Delivering on COP26

Tom Donnellan, CEO Bord an Móna 

In the run-up to COP26 the clamour from vested interests grew ever louder. Special pleading from sectional interests is nothing new but it has become more than a little concerning in the zero-sum game that is decarbonisation. It can seem that every exception, exemption and derogation must translate into a deeper cut elsewhere. And that’s where everything begins to unravel.

That said, I am more optimistic now than I have been at any time since COP21 in Paris in 2015. There now appears to be a real recognition on the part of governments and major corporations around the world that quite radical action must be taken to tackle the climate crisis.

The mood music has changed. It is now difficult to find anyone in authority anywhere who goes so far as to deny climate change. Any disputes now tend to centre on the severity of the crisis and the detail of the measures needed to address it.

But the devil does lie in that detail. Certain sectors feel more threatened than others by decarbonisation. And they have a right to be. The scale of the emissions reductions required of some sectors is simply enormous.

And it is natural for people to equate emissions cuts with activity reductions and that in turn represents a threat to revenues, profits, and livelihoods.

But that needn’t, in fact shouldn’t be the case. Net zero doesn’t mean the end for companies and industry sectors, it should instead offer a new beginning.

There can hardly be a case of a company more threatened by emissions reduction requirements than was the case with Bord na Móna with its core business of peat extraction Deprived of its raw material for horticultural and other products and power generation the future looked bleak to say the least.

Back in 2018 there was very real concern about the ability of the company to continue in business beyond 2030 when peat harvesting had to cease. Climate change and the action required to tackle it was seen as the death knell for the company.

To put it in context, there were two plans under consideration at the time. Plan A was to continue taking peat out of the ground until 2030 and then stop. Plan B was to find a way to continue extracting peat beyond 2030. There was no vision for the future of the company beyond peat and the special pleading required to remain in that business.

Clearly, neither plan was sustainable. An alternative was required, one that would see the business move away from its reliance on peat. That alternative was Bord na Móna’s “Brown to Green” strategy which saw the company reorient itself 180 degrees and reposition to become a climate solutions business.

Instead of seeing climate action as a threat we would view it as an opportunity. We would solve our own problems by bringing solutions to the biggest challenges facing the planet today.

That new strategy saw the creation of four new business units in the areas of renewable power generation; the circular economy; peatland restoration; and innovation.

Progress has been rapid since then. We already had quite significant renewable power generation assets but have gone from completing one new renewables project every four years to two projects every year.

Ensuring that Ireland has a secure supply of renewable energy means we will develop a strong and diverse portfolio of assets that has wind at its core alongside battery, solar, biomass, biogas and hydrogen.  All of this means we are on track to be able to supply a third of Irish homes with renewable energy by 2030. It also means we can provide solutions to some of the biggest challenges of energy supply and demand that Ireland is now facing. In September for instance, we announced plans to develop Ireland’s first dedicated renewable energy business park on 3,000 hectares of our landbank in Counties Offaly and Westmeath. All of the 200MW of electricity supplied to businesses locating in the new business park will be generated from renewable sources such as wind, gas and solar, while the park will also feature energy storage facilities which may include battery and hydrogen.

In the circular economy area, Bord na Móna operates a waste collection service and two major recycling plants. There’s a good chance that the tyres on your car will end up in our facility in Drogheda where it will be turned into crumbed rubber that will be recycled into other uses. This business now recycles half of Ireland’s used tyres and processes 24,000 tonnes of plastic each year.

The most radical transformation will very soon become apparent on our land. The old moonscape landscape where peat was extracted will soon disappear forever. Where work has begun long drainage ditches have been replaced by pools of water and the green shoots of new vegetation.

This €126 million Peatlands Climate Action Scheme, cofounded by the government, involves a rewetting programme covering 33,000 hectares of bog. This will secure a store of 109 million tonnes of carbon and sequester millions more back into the bogs. We will soon see it transform into a new living peatland teeming with thousands of different plant and animal species and places of high natural beauty all of which has huge potential for new public amenity.

Through all of this we are more committed than ever to ensuring that the communities we always operated in also reap the benefits of this new green economy.   partnering with third party companies to help grow and develop sustainable businesses at our former peat operations centres. We also recently launched Accelerate Green, Irelands first accelerator innovation hub to support existing sustainable businesses in the climate change arena to grow and expand.

The question is what do all these individual actions and initiatives add up to? especially for the people concerned. The answer is simple.  All these activities are creating 1435 new roles inside and outside the company Employment in the company itself will return to pre-transition levels in the next few years.  Right now, 85% of our employees are working in green, sustainable activities and this will go to one hundred percent within the next three years.

As for revenue, this year, 75% of the Bord na Móna’s turnover will come from renewable energy and sustainable products and this figure will reach 100% by 2025.

Instead of having no future beyond 2030, Bord na Móna will be on a completely sustainable footing by 2025 and will have put an end to any residual dependence on peat. We are also creating new sustainable employment for people and communities across the country.

That’s what can happen when people take the time to reimagine the future and see the long-term opportunities that lie ahead rather than the short-term threats.

Hopefully, that same fresh thinking will be in evidence at COP26 and we will see agreement on the radical changes now required to address the growing climate emergency. Instead of focusing on and demonising individual sectors we must act collectively to find solutions to the greatest threat we have ever faced – the threat of extinction. The price of failure is one that none of us can afford to pay. Survival on the other hand is a very good thing.