Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Environmental Policy: Motion [Private Members]
I move: “That Dáil Éireann:
— environmental pollution and degradation are all too often the by-products of our economy;
— the European Union has operated the polluter pays principle since 1987, and today this principle 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 to 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 over 1,500 people every year 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 one per cent 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; and
— 150 or more quarries around Ireland are unauthorised and unregulated, and cause pollution and the destruction of habitat;
— Ireland needs to adopt fundamental changes in our economic model, in favour of stronger environmental regulation, to prevent harm and to hold accountable those who cause environmental harm; and
— the best model for Ireland to emulate is a north European social democratic market economy, such as exists in Denmark, Finland, Sweden or the Netherlands; and
calls on the Government to:
— recognise that under-regulation of economic activity or lax enforcement of existing rules allows greater levels of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to occur;
— 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;
— immediately enact a nationwide ban on smoky coal, which has already been proven to work in many larger urban areas without legal challenge;
— produce a National Clean Air Strategy;
— produce a National Clean Water Strategy;
— urgently present and implement a plan to regulate all quarries and to eliminate illegal dumps; and
— provide a quantified account of how the measures in the Government’s Climate Action Plan 2019 will reduce Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions to reach the target of 33 million tonnes by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.
I am sharing my time with Deputy Burton, if she turns up.
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.
I thank Deputy Sherlock for tabling this motion on behalf of the Labour Party. I thank all the parties that have indicated their support for the principle of clean air and clean water, which are fundamental essentials to a healthy human life. The Taoiseach stated in the House last week that Ireland is the third most advanced country according to the UN human development index. Despite this, we have neither clean air nor clean water because of this Government's refusal to implement the serious changes that would clean up our rivers and lakes, improve our water quality and ban smoky coal.
The towns in which the smoky coal ban is due to come into effect are home to 156,000 people. As the Minister is aware, they will not be added to the list until next September. Again, we are laggards in the implementation of essential health measures. The towns not covered by the smoky coal ban are home to 356,000 people. We need to reflect on this. When it comes to clean air and water, this Fine Gael Government is showing the back of its hand to 356,000 people in Dunboyne, Arranmore, Nenagh and other such places. Enniscorthy has a population of 11,381. That town will be subject to the smoky coal ban next September. What about Gorey, in which almost 9,822 people live? It is wonderful that we will start to clean up the air in Enniscorthy next September, nine months from now, but I do not understand the Minister's reasoning in the context of bypassing Gorey, particularly when the regulations are exactly the same. Leaving 356,000 people behind is really bad.
The Government has performed very poorly in the management and organisation of the health service. This is despite the fact that yesterday we voted for expenditure of €17 billion, the largest health budget in the history of the State. However the Government could cut ill-health figures and waiting lists at a stroke if it only had the courage to do so by introducing a ban on smoky coal and ensuring the presence of clean air and clean water in major towns and villages. As I said, it is really difficult to know why Enniscorthy is included under the smoky coal ban but Gorey, with just 1,000 fewer inhabitants, has been left out. That does not make any sense, particularly when we consider all those children suffering from asthma, the older people who have suffered from that condition all their lives and the many who will contract late-onset asthma in their 50s and 60s. Families all over the country are listening to their children wheezing and trying to catch their breath tonight because it is so wet and miserable out there. Families will be listening to their elderly people wheezing too, and the trolleys in hospitals will be full of those suffering from various cardiac and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, problems because this Fine Gael Government refuses to act. What cowardice.
We are told that the Government has legal advice but it refuses to say in any detail what it is or from where it comes. Is this the legal opinion of a single individual barrister? I do not think it is the opinion of the Attorney General, because if it was the Government might have the courage to tell us a little bit more about it. As a former Minister, I know, as does anyone who has held ministerial office, that advice comes to Governments in all shapes and sizes. If a Government wants to, it can seek out the legal advice that best suits its desired outcome. This is what the Government seems to have done. If the legal advice was as substantial as it suggests, the Government would have told us a lot more about it.
We have evidence that the smoky coal used in Ireland is between 4% and 6% sulphur. Sulphur is the most dangerous component when it comes to air pollution and damage to people's health and lungs. There is a massive smuggling industry that takes smoky coal across the Border and sells it not just in the towns where it is legal and will remain so, like Dunboyne, but in housing estates all over the country. Those of us who campaigned in the recent by-election will know that in certain big estates one can literally taste the smoky coal in the air. Perhaps the Fine Gael people did not do those walkabouts in estates. I ask the Minister to have some courage and ban smoky coal throughout the country.
I move amendment No. 3:
To delete the words “immediately enact a nationwide ban on smoky coal, which has already been proven to work in many larger urban areas without legal challenge;” and insert the following: “— not introduce a nationwide smoky coal ban at this time, as to do so carries a serious risk of illegality unless the burning of peat, turf and wet wood are also included, and to instead proceed on an incremental basis and in a proportionate way;
— immediately extend the existing smoky coal ban, to thirteen towns where there are particular air quality issues because of the burning of solid fuels;”
I welcome the debate on the motion tabled by the Labour Party. It is a very important debate and deals with a range of environmental issues. This is something I take very seriously. There is no doubt that we have become much more aware of the huge damage the inadvertent consequences of some behaviour is causing to the environment. We need to look at practices in industry, farming, transport and the ordinary household if we are to correct this. That has been the fundamental thrust behind my work on climate action. We need to look at how we source our power, because that has a huge impact. We need to look at how we heat our homes and dispose of waste. We need to look at how licences issued by the EPA are observed. The motion raises several concerns in that regard.
The EPA plays a vital role, not just in overseeing regulation but in researching policy priorities. Its reports have drawn our attention to the areas where we need to act. It also supports local authorities, particularly with their responsibilities in enforcing rules against illegal dumping. I know from experience in our shared constituency that the Acting Chairman, Deputy Broughan, is very conscious of that issue. The motion is very critical of enforcement, and I recognise that it must improve. However it is only fair to say that the EPA is very active in the enforcement field. It carries out 1,500 site visits every year. It identifies non-compliance in many of those visits and has been successful in prosecuting it. The EPA takes a risk-based approach to this and has identified sites of particular consequence around which it is particularly vigilant. It seeks to encourage people to be compliant as well as simply enforcing and inspecting. The EPA has published its enforcement policy, which is of very significant assistance to people who want to be compliant but have perhaps fallen into practices leading them to non-compliance. The EPA's work is to be commended. However, I recognise the point made by Deputy Sherlock in his motion. There is significant room to improve this system. Through its research, the EPA itself points the way to those changes.
In making climate action my core project, I am addressing many of the issues raised in the motion.
We address many of the issues by changing our waste patterns. In many ways, we have very poor waste patterns in this country. Half of the material that ought to be in the brown bin finds its way into the others. Those sorts of things do damage to our soil if they end up in landfill and, as a result, we miss out on product that could be recovered in the circular economy, as is cited in many of the motions.
We are also committed to delivering 600,000 homes with heat pumps in the next ten years. A total of 500,000 homes will have improved their fabric. A million of our vehicles will be electric. They will have a very significant impact on air quality, but also on carbon emissions, which is one of our priorities.
The Deputy in his motion questions whether the targets are quantifiable. Not only have we quantified them in the plan, but we will produce a Bill of which the Deputy is supportive that will see a much better accountability framework for reporting in individual sectors and seeing exactly what is happening.
The polluter-pays principle has been raised by the Deputy. One of the things I am very pleased I persuaded the Government to introduce this year is the carbon price. Not only do we have a carbon price but a trajectory for the next ten years. That is very much signalling to people that carbon emissions do damage and we need to start to exit fossil fuels and to make other shifts. That is the polluter-pays principle being adopted, but all the proceeds are being ploughed back into helping to empower people and their communities to make the changes they need to make.
As the Deputy has recognised, I have extended the smoky coal ban to 13 additional towns on an incremental and proportionate basis. These are towns of a size where we have evidence of exceedance of the levels of air pollution. I believe there is a very strong reason to act in the public interest to protect those homes and to introduce the ban on smoky coal. However, to proceed with a nationwide ban, regardless of the circumstances, would carry a very high risk of illegality. I reassure the Deputy that it is based on advice from the Attorney General not from any individual.
The problem here is that there is a fundamental freedom to trade across borders. That is a fundamental principle of the European Union. While it is possible to introduce restrictions on the grounds of public policy, that is permissible only where they are not being arbitrarily or discriminatorily applied to one product against another. The essence of the difficulty here is that it would be very difficult to show the particulate matter content of other solid fuels is lower than that of smoky coal. That is the reality we face. If we do not proceed with the incremental, proportionate and evidence-based approach I have taken, we expose ourselves to a high risk of illegality. We have had an indication that such a ban would be challenged in the courts. The consequences of such an approach would be to expose people in rural areas to a sudden ban that would stop them burning turf and blocks of wood in their homes, which is something they have been doing for many years.
Deputies will be aware that people who are burning solid fuel in rural areas are those who are at the highest risk of fuel poverty. It would do significant damage to their ability to heat their homes. The alternative would be that it would undermine the basis of the ban we already have. If such a case were taken successfully, it would undermine the ban that applies to Dublin and to the 26 other substantial towns. I am not willing to expose us to that risk. That is the reason I am adopting the incremental and proportionate way I have set out. It would be dishonest to pretend that a nationwide ban does not carry the probable outcome for either the ban in Dublin and in other urban areas or for rural areas, and I am not willing to do that.
The motion also raises issues concerning water quality. I recognise that the recent report by the EPA is disappointing and shows water quality deterioration in some river basins. We recently introduced a water quality strategy that is set out in the Government’s River Basin Management Plan for Ireland 2018-2021. It sets out a comprehensive agenda to address the issue. It is one we need to pursue vigorously and that will be done.
We must be also very conscious that some of the sources of the pollution are coming from farming and wastewater discharges. Both Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the EPA are working with agricultural bodies and farmers directly and providing free advisory services to help them improve the run-off from land that is causing some of the damage to water quality.
As Deputies are aware, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has identified through Irish Water 255 projects that will improve water treatment in urban areas. Some 94 of the projects have been completed up to 2018. In addition, there is a marine strategy for clean and healthy, biologically diverse sustainably used marine waters.
The motion is so wide that it is very difficult to deal with the range of issues that have been raised in the ten minutes that are available to me.
I am very conscious of quarry licensing, which is an issue that has been exposed in a recent RTÉ programme. While the legislation is in place, issues clearly arise in terms of more effective enforcement. We must be fair and recognise that there is a need for the courts to take such offences more seriously. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government will engage with the planning authorities to help them to develop more decisive actions.
Fianna Fáil has tabled an amendment to the motion. I am grateful for the opportunity to address this Labour Party motion, which Fianna Fáil is supporting today. The ongoing lack of enforcement and failure by the Government to prioritise and implement necessary legislative changes across a range of climate and environmental issues simply cannot be accepted. The endemic failure of this Fine Gael Government to take any real responsibility over the past eight years for increasing pollution and emissions is a damning indictment.
Several of the messages in this motion align closely with Fianna Fáil's motion, recently approved by this House at the start of December, which put a spotlight on environmental degradation and raised a range of legislative and policy measures to radically improve enforcement at national and local level.
This Labour Party motion rightly focuses on air quality and calls on the Government to immediately enact a nationwide ban on smoky coal. We strongly support the demand. The Government's failure to introduce a nationwide ban is having a major impact on pollution and on public health in those areas not currently covered, particularly for those with asthma and other respiratory conditions. A nationwide ban is supported by a range of experts, across academia, and in other organisations such as the Asthma Society of Ireland. However, the Government is continuing to reject the science and the recommendations.
It is disturbing that Fine Gael appears to be more concerned about potential future legal challenges from companies outside the State than saving lives right now. The Government is allowing big business to dictate policy. It is bowing to pressure from companies with vested interests. It is now shamefully seeking to distract from this pressure and is muddying the waters regarding the burning of other fuels. Following the Government's recent tokenistic proposal to extend the ban to only certain towns, no one, not a Minister nor a civil servant, has explained why an arbitrary cut-off point of towns with populations of more than10,000 has been chosen. Experts have rightly pointed out the difficulty for people, for example, who live in Gorey and are 178 people short, or in Shannon and are 271 short? Are their health and rights less important than those in bigger towns and cities?
The Government's consultation is also extremely concerning, as it deliberately tethers any action on smoky coal to the burning of other fuels.
This move risks undermining public trust in any sort of ban, particularly in rural areas, and may actually impede climate action and improvements in public health. There has never been any question but that domestic fuel-burning poses challenges and no one wishes to foist a rash move on vulnerable houses but it has been abundantly clear, including to previous Ministers, that a nationwide ban, specifically of smoky coal, is possible. The Government is now seeking to distort and distract with a typical Fine Gael political manoeuvre that could stall any political progress on improving air quality. We have seen no successful legal challenges to existing local bans or to different rates of duty being applied to different fuels, yet Fine Gael continues to play up this threat. It is important that this House be made aware of the failure of the enforcement of the existing ban. The best form of enforcement and of preventing smoky coal being used in some places and not others is a nationwide ban. It is revealing that since the Attorney General produced this advice more than six months ago, the Government has made no attempt to improve enforcement among local authorities. Potential opt-ins by county councils constitute a complete failure of the Government's leadership.
Fianna Fáil has put forward two additions to the motion. They are complementary to the proposed text and we hope they can be supported. We have included an important reminder that the nationwide ban was committed to by three former Ministers, in 2013, 2015 and 2018, but that the current Minister, seemingly against all previous advice and analysis, is the only one to decide to reject an extension of the ban. It is important that any phasing out of fossil fuels be rooted in social justice.
I thank the Labour Party for introducing this motion. It is an important motion on clean air. I wish to focus particularly on the issue of smoky coal. Smoky coal is a significant contributor to air pollution. The EPA estimates that 1,500 premature deaths are caused each year by air pollution. The HSE has, in response to a parliamentary question I tabled, estimated that the economic cost to the State of air pollution is €2 billion per year. That is before getting into the health and moral costs, which are hurting people.
The smoky coal ban was originally introduced in 1990 and was gradually expanded to cover 80% of the population. The Minister now proposes extending it to an additional 13 towns, bringing the percentage up to 84% or 85% of the population, yet he is afraid to extend it nationally to cover 100% of the population because it would interfere with the market. Surely in any assessment of market interference, a proportion of 80% or 85% would suffice, yet since 1990 not one single legal challenge has been brought against the smoky coal ban. Why is the Minister bowing to the lobbyists from the coal industry outside the Republic? Why is he so afraid of them? If Governments were to act in the face of legal threats from private industry, none would bring in any regulation or rule. The primary purpose of the State is to protect its people from dangers. What is the rationale for the expansion to towns of over 10,000 people? Why not 10,100, 10,200, or 8,763? Why the round figure of 10,000? Where does that come from? Longford, with 10,008, is included, but Gorey, with 9,822, is not. Shannon, with 9,729, is not included. What is the difference? The populations are based on census figures from 2016 but many of the towns are growing rapidly and their populations have certainly exceeded 10,000 by now.
New Ross suffers very seriously from air pollution. Like Enniscorthy, it is situated in a valley. Therefore, when there is smoke in the air, it is very hard for it to dissipate. People have to breathe it in. The Asthma Society of Ireland has called for a nationwide ban. The EPA and our top scientists in the field of air pollution and air quality call for a nationwide ban. Smoky coal causes an increase in the numbers of hospital admissions, heart attacks and strokes. It causes low birth weight and diminished lung capacity in babies. It causes glaucoma. Now we have an extension of the health divide in this country.
I talked to a number of people who remember Dublin before the smoky coal ban was introduced. There was a high level of pollutants in the air then. The pollution could be seen and felt. It can be seen and felt in other towns now. The science tells us that only 10% of the total amount of air pollutants can be seen and felt. Another 90% cannot be seen but it is breathed in. It goes into one's lungs.
A smoky coal ban needs to be introduced nationally. Everybody deserves the same protection. I am not going to accept the effort, suddenly and at the last minute, to
distract by introducing the issues of turf and wood. Turf and wood amount to a total of less than 5% of the entire solid fuel burned in this country. There is a ready and available replacement for smoky coal. There is a policy that is implementable and practicable. It should be implemented. There should be no more distractions by way of introducing other issues. The Government should start taking care and putting people's health above the coal industry outside this country. The coal industry in the Republic actually wants a smoky coal ban introduced.
Like my colleagues, I strongly support the Labour Party motion. Potentially four people die every day as a result of poor air quality. Deputies Burton and Browne mentioned some of the towns in Wexford. In some of those towns at night, smoky coal can be tasted in the air. If somebody has asthma or another respiratory illness, it causes serious problems. In some cases, people cannot even leave their own homes.
I do not accept the Minister's argument about freedom to trade and the fear over court cases. As he well knows, there are public policy and public health considerations that can override provisions with regard to freedom to trade.
Introducing a ban in a number of selected towns clearly does not work. This afternoon, I spoke to the senior executive scientist with Wexford County Council and got the figures for particulate matter in the air last night. In Enniscorthy and New Ross, the levels of particulate matter in the air were four times the level that is regarded as safe. The level was also exceeded in Gorey but also in Wexford town at around 8 p.m. last night. In Wexford town, the smoky coal ban is already in place but there is nothing to stop somebody from getting smoky coal outside the town and bringing it back in. There are problems regarding enforcement. The only effective approach is a national smoky coal ban. We need to address the issues concerning smuggling. This means we do have to have a stronger role for customs and Revenue in this area.
When I was a member of Wexford County Council, councillors sought to introduce a county-wide ban and to use the provisions under the Air Pollution Act 1997 to set up special control areas so each local authority could ban the sale and burning of smoky coal within its own area. That proposal has sat in the Minister's Department since he became the responsible Minister.
As my colleagues have all stated, we are talking about potentially 1,500 deaths every year. Dr. Thomas Münzel has written in the European Heart Journalthat air pollution now causes more deaths than smoking. We have taken very strong action to try to reduce harm caused by tobacco. Why will the Minister not show the same leadership in trying to stop deaths and problems for those with respiratory illnesses as a result of smoky coal as several Governments showed with regard to tobacco?
I thank the Labour Party for this timely motion. My own leader has brought up this issue on a number of occasions in recent years. My party, when in government with former Minister Mary Harney, introduced the original smoky coal ban and there have been no legal issues in the intervening period. This is the first time the Government has publicly addressed its legal strategy and told companies suing it that it is afraid of them. It is certainly giving those companies legal strategies' ammunition. The Minister and Taoiseach have done this deliberately time and again.
If this decision ever comes before a court - I hope it does not because I want to see the other towns included - it will highlight that the 10,000 population figure is utterly irrational. Ashbourne is on the list for the smoky coal ban. About 3 km in the direction of the prevailing winds lies Ratoath, a town with a population of 9,533 which is not covered by a smoky coal ban. This is ridiculous. It is a really bad way to do policy. The coalman will have to sell different products in different towns, as is already happening. I met a coalman last week in Duleek and I discussed this very issue with him. There is a smoky coal ban in Drogheda. There is very bad air quality in Duleek because of smoky coal but, as the coalman told me, the big problem is the three coal lorries in Drogheda selling smoky coal illegally. These three lorries are doing regular rounds and the Government is doing nothing about it.
Every year, 1,500 people die as a result of smoky coal and bad air quality. I have calculated that approximately 60 people in my county of Meath die every year because of this. Only last week in Dunshaughlin, a constituent asked about a smoky coal ban for that town because of the air quality and how that affects him. Dunshaughlin has not been included and it is only a few kilometres from Ratoath and Ashbourne. The same applies to Kells, Duleek, which is near Drogheda, and Laytown-Bettystown, a census town with relatively arbitrary boundaries. Laytown-Bettystown is an important urban settlement. Its boundary could be changed in one direction to give a population of 15,000 or 20,000 or changed slightly in another direction to give a population of less than 10,000. These census towns, as I understand it, have no basis in law and are simply census towns for statistical purposes. The Minister cannot tell me that I could not change the boundary of Ratoath slightly and add 467 people to the population and thereby have the smoky coal ban apply to it. The Central Statistics Office would only have to do its business slightly different. The CSO census town boundaries changed between 2011 and 2016, particularly with the abolition of town councils.
This is an utterly irrational approach and the Minister should go back to the drawing board. What is needed now is for the Minister to be brave. He should be as brave as Fianna Fáil and Mary Harney and bring in this smoky coal ban nationally. There should be one system in operation and enforcement should be taken in respect of those who are selling unhealthy coal. This has to happen because lives are at stake. It is rare in this Chamber that we can directly state that a decision will save lives. The decision of Mary Harney saved lives in Dublin and other places. The decision of Deputy Micheál Martin, when he was Minister for Health, to ban smoking has saved lives. This Minister's inaction will cost lives. He has a chance to change his decision, however. He can bring in a rational solution to this issue.
A rational response would be to put it up to big business, which is the international business as opposed to the Irish coal industry. It is the foreign coal industry that the Minister is concerned about. He should put it up to the international coal industry by making a statement that he is prepared to be as tough as people in office before him. He would make clear he will be as tough as all the other parties in this House are saying they would be. Given Fianna Fáil's track record, the Minister can be damn sure we will do this if we are in office. That time cannot come quickly enough.
The Minister must look at this issue rationally. The figure of 10,000 is absolutely irrational and will not stand up to scrutiny. The example of Gorey and Enniscorthy was given, but Ratoath and Ashbourne must be the clearest example. They are almost twin towns. A few fields separate them, yet the Minister has taken the decision I outlined.
I welcome the amendment proposed by my colleagues, Deputies Cowen and Jack Chambers. It concerns the importance of having a just transition for workers and communities affected by the phasing out of fossil fuels and calls for that to be prioritised. I compliment the Deputies on their work on this issue. There is a need for the immediate deployment of available funding streams and the establishment of the independent task force that has been discussed. This needs to happen because the phasing out of fossil fuels is bringing a change to communities all over the country. They need to be ready for it. By far the greatest change a ban could bring is that lives would be saved. It would mean the Government would be operating not in fear of or in hock to legal threats from big international business, but would act in the interests of the citizens of Ireland and in the interests of saving their lives. This Dáil is appealing to the Minister with one voice, apart from Fine Gael, to put the smoky coal ban in place across the country.
I welcome this debate on the environment and commend Deputy Sherlock and the Labour Party on tabling this motion. Sinn Féin will support it and the amendment tabled by Fianna Fáil, which adds value to the motion. We have tabled our own amendment and we are hoping that will also be supported.
It is hard not to feel that this House has spent much time on passing motions on climate action, rather than actually rolling up its sleeves and getting on with the policy solutions that need to be put in place. One of those solutions is made very clear in the motion where it states that there needs to be an immediate "nationwide ban on smoky coal, which has already been proven to work in many larger urban areas without legal challenge". I hope the House will pass this motion today. Hopefully, it will not be another motion passed by the Dáil that the Government will ignore. As many speakers stated already, a nationwide ban would save lives. There is no good reason for the Minister and his Government to hold back on this. In his opening statement, he stated that climate action is the most important part of his work as Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. When it comes to practical solutions, however, and the big challenges, his Government is not facing up to them. This is a very straightforward issue. There is no quarrel from the Opposition and the Minister is being supported by Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and, I expect, the Green Party and others. There is no reason, and the Minister has given no good reason to the House and the public, for not proceeding with a nationwide ban.
The amendment tabled by the Government is typical of the Government when it comes to climate action. It provides that we should proceed on climate action "on an incremental basis and in a proportionate way". Everything the Government does on climate action seems to be on the basis that we should act incrementally. That is being used as an excuse not to do what needs to be done. There is no incremental action that needs to be taken when it comes to banning smoky coal, for example. That needs to be done and it is a clear, simple, logical and effective policy solution that has the broad support of the public and, I hope, Members of this House. For whatever reason, however, the Government is not doing it. This approach of doing things on an incremental basis is not the type of overarching policy approach that should be taken by a Government.
I will speak to the Sinn Féin amendment in a moment. I support the Fianna Fáil amendment on a just transition. By way of information, we had the just transition commissioner before the Joint Committee on Climate Action today. I was far from convinced, not with regard to his ability, which is beyond question, as is his integrity and experience, but because he told us that he has no office, staff or budget. He has the €11 million set aside in the Government's budget this year, but that is all. He can consult communities and workers but cannot stray beyond the €11 million allocated. His costs and those of his staff will have to be met from that €11 million. This is extraordinary given that we have known for a long time that the just transition was coming. I was not the only member who was not convinced by the just transition commissioner's testimony at the committee's hearing today. Again, this calls into question the Government's commitment to climate action and the whole concept of a just transition. The reason I support the Fianna Fáil amendment is that the just transition cannot be abused. It cannot be something to which we pay lipservice. If we want people to buy into climate action, it needs to be done in a fair and just way. People need to see that just transition works.
On the Sinn Féin amendment, I will speak about the green new deal published by the European Commission. There are parts that I have issues with and parts that I do not have issues with.
The most significant change is the one that stated the targets set for 2030 and for 2050 are not good enough and need to be revised. The last paragraph in the Labour Party motion calls for the provision of a quantified account of how the measures in the Government's Climate Action Plan 2019 will reduce Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions to reach the target of 33 million tonnes by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050. While that is an important point in the motion, Sinn Féin’s amendment goes further than that, setting out how this can be achieved.
One of the most obvious ways to achieve this reduction is through investment in public transport and the rail network. A significant debate is going on about the expansion of the rail line to Navan, a development which my party supports. Investment in intercity rail is important. There needs to be a shift in thinking, not just by the Government but by politicians from all parties. Public transport is the most obvious solution to enable people, not force them, to change their behaviour. There are far too many people who do not have access to public transport. Bus is important but rail services are the future, a point to which the Government needs to pay more attention.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this Labour Party motion. There is a problem with quarries. West of Galway city and right through Connemara, we will soon be facing a situation where 80% of the land will be designated as not being allowed for quarrying. In 2007, quarry owners were asked to sign a compliance form. In 2012, there was a substitute consent. The minute they got that substitute consent, they could not quarry any more. From 2012 to 2015, legislation let them down. While it did not affect all of them, many were caught in a quagmire. Regardless of whether people want them, if we do not have quarries, we will not be able to build houses or roads. The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment needs to wake up and put the legislation in place that will facilitate quarries.
Water quality is ferociously important. However, every report on water quality contains "farmers this" and "farmers that". It must be faced up to that raw sewage is going into every stream from small towns, large towns and cities. Whether we blame Jack or Jill or whoever, that is the problem. Until we give the money to Irish Water to put the required infrastructure in place, we will continue having this problem with water quality.
I have no problem with the smoky coal ban. The Minister should be upfront with the Dáil, however, and show the legal material from the Attorney General. All week I have heard this argument about wet timber. Just in case anyone does not know it, wet timber does not burn too well. All one will have is a bit of smoke and no fire. Timber, as well as turf, can only contain a maximum of 30% moisture if it is to burn properly. One also has to watch fuels being brought across the Border.
I am a turf cutting contractor. I am upfront about it. I have seen cases where, after a house has been insulated, there was a 20% reduction in fuel consumption. That is the advantage of actions that can be taken. Up to 650,000 people have oil burners, which involves importing more fuel. What are we doing about this? While we might have a bit of turf or an ash tree down the corner of a field, we do not have oil. Why are we not examining that?
Up to 23,000 homes do not have central heating. We must realise that fuel poverty exists. There are areas where, whether we like it or not, people are not as wealthy, both economically and socially, as those in other parts of the country. We are frightening these people with the language on this issue used in the Dáil and in the media. Ten years ago, the Government decided it would stop people and peg them out of their turbary rights. The Government, however, got a different answer when the people stood up for their rights. The Government needs to get the message once again. If it tries it on once more, the people of rural Ireland will give the Government a quick message because they are battle hardened. They will not give up on what they need and what they can only afford, namely €400 or €500 a year to heat their homes.
I am sharing my time with Deputy Bríd Smith. We will be supporting this motion, as well as the amendments tabled by Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. We support the idea of a nationwide ban on smoky coal and taking on the vested interests that would stand to lose from that in terms of profiteering.
Illegal dumping is referred to in the motion but it has not featured much in this debate. There has been an explosion in the level of illegal dumping over the past two decades. It is no coincidence that it coincided with the privatisation of bin services and the introduction of bin charges. I am opposed to illegal dumping in any circumstances. However, it does not take a rocket scientist to explain or understand that if one hikes the cost of bin collections every year over a period of time, there will be an increase in illegal dumping. For example, when I was a member of Cork City Council, the officials in the waste department made it clear that there had been a tenfold increase in illegal dumping since the introduction of bin charges and the privatisation of services in Cork city. These policies should be reversed with the taking of bin services back into public ownership, the abolition of bin charges and the introduction of a steeply progressive tax system where the people at the top pay tax in a real sense to fund public services.
Lives are at stake. Air pollution in Cork city is as bad as it is anywhere else in western Europe. PurpleAir, a real-time air quality monitoring website, has stated that on several nights recently, Cork was top of the European tables in this regard. It had double the air pollution levels of London and treble those of Rome. The burning of coal, peat and wood at home are important factors in this. Up to 1,500 people die every year as a result of air pollution. A staggering 400,000 people across Europe died as a result of air pollution in 2016, ten times the number of people who died as a result of road accidents.
There are huge profits to be made out of this. Those vested interests might need to be taken on. One weakness in the Labour Party motion is that it refers to social democratic societies in Scandinavia being the ideal and so on. These are societies where capitalism remains in place. While an attempt was made to tame it in these societies, profit is still the key motive. One needs to go much further than that to break with that system if one is going to tackle these issues. That will not stop us, however, voting for the motion. We will be putting in some written points to explain our view on that.
I welcome and support this motion. Our environment is showing concerning signs of reaching critical thresholds in many spheres. Air quality and water quality are two of the warning signs that we will ignore at our peril. The impact of these are felt mainly by the poorer, the more vulnerable and the less well-off in our society. Poor air quality is a direct effect of our over-reliance on fossil fuels and private cars for transport.
The People Before Profit budget submission stated that we need to have free public transport in order to reduce our reliance on carbon-producing fuels, while also improving air quality. It is not reinventing the wheel. Free public transport is becoming a demand in cities across America and in some European capitals. It is a logical response to this type of crisis. Traffic volumes returned to pre-crash levels and then went even higher this year. Meanwhile, Dublin Bus has nearly as many vehicles as it had in 2009. Worsening traffic congestion in the city leads to some areas having the worst air pollution readings. The detrimental effects to which buses give rise are caused by gridlock in the city.
According to the EPA report, 1,180 premature deaths in Ireland are linked to poor air quality which is an astonishing figure and greatly exceeds the figure for deaths on our roads, which we often talk about. However, we seldom bring this statistic into our discourse. These figures are not new and have been around for several years. We are looking at them because we have increased the number of monitors, with 17 new ones put in place across the country this year. Scotland alone has 88 such monitoring stations and has had this real-time information for many years. Many of the hotspots the monitors have identified are in areas of economic deprivation such as Ballyfermot, where I live. As well as having a high level of traffic congestion, there is an over-concentration of waste management facilities dotted around west Dublin where Ballyfermot is located. This gives rise to an increase in the number of pollutants in the air.
The delay in the ban on solid fuels has been caused by the companies lobbying the Minister. This is not unconnected to the lobbying that occurred in connection with trying to stop bringing the use of fossil fuels to an end. That sort of lobbying of the Department is highly influential on the Minister's decision and any threats of legal action send him running. It is a real sign that there is no proper will to deal with this. The type of air pollution to which I refer generates particulate matter, which has severe effects on the heart, liver and reproductive organs and causes stress and anxiety. It particularly impacts on babies, children in buggies and wheelchair users because they are closer to ground level and suck in more of the particulate matter and poison their bodies. This is clearly detrimental to people's health. While one could argue that free public transport would be very costly, it would undoubtedly take cars off the roads. We need to consider the cost on our health service of diseases that affect the lungs and cause asthma, COPD, etc. We could considerably reduce our health budget by implementing free public transport across the country and removing hundreds of thousands of cars from our roads. That would be a good start and the Minister having a bit of courage to implement the smoky coal ban would be a good follow-up.
Members are being asked to consider a long list of Government failures in environmental policy today. I want to highlight the potential social impacts of measures to ban or restrict the sale of smoky coal and possibly peat and wood as well. The just transition should apply to everyone, everywhere. Social justice should be at the heart of all climate policies. We should use climate emergency policies and channel funding towards alleviating energy poverty. Above all, we need to guarantee the right of equal access to energy for all and end policies that burden vulnerable and marginalised people.
The environmental policies that this Fine Gael-led Government has supported are not improving the environmental quality for everyone. Carbon taxes mean fuel cost hikes for people who do not have the money to retrofit their homes or buy an electric vehicle. Most rural communities do not have access to public transport, meaning that policies that rely on carbon pricing to shift behaviour will not work and will only further burden the poor and disadvantaged.
The ban on the sale of smoky coal was introduced first in 1990, almost 30 years ago. Every Government since then has promised to extend the ban, but none of these promises has been kept. No national air quality management plan has been introduced to ensure that Ireland meets EU directive standards for air quality. In all that time - almost 30 years - virtually no action has been taken to provide households suffering from fuel poverty with real, practical alternatives to burning solid fuel. This is an appalling situation. Successive Governments have squandered opportunities to improve people's health and quality of life by investing in warmer homes and cleaner fuels. We all know that there is a link between fuel poverty, low incomes and a reliance on solid fuels for heating. This is a particular problem in some parts of the country, including in my constituency. In the context, the Unite trade union estimated that 30,700 people in Donegal were suffering from fuel deprivation in 2015. The Economic and Social Research Institute estimates that 28% of households nationwide suffer from fuel poverty and cannot afford to heat their homes adequately or pay more than 10% of their weekly incomes in fuel costs.
Those in impoverished communities in County Donegal are affected by both declining air quality in towns such as Letterkenny and by being unable to afford to retrofit their homes. Checking the EPA data for Letterkenny today, I was shocked to see that the air quality is listed as very poor with a rating of 10, which is the worst rating an urban area can get. Letterkenny has had a smoky coal ban for six or seven years. This is based on just one data sampling point for the entire county. Despite Letterkenny being designated as a zone for targeted improvements in air quality management, I see no evidence that the local authority, the EPA or the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is taking any action to improve the air quality of the constituency I represent. Have any of these authorities notified the public, especially people with respiratory illnesses, of the potential hazards that exist? Does the HSE have an action plan? Does the local authority have an action plan? Does the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland have a plan to target households burning solid fuels with retrofitting grants in County Donegal? If not, what will the Government do about our poor air quality and environmental crisis? In reality, it is nothing.
Air pollution policy in this country has clearly failed. The Government has bowed to the whims of the coal industry, while little progress has been made in tackling fuel poverty or retrofitting. The Government is targeting the wrong culprits here. With more than 400,000 early deaths annually from air pollution in the 28 EU member states, there are significant opportunities to improve our health, environment and economy by aggressively tacking the problem at source.
A managed transition away from solid fossil fuels is in line with the Citizens' Assembly proposals. Some 97% of the members of the latter recommended that the State should end all subsidies for peat extraction and instead spend that money on peat bog restoration. The assembly also said there should be proper provision for the protection of the rights of the workers impacted. The rights of landowners who cut turf for their own use should also fall into this category.
A structure based on social dialogue, consultation and inclusion will be essential if we are to engage communities and not alienate them, especially in the county that I represent, Donegal. We have very high rates of unemployment, social exclusion and fuel poverty especially since the financial crash in 2008. I know from first-hand experience that many families returned to cutting turf due to the sheer financial crisis that they faced after 2009. We should not be contemplating imposing further restrictions on turf cutting without first considering human needs and how these will be met. Social justice and environmental justice must go hand in hand.
I propose that the Government establish another just transition fund for County Donegal, which would dedicate resources to home retrofitting to alleviate fuel poverty and assist bog rehabilitation. The problem of transitioning away from fossil fuels is not confined to the midlands and we should not limit the role of the just transition commissioner to the midlands. Only if we are serious about protecting our bogs, improving air quality and ensuring that no one is left behind in the process will we actually achieve something.
The motion includes many other proposals on which I do not have time to comment. The Sinn Féin amendment proposes to weight grants in favour of the lowest building energy ratings. While I would like to see the economic case for this, it is a reasonably good idea in principle. The Fianna Fáil amendments are innocuous and do not serve any purpose.
The Government amendment is to delay a ban on smoky coal as it carries the risk of serious illegality unless extended to peat and wood. What is the evidence for this? If there is illegality why would the State institutions not enforce the law and prosecute? I do not buy this. As I explained earlier, we do not produce any coal in Ireland. We do supply peat and but we could address this by means of other policies. There is definitely a strong case for phasing in a nationwide ban on coal, coupled with new grant schemes for retrofitting in specific towns and areas where solid fuel is widely used. The Department wants to extend the ban but what is the evidence that the existing ban is even working? On the basis of today's measurements, it is certainly not working in Letterkenny.
The Green Party amendments are good regarding the circular economy but make no reference to just transition or social justice.
Its vision will work for the better resourced middle-class communities that are already doing okay and will do a little better under that. We must look after everybody in society.
We have a responsibility to pass on this planet to the next generation in at least as good, if not better, condition than we received it. We have a symbiotic relationship with the planet and the environment. Even if we have no regard for the rich diversity of animals and plants on the planet, if we damage the planet we damage ourselves in the long run. As a generation we have degraded the planet and the environment like never before. For all the greenwashing, the photo opportunities and the hollow language about sustainability, we are unsurpassed as a generation in actively destroying the environment. The numbers of insects, reptiles, amphibians and mammals are all in retreat. We are also poisoning our own citizens. This has been discussed here in the context of the number of people who are dying due to particulates in the atmosphere that lead to major respiratory problems.
I do not have a lot of time so I will speak to just a couple of the issues as they relate to the motion. I welcome that the Labour Party has tabled the motion. I specifically want to refer to the quarry industry. People may have seen the very interesting RTÉ "Prime Time Investigates" programme on this sector very recently. Perhaps the Minister could pay as much attention to the issue here because it blights many different families and communities in the State.
Litigation is being used as a tool by some owners to stop enforcement of legal standards and regulations by local authorities. The initiation and maintenance of litigation is allowing unauthorised quarries to continue because the matter is in the courts. While cases are being determined, unauthorised developments are being permitted to continue, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. It is interesting that the RTÉ "Prime Time Investigates" programme had a lot more detail it wanted to broadcast, which had to be pulled at the last minute due to threats of legal action over what the programme was about to do. I put it to the Minister that this is key. There is a logjam in our efforts to regulate the quarry industry. Unless it has ministerial focus I do not believe it will change whatsoever. Will the Minister institute legislative procedures to prevent litigation from being used as an excuse by local authorities not to enforce closure of illegal quarries and pits?
I shall give an example from my area in County Meath. A quarry in the county had an enforcement order served on it in 2013. A judicial review was brought against Meath County Council on the pretext that another case in Mayo was being determined. The unauthorised quarry in Meath was allowed to carry on. Now in 2019 it is alleged that the quarry owner is continuing to extract. What kind of rubbish system would allow a local authority to institute an enforcement order in 2013 and then have its hands tied for the next six years, while the alleged illegal practice continues unabated? That the whole system just stands idly by at the side and watches this happening is very frustrating.
One of the issues that came hopping off the screen during the RTÉ programme was the that local authorities do not have the resources or the competencies necessary to be able to do the job in this area. Will the Minister explain why enforcement notices are not enforced? Why are there no penalties whatsoever around the contempt of those court decisions? If there is no cost to the contempt of those decisions why would there be any interest in adhering to those court decisions? Why is it up to private individuals and NGOs to pursue enforcement of court decisions in the extractive industry? Why has it to be a neighbour or some environmentally aware local organisation protecting their community?
There is also a major problem with the finance around planning conditions. I would ask the Minister to have audits carried out to look at what finance is still outstanding to local authorities for the planning applications that have been submitted - or not submitted in some cases - by certain quarries. I do not want to blight all names of all quarries in the State because there are quarries that operate perfectly legally and in sync with the needs of their localities. Without such quarries we would grind to a halt in many areas of transport and industry. We need an overarching statutory body that carries out enforcement in this area. This would take it out of the hands of individuals, the NGOs and the local authorities.
I shall turn now to a tangential case, which is another example of the weakness of local authorities' ability to carry out enforcement. It applies to another case in County Meath that I have also raised with the Minister previously. The case had been brought before the Oireachtas Committee of Public Accounts. It surrounds an allegation of illegal dumping of possibly 56,000 tonnes of waste from road construction into a number of fields in south Meath. Meath County Council is the authority tasked with regulation of the enforcement in this area, yet the EPA has rejected a tier 1 and tier 2 assessment by Meath County Council of the site. I have spoken with the EPA on this. It is seeking legal advice on how to enforce the law in this regard. It has been, however, seeking this legal advice for a year. Why? It is because the EPA does not have the resources to be able to process the legal advice and the agency is hamstrung. There is absolutely no point in having legislation, law or regulation on anything in the State if we do not give the necessary enforcement authority the ability and the resources to enforce. It is necessary to have a national statutory body with the ability to enforce.
I want to touch on one other issue. It is very frustrating when we hear the Government talk of its environmental credentials. As an example I will cite the experience of Meath people again. This morning, more people left Meath to go to work than actually work in the county. It is a startling fact. It happens in none of the other 31 counties on the island that the majority of the workers leave their county to go to work as opposed to working in their own county. On average Meath people commute further than any other people when it comes to work commutes. This is because we have been left as a dormitory or commuter county that does not have the necessary industry. The Minister is a Meath man himself so he should be able to relate to this to a certain extent.
Navan is the biggest town in the country without a rail line. People are commuting up to three hours a day into Dublin for work. Many people are leaving Navan and County Meath before it is bright and they only get back when it is dark. People have told me that they just meet their kids on weekends because they do not get back from work on time to see them. Dublin and the commuter belt is grinding to a halt. A transport catastrophe is happening in the lives of so many people, which is worsening by the day. Proper public transportation is needed to alleviate this. We have called for a rail line to Navan for at least 20 years so the centre of the county can have a proper, environmentally friendly and efficient way to get into the city centre. This, however, has not been met with any positivity by the Government. Will the Minister be able to use his influence at the Cabinet table to start to push public transport and rail transport higher up the hierarchy of this Government's objectives?
I am very pleased on behalf of the Green Party to speak in support of the Labour Party motion, on the intention behind it, and to perhaps outline the thinking behind our own amendments, which are not contrary or disputing any of the arguments made in the Labour Party motion. We have put forward the amendments to broaden the debate and to broaden the context we see as needed.
The most critical of our amendments is the need for us to align with the sustainable development goals as agreed in New York three or four years ago. Central to those 17 goals is the recognition that every facet of our society and economy must tie into a sustainable agenda. In managing the ecological crises we face, we need to look at every aspect of government such as education, justice, health and agriculture. Every aspect has a role to play and it is critical that we achieve all 17 goals, which is a manifesto for the future and for the first time a manifesto for the wealthier northern countries of the world and not just for the poor, as with the previous goals such as the millennium development goals, and the Agenda 21 goals that were agreed in Rio back in 1992.
It may sound very broad, or we all agree and everyone wears the badge, but we have to put it into practice and into thinking in everything we do. This is why we cite it and believe it fits in the motion.
Similarly, if we follow down from this, we have also introduced the concept that the national development plan drafted a year and a half ago is not fit for purpose. We have debated the plan in the House on many occasions. There was no assessment of climate change in its drafting. There was no application of the sustainable development goals in the objectives we seek to achieve. We believe the next Government will, first and foremost, have to agree a new national development plan that will reflect what was a good plan presented by the Government in the national planning framework. This would address many of the issues Deputy Tóibín raised in terms of the ongoing unsustainable sprawl in our society where, as he says, parents do not see their children and people have unhealthy lives because they are stuck in traffic for hours every day. This is vital. The scale of our ambition should recognise that we need a completely new national development plan.
Central to this is the need for a land use plan. Many of the very worthy provisions in the Labour Party motion regarding our approach to managing water and waste and a clear air strategy will come out of new and effective land use plan. It would not tell farmers they have to do this or that but recognise that if we are to address the ecological crisis, restore our peatlands, develop forestry in a new way and make agriculture profitable, which it is not at present, then we have to look at the entire island. Within this we will manage water quality and ensure we tackle the issue of air quality and bring back biodiversity. It has to be a whole-of-Government and all-island approach.
We also cite in our amendment, and it is worthy of citing, the developments last week whereby the European Commission stated its first objective is a new European green deal. While details are scarce and a huge amount of work has to be done to implement it, the green deal sets out the new strategy for Europe and we should and will be able to be good at this and to lead it. It is a completely different economy. It is not just a take economy and a winner takes all economy. It is a more caring economy that values caring work and the environment, and has a different way of doing business, with different values in business and a different sense of what we are about as a country and what we measure as progress. That is the scale of change involved. We believe we can do it in the context of what is happening in Europe. It gives us a very clear direction that a green deal is the centre of new strategy for the country. This country can and will be good as it goes green.
We cite the objective of creating a circular economy. This is a broad and woolly term that everyone uses but we know Europe is bringing through legislation, such as the plastics directive, the circular economy directive and a range of other directives. The digital economy will help us deliver a very efficient economy that is profitable, because businesses have to be profitable to survive, but also sets completely different goals for what businesses have to do.
I agree with the proposal in the Labour Party motion on auditing companies for carbon. That can and should be done under the task force established by Mark Carney for climate-related financial disclosure. It gives us the mechanism, and research has been done to see how it will happen. This is coming as an inevitability. Those businesses that think they can ignore it and remain with the status quowill be left behind and we do not want to do that.
This has to be a just transition. Today, the Joint Committee on Climate Action heard from Mr. Kieran Mulvey. He is an excellent man but it was clear from the questions we asked that what has been established is not fit for purpose and does not match the scale of preparations, planning and engagement that is needed. This transition must bring ecological and social justice. While it is socially democratic, is also bigger than that. It is a new emphasis on looking after nature and ourselves. It is giving up the market model that has dominated politics in the western hemisphere for the past 40 years and recognises that the "me" story - with "me, the market", "me looking after myself" and "rising tides lift all boats" - is no longer fit for purpose. It died in the financial crash but in the ten years since we have not evolved a new mechanism or new way of doing things.
The new green economy is socially democratic and looks after nature at its core. It will require all parties to be involved. It does not belong to any one party. If we are to get this scale of change, it has to belong everywhere. It belongs to every person in the country, and every place matters. It tends towards a politics of co-operation and trying to work together to make the amazing leap we will have to make if we are to face the ecological crisis. This is why we support the Labour Party motion and present our amendments in a way we think gives a slightly broader perspective as to what the transition is about. I very much look forward to seeing how the votes go. It will be complicated voting with so many amendments but it is a useful and welcome debate on our last day of the Dáil in 2019. I thank the Labour Party for presenting it.
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.
Economic growth should not equal environmental decline but this is what has happened in our country as our economy has expanded in recent years. Our natural environment has taken a punch in the gut from industry, agriculture and transport. The mantra of "Ireland being the best small country in which to do business" is followed by a full stop. We know that Ireland is not the best small country in which to have secure and affordable accommodation. We know also that Ireland is not the best small country in which to be looked after when one suffers ill-health and that it is certainly not the best small country for reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment.
In 2011, during the very depths of the economic crisis, Ireland's rivers were in improving health. Dublin became the first capital city in the world to have three salmon rivers, the Liffey, the Dodder and the Tolka. Salmon only run in healthy rivers with minimal levels of pollution and they are a very simple but telling indicator of ecological health. After three years of economic decline, the health of our rivers was improving and toxicity levels were decreasing. During the Celtic tiger years, for example in 2005, the Tolka River was one of the most polluted rivers in Europe. We are back to square one now.
Water quality in nearly half of our rivers is failing to meet a satisfactory level with the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, stating that less than 1% of our rivers are pristine. Salmon and trout levels are in decline as our rivers become more polluted. Water systems are a key indicator of the environmental health of a country and ours is in failing health. The lack of regulation of industry and agriculture by this Government has allowed this to occur. We must make changes to our economic model and prioritise environmental regulation to prevent harm. We must hold accountable those who cause environmental destruction.
We also have a major problem with air quality in our major towns and in our cities. The EPA's Air Quality in Ireland 2018 report found that levels at monitoring sites in Ireland were well below European Union standards. Also, several sites throughout the country were above the World Health Organization's guidelines for fine particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen dioxide. In Dublin, the report pointed to St. John's Road beside Heuston Station as a spot where data from monitoring suggested that levels of nitrogen dioxide would exceed the EU limit value in the near future. It also pointed to the entrance to the Dublin Port tunnel as exceeding the EU limit values. Traffic, as well as industry, has been found to be the main contributor of nitrogen dioxide to the atmosphere around Dublin. The increase in traffic over the last few years, leading to Dublin being one of the most congested cities in the world, has brought us to this point and it is no surprise to me that the port tunnel and motorway intersections are the worst affected areas.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends low emission zones to combat poor air quality yet investment in public transport continues to lag behind. We need the urgent delivery of MetroLink for Fingal. Sustainable, greener forms of transport are not only a commuting necessity, they are an environmental necessity which will help save lives. With traffic emissions in our major cities at chronic levels, air quality is also further compromised by the continued use of smoky coal throughout the country. The partial ban has been a qualified success but is now time to extend it nationwide. The Labour Party call for a nationwide ban on smoky coal makes sense. It is supported by the EPA and, most important, it will save lives.
According to Ms Ciara McMahon, programme manager at the EPA, smoky coal causes the deaths of up to 1,000 people per annum. This is damning data, which should lead directly to a nationwide ban. We are failing to meet our carbon emission targets and we are set to miss our EU 2020 targets, at a cost to the State of upwards of €150 million. If we continue to track as poorly as we have been, we could face billions of euro in fines by 2030.
The latest announcement to extend the smoky coal ban to 13 towns is another tepid measure. If the evidence is that smoky coal is a problem, then we need a nationwide ban. Government has talked the talk on housing, health and climate change but it has not walked the walk. Not one decision has been made that one could say is brave or transformative. It is tinkering around the edges of all of the major issues with one goal in mind, namely, to remain in power and avoid the judgment of the people. It is rapidly running out of road.
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.
I am sharing time with Deputy Howlin.
As we come to the end of Dáil business for 2019, it is right that the threat to our environment and to our planet's future is the focus of our attention. We are reaching a critical point of no return for our climate, our health and our children. This time in history is critical in the context of reaching the targets set for us on climate change and taking the necessary steps to keep the air we breathe and the water that sustains us and other life clean.
The Labour Party motion has received widespread support in the House, but what we want is action. The refusal of the Government to ban smoky coal nationwide makes no sense and the argument that it would risk a legal challenge is spurious. Why would there be a challenge to spreading the ban to the rest of the country when such a challenge has never been advanced since the first ban in cities was introduced in the 1990s or when other areas were added to the list of places where the ban applies? The suggestion that turf, timber and other products would have to be banned as well in order to avoid prosecution is nonsense and designed to win some kudos in rural constituencies.
There has been a significant deterioration in air quality across our country in recent years. My city of Limerick has seen measurements hitting or going beyond the EPA-permitted levels. The same is the case for Dublin and other densely populated areas. We need a national clean air strategy and in cities like Dublin, Cork and Limerick we need an action plan to reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide as they are beginning to breach EU safety standards. The burning of fossil fuels and traffic congestion are the main causes of these dangerous levels.
A plan of action is no good if there is not reliable and consistent monitoring to go with it. I agree with the Deputies who stated that there are not nearly enough monitoring stations. The issue of monitoring air quality, with full public transparency on its frequency and results, has been highlighted in Limerick in the context of the proposal by Irish Cement to burn waste products in its kiln in Mungret in the city suburbs. This matter is currently with the EPA for decision. There is a lack of public trust that there would be adequate monitoring and such trust is absolutely crucial. Furthermore, early warning monitoring is a necessary safeguard where public health is at risk. Asthma and other pulmonary diseases are increasing and the EPA estimates that approximately 1,000 premature deaths each year are due to poor air quality.
The other point we make strongly in our motion relates to the need for large polluting industries and companies to pay their fair share. That is why we are calling for legislation to require greenhouse gas emissions to be included as a core component of company accounts in enterprises with 50 or more employees, and those of all enterprises in highly-polluting industries.
As operations like the ESB station in Moneypoint and others in the midlands are wound down, there must be a just transition for workers and opportunities for alternative employment in the area. I have also repeatedly called for the Government to immediately address the danger of fuel poverty for people who live in homes that are not energy efficient. On Question Time last week, I again raised the need for a major ramping up of the retrofitting programme for local authority homes. The response in this regard is far too slow.
People in council homes are, by definition, on low incomes. The Labour Party committed to investing €100 million to upgrade such homes in its alternative budget earlier this year. The Government's allocation falls far short of this. It is essential that this is implemented, that Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland grants are made available to poorer people who own their own homes and that a minimum BER standard for privately-rented homes be required. If these actions are not taken, vulnerable people, including the elderly and young families, will suffer fuel poverty and-or cold damp conditions.
The quality of our water is in an equally perilous state. That is why we call as well for a national clean water strategy.
People care about these issues. Young people are taking pioneering roles in highlighting climate change. They are proud of their country but fearful for their future and want the necessary action to be taken. We need to show the leadership required to reach our greenhouse gas emission targets of 33 million tonnes by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.
I thank the Deputies from the various parties and the Independent Deputies who spoke on what is a very important end-of-term debate on the environment, which is the overarching economic and social issue of our time. Our motion calls on Dáil Éireann to recognise that environmental pollution and degradation are all too often the by-product of our economy.
We ask all Deputies to join with the Labour Party in declaring that Ireland needs to adopt fundamental changes to our economic model, and in calling on the Government to recognise that under-regulation of economic activity or lax enforcement of existing rules allows greater levels of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to occur.
Our vision is for a well-regulated economy. We want rules to outlaw dangerous pollutants and to require polluters to pay the full cost of whatever pollution they create. We also want protection for workers and consumers in order that they will not be forced to work with hazardous materials or endure the consequences of pollution. State regulation of the economy needs to be done intelligently, with regard for productivity and efficiency. This has been achieved in countries such as Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands, which are among the most innovative and productive economies in the world. They also lead the way in respect of environmental protection and meeting climate targets. I am heartened that the amendments tabled by Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Green Party all retain Labour's declaration that the best model for Ireland to emulate is a north European social democratic market economy, such as in the countries I mentioned.
I remind Deputies of a report by the National Economic and Social Council in December 1992 - a long time ago - entitled The Irish Economy in a Comparative Institutional Perspective. The report sought to understand the relative economic success of smaller European countries such as Denmark and Finland which have small open economies like Ireland's that were subject to many of same the international forces as us. The report marked a period in public policy when we had a discussion on the future direction of our economy. As history played out, the Celtic tiger economy took off, before being taken over by an unsustainable property boom and subsequent bust.
It has been ten years since the economic crisis and we now need to have a serious national discussion on the type of economy we need and want. International trade has become more protectionist, there is a welcome and overdue global push to reform corporation tax paid by multinationals and the climate crisis has put the current basis of our economy under threat. The Green Party has proposed a circular economy as a model for Ireland and we need to debate that further and understand where it has been successfully implemented. For my part, I point to the fact that in Sweden, the level of greenhouse gas emissions per person is 5.14 tonnes per year, among the lowest in Europe, whereas in Ireland, it is 12.64 tonnes per person, among the highest. Many people in Sweden have greater challenges because of their climate, given that much of the population spends six months per year in snow. Nevertheless, Sweden is able to deal with such issues, whereas we have a way to go. As many Deputies noted, we need better transport, cycling infrastructure, planning, housing and services that work. We can learn such lessons if we choose to orientate ourselves in the direction set out by social democratic countries.
Finally, I return to the issue of the smoky coal ban. It is not credible for the Government to extend the ban to 13 additional towns and pretend there is some impediment to extending it to the wider nation. I have served in many Governments and chaired the European Environment Council. There is a notion that the smoky coal ban can be extended to 85% of the population, with an arbitrary threshold of 10,000 inhabitants. That a population of 10,010 would be okay, whereas one of 9,999 would not, because the Government will be met with litigation, is farcical. It convinces nobody.
I ask the Minister to let the final debate and motion in the House this year be an act of solidarity, unanimously passed, not only to set out a new environmental agenda and economic direction for the country but for us all to agree that the terrible harm being done by bituminous coal should end and that there should be a national ban on smoky coal. I ask the Government to relent, even at this late hour, and allow a unanimous decision to be made by Dáil Éireann.