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Saoirse McHugh: The end of turf-cutting brings opportunities to increase our energy independence

Here on Achill Island, saving turf is not just simply a way to secure fuel, but a way of life, writes Saoirse McHugh.

Saoirse McHugh

IN HER FORTNIGHTLY column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.   

As pressure mounts to switch to renewable energy sources, Ireland lags stubbornly behind most other EU countries.

Ireland’s energy sector accounted for over 60% of the country’s total emissions in 2016, and yet it has been slow to embrace alternatives. 

Turf is one of the least efficient fossil fuels as it emits high levels of CO2 per unit of energy used. Alongside that, intact peat lands play a role in flood management and protecting biodiversity, as well as being an excellent carbon sink.

It is one of the few fuel sources which is more important as a habitat than a fuel.

Turf cutting has a long history in Ireland and has represented a type of fuel sovereignty and independence that would otherwise be unattainable in Ireland without large-scale forestry.

Here on Achill Island, saving turf is not just simply a way to secure fuel, but a way of life. It marks a lovely time of the year.

The sense of satisfaction coming from a few days on the bog is unrivalled, as is the peace that you can feel up there among the larks.

It’s a tradition that many households retain despite it not being necessary anymore. It is part of our heritage and one of the last direct connections with the land that some people have.

On a national scale, there is absolutely no room for industrial peat removal in our carbon budget anymore. Peat is not just used for energy, but also for animal bedding and garden compost.

The government has only very recently started taking the need for a just transition seriously. Minister for Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton wants Ireland to generate 70% of its electricity from renewable source in the future. 

Large areas of Offaly and Longford are almost entirely dependent on the employment stemming from industrial peat extraction, and if anything can be learned from the energy transitions of other countries, it is that we cannot start preparing early enough.

We have already seen surprise job losses and it is so important that these areas are not left to bear the brunt of bad planning. Inclusive and sensitive approaches which engage communities in shaping their own future need to be backed and financially supported by the state.

An energy transition to renewable energy should be a positive opportunity for everybody, but it will have to be designed that way. The potential for the midlands is huge.

Whatever about the opportunities occurring across employment and education, a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy provides a real chance to take back control.

Could we generate our own?

Due to the scalable nature of renewable energy, there is enormous scope for communities to benefit from electricity generation.

Countries like Scotland and Denmark have shown that this type of thing is not just possible but extremely practical and beneficial.

Imagine if a community like Achill decided that we were going to own the renewable energy sources we are inevitably moving towards. Imagine that amount of money being reinvested in the locality – the possibilities would be endless.

As it stands, there are several groups trying to assist communities in getting these types of projects off the ground. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) has advisors available on this and the idea is beginning to gain traction across the country.

However, due to the nature of these projects, community participation is the most important and defining feature of their success. Renewable energy will never just replace fossil fuels entirely, so changes in behaviour and energy efficiency are needed. 

It’s not easy or cheap to change your behaviour and make homes and businesses more energy efficient, so the idea of getting involved with a community energy scheme can seem daunting and impossible for many.

We need to find a way to overcome these hurdles and empower communities to be proactive in defining their energy future.

There is so much opposition to renewable energy projects nationwide because they are often owned by private companies which offer no real benefit to the communities upon which they are imposed.

Villages and towns becoming independent in their own electricity production and usage will need to be supported and prioritised by the government. Currently, it is a complicated process and private firms have a massive advantage over communities in terms of access to capital.

We may have to stop cutting turf but, in doing so, we can expand and increase our energy independence and ownership. There is no reason why Ireland’s energy future should be not belong to the people, but we will have to demand it and accept nothing less. 

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Saoirse McHugh

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