Peat; The invisible kraken of modern Finland

02-09-2019

Press- release by Maren Krings

Peat is on its best way of becoming the ugliest word of the year 2019 in Finland. 

It involves environmental disaster, political power-games and the subsistence of roughly 2000 farmers. 

More than the visible dangers of this kraken, are the invisible ones. Water pollution, caused by leaking nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), heavy metals and organic materials, which are drained into rivers, lakes and ultimately even into the Baltic Sea. 

Soon the land of „Thousand Lakes“ could turn into the „Land of thousand black-waters“. Peat extraction urgently needs to be taken into the account as a main player in climate change, same as is the fossile coal industry. 

Right after lakes and waters come forests in Finnish ranking of national popularity and with that the industry deriving from forestry. That might just be one of the many factors, why peat is such a hushed up topic. In order for forestry to keep expanding its harvestable areas, wetlands have to be drained from water. 1/3 of the Finnish forest grows on peatland. Ditching is used to set these peat mires dry. Once again this process funnels the nutrients from the peat-mires directly into rivers and lakes, being yet again a source of contamination for waters. Once the peat mires are dried, trees will grow faster and taller, making them harvestable for the wood-industry. By applying the clear-cut system, the top soil layer is opened, releasing massive carbon dioxide into the environment. 

Resulting disasters are loss of biodiversity, dying fish, contaminated waters, dispersing the peat nutrients slowly throughout the interconnected lake system and adjacent rivers. Owners of lake properties have noticed a considerable drop in water quality in the lakes during past years.

The sheer numbers are speaking for themselves. Emissions from Finnish peat bogs and the peat industry are huge. In an average year eight million tons of carbon dioxide is emitted from heat generation, another nine million tons from farming the peat bogs and seven million tons deriving from forestry on drained peat mires, amounting to a total of twenty-four tons of carbon dioxide a year, which is more than twice the emissions of Finnish road, rail, boat and air traffic (~12 million tons of carbon dioxide).

The last Finnish government decided to ban coal by the year 2029, which is bringing Finland closer to the ambitious goal of being the first fossile free nation in the world. However this goal might be catapulted by the fact that peat is still widely burned as a source of energy, especially in small scale district heating plants all over the country. 

The government is looking into new sustainable resources such as geothermal-, solar- and wind energy, as well as energy generated from sea-water in order to replace the heating plants running on coal. Coal plants mainly supply major cities like Helsinki, Turku and Tampere with energy and heating. Far more difficult will be the replacement of the smaller heating plants run on wood and peat. So far wood has not even entered the official discussion of carbon account, as it is considered to be carbon neutral in regards to its regrowing qualities. What happens though if you apply the collateral damages and emissions caused by clear cutting, use of heavy machinery and irreversible damage done to wetlands?

Considering that there are cleaner energies then wood, such as geo-thermal, solar, wind and energy generated from sea-waters, the carbon footprint of the forest industry should be counted as well and wood should not be considered the green solution for the peat problem. 

But at the moment it is exactly that!

A number of environmental groups are present in the country and fighting for a faster phase-out of the peat industry. While the Nature Conservancy group sees problems in some of the amendments in the Finnish constitution that leave ample space for interpretation of the law, Greenpeace in contrary has refocused their activism to remind politicians to stick to their plan of a carbon-free nation by 2035. 

As of last Friday the 16th of August, a budget draft from the ministry of finance has revealed that the suspension, anticipated by the Green Party, of the tax reliefs on peat will most likely not happen. This fight between the current Center Party in the coalition government and the Green party, could cause an ongoing fight preventing any decisions in the near future. Meanwhile the peat and forest industry will continue to work hectare by hectare into new lands, opening new peat bogs to extract from. 

Products we see worldwide from peat extraction are potting soil, animal bedding (specifically for horses) and medicinal applications for patients with rheumatism. The industrial use is limited to Finland itself, as there are few other countries like Ireland and Russia that are also using it for energy generation. 

Ireland has already taken an active step forward and will put a ban on peat burning as of 2029. Even countries not using it for energy purposes have stepped forward, such as Great-Britain, putting a ban on peat to be used as garden and potting soil starting next year. Professional gardeners have an extra ten years to comply with the peat ban regulations. 

To comply with actions needed, according to the IPCC paper from last November, addressing climate change, Finland would set a good example to follow smaller countries like Ireland immediately in actions pro climate and stop carrying on an inner fight that diffuses to align with its official aim of being the EU global leader in climate action.

As holder of the current EU presidency Finland has a responsibility to live up to its international image of „best schooling system“ and nation of „Thousands of (hopefully also in the future clean) Lakes“ in the world!

If interested in a full story of the peat situation in Finland that are covering interviews with various political parties, the Nature Conservancy, Greenpeace, statements from peat farmers as well as field research, please contact Maren Krings directly under info@marenkrings.com .