Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 15 November 2022
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action
Sequestration and Land Management-Nature Restoration: Discussion
I have received apologies from Deputy Farrell and Senator Higgins. The purpose of today's session is to have a discussion on sequestration and land management-nature restoration. On behalf of the committee, I welcome from Teagasc Professor Frank O’Mara, director; Dr. Lillian O’Sullivan, research officer in the environment, soils and land management department; Mr. John Spink, head of programme in the crop science department; and Dr. Karl Richards, head of research department, environment, soils and land use department. From the University of Galway, I welcome Mr. Niall Ó Brolcháin, a research associate.
Before we begin I will read out the note on privilege. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction. I do not think we have any witnesses attending online today.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I also remind members that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located on the Leinster House complex. In this regard, I ask all members who are joining us online to confirm prior to making their contributions to the meeting that they are indeed in their offices or at least on the grounds of the Leinster House campus.
I call Professor O'Mara to make his opening statement.
Dr. Frank O'Mara:
I thank the joint committee for the opportunity to present in relation to sequestration and land management-nature restoration. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 sets out in law Ireland’s commitment to reducing overall greenhouse gas, GHG, emissions by 51% by 2030 and achieving climate neutrality by 2050. The sectoral emissions targets set by Government in 2022 include a 25% reduction, equivalent to 5.75 Mt CO2 eq., in emissions from the agriculture sector. The setting of a national target for land use, land use change and forestry, LULUCF, has been deferred to allow new scientific knowledge to emerge, but it is expected to be within the 37% to 58% range set out in the 2021 climate action plan. The Teagasc marginal abatement cost curve incorporates measures to reduce emissions or increase sequestration or offsetting from agriculture, LULUCF and bio-energy. The Government has also declared a biodiversity emergency and this, together with the climate targets, has significant implications for land use and management in Ireland. Teagasc is an active member and contributor to the national land use review.
Regarding current land-based emissions, removals and uncertainties, there are large scientific uncertainties associated with the measurement of agriculture and LULUCF emissions and removals due to the biogenic nature of the emissions, making it difficult to mitigate emissions, enhance removals and verify the extent of the mitigation achieved, with this point also emphasised in the climate action plan. These uncertainties can have significant effects on our inventory. For instance, new scientific findings have led to recent changes in the LULUCF inventory which have increased emissions from Sitka spruce on peat soils, which represent approximately 38% of the forest land category. The Environmental Protection Agency's, EPA, latest estimates published in June 2022 indicate that with existing measures, Ireland’s LULUCF emissions will reach 11.1 Mt CO2 eq. by 2030. This represents a 62% increase from 6.8 Mt CO2 eq. in 2018, the base year for our climate plan. If we look at previous projections made as recently as 2021, that indicated a 48% increase from 4.8 Mt CO2 eq. to 7.1 Mt CO2 eq. over this period. One can see the way the figures in the inventory and in our projections are shifting as new scientific information emerges.
These increasing emissions are driven by emission factor refinement for forestry on peat soils; a reduction in the forest sink; sustained emissions from grassland on peat soils; low afforestation rates; and the age-class profile of forests, with a large proportion ready for clear-felling. This highlights the effects that high uncertainties can have on the inventory and the need to have national emission factors to best represent the greenhouse gas emissions from Irish soils. The Teagasc forestry development department is actively promoting targeted forestry as an economically-viable diversification option for farmers. The new forestry programme will provide significantly increased financial incentives and payments for farmers to establish forestry on their land and Teagasc will be working to ensure that this new scheme is widely promoted to farmers.
Turning to grassland emissions and removals, in the Irish inventory, contrary to popular expectations, the largest LULUCF emissions source is grassland, which emitted 7.6 Mt CO2 eq. in 2021. The 3.9 million ha of grassland on mineral soils were estimated in the national inventory to sequester 2 Mt CO2 eq. However, there was approximately 337,000 ha of managed pasture on drained peat soils, which were calculated to emit 9.6 Mt CO2 eq. The high emissions from drained peat more than negate the carbon removals on mineral soils that cover an area tenfold larger than peat soils.
As stated, there is high uncertainty relating to emissions and removals surrounding LULUCF. New emission factors emerging from scientific research can have a large impact on inventories. Currently, the emission and removal calculations for grassland in the national inventory use generic tier 1 emission factors and there is an urgent need to generate national-specific factors for grassland on mineral and organic soils.
Teagasc is currently establishing the national agricultural soil carbon observatory, NASCO, which will be completed in 2023. This observatory will consist of circa 30 sites where field-scale CO2, CH4, or methane, and water fluxes will be directly measured using eddy covariance flux towers. Of the 30 towers eight are being established on agricultural grassland on peat soils and 22 on mineral and peaty mineral soils. The current extent of grassland on peat soils is also uncertain, with current estimates of between 300,000 to 400,000 ha. Research is being carried out to better quantify this area. Further research is also required on the drainage status of these agricultural peat soils, as drainage was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s with little knowledge on maintenance and status of drains since installation. The drainage technology used at the time was not as efficient as modern drainage practices. Both of these factors result in high uncertainties about the drainage status of these grassland peat soils.
Teagasc has commenced a number of research projects on agricultural grasslands on peat soils and recently appointed a new permanent researcher to deepen the organisation’s capacity in this area. A new research project, ReWet, has commenced, which is testing management strategies for rewetting drained grasslands on peat soils. This research will provide practical demonstration for farmers on how to rewet soils and evaluate the efficacy of different practices. Teagasc is also part of an international European joint programme, EJP, Soil project called INSURE, which is developing indicators for successful carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas mitigation by rewetting cultivated peat soils with partners in Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Teagasc research will build on the NASCO investment and the peat farming European Innovation Partnership, EIPs, funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in 2021. Within the Teagasc signpost farms programme, the soil organic carbon baseline levels are currently being measured across approximately 120 signpost farms, with these soils being re-sampled regularly.
Regarding mitigation measures and enhancing carbon sinks up to 2030, there is considerable scope to both reduce LULUCF emissions and to enhance carbon sinks. In order to achieve long-term net climate neutrality, the rate of afforestation will have to increase significantly. Increasing afforestation rates to 8,000 ha per annum by 2030 would result in a 2.1 Mt CO2 eq. sequestration by 2050.
However, in the short term afforestation will contribute little to 2030 targets due to the fact there are net GHG emissions are associated with land preparation for forest establishment and forestry takes a period of time to achieve maximum growth rates. Alternative management of the current forest estate provides an opportunity to maintain the forest carbon sink. Reduction in deforestation and extending forest rotations could reduce and delay emissions associated with harvest, although impacts on forest owners’ incomes and the timber industry would need to be carefully assessed.
Reducing the large emission source associated with managed grassland on peat soils will be imperative for LULUCF mitigation as it is the largest source. Reducing CO2emissions from grassland on peat soils generally involves raising the water table but not flooding. In addition, the input of nutrients from animals, manures and mineral fertilisers further increases CO2emissions. Experiments investigating alternative management strategies for grassland on peat soils, ranging from reducing nutrient input to raising the water table by different amounts, have commenced in Teagasc. The impact on farmers’ incomes and catchment spillover impacts much be carefully assessed.
The impact of grassland management on mineral soils is also being explored as part of the VistaMilk Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, Research Centre where we are using a combination of flux towers, soil carbon measurement and soil carbon modelling to quantify the impact of management, such as soil fertility, multi-species swards and grazing intensity on soil carbon sequestration. Modelling conducted as part of the Teagasc marginal abatement cost curve, MACC, suggests that improved pasture management on 450,000 ha of mineral soils can sequester an average of 0.26 Mt CO2per year by 2030. This data will be used in conjunction with earth observation data from satellites and drones in order to estimate plant growth which in turn is being used to model CO2balance for forest, crop-land and grassland ecosystems across the country as part of a Microsoft-SFI co-funded data platform called Terrain AI - artificial intelligence - led by Maynooth University and involving Teagasc, Trinity College Dublin, TCD, University College Dublin, UCD, Dublin City University, DCU, and University of Limerick, UL.
The carbon sequestration potential of hedgerows has been investigated in Teagasc for many years, for example as published by Green et al. in 2019. Teagasc research has recently been completed to improve the capacity for national estimation of hedgerow carbon sequestration in an Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, funded farm carbon project in conjunction with Forest, Environmental Research and Services, FERS, Limited. This research found that increasing hedge width and height can substantially increase both above and below-ground carbon sequestration while supporting biodiversity but that removal of hedgerows and replacement with young hedges results in carbon loss. The project estimated that nationally the mean carbon stocks across all hedgerows were 67 tonnes of carbon per hectare comprising 57 tonnes of biomass above ground and 10 tonnes of biomass below ground. Improved crop-land management via straw incorporation, use of cover crops and targeted incorporation of manures and-or digestate can also contribute significantly to improved carbon balance while improving soil health and nutrient availability and reducing nitrate leaching to water. Research has recently started in developing agro-forestry for cattle to increase carbon capture by trees and mitigate emissions from cattle.
The next decade and beyond provides the agriculture and land-use sectors with challenges, but also opportunities. Research currently under way by Teagasc and others will reduce the uncertainty associated with land emissions and sequestration, which is particularly important for managed grasslands on peat soils. Improved management of mineral soils can enhance carbon sinks and improve nutrient availability, reducing the need for and cost of fertiliser inputs. Forestry will have a very important role to play in the journey to climate neutrality, and the incorporation of trees into agricultural systems, via shelterbelts and-or agro-forestry could also improve carbon sequestration. New ways of utilising our soils and our landscape and tailoring land-use solutions for specific situations will be required.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
I thank the Chair and members for the invitation to appear before the committee. I am a research associate with the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics - that is a mouthful - and a lecturer at the University of Galway, as we now call ourselves. I specialise in evidence-based policy in the area of nature based solutions. I am currently the policy lead for the following EU projects: EU INTERREG Care-Peat; EU INTERREG STEPS; EU LIFE Multi Peat; and EU Horizon 2020 Green Deal WaterLANDS. I acknowledge colleagues from WaterLANDS, Dr. Shane McGuinness and Dr. Sam Kessler, who are in the Public Gallery.
The Taoiseach was recently at the COP27 summit and called for a new era of stewardship of our natural world. He also said that biodiversity loss will only be successfully tackled as an all-of-government and all-of-society project. I hope to expand on that later. He pointed out that if this generation does not step up urgently, future generations will not forgive us. The population of the planet exceeded 8 billion people at approximately 8 o'clock this morning, so we have a lot of work on our hands. He also pointed out that Ireland is now on a legally binding path to net-zero emissions no later than 2050 and to a 51% reduction in emissions by 2030. This is good advice. It is clear that to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement some hard political decisions have already been made with many more to follow. The goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 in Ireland is achievable but only if there is a collaborative political and societal will to get there.
My main area of expertise is in policy relating to peatlands, primarily at EU level. However, I have a strong interest in how this relates to Ireland specifically. A group of leading peatland scientists in Ireland, who I and colleagues in Trinity College brought together, conservatively estimated that CO2 emissions from degraded and drained peatlands in Ireland equate to around 10 million tonnes annually, which is an enormous amount of emissions compared to 62 million tonnes which are roughly the national emissions. This is equivalent to the weight of every man, woman and child in the country being emitted every two weeks.
Globally, peatland emissions amount to approximately 5% of the total. This is more than for air travel and shipping combined. The figure could technically be reduced to net zero by 2030 by restoration and rewetting if there was a political will to do so, but currently there clearly is not on a global level. I hope it is getting there in Ireland. In Ireland our emissions from degraded peatlands are at least double that of the global figure. If the burning of peat is added to that, the figure is considerably higher again.
In terms of peatland policy, our Care-Peat stakeholder survey in Ireland, which was comprehensive and included many stakeholders, listed the following priorities: to develop a national carbon credits framework; to update the national peatlands strategy from 2015 - that is being done at the moment; to enhance knowledge about peatlands in Ireland; to support organisations and communities associated with peatlands financially; to enforce environmental protection regulations in relation to peatlands; and to fast-track greenhouse gas, GHG emissions reductions in relation to LULUCF and peatlands in particular.
I urge the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action to immediately consider some measures. The first is to conduct a comprehensive national baseline study of GHG emissions in Ireland. I welcome the earlier statement in relation to the eddy covariance flux towers, which Teagasc is putting in place. Second, I urge the committee to support a national framework for the regulation of voluntary carbon credits considered best practice across Europe and not just from the UK. We must look at best practice from across Europe. This is vital. One academic has described what is happening at the moment as the "wild west". The third is to support carbon farming and paludiculture, which is wetland farming, through the Common Agriculture Policy and otherwise. There are great opportunities there. The fourth is to conduct a full review of the Arterial Drainage Act 1945 and consider bringing in measures to remove unnecessary drainage that is causing significant GHG emissions on peatlands and wetlands.
According to the latest research there is a linear relationship between average annual water level and GHG emissions. Professor Hans Joosten, who is probably the world's leading expert on peatlands, pointed out that since Indonesia had enormous problems with fires, it has, by legal prescription, raised the water level on almost 4 million ha.
I will not read everything in the opening statement but needless to say they estimate that as a result of the raising of water levels, the annual emissions reduction is 272 Mt, which is 272 million tonnes, per annum of CO2 equivalent in Indonesia. If we look at those measures, there is a lot that can be achieved.
We had a seminar in Brussels two or three weeks ago and I would urge the committee to support the targets of the European Commission in relation to the nature restoration law. It was flagged to me that Ireland is dragging its feet a little. They are currently going through the European Parliament.
The four key measures the WaterLANDS project put in its submission were: that rewetting is a prerequisite of peatland restoration; the proposed targets are insufficient and should be increased significantly in line with the Paris Agreement as at the moment they are not in line with the Paris Agreement and various countries are looking to water those down; the scope of the target is expanded to all non-residential land use on drained peatland; and a mandatory monitoring for peatlands restoration is set in Article 17 of the nature restoration law as at the moment for some reason the nature restoration law includes mandatory monitoring of peatlands and it should not.
I thank Mr. Ó Brolcháin. We have agreed that members will take five minutes each for combined questions and answers. I advise members that Dr. O'Mara needs to leave at 12.30 p.m. so if they should get questions in for him in the next hour, if possible.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. Teagasc's presentation was very comprehensive but I wish to ask a few questions on it. Can Dr. O'Mara explain what he means when he says that the setting of a national target for LULUCF land use and change forestry has been deferred to allow new scientific knowledge to emerge? It seems to me we have a pretty good idea of what is right and what is wrong in terms of land use. We know, and I think he was open about it, that Sitka spruce is clearly wrong, that spreading large quantities of fertiliser to continue growing the dairy herd is wrong, and that reducing and cutting back hedgerows is wrong. What more scientific knowledge are we waiting for to develop a land use policy that is fit for this climate and biodiversity emergency?
We know how potent methane gas is and that we must reduce it immediately and that the safest way to do that is to reduce the herd while the riskiest way to do it is to try to get genetic medication and tinker around with animal feeds. What are we waiting for as regards scientific breakthroughs? It is similar to my last question.
Given the role hedgerows could play in biodiversity and for carbon removal, does Dr. O'Mara have any views on the legislation passed some years ago that allowed for greater leeway in cutting back and removing hedgerows? Was it a mistake? Should we seek to reverse that and to protect and restore the hedgerows and the biodiversity around them while at the same time financially rewarding farmers, who are the custodians of the land, for preserving them?
Dr. Frank O'Mara:
I thank Deputy Smith for the questions. On the first question on LULUCF, what that means is that the Government sets sectoral targets and agreed those last July for all the sectors. There was a lot of debate and discussion at the time. The Deputy may recall the one we were most interested in was the agriculture target that was set at 25%. All other sectors, energy, transport and so on, had their sectoral targets set but the LULUCF sector, which is the land use, land use change and change forestry, was not set at that time. I was careful about the wording of the press release at the time which stated that it was deferred for 18 months to allow new scientific knowledge to emerge. That was the wording of the Government statement at the time. The Deputy is right that we know a lot about the practices that will impact on this but as we outlined in our statement, there are huge uncertainties around emissions from land and in particular emissions from drained agricultural peats. First, we are not 100% sure what the area of those in the country is. It is somewhere between 300,000 ha and 400,000 ha. There is ongoing research to get a better idea as to what the exact area is. The second uncertainty is that we are not sure how well-drained those peats are any more. They were drained in the 1960s and 1970s and anecdotal evidence suggests a lot of the drains no longer work so those lands have already become rewetted to some extent or to a great extent. The second uncertainty is around how effective the drains that we assume still work are. The third uncertainty is what the actual emissions from those drained peatlands are. We currently assume in our national inventory, using the default values because we do not have national values yet, they are emitting around 20 tonnes per hectare. That may not be correct and we are currently in the process of putting in place a soil carbon observatory to give us actual measurements on drained peatlands and they may turn out to be higher but they may turn out to be lower.
Those are the three levels of uncertainty as to what the extent of the emissions from drained agricultural peatlands is. That is not to say the Deputy is not 100% right. We know what we can do to reduce the emissions whatever they are, in that there are definitely emissions from them. We know that things like partial or full rewetting will reduce those emissions but we need to try to get greater certainty as to what the parameters are within which we are working and what the extent of emissions is. We are doing a very interesting piece of work to see how much of those emissions, whether it is 20 tonnes or 30 tonnes or 10 tonnes of CO2 per hectare, we can rewet while still being able to maintain a certain level of agricultural activity on those soils by what we call partial rewetting, or bringing the water table up to maybe 20 cm or 30 cm below ground level as opposed to total flooding of those soils. Those are the research questions we are trying to answer.
To clarify, the statement I am querying says that it has been deferred to allow new scientific knowledge to emerge. What Dr. O'Mara has described are uncertainties and measurements. I would not categorise them as equal to new scientific knowledge. Would Dr. O'Mara?
Dr. Frank O'Mara:
I would. It is a very scientific challenge and endeavour to quantify what the emissions are on those soils. We are investing a lot of money and have a lot of researchers and technologists involved in that. It is definitely challenging to do that. It will be a big job to establish the drainage status of those soils once we have identified where they are and to know what is a drained peat soil or peat soil. There is a definition of peat that it has to be 40 cm of peat so while it might look like it falls into the definition of peat soil when looking in from the road, when one measures the amount of peat in it, it might not be peat soil at all. There is a lot of uncertainty.
The other thing, of which my colleague reminded, is that the land use review is currently under way. That was very much in the Government's mind when they deferred the setting of the LULUCF targets.
Dr. Lilian O'Sullivan:
I thank the Deputy. Phase one has just been completed, so the final report is currently under development. That was very much an evidence gathering piece of work to see where we are at in terms of land use, what we know of ownership, indicators that might be relevant and so forth. There were pieces of work outsourced to look at the socioeconomics around land use and scenarios related to climate. What will happen now is that a second phase will commence and that should be at the end of next year. That will look more deeply at of some of the research gaps that will emerge as part of phase one.
Dr. Lilian O'Sullivan:
In terms of that work, we have a project that has recently finished. As Dr. O'Mara said, there has been quite a lot of work done to be able to understand the extent of hedgerows. This is not an easy task. However, with the technologies that are now available to us, we know, in terms of the remote technologies, what works to be able to tell us the extent. What we had not done prior to the current project was to look at taking direct measurements, so we could ground truth these remote measurements. For the first time, through this work, we have biomass equations that can be related to management. With regard to that, we have two very distinct types of hedgerows emerging, namely, our very overly managed hedgerows, what I like to call the short, back and sides, versus our more escaped hedgerows. The results are as expected, of course. There is a lot more carbon stock and sequestration potential associated with those wider, more escaped hedgerows. We have a scientific publication done on this and a final report related to that. We also found a positive relationship with biodiversity, all of which is the type of science that will be able to try to address the type of questions and issues raised here.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
I found the use of a working assumption of 20 tonnes emissions per hectare for agricultural lands very interesting. The figures I gave for 10 million tonnes were based on the latest research, which is that 10 tonnes per hectare was the assumption. We have used very conservative figures which are based in science fact. Deputy Smith is right in that it is not scientific breakthroughs we are looking at; it is actual measurements that need to be carried out. I recognise that Teagasc has put in place a number eddy covariance flux towers, so we need to get going. That is one of the recommendations I made. We need better measurements on a broad scale across the country.
It is quite startling to find that in one year the estimate of emissions from the land use increases by 56%. The projected increase in emissions from existing policy increased by 100%. The volatility of the calculations are scary. Do we really need to just get started in creating an incentive? As I understand it, the cost of draining this 300,000 ha versus the benefit, which we are told is 10 million tonnes, at €100 per tonne would be €1 billion? We are talking about €3,000 per year per hectare in carbon benefits by 2030 for each hectare we rewet. Now tell me an agricultural endeavour that is earning €3,000 per hectare. Where is the incentive? Why are we not incentivising farmers who have such land to take this on? The figure of €3,000 was given, and it could be 50% up or down. If we use the Teagasc figures, I presume it is actually €6,000 per hectare because it is double the 10 million. Can we not start with an incentive of €1,000 per hectare to a farmer who takes this on? If 100 ha of peatland was drained and was going to be converted, could we put in place a verification system that would oversee the impact of the investment that is made in the rewetting process and verify for that 100 ha, leaving aside the other 300,000 ha? Could we set up an incentive scheme as of today with Teagasc scientists saying to the farmer that this is their baseline and tracking what they do?
The second question I have is on to the cost. How much would it cost that farmer to rewet the 100 ha to generate this potential yield of €3,000 per hectare? From a national benefit point of view, it might avoid the transport sector having to use hydrogen in trucks that could cost it multiples times the cost in terms of abatement costs. We need to move rapidly to put in place programmes that farmers can buy into, if they have such land, because it would pay them to do it.
Dr. Frank O'Mara:
I thank the Deputy for the question. First, the estimates on the volatility are actually the EPA's estimates; they are not our estimates. To be clear, it is not us doing the calculations; it is the EPA doing the calculations and the projections. On the figures, Mr. Ó Brolcháin's point about 10 tonnes versus 20 tonnes shows that there is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of range. Perhaps Dr. Richards might come in on that in a minute.
To move on to the substance of the question, at an EU level, there is a lot of interest in how we can implement and incentivise carbon farming, as it is called. Rewetting of peats is one of the measures identified as a potential measure of carbon farming schemes. The EU is due to publish proposals or guidelines as to how member states might develop carbon farming schemes before the end of this month. I would imagine-----
Could we take a 100 ha farm, which is going to rewet, and put a verification model in place, so that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine could reliably say that it will pay a certain amount and Teagasc will verify that the farm is delivering?
No, I am talking about the people who are volunteering, the farmers who are willing to consider this. Could we do a verification, so that the Department, or even a private sector funder which would be willing to fund some of these carbon-----
Dr. Frank O'Mara:
The point I am making is that if we try to do that using physical measurements on a field by field basis, the cost of doing the measurements would take up a good section of any benefit that is coming. The way forward for doing this is using a remote sensing-type approach so that satellite data, data on the land use and so on can say that the emissions from a field now are X but that if rewetting is carried out, they will be Y.
Dr. Frank O'Mara:
We are in the middle of the research. The project I mentioned, Terrain-AI, is well under way. It is doing that using the ground truthed measurements we are generating in Teagasc, with satellite data and trying to match up the two. Dr. Richards is better informed on where that project is at.
Dr. Karl Richards:
There are a couple EIP schemes, which are trying to increase the speed of rewetting. There is farm-carbon and the FarmPEAT project. Work is under way in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to do that. I think one of the measures in the new Common Agricultural Policy is around rewetting. This goes back to what the director said earlier regarding the uncertainties. We think the emissions are 10 tonnes or 20 tonnes of CO2 per hectare. We do not know that those are the actual emissions. We think we know where the peat soils are but we do not have a national map of where those peats are, definitively for agriculture. There is an awful lot of uncertainty that we are trying to overcome with our research and on which we need to get a better handle. We need know if we are paying a farmer for 1 tonne, 10 tonnes or 20 tonnes. There is a big difference in the payment mechanism for that and which farms those actually are. The Deputy is right that these are hot spots in our landscape. We know they are hot spots but we need to better understand where they are and what the actual emissions are. Then the schemes will come in order to incentivise farmers to make decisions about what they want to do with their land. They can decide whether it is more economically viable to farm carbon and biodiversity or to farm it the way that they are currently farming it. Overcoming these uncertainties will really help.
In terms of the monitoring, reporting and verification around that, the director is right that Terrain-AI is helping in that but we are also developing peat models. The EPA has funded three fellowship projects, working on peat soils to refine the emission factors associated with those. Those are all coming to fruition in the next two or three years.
We are starting to develop that national expertise in what the emissions from our soils are, where those soils are, and the economics will then come in terms of rewetting them. As the director said, we are involved in a number of projects. We are not alone in this across Europe. Other European countries are doing this as well.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I ask initially about Teagasc and the range of research. The need for improved measurements has been outlined. I know there is a standard approach in terms of reporting, but are these standard methods that are being used elsewhere or are they bespoke to Ireland?
Dr. Karl Richards:
We are following an international approach on this. There was a paper published by the Global Research Alliance in 2019 that outlined the inventory approach that could be taken to improve estimates coming from land, land use and carbon sequestration using a combination of physical measurements, which the carbon observatory is doing, remote sensing measurements, which Terrain AI is doing, and modelling approaches which we are doing both in Terrain AI and in the VistaMilk project. Other bodies, such as those EPA fellowships I mentioned, are developing that modelling approach. That is all encompassed within the schematic that has been proposed. In terms of the physical measurements, those are being done as part of the international carbon observatory. The EPA and the Department have recently signed the agreement for the integrated carbon observation system, ICOS, which is the international carbon observatory for Ireland to participate. Some of these sites will be full ICOS sites and some will be associated sites, because the cost of establishing full ICOS compliant sites is very high. We mentioned we are doing this across 30 sites. That is the highest density of carbon flux measurements in Europe. However, we are starting from a relatively low base here and trying to catch up. We are not recreating anything. We are learning from international expertise and other international colleagues and trying to move as fast as we can.
Dr. Lilian O'Sullivan:
I want to add that we are also part of the European joint programme on soils, which is developing research infrastructure and capabilities, and one of the main outcomes of that will be a roadmap for research going forward. One of the initial parts of that programme was to take stock in terms of that topic across Europe and where we are in terms of our methods. Are they interoperable? Can they be harmonised so we have a better picture of understanding where we are within that community? Of course, we would also be feeding into the international world reference base and so forth in terms of soils.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
I want to make what I think is quite an important point. This discussion is on sequestration, and in terms of farmed peatland, we are talking about roughly 300,000 ha, whereas the total amount of peatland in the country is about 1.5 million ha. It is a small proportion of it, and the biggest area of peatland is cutover peatland, which is peatland used for burning turf. Natural peatland is about 300,000 ha and afforested peatland is about 300,000 ha. There is roughly only 300,000 ha out of 1.5 million ha within farmed peat, according to the national peatlands strategy. I would urge people to look at the national peatlands strategy if they need to get those figures affirmed.
I also wanted to ask about the emissions from sitka spruce on peat soils, which the witnesses have highlighted. Last week we had proposals around encouraging increased afforestation. Is there a risk that the bad practices of the present and past will be continued in the medium term while we try to identify lands and categorise and identify areas for appropriate crops? Related to that, and this is directed to all of the witnesses, a conversation we consistently have is around the use of land for fuel, whether it be anaerobic digestion or biomass. Do the witnesses have a perspective related to that as an appropriate and sustainable use of lands?
Mr. John Spink:
In terms of forestry, the rules around what you can plant and where you can plant it have changed dramatically over recent years, so the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past are very low. Even in terms of sitka spruce, there now needs to be a significant amount of native broadleaves included in those plantations, so there will no longer be planting of 100% sitka spruce. That is no longer allowed in many of the areas where there have been problems from previous plantings.
The next question was about anaerobic digestion. We see the major potential as probably being the production of forages to be combined with slurries for anaerobic digestion. Again, there is very close regulation in terms of the renewable energy directive regarding the energy cost and savings that have to be made for anaerobic digestion. There is no risk that will be done in a way that will increase emissions because they would not be classed as renewable energy. It will have to be with very low, if any, quantities of fertiliser, relying on legume rich swards and the use of the digestate from that from the anaerobic digester for the replacement of nutrients.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
I have very strong views on forestry, which are backed up by evidence. Peatlands are much stronger in terms of sequestration than drained forestry. If we plant trees, under no circumstances should we plant trees on peatlands, because they are net emitters. The global figures show that peatland holds four times as much soil carbon as a tropical rainforest, for example. That is extraordinary. Obviously the trees hold some carbon, but they are all net emitters. There is no case for planting trees on drained peatlands.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
It is possible. There are certain varieties of tree which it is possible to plant on wet peatlands, such as black alder and willow. That is done in some countries for biomass. Willow seems to be pretty good.
The Deputy asked a question about biomass. Many countries have district heating schemes that work quite well on wetlands and biomass. They provide biomass for heating schemes. The big problem we have in Ireland is the dispersed nature of our population, because what such schemes generally do is sell heat rather than electricity. The generation of electricity is not efficient, but the selling of heat at a community level can be. However, it depends on villages and not piping the heat too far from the source.
Dr. Karl Richards:
I want to make one other comment on biomass production. Ireland is very good at growing biomass, particularly forages. The wet nature of our climate and our wet soils are suitable for that. That is why we have animals, because we cannot eat grass. Within the renewable energy directive there is also a clause around not substituting energy for food. That is a criterion that needs to be considered, but we would see the production of forage as being a big opportunity for certain farmers that can increase production. However, it will need to take into account the environmental setting their farms operate in. Part of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, heat study we assisted in was about avoiding high nature value farmland and things like that, where very valuable biodiversity rich areas might be replaced with forages and other crops to go into anaerobic digestion. That also needs to be taken care of in terms of the considerations for targeting those areas.
I echo the concerns of my colleagues. The sense I am getting is that we have a 2030 target but it is clear that climate change is here. We are seeing the impact of it now and the urgency is not there to deal with this issue and do the things we can do immediately. I understand that Dr. Richard's role and what he is doing is to conduct research and get all the scientific data in place. I wonder whether in this instance, perfection is the enemy of the good and whether a precautionary approach to this would be a much better approach. If we know what we can do that will improve and have not only a climate mitigation but a climate adaptation and biodiversity impact, we should be doing it even if we do not have the absolute emissions and data. We could try it for a year or two. I was a scientist in a previous life and sometimes as scientists we can get very much into the detail and want to have the perfect figures in place but we need to be moving on this. What is Dr. Richard's opinion on things that can be done with the data he has at the moment to begin working with farms or that would allow the Government to start implementing things? The other thing that really strikes me is that things will be more complicated when we are dealing with private land and ownership, as there are stakeholders involved and other things to take into consideration. However, the State is the single largest landowner in the country. What can it be doing on its own land? Bord na Móna is doing some rewetting and restoration work but my understanding is that this is on only half of the landmass it uses. Is it more appropriate at this stage to rewet and restore all of the State's land that is peatland-based? This would have an impact from both a climate perspective and a biodiversity perspective, which has been missing from the discussion this morning but which is equally as important. Should the State be driving a lot more of it with the land it currently owns? Those are my two questions.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
I can take that question. Basically the State officially owns a quarter of the peatlands in the country. What might surprise people is that Bord na Móna actually has about 5% of the total peatland area which is approximately 80,000 ha, whereas Coillte has three times that amount at 232,000 ha, and then there are other agencies such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, which has approximately 41,000 ha. The answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes" because in reality, the figures are available in other countries. The figure of 20 tonnes per hectare is closer to the international standard. Ireland is not so different from the UK and other countries where they have done the research. We can make assumptions based on research done elsewhere such as Germany, which has done a lot of research. Again, we are not that different from these countries in terms of the potential emissions under similar circumstances. I take the Deputy's point and agree we can go ahead on those things, certainly on the State lands. I would point out though that Ireland is currently in the process of rewetting more than 100,000 ha, which is better than any other country in Europe. Put against that, Ireland has also seen by far the highest percentage of peat loss in the European Union, that is, 85% of all peat loss in the Union, up to 2016. We are certainly moving in the right direction now, whereas previously we were doing pretty badly. I commend what the Government is doing. It is certainly moving in the right direction. It is clear what Bord na Móna is doing. To upscale it again, as the Deputy suggests, makes sense.
Dr. Frank O'Mara:
I totally agree with the Deputy. We need to avoid perfection being the enemy of the good. Our role here is to do the research and the knowledge transfer advisory work. I can assure the Deputy that on the research side, we are really ramping up what we are doing. This whole area is probably the highest the priority we have at the moment. We are not just waiting for the research before we start talking to farmers. There is quite a bit going on with farmers as Dr. Richards mentioned. There are a number of European innovation partnerships, EIPs, in this area. We have also the Signpost farm programme which is our main method of bringing knowledge out to farmers - all farmers, not just those with peat soils - about what they can do on their farms to reduce their emissions or increase their removals either through hedgerows or whatever. That is a programme with over 120 demonstration farms around the country, of which many have peat. We are working with those farmers on what they can do on their own farms and we will be significantly increasing that. We will be announcing a significant increase in our resource allocation towards both advisory and research work on 1 December. To set this in some bit of context, the whole idea of "carbon farming" is much talked about and at EU level, there is quite a bit happening to try to bring this into the Common Agricultural Policy. The Commission brought out a paper about a year ago on its vision or view about carbon farming and it is due to bring out another set of guidelines by the end of the month. How we can incentivise very large numbers of farmers, not just those in an EIP scheme, to do the type of things we want to do in this space, is a developing area. On our side, at the research and knowledge transfer level we are pedalling fairly hard and the policymakers are working fairly hard as well to try to move this area along. It is a big area and bringing practice change is always challenging but there is an urgency there to do it.
Dr. Frank O'Mara:
We will have that in place pretty soon. As about six months of the 18 months time limit probably have gone already, I expect by the end of next year we will be talking about what the LULUCF target is. Over the course of the next two to three years, we will see that uncertainly I talked about earlier diminishing a lot because our soil carbon observatory will be starting to produce reliable results. There is a land mapping project under way with Trinity College Dublin and others which will bring a lot of certainty into the areas. Over the course of the next two to three years, we will see that uncertainly diminishing. We will then be in the framework of at least knowing where the goalposts are with regard to the target and be able to work with landowners, whether they are private landowners we work with, farmers in other words, the State or others, to try to see what can be done. It is an area in which we potentially could make rapid progress as we approach the 2030 target.
I thank all of the witnesses. I have a number of questions. First, on the area of forestry on peatlands, I agree it is not the way to go and that it is more beneficial to rewet but I would like to hear the witnesses' views around wind farms on some of the peatlands as well. We have seen instances, particularly on State land such as the mid-Shannon wilderness park located on land owned by Bord na Móna, where it will be necessary to continue to pump the water out to put the wind farm in, where it would have a bigger impact in terms of carbon emissions reductions if those areas were allowed to rewild. We all agree that we need more onshore wind as well as harnessing our offshore potential but is there any mapping for that in order that we are not putting wind farms in areas where a better climate impact could be had by rewetting those peatlands?
I have a question for representatives from Teagasc regarding the knowledge transfer and the work they are doing with farmers to teach them about the benefits of carbon farming into the future. Do they have concerns that misinformation is being put out by bad-faith actors, particularly around the nature of restoration directive at an EU level and if so, how that is impacting on their work? They are trying to encourage farmers to go down the road of carbon farming, yet then we have others saying what the EU is doing will be the decimation of agricultural Ireland.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
I will come in on the wind farm question. We have just recently published a report on this which we can send to the Senator if she wishes. Basically, we looked at three different types of renewable energy in conjunction with peatlands. One is obviously wind, and the others are solar and potentially biomass. We recommended that biomass makes sense in district heating schemes if there is sufficient housing clubbed together to use the potential for such schemes.
That is potentially a good way of alleviating issues regarding the burning of turf and so on for local communities. We would not recommend solar on peatlands because there are issues there. Concerning wind, which was the question asked, we recommend against putting wind farms on pristine peatlands or peatlands in good condition. For badly degraded lands, as some of the Bord na Móna lands are - they are almost down to bare rock - there is a case potentially for siting wind farms there if it helps to fund restoration efforts. It makes sense to take it from something badly degraded by putting windmills on the bare rock and then build up the peatlands around it. That is the only case. It is not a case of taking the best peatland sites and siting windmills in the middle.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
We did an exercise in the west on that. It was not a comprehensive exercise. Unfortunately, quite often the best wind sites are consistent with the most pristine peatlands. We are talking about what tend to be high wind areas. In the past, some wind farms were sited on good quality peatlands. We all know of the environmental problems caused by some badly planned wind farms. It is not appropriate.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
In our report, we did not see a case for solar because we would assume no renewable energy should be sited on peatland unless it allows for the growth of peat. That is the most efficient way of sequestering carbon. If you are inhibiting that by covering it with solar panels-----
Dr. Frank O'Mara:
I thank the Senator for her question. There is no simple answer. There are many actors in the agriculture and food industry and in land use and so on. Our approach is to try to work with as many people as we can and get everybody to at least a relatively common understanding. One thing that will derail progress is people receiving mixed messages. For instance, we have 60 partners in our signpost programme, including other Government agencies. All the dairy co-operatives, meat companies and many others in the agrifood industry are involved. We have reached a common understanding of what can and needs to be done on farms. That is how we work; it is a multi-actor approach. Farmers have a say; it is not us preaching to them. We want to hear farmers' and other actors' views. Often, there is a huge amount of fear about things like this. We talked about rewetting and so on earlier. What might be a brilliant scheme for one farmer to do if they thought they could get the type of money mentioned earlier may cause their neighbour to worry land being flooded and whether their land is going to be flooded even though it is not part of the drained peatlands. There is fear around some of the things we talk about. The only way to work our way through that is by having good, solid information and then pilot and demonstration projects. As Dr. Richards mentioned, there are a number of EIP projects around this area. It is also important we have a multi-actor approach and try to bring everybody with us, rather than people outside trying to undermine because they do not understand what we are doing. That is our approach. Dr. O'Sullivan may speak more specifically about the nature restoration directive.
Dr. Lilian O'Sullivan:
There is, as Dr. O'Mara said, a lot of fear around this. I recently published a paper that looked at the whole agricultural knowledge innovation system. There are many other actors who have a part to play in responding to the challenges that face the sector. One thing that came up was the area of coherence and messaging across all of the actors in this process. In general, we are working with our advisers on education and training. Irrespective of whether it is peat, mineral soil or organo-mineral soil, we are moving to taking into account the unique capabilities or intrinsic capacity of the soil, how it can best deliver for diversity along with production, on which farming land is focused, while also considering carbon, water regulation, the recycling of nutrients and so forth. This more holistic approach is being put forth or translated much more. We work closely on an ongoing basis in terms of upskilling and training and trying to get that information translated as quickly as possible so it can get out on the ground.
How well are the CAP measures designed to open up this opportunity? I have not studied them closely but I get the impression there are incentives for small adjustments as opposed to recognising an opportunity worth €3,000 per ha. Will the witnesses give an assessment of how well attuned the CAP measures are?
Who is rewetting the 100,000 ha currently being rewetted? Is it farmers or is there a centralised delivery mechanism like in forestry? What is the cost per hectare? I was intrigued by the comment on timber that we should maybe consider delaying harvesting. Having done some work on the circular economy, one of our opportunities is to replace concrete with timber. Where does the view that we should be slowing down the harvesting of timber to allow it to sequester more carbon versus taking some energy-intensive construction methods out and replacing them with timber come from?
Mr. John Spink:
We tend to harvest forests when they are at maximum sequestration or in maximum growth, but there are a number of issues around when you harvest. The longer you can keep a forest growing at its maximum rate, the more carbon it will sequester. On Deputy Bruton's point about replacing concrete with timber, we must consider that there is an industry to process the timber, so we cannot halt timber harvesting. Also, as our forests become more mature, they are at a much higher risk of windthrow.
On paper, delaying harvesting will increase sequestration and will delay forestry switching from being a sink into a source. However there are a large number of considerations that need to be taken into account about it, and I do not think we are suggesting we should wholesale stop harvesting timber for a period of time. All of the issues Deputy Bruton has raised are relevant, but again the increased risk of windthrow as forests get larger would potentially halt any sequestration.
Dr. Frank O'Mara:
It is not something we suggest should be done at a large scale at this stage. It has been put forward by some as something to consider, but the positives in terms of carbon sequestration would have to be weighed against the negatives in terms of the delayed income and the throughput through the mills.
On how well attuned the Common Agricultural Policy measures are, I would say some of them are. For instance, we see a very significant increase on the cards in forestry to encourage increased afforestation. We have yet to see the shape of the measures there might be around rewetting, but in the current climate action plan that was published in 2021 there is a commitment to look at rewetting approximately 80,000 ha of agricultural soils. That climate action plan is being updated and we will have a new one by the end of the year, although I am not sure what the target in that will be. We have not yet seen how it will be done and what the policy measure that will bring it forward will be. There is no centralised scheme or planning as to how rewetting will happen. There are some European Innovation Partnership-funded projects around this which I am not familiar with, but perhaps Mr. Ó Brolcháin is because he is involved with some of them, so he might be able to talk about who is involved and why they are involved.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
I will answer the last question first. Most experts say we should not give grants for new forestry on organic soils. In terms of existing forestry, therefore, I agree it makes sense to allow the trees to mature. That has to be balanced against potential emissions from peatlands and it is a question of people doing the maths on these things.
As for the question on the Common Agricultural Policy and who is doing the rewetting, Bord na Móna and Coillte are doing quite a lot, and there are many European projects that are doing quite a lot. Our university is involved in practical rewetting projects. The National Parks and Wildlife Service is also involved, and there is quite a bit of community rewetting going on. The demand for rewetting is quite clear.
People get the impression farmers are not in favour of this, but the number one point made in our care peat stakeholder survey was that there is no provision in place to assist farmers with funding. Indeed, it is not even about funding but about unlocking funding based on carbon credits. There has been a lot of talk about carbon farming, and in the UK they have put in place a policy called the peatland code that allows people to avail of this easily. Where does a farmer or a private landowner go or start if they want to do this work? Is there a framework in place? How can they get it? At the moment what is happening is that it is possible for people to set up carbon credit schemes but the verification is the key thing. As I said, one academic has described what is going on right now as the Wild West, because people are offering to sell carbon offsets and so on when there is not sufficient verification. If it cannot be verified, the danger in Ireland is if we allow this to continue, we will get a very bad reputation because we will be selling things that cannot be verified. I would urge this committee to take a handle on this because, as Deputy Bruton has pointed out, there is huge potential here and, as the Teagasc representatives have said, the opportunities in relation to carbon farming are coming down the road within a year. I believe carbon farming is a type of paludiculture. Paludiculture will be allowed for grants within the Common Agricultural Policy within the next year, so it will be an option for people to set up both sphagnum farms and carbon farms.
I want to give a quick view on the difference between a sphagnum farm and a carbon farm. Carbon farms just sell credits and make sure that growth of sphagnum and other types of peatland plants occurs and that it becomes a natural peatland. Their trade is basically inputting carbon in the ground. A sphagnum farm harvests a level of sphagnum sustainably and is highly lucrative as a farming method as it can be sold as a substitute for moss peat, as it were, and is potentially a type of fertiliser. That is actually practised in countries like Germany and they have made great progress on this. I recently visited a sphagnum farm in Germany and they were selling it when it was harvested for €16,000 per ha, which is an enormous amount of money. That is based on three to five years of growth. I understand that, in Ireland, we have better potential for sphagnum growth than in Germany. The issue is mechanising the harvesting and setting up the system to do that, so that needs to be supported. It is not the case that farmers have to develop all of this themselves. We need organisations like Teagasc to put in place facilities to do this.
I am conscious of Dr. O' Mara's time so I will ask a couple of questions before he leaves. What Mr. Ó Brolcháin has said is a very positive view and points a way forward that gets us out of some of the real difficulties we have had in this conversation around rewetting. He is saying, and I think Teagasc representatives are also saying, that it does not mean we are flooding land and it cannot be used for food production. That is an important point to state clearly, which it has been. The opportunities for carbon farming and that it might become an income stream is very interesting. If we can design things in such a way that it makes sense for farmers to get involved, that will be very positive. We should not simplify it because it is not a simple matter, but the point about one of the potential solutions to the challenge around and shortage of moss peat because of the ending of peat harvesting on bogs is very interesting. I will give an opportunity for those points to be reinforced because they are very important.
The second question I have is more for Mr. Ó Brolcháin than for Teagasc representatives, but if they would like to come in on it I would like to hear their views. He mentioned the Arterial Drainage Act in his opening statement, and it is something that has been discussed by this committee a number of times. We are aware of it and of calls to review it, and we will publish a report shortly that will suggest a way forward, but I would like to hear more on the Arterial Drainage Act, and it would be remiss not to have a serious discussion about it.
Dr. Frank O'Mara:
I would add a fourth point to the three the Chair has made. There is a lot of uncertainty around how our land, our peatlands in particular, are performing as regards carbon emissions or the potential for sequestration. We are on a good track to reduce that uncertainty, so that is a positive. Certainly, when we talk to farmers about this, many of them want to continue farming on these lands, but maybe if they thought there were very big incentives, they might have a different view. They are very anxious to hear that they can continue to farm, so the partial rewetting is very important research we are doing so that you could, apart maybe from the shoulder seasons of the year, continue to graze a lot of these drained lands. Carbon farming is already a phrase that is commonly used by people within agriculture and we are all anxious to see the colour of what that might look like. The bringing forward of the parameters of what carbon farming might look like will be a very important development over the next few months, and we will see that then translate here nationally.
I am not an expert on the harvesting of sphagnum and its potential use as a substitute for moss peat. We have a research programme on substitutes for peat moss for the horticulture industry that started last year. It is certainly something we will mention to our research colleagues involved in that programme.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
I will respond to the Chair's point on the Arterial Drainage Act because there is recent research on a global basis. As I said earlier, Indonesia had a problem with fires in 2015 and as a result took drastic measures which point the way for countries in Europe, including Ireland. As I said earlier, Professor Hans Joosten, who is probably the best known peatlands scientist on the planet, does extensive work there. He is a Dutch scientist based in Germany. He pointed out that Indonesia has, by legal prescription, raised the water level - I am reading this - on almost 4 million ha and installed more than 10,000 observation wells that are fortnightly reported on. Some 1,200 digital loggers carry out daily observation. It is all centralised in an impressive geographic information system, GIS, based monitoring system that warns the landowners as soon as water levels drop below 40 cm below surface. Indonesia has installed 900 weather stations and linked the weather forecast system to inform landowners of rainfall and so on. These measures have gone so far as to, according to its estimate, save 272 million tonnes of CO2equivalent per year which dwarfs our efforts. Indonesia is a bigger country than Ireland but nevertheless the key point is the linear relationship between average annual water level and GHG emissions. In many cases we are draining land more than is necessary and we are back to 1945.
I note the Chairand Deputy Bruton had a good set of ripostes on this in a previous committee meeting and I was impressed with what they both said. The key point is that in wetting there is a quick gain to be made in simply raising the water level to the maximum level possible that is consistent with the current land use. Research backs this up. We are draining unnecessarily. If we could bring in measures to get rid of unnecessary drainage, it would have a significant impact on emissions.
Many of the cutover peatland sites are not included in the inventory at present. We will not therefore reduce emissions as much as we would like. We need to bring those into the inventory. It is not acceptable. We are talking about a lot of tonnage that is currently not included in the inventory. We need to bring it in because we will not see much gain unless we account for it in the first place.
Dr. Frank O'Mara:
I am, but I will contribute briefly about carbon markets, which I know very little about so it is always dangerous. The type of figures we discussed earlier in the session were carbon at ten tonnes or 20 tonnes per hectare and a carbon price of €100 per tonne of CO2. I understand that is the price being paid on the emissions trading scheme or it tends towards that, but on the voluntary carbon market, the price is approximately one tenth of that. I understand that, currently, agriculture and land use are not in the emissions trading scheme and if carbon is sold out of agricultural land use into the emissions trading scheme, the reduction in carbon can no longer contribute to the targets for the agriculture, forestry and land use sector. This whole area is quite complex and I do not know enough about it to be definitive but I caution that the type of figures we think are there might not be available at this stage in the markets. We are on a pathway to bringing forward schemes around carbon farming. I would not like the expectation of farmers to be that €3,000 to €6,000 per hectare will be available.
That is a fair point. Dr. O'Mara is right to say that before he departs as he might leave some misconceptions. Will Dr. O'Mara say what countries are doing this well? Do we know that? Is it still at an early stage internationally? I see Mr. Ó Brolcháin is keen to respond also, but I will allow Dr. Richards to do so first.
Dr. Karl Richards:
Internationally this is still being developed. That is why the EU is producing the communication on carbon farming later this year. Some countries such as New Zealand have made announcements about agriculture, land use, carbon farming and emissions trading within the agricultural sector. Australia has some certified carbon schemes, but the monitoring, reporting and verification for this must be considered. If farmers can make a lot of money from farming carbon, that is a decision they are likely to make, but at the moment we do not know what the emissions from those soils are, so we do not know how much carbon they will save. If they are paid now for ten tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year and our research later says that it is only one tonne, will they have to repay that to the carbon market and will they have to repay it at a future carbon price? They may have to pay a lot more. There are huge uncertainties but it is certainly an area, not just in terms of carbon but in terms of ecosystem services and biodiversity, that is of interest to farmers. Much of the money farmers are currently paid is to produce food. That is the metric they are performing to. If there are payments for other environmental goods and services, they will start to look at those as business opportunities for them and their farm.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
A specific question was asked that I can answer. There is a link to a White Paper on this subject in my submission. The countries that are doing well at the moment are Germany - the Moor Futures scheme has sold credits at approximately €80 per tonne, so it is not quite as low as was suggested - and the Netherlands, which has a scheme called Valuta voor Veen - I apologise for my poor pronunciation - which has achieved approximately €70 per tonne. That scheme is up and running. The UK has the Peatland Code whose figures are slightly lower at €20 to €30 per tonne at present, but the UK is being quite conservative. France has recently set up a scheme and, as was correctly pointed out, a European framework will be published imminently. It is quite important that we make a big effort on this because peatland is far more significant in Ireland than it is in many other countries. We are behind the curve and we need to get ahead of it.
We silo much of this. Today we are talking about emissions. We are only looking at that and we are not talking about biodiversity or adaptation. When we restore or rewet peatland, it not only produces an emissions benefit. Are the witnesses doing any work on the potential for adaptation? One of the things we will see as climate change impacts us more and more is that we will get a lot more rain and there will be a lot more flooding. If we allow natural areas to retain that moisture and it is not drained, that will have downstream benefits. Is there any research on or quantification of that, by a State or a private body, about what happens if other farmland downstream is being flooded because drainage is happening above? Are the witnesses doing any research on that?
When they are making decisions on different programmes, do they incorporate adaptation or biodiversity considerations into their decision-making processes?
Mr. John Spink:
The work we do has a main focus but we always include - for example, if it is to do with climate change mitigation - consideration of the other issues, such as biodiversity. As Dr. O'Mara said, the signpost programme is mainly focused on greenhouse gas mitigation but it also covers water quality and considers biodiversity because we must be careful of the law of unintended consequences, that we might do something that is right for one issue, but make another issue worse.
It is fair to say that nationally, we are probably further behind on adaptation than we are with climate mitigation. It is an area where we are beginning to do more work. Internally, we just funded a large project on climate-change adaptation but like a lot of other countries, we are behind the curve in comparison to climate-change mitigation. Dr. O'Sullivan's area of expertise is multifunctional land use, so I will hand over to her for more specific comments.
Dr. Lilian O'Sullivan:
I will go back to the point I made earlier on thinking about the land in a more holistic way. There is very often a gap between what a farmer needs to achieve functionally on a farm versus what society expects the land to deliver. That is a very important point of intervention in terms of enabling environment, whether that is institutional fitting, in terms of schemes and so forth.
At this stage, in terms of the research we are probably looking at optimisation in terms of the biophysical intrinsic capacity of the soil to deliver not just production but at the same time looking at where we are at in respect of the synergies and trade-offs. If we recommend a practice, we must account also for whether there are trade-offs that can lend themselves to perverse outcomes. As Mr. Spink mentioned, we are probably behind on adaptation but it is within the line of sight and we must respond and plan ahead and model future scenarios and carry out analyses and outcomes in regard to them. That is an area that is being expanded within the programme of research we are doing.
Dr. Karl Richards:
I will make a very quick comment. Deputy Whitmore asked a question about flooding. We are not doing any research on that. It is an area the Office of Public Works, OPW, has worked on for many decades. We had a recent workshop with the OPW and I am aware that this is an area it is considering. Teagasc is not operating at a national modelling scale. The Deputy is aware of the agricultural catchments programme. Again, that is part of our catchment hydrology and catchment water quality science but we have not upscaled that and we are not working on peatland soils within that programme. We have new projects that have started on rewetting where we are looking at the effect of different rewetting practices on the water table itself and the potential for the water table to influence emissions.
We have mentioned uncertainties regarding emissions but those uncertainties change with time. Going back to an earlier comment about carbon farming, one concern I have is the question, as climate change impacts Ireland in terms of changes in our rainfall and temperature cycles, as to whether it will increase or decrease carbon emissions coming from peatland soils. If we start to pay for a lot of things now, as we move into 2035 and 2040 we might start to get droughts occurring on bogs and on our mineral soils and that will have a major impact on their carbon-sink capacity. We know from our research that in the past decade, we have had two very dry years where our mineral soils switched from being a carbon sink to being a carbon source because the soil dried out. That is something that needs to be considered very carefully and this is where taking data from our observations and modelling it and combining it with climate models such as those worked on by the Icarus group within Maynooth University on Terrain-AI is the sort of work we need to be looking at to future-proof these things as well, so that we are not emitting CO2 at potentially the worst time climate-wise in the next two decades.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
Deputy Whitmore's point on biodiversity is well made. Biodiversity is not the same thing as restoration of peatlands from a carbon point of view. It is a kind of subset. If we get good biodiversity in terms of peatlands, that means that we must have a properly wet, restored peatland. It does not necessarily work the other way round.
There is a common misconception about rewetting, that if somebody rewets some land, it will somehow flood neighbouring land. In fact, the practice generally is that people find it is the other way round.
That is what I meant. If we enable the land to go back to its natural state, it will hold more water, which will mean there is an effect downstream on other land. There is a value in us doing that because it will improve conditions downstream and it might mean that flooding works are not required. The question is whether we are valuing the benefit from allowing rewetting.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
Absolutely. There is a lot of talk about water. We were involved in the nature restoration law discussions with the European Commission recently. It is setting targets for 2030 on peatland, forestry and so on. People need to look at those as well and how consistent they are with the Irish targets. We had an interesting discussion with a French official from the European Commission. He suggested that water is going to be such a precious commodity in the future that we will need to have ways of storing it. He says that what will happen in terms of food production is that it is definitely going to start moving north. We had a bit of a contretemps. He comes from the Bordeaux region and he said they would not be growing grapes any more, they would be growing coconuts and that grapes would be grown in Ireland. This sort of planning for the future sounds a bit crazy and strange, but even in our lifetime the nature of farming and land use has changed. We can see that in the type of things we can grow. The idea of having vineyards in Ireland at some point in the future is not that fanciful. It would have been a crazy thing to say when I was a young lad but it is not any more.
I take all the points made about water. The key point is that the modelling and management of it is crucial. The Dutch are now the experts in this regard. The Deputy is probably well aware that the Dutch Government has paid to some extent for the restoration of peatlands in Ireland because the Netherlands has mined most of its peat and its peatlands are now below sea level. There is huge subsidence from 1300 to 1900. They pretty much hollowed out the Netherlands and built a big wall around it. That is not what any of us want to see for Ireland. We do need to build up our peatlands.
I thank all of the witnesses. My main question is about carbon credits, but I just want to go back on the Arterial Drainage Act. Mr. Ó Brolcháin mentioned raised water levels in Indonesia and it being an involuntary method. The key question for us at the moment is how much can be done voluntarily to bring us to where we need to be and how much has to be enforced. If changes are made to the Arterial Drainage Act, will we make the changes that we need to our water level whereby we will escape the worst impacts? Is it essential that we make those changes to make sure that we are on the right track?
I understand from what the witnesses have said about carbon credits is that the verification process is the problem. What are the blockages as they see it to getting the verification process right in Ireland? Why is it not happening? I know we are not as far along the path across the globe as perhaps we would like to be.
My third question relates to the ACRES project. The speakers may have referred to smaller parcels of land but I am conscious that there are significant portions of peatland in some parts of my constituency. I was in Conamara theas last night where there is a lot of peatland. As has been stated, farmers want to do what is right for nature and to be paid for it.
That is what we want to see. These are small enough pockets of money, but are substantial on top of the farming activities. However, the emphasis seems to be on biodiversity. What influence have our witnesses had on the agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES, project? At the moment, that seems to be the key way that farmers are being engaged with, particularly across the west. Many of the examples we were shown were around peatland restoration on smaller pockets of land.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
On the Arterial Drainage Act, the answer is “Yes”. Basically, the key aspect of the Arterial Drainage Act is that much of the drainage work in the country is managed by the Office of Public Works, OPW. However, the sort of thinking behind the Arterial Drainage Act from 1945 was quite different from the thinking now. I described the low-hanging fruit. It would not be particularly controversial to say that we need to bring in measures to ensure that the water levels are raised to the highest level possible consistent with the current type of land use. That should not be a frightening thing for anybody. Teagasc, for example, will have clear views as to what levels it can be raised to that are consistent with farmland, for example. That is a low-hanging fruit and I think at minimum that will be done. Obviously, in Indonesia, they are very concerned about their land drying out for fires and so on, so they have taken pretty drastic measures. However, it is worth looking at the sort of systems that have been put in place. Again, I refer the Senator to Professor Hans Jooston, who is the head of the Greifswald Mire Centre in Germany. He has extensive experience in hydrology and the best way to do this for peatlands.
We have an issue, indeed, of bogs burning in Ireland during the summer. That happens involuntarily – obviously, some of it is deliberately done – for various different reasons, but one of them can be that the peat dries out considerably in the summer and it probably should not, in many cases. Having wet peat is advisable and it is very beneficial for a whole load of nature-based solutions in relation to water as well. I hope that answers the question.
Dr. Karl Richards:
Again, I will sound a bit like a broken record – apologies. On the blockages, at the moment we cannot go to farmer Mary or farmer Joe and tell them know they have X amount of peatland on their farm, it is currently drained to this level and therefore the emissions are 1 tonne, 10 tonnes or 20 tonnes. We cannot do that because of all of those uncertainties I mentioned. One of the biggest blockages is knowing what the emissions are from the different land areas across the country on a particular farm. However, we are working hard to try to come up with that. It goes back to that uncertainty, but it really is a blockage. We know areas that have been drained in the past and there are maps of that, some more complete than others. The big question is what the current drainage status is. Many of the drains that were put in in the 1960s and 1970s are not like standard land drainage or more efficient land drainage that has been installed a lot since then on more organo-mineral soils where there is herringbone and interconnecting drains within a field. Basically, these fields had a trench dug around them to drain them. The question then is how far into the peat has that water table been reduced. Currently, we do not have the data on that, but we are trying to get it.
As Mr. Ó Brolcháin said, the lower the water table, the more emissions there are. Again, we have done research on that and taken samples of peat and varied the water table. There is a PhD student about to publish work on that. We know how important that water level is. At the moment, on these agricultural fields, we can see them using remote sensing, but we do not know what the water level is in them. We need to get an idea of that so the farmer can be told it is emitting 1 tonne, 10 tonnes or 20 tonnes. That needs to be known because one does not know how much carbon one will sell or get credit for. Some of that uncertainty could be included in the price a farmer is paid for the carbon. If the emissions are uncertain, then probably a much reduced price would be offered. As the certainty improves, that price could be increased over time. However, I am not an economist. I am no Deputy Bruton, who has probably considered stuff such as this way in the distant past as part of his master’s degree.
Dr. Karl Richards:
Again, it is one of the few pieces of research that we actually have available. Back in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in Teagasc, there was a whole department on land drainage. We have two people now – that is it. The capacity is relatively limited within our organisation. However, there are obviously other organisations and universities too.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
I wish to address the carbon credits question. The key blockage – which was the question asked – is the fact that we do not have a framework in place in Ireland. In Germany, they have worked at a regional level, where the regional government is obviously much bigger than it is in Ireland. Our regional governments probably are not suitable; it is probably a national system that we are talking about. In France, they recently set up a national framework. Usually, it works in partnership. In the UK, they have a system called the Peatland Code and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, which is an international organisation. The UK branch of it works hand in hand with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Defra, which is the UK's equivalent of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Basically, all the schemes tend to work in partnership between Government and, let us say, a trusted organisation locally. The key thing is to set up a framework in the first place or some sort of one-stop shop, so that if a landowner wants to sell carbon credits, make money on it and use that money for the purposes of restoring the peatland or land, they know who to talk to. At the moment, there are a number of people at an academic level setting up schemes in Ireland or looking at the potential of doing that. Those need to be supported and encouraged. Government needs to take this by the scruff of the neck. There is a real danger that we will get into, as one academic described it, the wild west, where people will literally be selling things. They can do that legally. They can just say, “I will sell you a few carbon credits and here I got Mickey Joe down the road to verify those.” Those are not verified; that is not sufficient verification. We need proper verification and Government to take a hand in this and not just to leave it to the private sector or academia.
I wish to come in on that and perhaps address Teagasc. Its role is to do the research and take us from a place where there is, it probably wrong to say a vague understanding, but not an exact understanding of where our emissions are. Is Teagasc’s role also, in the next phase, to advise Government? There is a policy advice side to Teagasc as well. Am I correct in saying that? We will move from land use review phase one, which is doing the numbers, to phase two, which is figuring out what to do and the policy instruments and measures. I do not expect Teagasc representatives to say what those measures can or should be at this point; I just wish to ask them whether Teagasc has a central role in that part of it.
Mr. John Spink:
In the opening statement, it was mentioned that we are currently using these tier 1 international figures in our inventory. The research that is being done will move that to national figures, so we have Irish-specific figures. One can then use those figures in modelling.
That is when you can start looking at the possibilities and examine what would happen if certain courses of action are taken, including what the implications and costs may be. That is the type of thing we will provide that can then be used to decide policies in the future.
We did not answer Senator Pauline O'Reilly's question on ACRES.
Mr. John Spink:
I was just going to come back to that. We do not design the policies; it is the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that does so. I am not aware of any direct input we have had in designing the ACRES schemes but we have had a lot of involvement in previous results-based payment schemes like Burren Life, Aran Life and that type of thing. We have had a lot of involvement in those and produced a lot of reports on them. I presume that is the type of information that has been built into designing the schemes as they are.
The critical point is the voluntary versus involuntary nature of these actions. Results-based schemes are key to farmers getting on board. I can tell that the farmers in heavy peatland areas are on board. I was interested to know about the ongoing engagement because a touch it and see approach will have to be taken to tell if that is working. Upwards of 50,000 farmers can avail of ACRES and it has €1.5 billion of funding, so it could be significant in having an impact on rewetting some of those parcels of lands.
Dr. Karl Richards:
I will make a short comment on voluntary versus mandatory actions. Farmers own their land and you need to be careful of making things mandatory for them. It is not an area I know enough about but I know if somebody was telling me what I had to do in the little garden I have, I would have a strong opinion on it. I would rather be worked with, incentivised and encouraged. That is something to be considered.
We are all on the same page in that. That is why it is important to get these results-based schemes right. It is important so we do not find ourselves in a few years' time, having had 50,000 farmers and €1.5 billion involved in this scheme, and having not had enough engagement from Teagasc if that is the case. I know that is not what Dr. Richards is saying but I am not entirely sure what-----
Dr. Karl Richards:
We are here to represent the research branch. The director has left to get a flight but we have our knowledge transfer colleagues. There are roughly 250 of them and they know ACRES inside-out and back to front and they work with the 40,000 clients that Teagasc has in order to encourage them and identify what the best measures within that for their clients are.
I am so sorry for coming in so late. The danger when you come in at the end is that you will ask questions that have already been asked. It is great to see Mr. Ó Brolcháin here. He would have been in the Seanad with Mark Dearey, who is a good friend of mine in Dundalk.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
Peatlands are probably the biggest opportunity we have to make quick gains in reducing CO2 and carbon equivalent emissions. No. we are not putting enough emphasis on this at all. It has clearly emerged that the research levels in Ireland are well behind those in other countries in terms of peatlands, particularly countries like Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and so on. In fact that includes most countries in Europe. Having said that, we have suddenly been doing a lot more work in recent years in terms of actual restoration work and we have turned a lot of heads. We were the problem child and we are now beginning to become the poster boy across Europe, which is a good thing. The national peatlands strategy is being upgraded at present and I would encourage as much emphasis as possible being put on that. We need to upgrade the various figures we have and to reflect the measurements which are taking place in the country. We historically have good maps. We have peatland maps from 1812, believe it or not, which are the envy of the world and some of the oldest land-use maps. They were put in place by the British and it was to do with the Napoleonic wars. They were going to use the peatlands to plant lots of trees, which we now know is not a good idea in climate emissions. Napoleon and company did not see carbon emissions as a big issue. The answer to the Senator's question is that if we want to make big gains we can do it.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
It is. On the agricultural and land-use sectors, which are merging in terms of climate at a European level, it is the low-hanging fruit. I heard Dr. O'Mara talking about cows earlier and I saw a lot of members nodding their heads to the idea of reducing carbon without necessarily reducing herd numbers. There is too much emphasis on cows and we are missing the bigger picture. The figures we have at a global level are that peatlands are the most efficient ecosystem for carbon storage on the planet and we are blessed with them. We are already seeing large pension funds beginning to buy up a lot of peatlands, for example, because they know what is coming at a European and global level and they are planning ahead. I would far prefer to see local communities benefiting rather than large multinational finance houses.
What is key about what Mr. Ó Brolcháin said is the fact that it is low-hanging fruit. If we want to get towards our 2030 targets, which are seven or eight years away, we have to look at all of that low-hanging fruit across every sector of Irish society and go for it full throttle. Sometimes we can get lost in the long-term vision of what we have to do, rather than what we can do within three, six or nine months at a political level. It is good to hear that Mr. Ó Brolcháin believes that is viable.
Mr. Ó Brolcháin mentioned Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. Are they the top countries in Europe that are carrying out this kind of strategy or is there anyone else we could learn from?
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
Those are the top countries but we could also look at the Baltic states because they are quite interesting. Finland is another country but the Government in Finland is looking like it might collapse on this issue of the nature restoration laws, which is extraordinary. It is to do with forestry and peatland and they have a huge amount of peatland in Finland. A lot of the horticultural peat is beginning to come from Finland after countries like Ireland and the UK have stopped taking it or are reducing the amount that is being mined. Did I answer the Senator's question?
I thank Senator McGahon and Mr. Ó Brolcháin for being the first to reference Napoleon in this committee. I might be the first to reference the Duke of Wellington, who was probably mapping the country in 1812, rather than his adversary in France. I have one question and if there are no other questions from members we will wrap it up quickly. On the 2018 baseline and given the uncertainty there is in 2022, how do we treat the 2018 baseline? Do we look at it retroactively and say this is what was happening in 2018 and we thought it was something else or do we say that what is happening now is greater than what we thought was happening in 2022? I can see political ramifications for different treatment of the 2018 baseline.
Mr. John Spink:
As new or better emissions factor are produced the baseline is recalculated and we go back. We are not starting from a fixed place and having to reduce against that. If emissions factors say that emissions have gone up then the baseline would go up as well.
Does Dr. Richards wish to come in with more detail on that point?
Dr. Karl Richards:
Mr. Spink is right. We do not go back to 2018; we actually have to go back to 1990. When the EPA runs the inventory, it goes right the way back to 1990. That is why the 2018 baseline would change. There are also changes in activity data. We are in peak forest harvesting mode for the period from 2022 to 2030 and are reflecting all of the forestry that was planted in the 1990s. There is a big question about Sitka spruce on peat soils and what do we do with that 300,000 ha where there are trees on peat soils that are not suitable. Again, this is an area I do not know much about. However, it is an area that Coillte is looking at in a significant way, as is the forestry section of the Department. They are also looking at the options for that drained land and are asking if it can be rewet. My understanding is that there are technical challenges in rewetting some of that land because it is located on quite steep inclines. We are talking about blanket bogs and hilly land. There will be technical challenges as to what we can do with that. These are all aspects of the uncertainty.
I return to the Senator’s earlier comment. These are low-hanging fruit but we also need to be able to accurately account for whatever change we make in the inventory. That is why we need to have the latest emission factors because Sitka spruce went from being a sink for carbon to being an emission source for carbon. That was supported by a single scientific paper. Again, there is probably a great deal that can be done in the context of what a second rotation of Sitka spruce would be like if we had to replant these peatland areas? What if it was replaced by a native woodland, a poplar or alder woodland or whatever. There are still a great number of uncertainties around land. This has really come to a head in the context of the changes that are being made in moving from the net-net calculation for land use, whereby land use was a sink of 1 to 2 megatons, to being a gross emissions source, which is different. We will not be subtracting the emissions from 1990, so it is not a net change from 1990 until now; it is the actual emissions. That is very challenging for us because we are moving from being a net sink of a reasonably large amount to being a very large source, that is, a source of 11 megatons, which is nearly 50% of agricultural emissions.
At some point, we are going to have to decide policy while not knowing. There will always be an evolution of measurements and science, but we need to design policies such that we allow for a greater understanding in the future. I do not know how we will do that. It is going to be very difficult.
Dr. Karl Richards:
It is reasonably clear for forestry. We need to increase our planting rates. In that context, 80,000 ha is one target. When we plant trees on the right soils, we know that we sequester large amounts of carbon. If we bring those products into our buildings, it sequesters that for long periods also. There is a great deal of research in the context of timber around heights and things like that as regards how we construct buildings.
On peatlands, we know that they are an emissions source but the question is whether they produce 20 tonnes, 10 tonnes or 1 tonne. Over the coming years, we will reach a better understanding of that. We know that if we rewet them, we might stop that 1 tonne or 20 tonnes. We know that rewetting will reduce emissions, but we are unsure of the scale of that. It does not stop us starting to rewet these lands. I do not want the committee to take me up in the wrong way because it is a low-hanging fruit, but we need to ensure that when we do this, we can monitor, report and verify the emissions reductions in order that we can underpin payments to the landowners who are potentially reducing the productivity of their land to capture water and carbon, enhance biodiversity and all of that. We know many of the answers, but we need to ensure that we underpin this with the science that will get landowners the maximum credit, whether it be in the context of carbon or biodiversity, for their actions.
Mr. Niall ? Brolch?in:
I wish to make what I hope is a key point. On forestry, I have two things to say. There are forestry regulations under public consultation in the EU at the moment. The Government should not be supporting the planting of new coniferous forests on peatlands under any circumstances. The current position is that the Government is supporting that policy. I ask the committee to look at that because we should not be supporting the payment of subsidies for new forestry on peatlands. It makes absolutely no sense, and we had a significant issue with it in the past.
A major issue we have in one of the projects we are doing, which is a pilot under the EU LIFE scheme, is as to how we remove the trees from peatlands, which can be quite problematic. Usually what can happen is that these trees can be clear-felled. Sometimes the timber is just left lying on the ground. In other cases, trees can be removed but the bases are left lying there. It does not optimise sequestration, which is what we are talking about here, if we do not remove the trees by the roots. That is quite expensive to do. Quite often we see one-off growths of Sitka spruce on drained peatlands and swampy peatlands, as they later become. Once the trees have been felled, the land is left in an appalling state. The people who planted and harvested the trees have made their money and moved off, and the land is just left there with stumps of trees. Those lands are not proper peatlands or proper anything. This is not a good biodiversity area. How trees are cut and removed is something legislators should take cognizance of.
Dr. Karl Richards:
I will home in on that point. In order to fell a forest, one needs a licence. That licence usually involves a replanting obligation. The big question is that where we have these peat soils with forest on top of them, there are actual tree stumps under most of them already because the bog developed from the forest when it was clear-felled a long time ago. The question that arises - and I do not know the answer to it - is: what is the optimal management for those? Do they continue, even when one has felled the forest, to be a carbon source because one may not be able to rewet them? Would one be better having some sort of continuous cover? Does one fell them? All of these are questions that the forestry service and Coillte are teasing out at the moment.
I do not believe that one can get a licence for establishing a Sitka spruce forest on acid-sensitive bog peat soils. I do not believe one has been able to do that since the early 2000s as it has been outlawed. I would hope, and if Mr. Ó Brolcháin is right that should be looked at, but I do not honestly believe that one can get a licence for afforestation on those soils because it will not pass the environmental impact assessment.
Dr. Lilian O'Sullivan:
While it is obviously urgent that we come up with some sort of solution, and harking back to something that somebody mentioned earlier on precautionary principles, whatever solutions are proposed should ensure that there is an awareness of the landscape effect. In the context in which a rewetting event is happening, it is very important that that is captured more broadly than in respect of the site itself in order to ensure that we do not end up with perverse outcomes down the road, particularly when we might have somehow looked at it in a better way. I thank the Chairman.
If there are no further questions from members, we will conclude. I thank all of those in attendance for their contributions. I also thank Professor O'Mara, who had to leave early. This was a comprehensive interesting session. I thank our guests for their very detailed opening statement, which gave us a great deal to think about. We will have another session on the topic next week. That will take our understanding a little bit further. The point about the land use review, its first phase and as we move into the second phase, is something the committee will be interested to hear more about. We might discuss how we treat that.
We will now go into private session. I ask that Deputy Bruton remain for a short while because we have one matter to discuss.