure from the EU to take actions. In 2020, the European Commission had requested “to take urgent action to protect Irish peat bog habitats in accordance with the Habitats Directive and the EIA Directive related to peat extraction on protected bogs” 

Indeed, Commissioner Máiréad McGuinness noted that public policy was changing on turf cutting because of its negative climate impact. She did, however, concede that some people in Ireland still relied on turf as a source of fuel.

In a follow up to last week’s row, Minister Ryan this week stated he was confident that new laws would be brought in this year, saying that “there’s agreement we need to deliver the public health benefit [with] 1,300 lives being lost each year prematurely. We all agreed that that has to be something we tackle and we don’t ignore. To do that also in a way that protects people from fuel poverty…That’s what we need to get right.”