Conservation efforts of Finland’s vast peatlands meet the resistance of habit in a nation that has a long history of draining and using them as a dirty fossil-fuel.
Peat is on the way of becoming the ugliest word of the year for the Finnish nation. It involves environmental disaster, political power-games and the subsistence of as few as 2000 farmers.
Beyond the visible dangers of peat extraction hide the invisible ones. Water pollution, caused by leaking nutrients, heavy metals and organic materials, which are drained into rivers, lakes and ultimately also reach the Baltic Sea. In many places, this land of a “Thousand Lakes” has already has seen its waters turned brackish.
And then there is its climate impact: Peat extraction urgently needs to be taken into the account of carbon emissions when looking at the current climate crisis, to be handled the same way as the fossil coal industry.
In the Finnish ranking of its national treasures stands the beautiful and clean lakes and fresh waters in second place, right after its forests. Indeed, forestry, shipping, agriculture and industry are the four pillars for national wealth and prosperity. The same matters that brought wealth to this nordic country are now bringing shame and ecological disaster.
Forestry still comes first in Finland
There is a great codependence between peat mires and forests. Expansion of the forest industry is only possible by drying 1/3 of the forests growing on wetlands. By ditching those wetlands, harvestable areas of forest are created. This process allows for the nutrients from the peat-mires to directly reach the river and lake systems, contaminating fresh waters on a vast scale. Dried up peat mires will allow tree growth to happen faster, bringing a good turn around to the Finnish forest-industry. By applying the clear-cutting method, the top layer of forest soil is then destroyed and opened up, releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide.
Collateral damages involve the loss of biodiversity, such as old growth trees, lichens and the boreal forest biodiversity, which takes about 400-500 years to fully develop, fish-dying due to contaminated waters and peat nutrients slowly spreading throughout the fresh water system. A great numbers of owners of lake properties have noticed and complained about a considerable drop in the water quality of lakes during the past years.
Peat bogs can be climate bombs
Emissions from Finnish peat bogs and the peat industry are outrageous. On average, 7-8 million tons of carbon dioxide are emitted during a year just from heat generation, another 7.8 million tons from farming the peat bogs and 7-8 million tons deriving from forestry on drained peat mires. This amounts to a total of approximately 23 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. This represents double the amount of carbon emissions caused by Finnish road, rail, boat and air traffic combined (approx. 12 million tons of carbon dioxide a year).
The last Finnish government decided to ban coal by the year 2029, which is supposed to bring Finland closer to the ambitious goal of being the first fossil free nation in the world. However this goal didn’t take into account the emissions caused by peat extraction, which is still being used as a major source to generate energy, especially in small scale district heating plants all over the country.
The government’s search for new sustainable resources such as geothermal, solar, wind and biogas energy is running too slow to replace the existing fossil energy sources used to meet the increasing energy demands of major cities like Helsinki, Turku and Tampere.
The smaller heating plants, which run on wood and peat, are more problematic to be turned into sustainable energy-run factories than the large ones. Education at the state-level is needed in order to clarify the importance of untouched boreal forests as carbon sinks, as well as the negative carbon account created by deforestation and replacing natural boreal habitat with industrial monocultures.
The problem is diffused by deliberately altered statistics of the forest industry, which publishes statistics displaying a much more optimistic view of reality.
Conservationist fighting back
A number of environmental groups are fighting for a faster phase-out of the peat industry. Currently the Finnish Nature Conservancy Association is running a campaign backed by Greenpeace, Amnesty International and other environmental protection organisations to raise signatures from Finnish citizens to put the peat debate back into parliament. The campaign is running until the February 2021, and at the time of writing 15,000 signatures have been collected.
Lead writer of the IPCC AR6 climate report, professor Tero Mustonen has created a model project, showing how to resolve the problem of peat in a sustainable and community-strengthening process. In his home community of Selkie, he established a rewilding area. Together with the community, the NGO Snowchange, bought the site of a phased-out peat bog and remodeled it into a natural habitat.
Large-scale rewilding ambitions
Rewilding essentially means that human action can stimulate the return of biodiversity like wildlife, birds, plants, aquatic life, bacteria, special species and so on. But then nature is allowed to take over and return to functioning as a carbon sink and a biodiversity hotspot on its own.
From alleviation of an active carbon source into a fully restored biodiversity system, and creating a carbon sink in the process, takes approximately 400 years. The regular cost expectancy for rewilding is 1000 EUR per ha, which is a comparably small amount of money, considering the overall positive impact this model project has on the global environment. 50,000 hectares is the approximate total area of peat extraction sites in Finland, and Snowchange has a goal of restoring all of them. The short-term goal for 2020 is to restore 1000 ha, of which they have already completed 600 ha.
Systemic change may be too little, too late
Currently the Finnish government has doubled the tax for the peat industry and looks to half the use of peat for energy by 2030. Governmental subsidies had given tax-relief to the peat industry in the past, and new factories that are based on peat extraction are still being opened up in Finland.
Products coming from peat can be found worldwide from potting soil, animal bedding (specifically for horses). The industrial use is limited to Finland itself, as there are few other countries left (e.g. Russia, Estonia, Scotland and Ireland) that are still using peat for energy generation.
Ireland has 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. Great-Britain, for example, put a ban on peat to be used as garden and potting soil starting 2020. Professional gardeners have an extra ten years to comply with the peat ban regulations.
For now, it will be up to the Finnish citizens to bring movement into the political peat debate and thus decide if the nation will meet its ambitious goal of being the first fossil free nation.