Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Leo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
I thank the Deputy and I join him in congratulating Deputies Clare Daly, Fitzgerald, Wallace and Kelleher on their election to the European Parliament. I understand that they will continue to be Members of this House until 2 July, but all of us would like to be associated in extending our congratulations to them as they move to a bigger House and new roles.
It is very much Government policy and a Government priority to improve the air quality in our cities, towns and rural areas. We want to do so not just because of health, because we know that poor air quality has a very severe impact on people, children in particular, with respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, but also as part of our climate action agenda. We can improve air quality in two major ways. The first is restricting or banning the sale of smoky fossil fuels, and the second is reversing some of the errors made in the past in encouraging people to buy diesel cars, which we now know are very bad for air quality because of nitrous oxide and sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides, SOx and NOx. The Deputy will be aware that though the then Minister, Mary Harney, did a very good thing for the people of Dublin in banning smoky coal, a subsequent Government did a wrong thing by encouraging people to buy diesel cars, which we now know are very bad for air quality and have damaged the health of our children.
The difficulty we are running into is that a number of coal firms have indicated that they intend to challenge the introduction of a nationwide smoky coal ban, which is Government policy. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, has received advice from the Attorney General on this. He is determined to reduce the levels of harmful particulate emissions from residential heating and is working to finalise a legally robust plan which will improve air quality, particularly in our cities and towns. Banning the use of smoky coal would have a positive impact on public health, especially in urban areas, but a number of coal companies have indicated that if the Government attempts to extend the smoky coal ban, they will challenge the new ban as well as the existing ban that applies in Dublin. If that challenge were successful, not only would we fail to go forward, we may even end up going backwards. These companies have indicated that they would challenge the ban on the grounds that we should also ban other fossil fuels, such as wood and peat, which they claim do as much harm in terms of air pollution as smoky coal. We have to give this proper consideration. We do not want to end up voting for the law of unintended consequences whereby we extend the ban but the ban in Dublin gets reversed. We also need to bear in mind the possibility that peat and wood do the same level of damage to our air quality and that we would therefore have to apply the same policy principles to them.