Thomas Pringle TD

Thomas Pringle TD – Turf Cutting and Just Transition

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.