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As Ireland goes green, rural workers feel punished

When John "J.J." Berdon joined Ireland's semi-state peat harvesting company in 1980, he thought he had a job for life.

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Kara Fox
CNN — When John "J.J." Berdon joined Ireland's semi-state peat harvesting company in 1980, he thought he had a job for life.

The 58-year-old lives just a few minutes' drive from his place of work as a truck loader at the Derryfadda site, one of 62 peat-extraction sites on Ireland's ancient peatlands -- colloquially known as the bog -- that cover vast swathes of the country's rural midlands.

That job has been central to the lives of Berdon and some 60 colleagues, most of whom live nearby in small communities along the border of counties Roscommon and Galway.

But this is all soon to change, as his employer, Bord na Móna, announced last October that it would close 17 of its active extraction sites immediately, with the rest to follow by 2027. Up to 500 jobs are expected to go.

The reason, the company says, lies in one word: decarbonization.

Extracting and burning peat contributes to Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions, and for decades, Ireland has put economic development ahead of environmental sustainability.

At the UN Climate Conference (COP 24) in Poland in January, the 2019 Climate Change Performance Index, a report published by Germanwatch, CAN International and the NewClimate Institute that tracks countries' efforts to combat climate change, ranked Ireland the worst country in the European Union for tackling climate change.

Back in 2007, the Irish government pledged to the EU to improve its abysmal environmental record by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% in 2020, compared with 2005 levels. In December, it passed the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, becoming one of the first countries in the world to divest public funds from global fossil fuel companies.

Nonetheless, Ireland is expected to exceed its emission targets by a "significant" amount, according to the country's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Bord na Móna's decision to close its peat extraction sites "is the national and European response to the most serious threatening environmental problem facing the world," Pat Sammon, the company's external communications manager, told CNN.

While scientists have been warning about the ecological consequences of extracting and burning peat for nearly 30 years, Ireland's attachment to its peatlands has been difficult to shake.

Covering around 15% of the country, peat, also known as turf, is formed by the accumulation of dead and slowly decaying plant material in oxygen-deprived, waterlogged environments.

In the 1930s, shortly after the formation of the Irish state, the Turf Development Board was established to encourage self-sufficiency and generate rural employment. By the end of World War II, Bord na Móna took over and took peat harvesting to an industrial scale, providing fuel for the first turf-fired power station. Today, three of the 10 original turf-burning power plants remain -- one of which currently co-fires with biomass.

Burning peat generates more CO2 than coal

While that national project injected new life into some of the country's most economically deprived areas, it has had devastating consequences for the environment.

That's because burning peat generates more carbon dioxide than burning coal. Plus, the peatlands are a carbon sink: they absorb CO2 in the atmosphere and fix it back into the bog. When that peat is dried out to make materials suitable for burning, it damages the 10,000-year-old carbon sinks and can wreak havoc on connected ecosystems.

In 2016, CO2 emissions from peat accounted for approximately 3.4 million tons out of a national total of approximately 61.6 million tons, or 5.6%, according to the EPA. Power generation accounted for 2.60 million tons, with residential use at 0.84 million tons.

While those figures could be seen as a trivial amount in comparison with other greenhouse gas emissions, experts and activists say ending peat extraction and burning for power is a no-brainer.

Tony Lewes, director of the group Friends of the Irish Environment, says that as an environmental policy goal, ending the cutting and burning of peat is a "low-hanging fruit," but he believes Ireland has dragged its feet because of the socioeconomic attachment.

"It's a jobs issue, it's an emotive issue. The history and the culture going behind it -- it's got these local jobs," Lewes told CNN.

'Only a dot in the Atlantic'

Bord na Móna hopes its workers, many of them an aging force, will be tempted by voluntary redundancy packages. But workers like Berdon, who want to continue working until retirement, say people like him are being left behind no viable alternatives.

Signaling for a train of milled peat to enter to the loading dock, Berdon said, "It's over for me."

It is perhaps, unsurprising that in this environment, some workers are reticent to accept the scientific conclusions about peat extraction and harmful carbon emissions.

Pat Hurley, a 57-year-old fitter at Derryfadda who has worked in the bog for 45 years, feels Ireland is being penalized unfairly compared with larger countries with higher greenhouse gas emissions.

"The likes of Russia, America, China -- if they were doing what we were doing, it wouldn't be mentioned, but were not supposed to be doing it. If we were to go all green here it's not going to make a difference to the overall picture."

"We're only a dot in the Atlantic really," he added.

Other workers say they understand that the changes must happen, but add that they would be much more accepting of the change if some thought had been put into creating alternative jobs for them in advance.

Bord na Móna told CNN that, as it decreases peat production, it is accelerating moves into renewable energy and other low-carbon commercial activities.

But Martin Finnerty, a digger operator at Bord na Móna for 11 years, who has worked on the company's biomass site for the past few seasons, says those jobs haven't emerged yet. Plus, he doubts their ability to provide work for the whole community.

"I'm all on for change and anything that would be making it more cleaner and more viable but the Bord (na Móna) was on about putting up solar panels and wind farms but they don't create any employment or jobs," he said.

Like some of his colleagues, Finnerty believes that politicians in Dublin and "good doers" don't understand the social impact that the environmental initiatives have on local communities.

"A lot of them people aren't from around here, they're not people who have lived here," he said.

Subsidies a problem -- and a solution

Some experts, like Professor John FitzGerald, chair of the National Expert Advisory Council on Climate Change, argue that the government already has a viable solution for the workers, the public, and the environment.

At present, consumers pay €3.50 ($4) as a "public service obligation" on every electricity bill to subsidize peat-fired electricity generation.

The amount raised annually from the subsidy adds up to €100,000 ($114,000) per job, Fitzgerald says -- more than twice what the average Bord na Móna worker earns annually.

"You could shut it down tomorrow and pay the workers the subsidies. They would be twice as well off and the climate would be much better off. But alternatively, you could find alternative employment for them and close down immediately," FitzGerald said, adding that ultimately the consumer is footing the bill to keep an environmentally unsound industry alive -- at least for the rest of this year. The government will pull the plug on those direct subsidies in 2019.

Still, the impact of that industry will continue to be felt for a while yet: Peat will still provide some of the power at electric stations for another eight years.

Plus, as Bord na Móna winds down its peat extraction for energy stations, its 2018 end-of-year report states that it will be "continuing its development" in peat extraction for horticultural use "with an expanding footprint in international markets."

Lewes of Friends of the Irish Environment says the company's plan to eliminate peat-generated electricity is nothing but a smokescreen that "ignores entirely the expanding horticultural industry," noting that Ireland still has a long way to go in reducing its carbon footprint.

A carbon tax to 'nudge people'

While industrial peat operations begin to subside, turf is still used by many as an affordable, easily accessible power supply at home, with domestic turf cutters like Finnerty saying they are following in the footsteps of their forefathers and only making a small dent in the habitat for their personal use.​

"Everyone leaves trees and sows trees and leaves habitats, you look after wildlife and things," Finnerty said.

But the Irish Peatland Conservation Council says that traditional hand-cutting accounts for a 64% loss of the country's raised bog habitats.​

FitzGerald argues that the only way to enforce any holistic change is for Ireland to increase its carbon tax, while simultaneously aiding the public in a number of ways, including retrofitting old homes to make them more energy-efficient.

The carbon tax in Ireland is currently levied at €20 ($23) per tonne. The government did not raise it in its 2019 budget.

As it stands, the relatively low carbon tax, which makes up less than 2% of taxes on products, provides consumers with little incentive to decarbonize, according to Ireland's Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

Now, the government is weighing the idea of a carbon check in 2020 -- money raised from an increase in the carbon tax that would be given back to households investing in solar panels instead of high-carbon fuels such as peat or coal.

Richard Bruton, the Minister of Communications, Climate Action & Environment, says the purpose of a carbon tax is to "nudge people to change their behavior."

A new ESRI study found that both households and producers would face relatively small increases in costs in the event of a higher carbon tax, estimating that even doubling it would increase consumer and producer prices by just 0.53% and 0.37%, respectively.

But many in rural communities with easy access to peat say a rise in the tax would punish them further.

Standing in front of his shed filled with turf for the winter, Finnery said: "You're not going to stop people who were cutting their turf for the last 100 years."

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