Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Environmental Policy: Motion [Private Members]
I thank all who contributed to the debate and the Labour Party for raising these important matters. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, has already demonstrated that this Government remains committed to dealing with these issues, for the health and environmental benefits of all. I will reiterate some of the points made by the Minister and make some additional points.
With regard to the enforcement of existing legislation, the EPA has a wide range of tools and powers at its disposal. These include providing support, advice and guidance; site visits, inspections audits and compliance meetings; publishing a list of priority sites for enforcement; warning letters and compliance investigations; issuing statutory notices, directions and penalties; and taking prosecutions and-or civil actions and revocation or suspension of licences. Some 95% of EPA site visits were unannounced in 2018 and 91% were unannounced in 2017. Meanwhile, 1,603 notices of non-compliance were issued last year and 94 compliance investigations were opened. This shows the proactive nature of the EPA's approach to enforcement.
With regard to the polluter pays principle, the Minister has pointed out how taxation policy, such as the carbon tax, can help to bring about behavioural change. In budget 2020, this Government committed to increasing carbon tax next year by €6 to €26 per tonne. This is expected to raise some €90 million in 2020. This money will be ring-fenced and used to protect those most exposed to higher fuel and energy costs as a result of the increase, support a just transition for displaced workers and invest in new or additional climate action measures.
The motion next refers to smoky coal. I, too, commend the Government amendment to the House. As is now well known, although it was announced by two former Ministers that the smoky coal ban would be extended nationwide, a number of coal firms have indicated that they would legally challenge such a move. The basis of their challenge is that a nationwide smoky coal ban cannot be introduced without an associated nationwide ban on the burning of peat, turf and wet wood because these materials produce similar levels of pollution. The legal threat is not only to take down a nationwide ban but to have the existing ban which is currently in place in cities and many towns around the country lifted. In these circumstances, it is important that we proceed on an incremental basis and I, therefore, heartily welcome the Minister's confirmation that he yesterday obtained Government approval to extend the existing ban on bituminous coal to 13 additional towns around Ireland. The ban is to come into effect in these new low smoke zones in September of next year. This will mean that smoky coal will then be banned from all Irish towns with populations in excess of 10,000.
I also welcome the Minister's intention to commence a public consultation process early next year on potentially extending the scope of the smoky coal ban to also include other smoky fuels.
This signals the Government's commitment to continuing to take actions that will save the lives of Irish people, just as the original smoky coal ban introduced in 1990 has resulted in more than 350 fewer deaths each year in Dublin alone. In the context of all these developments and considerations, I again call on Members to accept the proposed amendment to the wording of the motion. I too can confirm that if the amendment is accepted, the Government will be happy to support the motion.
In parallel with the incremental extension of the smoky coal ban, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is moving to the finalisation and publication of the national clean air strategy. This strategy will provide for the formulation and implementation of clean air policies to address a wide range of air pollutants in Ireland. These include those emanating from the agricultural, transport, and residential heating sectors. We are continuing to work on maximising synergies between the clean air strategy and other plans, including the national air pollution control programme, the national energy and climate plan and the climate action plan. The climate action plan, which was published last July, includes a number of measures which will help to significantly improve air quality. Among these are: measures to encourage the changeover from petrol and diesel vehicles to electric vehicles, including further development of the electric vehicle charging network; measures to promote cycling as a means of transport and to provide better facilities for cyclists; developing a new park-and-ride strategy to encourage the use of public transport; giving local authorities the power to restrict access to certain parts of a city or town to zero emissions vehicles only; and legislating so that no new fossil fuel vehicles will be sold from 2030 onwards.
It is now more important than ever that all sectors of society engage fully, and take all the necessary actions, to protect and improve water quality. Current pressures in the context of water quality come from a range of sources including agriculture, urban waste water, septic tanks, forestry and so on. This Government's river basin management plan improves upon the previous approach in that it involves a more complete assessment of the risks to water quality and an increase in the number of people working in communities to address water quality challenges. The next cycle of river basin management planning has already commenced. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will soon launch the overview of significant water management issues in Ireland document, which will then be followed by a six-month long consultation period. This will lead to new water quality objectives for the period from 2022 to 2027 and to a full programme of measures to achieve them.
The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government will soon also be taking action to help deal with the issue of unauthorised and illegal quarries by engaging with planning authorities on the need for stronger action in respect of such facilities. The planning authorities are the appropriate bodies to take such action because it is through the planning system that quarries are regulated. The owners of quarries need to obtain planning permission before commencing operations and must comply any conditions set down when such permission is granted.
The Department has introduced a number of measures to tackle illegal dumping and strengthen efforts to improve waste enforcement generally. These include: the provision of an annual waste enforcement grant of €7.4 million to support the funding of 150 local authority waste enforcement personnel across the country; the establishment of waste enforcement regional lead authorities, WERLAs; and the establishment of a national waste enforcement steering committee.
A quantified account of how the climate action plan will reduce Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions to the ultimate target of zero net emissions by 2050 involves recognising how its provisions include: establishing the 2050 target in law; making the adoption of carbon budgets a legal requirement; requiring the Government to set a decarbonisation target range for each sector; establishing the climate action council as a successor to the Climate Change Advisory Council; establishing that the climate action plan should be updated annually; establishing that a long-term climate strategy shall be published; and ensuring that the proposed arrangements are sufficiently flexible to allow them to respond to the changing technologies, circumstances and challenges in the years ahead.
I again thank Members for raising the issues about which they are concerned and I commend the Government amendment to House. If the amendment is accepted, the Government will be happy to support the motion.