Digging ourselves a dangerous hole with peat extraction policy

Our cherished identity is blown to the four winds if we remain wedded to the fossil fuel industry, writes Victoria White.

Digging ourselves a dangerous hole with peat extraction policy

It is heartening to see the Dáil standing to attention today to pass a bill banning the Irish Strategic Investment Fund from investing in fossil fuel exploration or exploitation.

Trócaire, which has led the charge on the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill, deserves our gratitude as does Independent TD Thomas Pringle, who moved the bill.

The move to divest the Strategic Investment Fund from fossil fuels within five years is not insignificant. The fund invested €318m of our savings in 153 such companies last year.

Think of the idiocy of that. A fund which is meant to invest to secure our future and which began life as the National Pension Fund has been investing in burning the fossil fuels which are quickly robbing us of our future.

Pringle’s basic contention is sound: We should not be investing as a nation in industries which threaten our national security. Four-fifths of the fossil fuels in the ground need to remain there if humankind is to have a sustainable future on this planet.

Trócaire and Stop Climate Chaos reckon that fully exploiting the oil and gas fields alone would bring the global temperature up by 1.5ºC, and exploiting the coal would quickly burst the 2ºC ceiling beyond which all the bets are off for our children.

Our cherished identity as a kind-hearted peace-broker is blown to the four winds if we remain wedded to the fossil fuel industry that drives climate change and drives someone out of his or her home every second in the developing world.

Why, then, are we as a nation still investing heavily in digging peat out of the ground and using it to generate electricity?

Why, when a large majority of the TDs in Dáil Éireann are prepared to stand up and be counted against the Strategic Investment Fund investing in fossil fuels, are they not prepared to stand against State investment in Bord na Móna’s extraction of fossil fuels?

I hate to be the bad fairy on what should be seen as a happy occasion, but I can’t help seeing hypocrisy here on the part of the Government and most of the opposition.

Peat is rocket fuel for global warming. It is even worse than coal.

The Environmental Protection Agency noticed an unexpected increase in our emissions last year and noted as a key factor the State’s decision to continue to fund peat-fired electricity generation until 2030.

The chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council, John Fitzgerald, has crunched the numbers on this for me.

We are paying €3.50 on every electricity bill to subsidise peat-fired electricity generation under a so-called “public service obligation” to support employment in the Midlands. Mr Fitzgerald has worked out that this equates to €100,000 per job, though the average wage of such workers is €50,000.

It would make good economic sense every which way if the State were simply to pay these workers their wages at least until the promised conclusion of this form of energy generation in 2030, as long as they stopped doing their jobs.

That would save the State hard cash as well as helping to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions which are so out of control they may cost us up to €6m in annual fines by 2020.

The role of the bog should be to store carbon, not to release it. Carbon storage is the job those bogs have been doing in the 10,000 years since they were formed.

Once they are gone they are gone, along with all the bogland biodiversity they sustain. The Government’s stated objective of stopping peat-fired electricity generation by 2030 will ensure that there is virtually no workable bog left and very few bog-workers who might do a dreadful thing and vote against Fine Gael.

There is a lot of talk today about the “symbolism” of the passing of the Divestment Bill but this country has absolutely no credibility when it comes to climate change mitigation unless it divests itself of peat-fired electricity generation by 2020.

That is the year we are predicted to be one of only two EU countries to miss our emissions reductions targets, having achieved a one per cent reduction in our emissions since 2005 rather than a 20% reduction. Yet we will still be gaily stripping irreplaceable peat out of our bogs and burning it to make electricity.

The cognitive dissonance which allows Fine Gael and sadly, Fianna Fáil politicians to believe there is a distinction between our economic well-being and our environmental sustainability is alive and well and living in Dáil Éireann.

This cognitive dissonance seems to particularly affect TDs when they are in government and have the power to change things. I am thinking of Fianna Fáil taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s defence of our economy under questioning by Green Party TD, Trevor Sargent: “I am not responsible for the planet, as the deputy is well aware.”

As if to make this point, Fine Gael minister Damien English spoke against the Divestment Bill getting a second reading in the Dáil last year on the grounds that it might interfere with the ISIF’s “stated functions” and impact on “Irish economic competitiveness”.

He defended the Government commitment to climate change defence with the words: “One of my youngest colleagues drives an electric car and sets an example.”

The energy figures he outlined do underline our terrible energy insecurity with the vast majority of our energy sources still coming through increasingly dodgy Britain. But peat contributes merely 6% to our energy generation and is an insignificant factor in building energy security.

Damien English made a strong play about the role of investment in fossil fuel companies to make our so-called “transition” to renewable forms of energy.

DESPITE Pringle’s original determination that the Divestment Bill would not be “flexible” when it came to investment in fossil fuel companies, the Bill which garners the support of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil explicitly allows the ISIF to invest in a company such as Bord na Móna if it is satisfied that the investment helps the transition to a lower carbon economy, in line with Government policy.

How useless that Government policy is is underlined by the fact that they plan to continue burning the bogs to make electricity until there is no bog left. The targets they have set themselves are as weak as they can be and there is no plan to reach them.

The ISIF will make these strategic decisions itself, without any reference to the Climate Change Advisory Council and for this reason I can’t help wondering if the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill will really taste like what it says on the tin.

It is impossible to believe Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil support meaningful divestment from fossil fuels while they are committed to investing €100m a year in making electricity by ripping up our bogs .

Our cherished identity is blown to the four winds if we remain wedded to the fossil fuel industry

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