My first COP26 speech: Peatland restoration - a nature-based solution


Below is the text of my speech, ‘Peatland restoration-a nature-based solution’, that I delivered at the Activating stakeholders in Peatland restoration – successes and failures event at COP26 UN Climate Change Conference COP26 on 12/11/21, which was hosted by the Government of Iceland and Soil Conservation Service Iceland.


A chairde, friends,


I am delighted to be here in the pavilion in person with you today to talk about Ireland’s experience on our path to restoring and rehabilitating our peatlands. Ireland has one of the highest proportion of the total European Union resource of the Atlantic raised bog habitat type at over 50% with 99.9% of the blanket bog habitat in the Atlantic bio geographical area occurring between the UK and Ireland. As such, Ireland and its citizens have a special responsibility for their management and conservation at an international level.


Across the world in many disparate countries, peatlands play a very important role in achieving a reduced global carbon emissions. You will likely have heard this said many times these past 2 weeks but it is such an important message and worth repeating. Peatlands cover just 3% of the world’s surface, yet hold nearly 30% of its soil carbon. Simply put, to make savings in carbon we need to restore our peatlands.


It is vital therefore that we have discussions like this one today which allow us to exchange knowledge and ideas on to best to improve on our efforts regarding the conservation, restoration and sustainable management of our peatlands.


Today we are here at COP26, a defining event for every citizen of the world. Over these past 2 weeks the world’s governments have worked to agree policies which will put the planet on a path to aggressively cut greenhouse gas emissions and slow Earth's warming. I am confident that Ireland, with its newly published National Climate Action Plan, is on the right path to meet this challenge and the successful management of our peatlands is integral to this Plan.


Peatlands have always been important places in Ireland, even seen as spiritual places. They are a vital part of our cultural as well as natural landscape which we must now strive to protect for our children and future generations.


Ireland now has several framework documents which form the corner stone of our peatlands policy. They are the National Peatlands Strategy published in 2015 currently undergoing a mid term review, the National Biodiversity Strategy, the Climate Action Plan and the national raised Bog special areas of conservation Management Plan.

Today, we have a better understanding - through study, research and land management experience - of the longer term benefits that our peatlands can provide to society as a whole, particularly in terms of assisting in the capping and slowing down of carbon emissions into our atmosphere. Alongside this, the restoration of our bogs also brings incalculable benefits regarding bio-diversity, air quality, water quality and of course the protection of our cultural heritage.


So while work on peatlands conservation may be challenging at times and require significant financing, the rewards for our society, and for current and future generations, are priceless. And so we push forward to develop further expertise in this sector and increase the footprint of those peatlands where conservation measures are put in place.


In Ireland our peatlands are a key nature based solution to climate change but are also culturally very important. We are very aware that, to be successful in our peatlands restoration work and revitalise our bogs, we need to fully engage with communities and a wide range of stakeholders to ensure that there is a strong awareness of our work in this field. Our peatlands are a national cultural and natural resource and scientists, conservation practitioners, local stakeholders, farmers, NGOs, and all other interested parties must be involved in the conversation about our peatlands management and conservation strategy.


While it can be difficult at times to reach consensus across such a diverse range of stakeholders, I think that, what we can all agree on as a society, is the imperative need to address climate change and the loss of bio-diversity and habitats. We can all agree that we must act decisively to not only halt, but where possible, to reverse the current devastating trend.


From the experience of my Department I know it is crucial that the government helps and supports community projects, which dovetail with our national peatlands management strategies, to achieve positive climate change results. Local communities and volunteers are the custodians of our heritage and must be supported in their efforts.


My Department administers a Peatlands Community engagement scheme which funds a diverse range of local initiatives that support restoration, conservation of raised and blanket bogs and are of benefit to the community through employment, educational and recreational amenities. I am delighted to be able to support organisations such as Irelands Community Wetlands Forum which does great work bringing communities together in support of the sustainable use of wetlands. These are the local success stories we need to build upon, in order emphasise the benefits of peatlands conservation when combined with the principles of Just Transition.


Over recent years the increase in funding for the conservation, management and restoration of raised bog peatlands in Ireland has allowed for a significant acceleration in the original roadmap for the restoration of the designated raised bog network.


We are undertaking significant actions to help reverse the losses that have occurred due to various pressures and threats to protected raised bogs over the years. Day to day we are engaging with stakeholders, surveying, monitoring, researching and developing new policies and schemes to help stand up to climate change and allow natural conditions in our peatlands to be reinstated.


We in Ireland face challenges surrounding peatlands management which I’m sure are similar to those our neighbouring countries have encountered; financing and resources must be secured, land ownership issues surrounding bogs can be very complicated and significant investigative and preparatory work must be undertaken before work on peatlands can be undertaken.


However, these challenges can be overcome, and by sharing and discussing each country’s experiences, as we are doing here today, we hope to discover innovative and new solutions to these challenges.


Notwithstanding the difficulties and challenges we face, my Department, building on the work done on previous peatlands restoration projects which spanned over 30 years, will accelerate the restoration of almost 22,000 hectares of protected raised bog in the coming years.


Ireland is also currently undertaking 3 EU LIFE funded projects. One of these is the very successful Living Bog project, which is near completion and will have restored 12 raised bog Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) throughout the midlands region.


The second is a new EU LIFE funded Integrated project, LIFE "Wild Atlantic Nature" which has a large focus on peatlands in the north and west. This project seeks to improve Ireland's performance in conserving habitats, particularly blanket bogs and is piloting a results based payment scheme to reward participating farmers for environmental services.


The third is a €10m EU co-funded LIFE integrated project ‘Peatlands and People’ which involves the development of a Peatlands Knowledge Centre of Excellence and will act as a Just Transition accelerator.


The Enhanced Decommissioning Rehabilitation and Restoration Scheme, one of the largest projects in Europe of its kind, is regulated by my Department and funded by the EU National Recovery and Resilience Plan. It encompasses peatlands management work on approximately 33,000 hectares of Bord na Móna, a semi state energy company, owned peatlands, which were previously harvested for peat extraction for electricity generation.


The scale of investment required on a national scale to support and sustain an accelerated programme of peatlands conversation across the public and private sectors is significant. Ireland is exploring options to create a governance structure that can combine and mobilise a number of income streams for peatland restoration.


The ambition is to build a model that will bring on board business, landowners and local communities to drive restoration at a landscape scale and work towards achieving our biodiversity, climate, water and just transition targets.


Great work is being done by a number of different actors in Ireland- the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) of my Department, by state agencies, environmental organisations and through community and volunteer efforts to restore degraded peatlands in Ireland. I am delighted that we can share our experiences and lessons learned in a forum such as this.


For every project we undertake, the expertise of our scientists and workforce in Ireland grows in the field of peatlands management. I am sure that this experience is similar to our colleagues in Iceland, to our European neighbours and to other countries further afield. We need to harness this wide pool of experience in order to make our work in peatlands management as effective and efficient as possible. This is an area of ongoing study and development. Collaboration and the exchange of ideas, new breakthroughs and expertise; done in partnership with stakeholders is key to all our continued success.