Peatland restoration: socio-ecological justice or odd future?
Held on the 22nd of February, The future of Ireland’s Peatlands: Science, engineering, and a Just Transition, took place in the Abbeyleix Manor Hotel organized by iCRAG, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre in Applied Geosciences, and attended by scientists, engineers, mature and early researchers, industry experts, public servants, local authority workers, and members of the public.
After departing my train in Portlaoise and waiting for the bus to Abbeyleix in the waiting room, I met Alessandra Accogli, a UCD Ph.D. candidate. She broke the ice by asking if I was attending the conference in Portlaoise and we began to discuss our interests in the waiting room. After mentioning that I was a Research Assistant on Just Transition, she replied that she was most looking forward to those talks this afternoon. We exchanged stories, bought pastries after getting off the bus at Abbeyleix, and discussed Nature Rights as we walked, and were two of the first to arrive to the hotel.
Taking a seat with a coffee in hand, the first talks began. CEO of iCRAG, Prof. Murray Hitzman, stated that iCRAG aims to connect “people, society, and resources.” He described how minerals under peatlands could be extracted and used for job creation and money to the exchequer. While I thoroughly agree with the need for jobs and tax contributions, having discussed the Rights of Nature on my way here, I was suddenly more aware of the contesting ideologies in the room.
The following speakers gave the context of peatland restoration at both the local and global level. Dr. Shane Regan raised the new UN Nature Restoration Law meaning that peatland restoration would be made a legal duty to Ireland. Dr. Matt Sanders raised recent findings that as a country, Ireland has suffered the greatest loss of wetlands since 1700 in the world. But I was reminded of human care for the natural world as Dr. Mark McCorry described the role communities were now playing in peatland restoration.
Hearing of the interest financial institutions were now taking in peatlands reminded me of the issues indigenous groups face when ecosystems are financialised for carbon credits in Africa and South America among other places. I wondered if capital and carbon markets would lead to local contestations in the Irish midlands between locals and corporate interests around land ownership and access as they have done in many other places in the world.
The following talks detailed impressive high-tech and innovative approaches to monitoring and evaluating peatland restoration. Scanning peatlands by satellites sounded overly advanced to me for peatland restoration but was a research approach being employed by more than one of the research teams. I wasn’t surprised that means for surveilling Earth’s ecosystems were being invested in. On a planet with increasing climate change-related events, it seemed an oddly fitting action that humans now measure their life support systems from space.
During lunch, I chatted optimistically with a Bord na Mona worker. Over soup, he friendly remarked that Just Transition was “all talk”. I found it interesting how this concept, Just Transition, the hope of many for a socially just decarbonisation process, can be reduced to hot air. And anyway, I couldn’t disagree.
The attendees were brought into the fresh air where The Abbeyleix Bog Project, a community volunteer group, described how they had managed the restoration of the Abbeyleix bog in situ. I felt deeply moved as a volunteer described how people came to the bog now to appreciate its natural beauty. He invited attendees to find a place to sit by the bog, close their eyes, and listen to the vibrancy of life and biodiversity in the area.
The conference resumed inside the hotel with talks on Just Transition. Dr. Aparajita Banerjee presented on Spatial Injustice. She described how she went door-to-door to get interviews with people in the midlands on Just Transition. To ensure excerpts from these interviews were heard, she read “the world’s just supposed to transition, that’s a farce, an absolute farce. You listen to the politicians and they run with the hare, and hunt with the hound.”
Having attended protests in Offaly organised by Bord na Mona workers and supported by UNITE and ICTU, Dr. Geertje Schuitema described the frustration of communities feeling excluded from the current low-carbon transition. For a Just Transition, justice cannot remain an abstract concept regardless of the amount of optimism poured into it, but instead something that has to be delivered.
Speaking, Koen Verbruggen suggested “digging our way to a Just Transition” however, whether geothermal energy or mineral extraction equated to a Just Transition was unsure to me. Both these processes can damage surrounding ecosystems and the original idea of Just Transition from the 90’s aimed to bridge solidarity between workers’ welfare and environmental protection.
Considering the previous section detailed the frustration and friction around peatlands, I felt the following section on engineering was a bit removed from the accumulating socio-political debates in the room. The decision to stop cutting peat was controversial, and regardless of the relation between environmentalism and decarbonisation, the implementation of wind turbines in rural areas is contentious. The ability to reduce landslides and build roads of peatlands without damaging them sounds positive to me as an outsider. However, I imagined that locals would be more concerned with why such engineering is being considered and for whose economic benefit.
The closing discussion brought much of the overarching political context to the fore. It was stated that energy poverty was central to the arising issues around peatlands and that carbon captured by peatlands would be too little and too slow to have a significant effect on climate change. Peat had been a cheap indigenous source of fuel that had provided dignified jobs to people in the midlands but now, Bord na Mona briquettes would be no more. Of additional issue is that as peat briquettes are being imported into Ireland, the recent policy changes without market regulation were causing carbon leakage alongside the loss of jobs in Ireland.
Peatland restoration, although positive to those communities which have engaged in protecting and enjoying their local peatlands, was resulting in overall economic loss to many midland communities and energy poverty to those who relied on them for an affordable fuel without climate benefit. This would measure well for Ireland meeting its climate and nature restoration targets, but carbon leakage and the loss of jobs signal an oversight in current policy and a need for more joined-up thinking. Collaboration that would remove societal siloes seemed to be desired by most practitioners in the room.
The engineers, scientists, practitioners, and public who attended this conference have a passion for the natural world, and protecting nature is not debated. But what is of contestation is who benefits from developments and how can research can be made more participatory, beneficial, and even deliver justice to people who need help in Ireland’s current socio-political context.
In the earlier sessions, it was stated that natural capital markets were growing evermore interested in Ireland’s peatlands and that validation of peatlands restoration was largely for the sake of international validation. Despite talks on social justice, this felt to me like a background agenda that loomed over the talks having much sway on what research was being funded and why.
I also wondered about the satellites floating through space scanning global ecosystems for their changes and responses to climate change and anthropogenic restoration. All that metal up there, put together with resources taken from the earth, monitoring Earth’s topology for changes in vegetative habitats. And then all these people on the ground, in their communities, trying to restore ecosystems for the benefit of our climate and the enjoyment of locals. Meanwhile, people are losing their jobs and others struggle to heat their homes.
Leaving this conference, I felt that work in engineering and science on peatlands is becoming less and less value-free. These practices must be able to face the socio-political grit of climate action and the injustice that can occur during decarbonisation. There is no roadmap for a Just Transition and consequently, a transition is always going to be messy but the actions taken today will shape the future of the midlands as well as the planets. I wonder if the UN considers communities as a part of or apart from nature.
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