Thursday, 28 November 2019

Ceisteanna (3)

Jack Chambers

Ceist:

3. Deputy Jack Chambers asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the steps being taken to ensure safe air quality levels and to introduce a nationwide ban on smoky coal in response to stated legal advice from the Attorney General; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49580/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Communications)

This question is on the ongoing failure by Government to introduce a nationwide ban on smoky coal and ensure rural towns and villages are protected from air pollution. New analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has found air pollution is reaching dangerous levels, beyond World Health Organization, WHO, air quality guidelines and we have serious issues with premature deaths, asthma-related illnesses and cardiac-related illnesses as a result. Given this disturbing state of affairs, on Monday of this week the EPA called for an urgent nationwide ban on smoky coal. Will the Minister outline what immediate actions, legislative or otherwise, he is taking to improve air quality and ensure a nationwide ban is put in place?

Transitioning away from fossil fuels to more renewable, sustainable energy sources is at the heart of the climate action plan. Some 40% of our homes use coal and peat for heating, many in combination with other fossil fuel heating systems. By 2030, we will upgrade a third of all homes to at least a B2 energy standard, installing approximately 400,000 heat pumps. Over 99% of our vehicle fleet is powered by fossil fuels. By 2030, nearly 1 million electric vehicles will be on our roads. These measures will significantly improve air quality by reducing emissions of harmful pollutants. Extending the ban on the use of smoky coal would also have a positive impact on air quality, particularly in built up areas. The ban on the marketing, sale and distribution of bituminous coal, or the smoky coal ban as it is commonly known, was first introduced in Dublin in 1990, and subsequently extended to 26 major urban areas. My two predecessors proposed a national extension of the smoky coal ban, but a number of coal firms have indicated they would challenge the proposal of two former Ministers to extend the smoky coal ban.

This is disappointing. The basis of their challenge is that a nationwide smoky coal ban cannot be introduced without a nationwide ban on the burning of peat, turf and wet wood because such products produce similar levels of pollution. The legal threat is not only to take down any new nationwide ban, but to remove the ban currently in place in cities and many towns throughout the country.

In that context, it is especially important to ensure that the measures put forward will not be vulnerable to legal challenge, and I am continuing to work to finalise a legally robust way forward that will improve air quality by reducing air pollution, without jeopardising the existing ban.

That was a nonsense of a response. People are dying as a result of smoky coal but the Minister stated that because of the vulnerability to a legal challenge, there will be more inaction from his Department on such a serious matter. There have been no suggestions about how the Government may improve or address the current, partial law and no proposal on how to shift subsidies and incentives away from fossil fuel burning. It is concerning that the Minister is more obsessed with legal challenges than in saving lives, which is what it comes down to in light of the EPA data.

The State's response to a real, immediate and worsening public health matter cannot be dictated by potential legal threats and big business. Experts at many universities have stated there are serious public health implications, and the national ban on selling and burning smoky coal is a logical first step towards improving air quality. Air pollution is closely linked to the climate crisis, yet the burning of smoky coal is entirely absent from the Government's new climate action plan. The same threats were made by big tobacco many years ago. The Government is taking the approach that because there is a potential for legal challenges, there will be no legislative action. That is not good enough. People are dying, as the data show.

The Deputy is wrong to suggest there are no subsidies to encourage people to move away from fossil fuels. There are substantial subsidies for the move to electric vehicles, insulation, the upgrading of homes, the fitting of heat pumps and other measures that would substantially reduce reliance on fossil fuel. The subsidies are in place and have been substantially expanded in the budget.

The issue for any Minister is that when one gets legal advice that a proposition made by one's predecessors, as is the case, could bring down the ban on smoky coal that prevails in 26 major urban areas, including Dublin, one has to tread carefully. It would serve no one's interest for the existing ban in Dublin and the other 25 areas to fall under a legal challenge. I have to proceed, therefore, in a way that I can be confident I can enforce the change and not undermine the existing law.

In the context of the previous question, the issue is that the ban in place does not extend to peat and wet wood. They, too, are substantial causes of pollution.

The matter is a case of political leadership. As we saw on "RTÉ Investigates" last night, there are illegal quarries throughout the country, and there are threats and legal challenges. It seems business reigns above politics in this case. Who runs the country? In October, the Minister stated he was working with the Attorney General to address an issue. The Government has repeatedly chosen to deflect and deny, while the evidence shows increasing levels of respiratory illnesses and hospital admissions due to poor air quality. Air pollution causes 1,000 premature deaths per year in Ireland but legal challenges mean more than those lives. Why are the lives and health of people living in Enniscorthy less important to the Government than those of people living in cities? The Government is treating people in rural areas as second-class citizens. It is unacceptable that the Government is willing to dismiss relevant human rights obligations in this area, not least in respect of ensuring the right to health and the rights of a child. On the air quality issues relating to the quarries mentioned last night, there has been no enforcement from local authorities or action from the Government to address the issue. Instead, judicial reviews and legal quagmires have been allowed to undermine the rights of people to health and proper air quality.

It goes back to the fundamental question of whether the Government shows political leadership. It should ban it and deal with the consequences.

If I sponsored a statutory instrument that fell in the courts at its first challenge, the Deputy, along with other Deputies who also represent areas protected by the smoky coal ban, would be the first to state in the Chamber that I had failed in my duty and undermined the protections available to the major cities and towns. I have to take seriously the legal frailties of any proposal made. That is my job. I have to ensure I protect people, but I am also examining how I can move forward on the matter. I recognise the concern the Deputy expressed and many of my party colleagues are similarly concerned. Nevertheless, I have to ensure that anything I do in the area will be robust and able to withstand the test.