“Power and Heat from Peat – Peat in Finnish Energy Policy” (Part 4 of 6)

While most of the publication “Power and Heat from Peat – Peat in Finnish Energy Policy” is written in the Finnish language, the following six English summaries give valuable insight into this largely unknown energy source. Vapo Oy is the largest producer of Peat Fuel in Finland.

Peat as a Source of Energy: Environmental Awareness and Environmental Protection – Summary

Environmental protection and environmental awareness related to the utilisation of peat and peatlands have undergone a considerable transformation between the 1960s and the present day. The focus of environmental protection has also varied over time: in the 1960s and 70s mire conservation programmes and the impact of the peat industry on conservation targets were in the forefront; in the 1980s and 90s watercourse protection and the impact of peat extraction on biodiversity were among the key issues, and in the 1990s and since 2000 environmental protection has been dominated by climate policy, linked to the greenhouse gas emissions from peat combustion and the land usage of peatlands.

In terms of environmental awareness, there has been a progression towards a principle of increased environmental responsibility. The awareness of the peat industry – and of Finnish industry in general – of the environmental impact of their activities increased in the 1980s, and at the same time data on the impacts became available, the authorities imposed more standards and environmental protection started to be a major area of stakeholder interaction.

Peat production, which was low-volume and geographically limited, was not considered particularly problematic by Finnish nature conservationists in the 1960s. However, mire conservation movements gained ground as a result of large-scale ditching by the forest industry.

The power-generating industry, which enjoyed government
support, also came in for criticism by mire conservation
movements in the 1960s when the Lokka and Porttipahta
reservoir schemes threatened to – and eventually did –
flood some of Europe’s largest peatlands.

The breakthrough of fuel peat extraction in the early
1970s raised the question of extending production to
peatlands in the natural state and those identified for
conservation by nature conservationists. Some of these mires
had been conserved by the Finnish forestry commission
Metsähallitus and some had been set aside as conservation
areas in regional planning at the turn of the 1970s. With
the oil crisis, however, energy policy overrode conservation
considerations. In 1975 the Ministry of Trade and Industry
instructed regional planning councils and Metsähallitus
to set aside peatlands for the State Fuel Centre, which
was given the target of increasing annual production to
20 million cubic metres by the 1980s.

There were overlapping objectives, which led to
conflicts. The problem was that no clear guidelines had
been defined in Finland for what peatlands were to be
set aside for agriculture, forestry, peat production, leisure
use or conservation. In the 1970s conflicts also resulted
from the incompleteness of environmental protection
standards and the dispersion of environmental protection
responsibilities across various ministries and branches of
regional administration.

In more general terms, environmental awareness in the
1970s meant very different things to the peat industry,
the civil servants who favoured fuel peat production and
nature conservationists. For the peat industry and its
supporters, peatlands represented ecosystems that people
had exploited through the ages, first for farming and later
for forestry. The principal value of peatlands was their
economic benefit, although leisure and nature conservation
values were also starting to gain recognition.
To nature conservationists, peatlands represented a                            threatened ecosystem and, following large-scale drainage
for agriculture and forestry, mankind should no longer
interfere in their natural course in any significant way.
Peatland values were dominated by leisure and conservation
aspects, although there was also some understanding for
the peat industry’s expansion plans.

The peatland working group appointed by the energy
and environmental working group of the Ministry of
Trade and Industry went through all of Finland’s peatland
conservation programmes at the end of the 1970s. The
outcome was a long-run agreement that the State Fuel Centre
would not develop mires subject to peatland conservation
plans. All mires outside of peatland conservation plans
were defined as commercial mires. The agreement also
included some land swaps. The State Fuel Centre/Vapo
Oy has strictly applied the agreement. Between the 1980s
and 2000s, the peat industry has used less than 1% of the
land area of Finland’s peatlands.

The government endorsed a peatland conservation
programme based on proposals by the peatland conservation
working group of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry
in 1979. The programme complement gained government
backing in 1981. The programme includes 600 conservation
sites, with a total peatland area of 488,565 hectares, of
which around 340,000 hectares are state-owned and around
150,000 hectares are in private or corporate ownership.
The peatland conservation programme comprises around
5% of Finland’s original peatland area. There are a further
400,000 hectares of conserved peatland outside of formal
peatland conservation programmes.

In terms of environmental permit procedure, between
1970 and 2000 peat production was characterised by a
transition from a voluntary approach (until the mid-1980s)
to a strict permit regime (from the late 1980s). Changed
environmental legislation, tighter permit procedures and
greater environmental awareness represented turning
points for the peat industry itself. The industry’s own
environmental protection initiatives were prompted by the
pressures coming from all sides in the early 1980s. On the
one hand there were watercourse permit obligations, on
the other hand there was increasing awareness of corporate
social responsibility for the environment. In addition,
environmental protection in general was becoming a more
integral feature of business objectives.

In the 1970s, peat production was mainly regulated
by watercourse, building and neighbourhood legislation.
Even in the 1980s, the procedure for gaining a permit
to start peat production was largely voluntary. A whole
series of standards were introduced in the 1990s. The act
on environmental permits (1991) stipulated that all peat
production areas over 10 hectares required an environmental
permit. The act on the assessment of environmental impacts
(1994) required an environmental impact assessment to
be carried out on all production areas over 150 hectares
prior to the permit application being decided.

Watercourse protection was not the cause of criticism of
peat production in the early 1970s. This changed, however,
at the turn of the 1980s and it remained a heated topic
throughout the 1980s and at times into the 1990s and
2000s. The point at issue has been the suspended solids,
nutrients, humus and iron leaching into watercourses from
peat production areas. Although the phosphorous and
nitrogen load caused by peat production has not exceeded
around 1% of the total load in Finland’s watercourses,
the local impact on water quality at the mouth of outlet
ditches or in the nearest stream, pond or lake may be

The debate on watercourse impacts was also linked
to the fact that large-scale peat production was
initiated just as a period of extensive forest ditching was
ending, and in places the peat industry was blamed for
the problems caused by forest ditching.

Awareness of the watercourse load caused by peat
production led to significant advances in watercourse
protection methods in the sector from the early 1980s,
leading to nationwide watercourse protection practices for
peat production and a number of protection methods.
Gradually ordinary field ditches gave way to more
advanced watercourse protection methods and structures.
Research work resulted in various sedimentation pond
solutions (1980-l), overland flow fields and chemical water
purification (1990-l) and, since 2000, control of runoff
peaks, through-soil infiltration, evaporation ponds,
overflow fields and peat filtration. In all of these, Vapo
Oy initiated and financed the research.

The carbon dioxide emissions caused by combustion
have dominated the environmental policy debate around
energy peat in the 1990s and 2000s. The debate has been
decidedly global since the start. In the 1990s, the impact
of peat energy usage on Finland’s greenhouse gas balances
also began to be more decisive in defining energy policy
positions. Based on the classification introduced by the
IPCC, emissions from peat combustion are included
in Finland’s greenhouse gas balances. The debate on
emissions has not been limited to energy usage alone.
Peatlands are significant carbon sinks, thus peatland
usage increasingly became a subject of global interest in
the 1990s and 2000s.

At the research level, a wealth of data was assembled
on the greenhouse gas emissions of peat combustion
and the land usage of peatlands in the 1990s and 2000s.
Particularly in Finland and Sweden, this research has been
conducted using the principles of lifecycle studies. Coal
has generally been used as the control fuel for peat.
Finnish research findings are contained in the report
produced for the Ministry of Trade and Industry by
Patrick Crill, Ken Hargreaves and Atte Korhola entitled
The Role of Peat in Finnish Greenhouse Gas Balances

This publication has been highly influential on the climate
and energy policy of the Vanhanen I and II governments.
It proposed classifying peat as a “slowly renewable
biomass fuel” to distinguish it from renewable
biofuels (wood) and solid fossil fuels (brown and mineral
coal). The energy policy strategies of Finland and Sweden
since 2005 have been based on the premise that peat is a
slowly renewable biomass fuel.

However, as an EU country Finland has been bound by
the EU’s climate policy stance. At the EU level, peat was
classified as a fossil fuel even before Finland’s membership.
Ireland was very influential in this classification since fossil
fuels received most subsidies in the EEC in the 1980s. In
its 1996 guidelines, the IPCC also classified peat as a fossil
fuel. The European Commission very largely followed the
IPCC’s positions in its climate policy.

In the international arena, peat energy usage has been
a difficult issue for Finland since the 1990s. In general
terms it can be said that peat and peatlands were not
at the top of the agenda of Finnish governments in the
negotiations on an international framework agreement on
climate change in the 1990s. Based on the positions of the

carbon dioxide committees appointed by the Ministry of
the Environment (1991 and 1994), Finland’s negotiating
objectives had more to do with the eventual position of
forests in climate policy. The Aho and Lipponen governments
wanted any agreements to include forests so as to balance
out commitments made on emissions. They also wanted
to make sure that emissions from the combustion of
biomass originating from sustainable forestry would not
be included in the carbon dioxide balance.

As regards forests, Finland took a very active role
in the international climate policy arena in the 1990s,
but when it came to peat it was more of a wait-and-see
attitude, which was partly due to the inconsistencies within
Finland regarding the energy use of peat. For reasons of
regional, economic and energy policy the Lipponen I and
II governments did not set out to run down peat energy
usage, but for climate policy reasons increased usage was
not encouraged either.

The report by Crill, Hargreaves and Korhola and the
position of the Vanhanen I and II governments on peat
as a slowly renewable biomass have contradicted the
classifications of the EU and IPCC. The active role of
Finnish and Swedish scientists in the IPCC finally resulted
in the IPCC, at its meeting in Mauritius in 2006, placing
peat in a separate fuel category between solid fossil fuels
and biomass. The IPCC did not accept peat as a biofuel,
however, because the period of renewal was considered to
be too long. In Finland, the average period of renewal for
peat is approximately 2000 to 4000 years. Also, the most
important issue for Finland and Sweden, the combustion
emission factor, remained unchanged: the combustion
emission factor of peat is higher than that of coal. The
renewal period for coal is hundreds of millions of years.

Finland and Sweden have pushed to continue the
debate on the classification of peat in the IPCC on the
basis of new scientific research findings. Dozens of studies
based on lifecycle models of the greenhouse gas emissions
caused by the land usage of peatland and peat energy
usage have been prepared. The most precise data has been
gathered on peatlands in the natural state, where according
to Finnish and Swedish studies peat energy usage causes
lifecycle climate impacts almost equal to those of energy
generation from coal. Energy usage of peat from forest
ditched peatlands can achieve an average reduction in
climate impacts compared to coal of several percent over
a one hundred year period. Using peat from peat fields
produces greenhouse emissions that are notionally lower
than other peatlands.

Climate policy and especially emissions from peat
combustion have dominated the peat debate since 2000.
Clearly the debate will continue to be global. It is also
difficult to say what aspects will dominate the peat debate
in 50 years’ time: climate policy, biodiversity, the objectives
of ecosystem services or security policy more generally,
including questions of supply, security and energy
selfsufficiency targets.