Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Environmental Policy: Motion [Private Members]
The Labour Party is proposing this motion because we wish to talk about public health and the effects of air pollution on it. There are some universal principles that we all appreciate and recognise. We recognise that environmental pollution and degradation are all too often the by-products of our economy. The EU has operated the polluter pays principle since 1987. Today it is enshrined in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
While overall air quality in Ireland is relatively good compared with other industrialised countries, poor air quality persists in many areas due to traffic and the burning of solid fuels, leading to the premature deaths of more than 1,500 people annually according to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. The water quality of nearly half of Ireland's river sources is unsatisfactory according to the EPA and less than 1% of river sections can be described as pristine while nine of our rivers have the status of "seriously polluted". Thousands of tonnes of waste are collected annually from litter or illegal dumping. Perhaps more than 150 quarries are unauthorised, unregulated and cause pollution and destruction of habitat.
The motion seeks to declare that Ireland should adopt fundamental changes in its economic model in favour of stronger environmental regulation to prevent harm and to hold accountable those who cause environmental harm. The best model for Ireland is to emulate north European social democratic market economies such as exist in Denmark, Finland, Sweden or the Netherlands. We are calling on the Government to act on a number of items. We want it to recognise that under-regulation of economic activity or lax enforcement of existing rules allow greater levels of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to occur.
We want the Government to legislate to reinforce the polluter pays principle, including a requirement for greenhouse gas emissions to be included as a core component of company accounts in enterprises with 50 or more employees and all enterprises in highly polluting industries. We want the Government to immediately enact a nationwide ban on smoky coal. Such bans have already been proven to work in many larger urban areas without legal challenge. We acknowledge the announcement by the Minister that the Government proposes to extend the ban to a larger number of towns. We want the Government to produce a national clean air strategy. We also want it to urgently present and implement a plan to regulate all quarries to eliminate illegal dumps. Further, we want it to provide a quantified account of how the measures in the Government's climate action plan will reduce Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions to reach the target of 33 million tonnes by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.
The purpose of the motion is to focus on the effect of pollution on people's health and the unfairness of society paying the cost of pollution while businesses continue to make profits. I refer to the issues of trust and certainty. Businesses like certainty, especially when it comes to making long-term investments. Government regulation of the economy should be not only be clearly signalled in advance but should be followed through. When Governments fail to do what they promise, as Fine Gael did in the case of the ban on smoky coal, it undermines public trust in politics and businesses' ability to make investments. I am aware of many fuel businesses throughout the country that made expensive investments to be ready to produce smokeless coal in time for the introduction of the initial smoky coal ban. One could say they were stabbed in the back by Fine Gael's failure to go through with the ban for entirely spurious reasons. If there was a legal case to be made against the ban on smoky fuel, it would already have been made with regard to the cities and towns where it is banned and turf and wet wood may still be burned. The Government's argument, repeated in amendment No. 3 to the Labour Party motion, is weak and implausible. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Fine Gael has some other reason for refusing to implement the nationwide ban. I hope this reason will be brought to light by the Minister tonight.
While we welcome as progress the suggestion that the ban be extended to other towns on a piecemeal basis, this is a clear example of the Government's failure to understand how the ban is to be enforced. I am sure the Minister will outline which towns are covered under this approach. I do not believe anyone intends to have inspectors call from house to house to check what people are burning. The easiest way to implement a ban is to enforce it at the point of sale. Through Revenue, we know where all the fuel merchants are based and we can keep an eye on what they are selling. Partial bans mean that fuel sales can continue down the road from towns with a ban and that makes enforcement more expensive and complicated. Fine Gael's extension of the smoky coal ban to a further 13 towns is arguably a face-saving exercise that will deny life-saving improvements in air quality to dozens of other towns and villages around the country. I welcome the fact that we seem to have cross-party support from a majority of Deputies in favour of implementing a nationwide ban on smoky coal. If our motion is passed by the Dáil, I expect the Government to acknowledge that and honour the Dáil's decision by implementing a full nationwide ban.
Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 4 proposed by other parties leave the Labour Party's substantial motion entirely or mostly intact. They add value to our motion and we welcome that.
In essence, if this motion is passed, we want the Government to recognise the motion and simply seek to have its contents implemented in a way that ensures the smoky coal ban is extended countrywide. The benefits of doing that would be self-evident. It would not be sufficient for the Minister to use the argument that EU law or competition law could act as an impediment to that. If he already recognises the smoky coal ban exists and it is his intention to extend it to a certain number of towns, that surely negates the argument regarding non-adherence to competition rules.
I put forward a parliamentary question on this issue on 10 December which noted that a company, PurpleAir, in my native Cork has numerous air quality monitoring stations. Cork city has had a smoky coal ban in place since 1995. Notwithstanding that and the fact that PurpleAir is now in situmonitoring air quality, there is still a serious issue with air quality in Cork city and at certain other points in the county. I do not wish to be parochial about this issue. I have used Cork as a example but the situation there would be reflected in many towns and cities throughout the country. In his reply to my question as to whether his attention had been drawn to the poor air quality in Cork, the Minister stated:
Further extension of the smoky coal ban in key locations would have a positive impact on air quality and public health, particularly in built up areas. Regarding the proposed national extension to the smoky coal ban, a number of coal firms have indicated that they would challenge the proposal to expand the smoky coal ban nationwide, and also challenge the existing ban on the basis that the State should also apply such a ban to the burning of other fossil fuels, including wood and peat products.
There is nothing in this motion that seeks to extend a ban on peat or wood products but there is a precedent whereby the State has already implemented a smoky coal ban. If industry was ready for that in the past, it can be ready again to implement a nationwide ban. Let us put that to the test and let us not be fearful of litigation or of taking on the vested interests who might seek to prevent us from having circumstances in which air quality would be improved immensely throughout the State.