Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Ceisteanna (5, 6, 7, 8)

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses environment matters; and when it will next meet. [50204/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses environmental matters. [51529/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton

Ceist:

7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment will next meet. [51824/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses environmental matters; and when it last met. [52732/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (17 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 8, inclusive, together.

Following the reorganisation of the Cabinet committee structures in July this year, the Cabinet committee on the environment was established. It covers issues relating to the environment, including climate action and the implementation of the Government's climate action plan.

The Climate Action Plan 2019: To Tackle Climate Breakdown, was published on 17 June 2019. The plan contains more than 180 actions, broken down into 600 individual steps, which Ireland needs to implement to meet its EU 2030 targets and achieve its longer-term low carbon transition objective. Delivering such an integrated set of actions and policies requires a deep collaboration across Government with business, communities and also individuals. The work of the Cabinet committee on the environment is an important part of facilitating this collaboration and driving implementation of the plan.

The Cabinet committee on the environment has met twice since its establishment, on 30 September and 2 December 2019. It is intended that it will meet quarterly. There is significant work under way across each of the areas covered by the committee through Departments, agencies and a range of interdepartmental groups such as the climate action delivery board. These matters are also regularly considered at meetings of Government and in bilateral meetings with the relevant Ministers. At tomorrow's Cabinet meeting, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, will bring the heads of the climate action Bill for approval. The Cabinet committee is due to meet again early in the new year, where its focus will be on the delivery of actions due in 2020 and beyond, as well as unblocking any potential barriers to Ireland decarbonising its economy and society.

I want to raise with the Taoiseach the issue of the relationship of Government with the plastics industry in particular. Last month, the Corporate Europe Observatory published a damning and in-depth article exposing the Government's close relationship with the plastics industry. Much of the information in the article came from freedom of information, FOI, documents secured by journalist, Juno McEnroe, and my colleague, Lynn Boylan, former MEP for Dublin. Throughout the negotiations in Europe on the plastics directive, industry allies were consulted on the Commission's text. The industry was often rapidly informed of developments at EU level by officials, and the interests of the industry were put forward by the Government. It is clear from the FOI documentation that Government's relationship with the industry is much tighter than its relationship with the NGO sector. This is very alarming.

Repak is a company established and owned by the industry to operate the country's recycling schemes. Its members include companies such as Coca-Cola and Unilever, which are two of the world's worst plastics polluters, and multinational retailers such as Tesco, Aldi and others, which generate huge amounts of plastic waste. The documents released show the officials contacted Repak regularly to run text by it when copying and pasting new legislative drafts of the EU directive. Officials were also interested to hear the views of the industry as part of informing Ireland's response to what were, in reality, modest proposals. New information on the position of another member state was also shared by officials with Repak. It is not only Repak that has the captive ear of Government. The Government proactively sought the views of industry representatives and groups on the Commission's drafts of the directive on single use plastic and passed their concerns to Brussels.

These documents undermine any faith that we could have in Fine Gael to put the people ahead of the corporate interests. That is the core of this issue. There are some big battles ahead, some of which will happen soon, in regard to environmental concerns. Can we be confident that Fine Gael has the capacity, capability and intent to put public interests ahead of short-term corporate profits?

It is absolutely freezing outside, and I think most people have felt that cold. We should bear this in mind over the next number of weeks because we have hundreds of thousands of people in this country affected by fuel poverty. For elderly people, in some cases it is life-threatening. There are hundreds of thousands of people in receipt of the fuel allowance. These are, in the main, people on very low incomes who are trying to heat their homes in the current freezing temperatures. This is a real social problem. It is also an environmental problem because people on low incomes and living in poorly insulated homes have to spend massive amounts of money to keep their homes and themselves warm. Often, they cannot do so but insofar as they try to do so, they are wasting huge amounts of energy.

This time of the year brings into sharp focus the need to do something dramatic and radical in terms of providing supports, grants, funding and assistance to people to insulate their homes or for the State to move in directly and have them insulated, thereby achieving two important objectives: one, keeping people warm who are freezing and, two, dramatically reducing CO2 emissions if it is done right. The annual cost of heating an A1 energy rated home is approximately €280. For those living in the lowest energy rated homes, which, in the main, are those on low incomes, that cost per annum can be €3,000. The people who are most affected by these issues have the least resources. The grants provided under the energy schemes are nowhere near sufficient to assist people on low incomes to insulate their homes. Those living in private rented accommodation and social housing, if they wanted to, cannot insulate their homes. The public schemes in this regard are abysmal. Will the Government address the issue of retrofit insulation and supporting people affected by fuel poverty and the cold to insulate their homes and thus also address a major cause of CO2 emissions?

I want to raise two issues in regard to the Cabinet committee on the environment and the work, or lack of work, on the part of Government in regard to the environment. I have repeatedly asked the Taoiseach about the electric vehicle target under the climate action plan and I have pointed out to him that to meet the target set of 1 million vehicles in ten years, almost every vehicle purchased from January 2020 would need to be an electric vehicle. The Taoiseach made that facile announcement regarding 1 million electric vehicles in ten years, with no research behind it. On the last occasion I raised this issue, I asked the Taoiseach if work had been undertaken at departmental level to underpin that target or give support to the idea that it was a credible target, and he said he would check it out. Has the Taoiseach checked it out? Is there documentation available that underpins the target for electric vehicles set in the climate action plan? I would appreciate some clarity on that issue. I would also appreciate if the Taoiseach would provide me with the documentation, which should not be any great secret.

On the smoky coal ban, the Taoiseach has tried to play partisan politics with this issue. It is legitimate for the Opposition and me, and I have been at this for quite a while, to ask, given the former Tánaiste, Mary Harney, was able to introduce a smoky coal ban in 1990, which we have had since, in Dublin and elsewhere without any legal challenge, why it is not possible for the Government to introduce a nationwide smoky coal ban. The Taoiseach has retorted by referencing legal advice, which, strangely, has been only half-published. I find this only gives succour to the vested interests outside of this State who want to maintain the distribution and sale of smoky coal here.

Notwithstanding the fact that our own indigenous coal manufacturers have invested millions in changing their manufacturing plants and developing facilities for smokeless coal, they have now been left high and dry. They were given commitments by previous Ministers that a smoky coal ban would be introduced nationwide and they prepared accordingly.

On the legal advice issue, why has the Taoiseach given succour to these coal merchants and companies by more or less publishing their letters or legal points as if they have total validity? I was involved in bans such as the smoking one, and one will be given advices and will see other advices, but one does not concede publicly. I argue that the public health requirements of our people should trump anything. There is growing evidence now that the problems are getting worse in many areas throughout the country, with very damaging implications for public health, respiratory health in particular. Professor Clancy and others have been long-time campaigners for this. They all say that the original ban brought in the 1990 had a demonstrable impact on health at that time. It is a neglect of duty.

The Labour Party motion will be debated later today and it is hoped it will be passed to ban smoky coal totally in this country. Is the Taoiseach aware that of the smoky coal that is sold, even in cities like Dublin where the ban is in effect, up to 60% is sulphur, so it is the most damaging kind of smoky coal? I do not know what kind of legal advice the Taoiseach has been quoting. I suspect some barrister was asked for an opinion and threw in a notion that there could be some contest. We have had the smokeless requirement in place in Dublin for more than 20 years. There has been no legal challenge.

What is the Taoiseach doing to stop the massive cross-Border trade in smuggling smoky coal? On a cold night at the moment in various estates in Dublin and towns throughout the country, one can taste the sulphur in the coal. This is causing up to 1,500 avoidable deaths in Ireland a year and is a misery for the children affected by asthma. I encourage the Taoiseach to meet representatives of the Asthma Society of Ireland because they will tell him the individual stories of the children who, on bad nights, possibly like tonight, are not able to breathe. It is putting massive pressures on children's health services. Who is the Taoiseach in hock to that he will not bring in a ban-----

The Deputy's time is expired.

-----right across the country on smoky coal?

I thank the Deputies. On the question regarding plastics, it is right and proper that officials and civil servants should engage with all stakeholders on any issue, whether it is industry bodies, unions, NGOs, or through public consultations, provided it is done in a transparent way and in accordance with the Regulation of Lobbying Act and the Freedom of Information Act. The lobbying Act was brought in by a Government of which I was a member precisely to regulate lobbying properly and make it more transparent, which had not been the case under previous Administrations, but not to try to ban or restrict it. Lobbying is part of a democracy and should happen in one.

The Government has taken the lead on plastics, first by banning single-use plastics from Departments. There are none in mine, and this is being extended across the public service, with a few exceptions where they may be necessary. We are strong supporters of new European Union proposals to introduce a ban on unnecessary single-use plastics in the Single Market. We are very supportive of that.

On fuel poverty, the fuel allowance, or energy allowance, as it is going to be renamed, will increase in January in a few weeks. We are going to use some of the proceeds coming in from the increase in the carbon tax to retrofit social housing, particularly in the midlands, with €40 million expected from that. This will allow us to retrofit and improve the energy rating of more social housing in the midlands, and this will be built upon in the years to come. There is also the warmer homes schemes and some other grants that people can apply for. We are increasing our effort in that regard all the time.

On electric vehicles, this query has been put into the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I have not received a reply yet, but I will pass it on to Deputy Martin as soon as I do.

On smoky coal, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, has announced an extension of the ban to 13 more towns, and this will kick in from September of next year, which includes towns that have some serious air quality issues. We have decided, however, against a nationwide ban as our best legal advice tells us that it could lead to the existing local bans, including the one here in Dublin, being struck down or it may require us to the ban the burning of wood and turf, as well, which we do not want to do.

This is not enough.

We have not published our legal advice on this from the Attorney General for exactly the reasons that Deputy Martin has said and we will not be doing so-----

The Taoiseach has.

It is not the Attorney General's advice.

-----precisely for the reasons that the Deputy counsels that we should not. I notice that Deputy Martin goes back to 1990 a great deal and the former Minister Mary Harney's ban on smoky coal in Dublin, as though it was yesterday. It may seem like yesterday to Deputy Martin, but it is actually not. It is a long time ago. A lot has changed in the 30 years since 1990.

The point is that there has been no legal challenge to it.

What we now know is the scientific evidence that tells us that burning turf and wood is as bad for air quality as burning smoky coal.

That is nowhere near the amount of coal.

That undermines any public health defence that may be made in the courts because the coal industry can say that if it is being argued that coal is being banned on public health grounds, it has scientific information that shows that burning turf and wood is just as bad for public health, and therefore the public health argument falls. That is the problem we are facing. We do not want to ban the burning of turf and wood in Ireland, particularly not in rural areas, which is why we have adopted a more proportionate and legally sound approach, which is to extend the smoky coal ban to the 13 towns that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, announced yesterday.