Ballyforan, Ireland (CNN)When John "J.J." Berdon joined Ireland's semi-state peat harvesting company in 1980, he thought he had a job for life.
As Ireland goes green, rural workers feel punished
The 58-year-old lives just a few minutes' drive from his place of work as a truck loader at the Derryfadda site, one of 62 peat-extraction sites on Ireland's ancient peatlands -- colloquially known as the bog -- that cover vast swathes of the country's rural midlands.
That job has been central to the lives of Berdon and some 60 colleagues, most of whom live nearby in small communities along the border of counties Roscommon and Galway.
But this is all soon to change, as his employer, Bord na Móna, announced last October that it would close 17 of its active extraction sites immediately, with the rest to follow by 2027. Up to 500 jobs are expected to go.
The reason, the company says, lies in one word: decarbonization.
Extracting and burning peat contributes to Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions, and for decades, Ireland has put economic development ahead of environmental sustainability.
At the UN Climate Conference (COP 24) in Poland in January, the 2019 Climate Change Performance Index, a report published by Germanwatch, CAN International and the NewClimate Institute that tracks countries' efforts to combat climate change, ranked Ireland the worst country in the European Union for tackling climate change.
Back in 2007, the Irish government pledged to the EU to improve its abysmal environmental record by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% in 2020, compared with 2005 levels. In December, it passed the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, becoming one of the first countries in the world to divest public funds from global fossil fuel companies.
Nonetheless, Ireland is expected to exceed its emission targets by a "significant" amount, according to the country's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Bord na Móna's decision to close its peat extraction sites "is the national and European response to the most serious threatening environmental problem facing the world," Pat Sammon, the company's external communications manager, told CNN.
While scientists have been warning about the ecological consequences of extracting and burning peat for nearly 30 years, Ireland's attachment to its peatlands has been difficult to shake.
Covering around 15% of the country, peat, also known as turf, is formed by the accumulation of dead and slowly decaying plant material in oxygen-deprived, waterlogged environments.
In the 1930s, shortly after the formation of the Irish state, the Turf Development Board was established to encourage self-sufficiency and generate rural employment. By the end of World War II, Bord na Móna took over and took peat harvesting to an industrial scale, providing fuel for the first turf-fired power station. Today, three of the 10 original turf-burning power plants remain -- one of which currently co-fires with biomass.
While that national project injected new life into some of the country's most economically deprived areas, it has had devastating consequences for the environment.
That's because burning peat generates more carbon dioxide than burning coal. Plus, the peatlands are a carbon sink: they absorb CO2 in the atmosphere and fix it back into the bog. When that peat is dried out to make materials suitable for burning, it damages the 10,000-year-old carbon sinks and can wreak havoc on connected ecosystems.
In 2016, CO2 emissions from peat accounted for approximately 3.4 million tons out of a national total of approximately 61.6 million tons, or 5.6%, according to the EPA. Power generation accounted for 2.60 million tons, with residential use at 0.84 million tons.
While those figures could be seen as a trivial amount in comparison with other greenhouse gas emissions, experts and activists say ending peat extraction and burning for power is a no-brainer.
Tony Lewes, director of the group Friends