Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Environmental Policy: Motion [Private Members]
I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate and I compliment my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, on tabling this extremely timely motion on sustainability and various other issues. This is a critical issue. Economic growth should not mean environmental degradation and damage. It is possible to have economic growth and ensure the environment is well cared for.
I come from a rural area and peat is important to the people of counties Longford and Westmeath, whom I represent, as it is in rural areas throughout the country. I emphasise that in no way does this motion or the Labour Party's call for a nationwide ban on smoky coal prohibit the burning of peat and wood in the family fire. I know a good bit about this, and have done for 50 years. We believe in the importance of allowing people to continue to heat their homes with the fuel of their choice, whether turf or wood, which are indigenous. This can be separated from the significant issue of smoky coal. My family utilises turf. We harvest it from Collinstown bog, as do many other families around us. They do so to keep their houses warm, especially in winter and early spring. Other families use Emper bog beside us, Balallan bog, Ballinacurra bog, Ballymaglavey Bog, Williamstown bog, Nacore bog and many other local bogs.
Many people depend on turf and timber for their fuel requirements. As a result, large numbers of people are trapped in fuel poverty. The number would be even higher if they could not utilise these important sources of fuel. As my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, has stated, what the Government is doing with regard to applying the ban to 13 additional towns is a cop-out. The Government knows this. If there was any legal case to answer, it would already have been made in towns such as Mullingar and Athlone in my constituency. The ban has been in place since 1990. Instead, we have a ridiculous half measure of banning smoky coal in certain towns. The reality is that people can drive a few miles down the road and purchase a bag of coal in the next village. I am afraid there are no borders for smoke. This is why it is absolutely stone mad and ridiculous. It makes no sense and the Minister knows it. Smoke has no respect for borders but the Minister insists on continuing with this failed policy by extending the smoky coal ban to all towns with a population of more than 10,000 people. It is taking in 13 towns, including Longford, instead of standing up to certain companies and implementing a nationwide ban. As Deputy Sherlock said, what is being proposed is largely a face-saving exercise. The Government clearly values its connection with big companies more than that of citizens' health and our collective environmental health. A total of 1,500 people is not a manufactured figure dragged up out of someone's head. It is a figure from the Environmental Protection Agency. Lives are being destroyed and lost because of this.
There is a more general point for the midlands. Carbon emissions from Irish homes are almost 60% higher than the EU average. We are the worst in the EU. In 2019, 80% of Irish homes and other buildings had a BER rating of C or lower. We need to bring these homes up to a rating of at least B or B2 by 2020 at the latest if we are to meet our international obligations. The climate crisis is an opportunity as well as a threat, particularly for the midlands, but only if we have massive investment from the State. Peanut money will not provoke the necessary strong response and what has been proposed to date is totally inadequate. As I have said previously, there is huge scope for semi-State companies such as Bord na Móna and the ESB to lead our transition to a low carbon economy in a real, fundamental and structured way.
We need Bord na Móna and the ESB to lead the transition to a low carbon economy in a real, fundamental and structured way. The Labour Party wants these companies to lead the green industrial revolution. We want a State-led, street-by-street, retrofitting programme to insulate up to 100,000 homes per annum. We could utilise the resources and workforce of companies such as Bord na Móna to create good, unionised construction jobs in counties Westmeath, Longford, Offaly, Laois and others across the midlands but instead what we have is a publicised PR stunt in the guise of the midlands just transition fund as part of budget 2020, with no specific breakdown of where the money is going or how exactly it is to be spent. We need to consult the people on the ground, such as Mr. Joe O'Brien who brought together large numbers of people in the community hall in Lanesboro and pointed out how this can be done.
Approximately 1,000 Bord na Móna workers face further uncertainty in the new year as the Government and management have done nothing to engage with the local community or unions with regards to upskilling workers for other jobs. The general secretary of ICTU stated last month that management had shown no sign of engaging in dialogue about the future of the workforce and that it wanted to de-unionise the facility. That is the threat. This is not the just transition that people of the midlands have been promised and come to expect. Let us stop the hot air coming from the Government, which can be toxic and creates fumes as well. Let us introduce a nationwide smoky coal ban and get Bord na Móna management around the table with the unions so that we can work to create decent, unionised construction jobs for the midlands.
The Labour Party is happy to accept the various amendments proposed by other parties, particularly if they strengthen the motion. We are not precious about that. We want to do what is best for the people of Ireland.