For peat's sake: Ireland needs to stop the turf wars and tackle the climate crisis

The ‘turf wars’ that have been exercising so many politicians and commentators in Ireland so noisily over the past few weeks are symptomatic of the performative politics that frequently replaces definitive and forceful leadership when it comes to the climate crisis.

For those people living outside Ireland, a quick explanation. The Irish government has proposed a ban on the sale of turf in a bid to reduce the practice of turf cutting which has a significant detrimental environmental impact on Ireland’s peat bogs.

As Pat Leahy put it in a recent column for The Irish Times: “The bogs are a precious natural resource and cutting them up for fuel is like burning the Amazon rain forest, except there’s rather more of the Amazon.”

Sadly, a large number of people have been very passionate and vocal in defence of Irish people being allowed to continue burning Ireland’s Amazon rain forest. The opposition has been framed in terms of protecting poorer elderly people living in rural areas who rely on turf to heat their homes. There’s no doubt they deserve to be protected until such time as their houses are upgraded to an alternative fuel source, but this is not an argument in favour of continuing to cut turf. Instead it should act as a spur to accelerate the modernisation of houses that still rely on such an antiquated unenvironmental fuel source.

So much for the performative opposition but what about the people pretending at government?

While measures aimed at reducing turf cutting are to be welcomed, they are not the most pressing issue confronting Ireland when it comes to achieving its climate goals. What they are, however, is a fig-leaf for the Green Party as part of the coalition government and a distraction from the more wide-ranging measures that need to be adopted and imposed by government to address the climate crisis.

It says something about the government’s subservience to vested interests in areas such as agriculture, business, transport, technology and development that it chooses to focus on actions seeking to change the behaviour of individuals instead of curtailing major carbon emitters and consumers of energy.

This is not a surprise. The two ‘major’ parties do not appear to have the capacity to engage with and challenge the interests they represent in any meaningful way over the climate crisis. Instead, the limited actions they have been prepared to endorse are targeted at the general populace. As the ‘turf wars’ demonstrate, this refusal to govern and control larger interests while imposing restrictions and costs on ordinary people, has created a sense of grievance that threatens to undermine and cloud the clarity of purpose required to address the climate crisis.

The ‘actions’ undertaken by the government are not meaningful because they do not require significant sacrifices by the largest emitters of greenhouse gases or users of energy. This is precisely why they have been proposed and agreed by the current government.

I have no doubt that if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were serious about tackling the climate crisis, they would adopt much tougher measures to combat it. I am equally certain that the Green Party would have implemented more widely-targeted policies than restricting turf burning if it was the majority party in the government.

Unfortunately, Ireland has a government that, for ideological reasons, is reluctant to impose climate controls on markets but much happier to do so on people. The problem is that the country needs both to meet its targets. At the moment, the government appears happier to lose the support and solidarity of its citizens in achieving those targets if it means absolving the large scale emitters.

In his column, Leahy asks: “If we cannot agree to stop stripping and hacking away the bogs and burning turf, then what hope do we have of implementing the wider climate action agenda?”

On the surface, that appears an entirely reasonable question but it also betrays the inherent impotence and weakness of the government’s approach to the climate crisis. It has things the wrong way around. It’s precisely because there does not appear to be a wider climate action agenda that touches on all parts of society with equal effect that we cannot get agreement to stop stripping and hacking away the bogs and burning turf.

The climate crisis cannot be defeated by a bottom up approach. We’ve reached the point where the government has to start taking control of the fight to protect the climate and provide leadership, instead of trying to shift responsibility for it onto individuals. This is an emergency, it requires real leadership from the government. Sadly, the Irish government does not appear equal to the task.

Leahy writes that politicians need “the courage to pursue policies that may be right but are unpopular; and the skills to bring enough people along to make it work”. Right now, the Irish government’s policy seems to be based on pursuing a very small number of policies that may be right but will only achieve minor change and are also unpopular, without bringing enough people along to make them work.

According to Leahy, the turf wars demonstrate “just how difficult the implementation of the climate action agenda will be”. It would be more accurate to say that they illustrate just how pitiful the government’s implementation of the climate action agenda has been.