Varadkar keen to avoid ‘yellow vest’ effect with carbon tax

Taoiseach considering rebates as ex-president criticises climate response

Leo Varadkar visiting Irish troops in Mali. The Taoiseach said the carbon tax “will never be about taking money from people”. Photograph: Defence Forces Press Office

Leo Varadkar visiting Irish troops in Mali. The Taoiseach said the carbon tax “will never be about taking money from people”. Photograph: Defence Forces Press Office

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is veering towards a carbon tax model that would see households receiving rebates in the form of increased child benefit, and tax and fuel allowances.

Mr Varadkar accepted that increasing carbon taxes for households could face strong public opposition, especially in light of the “gilets jaune” protests in France, similar experiences in Australia and Canada, and opposition to water charges in Ireland.

“We need to get this right in terms of having a proposal that works in terms of reducing emissions, that doesn’t hit people disproportionately in their pockets, and one that we can explain to the public,” he said.

Mr Varadkar, who is visiting Irish troops in Mali, said the tax would have to include a clear rebate for households.

“There are two ways of doing it. One is a rebate back to houses. That has an obvious advantage of being a cheque in the post, but can become quite complicated when people debate how many people are there.

“The simpler way, perhaps, would be an increase in child benefit and tax credits and fuel allowance. We need to figure all that out.

“It will never be about taking money from people. It is about a tax that changes behaviour and causes people to make environmentally sustainable decisions.”

Commitments

The Taoiseach said he believed in carbon tax as one of the means of meeting Ireland’s commitments on climate change.

“The lessons from France and Australia, and from water charges in Ireland, is that you need to bring people with you and that is why I firmly believe that if we increase carbon tax in the next budget and the budgets thereafter, [we need] to give that money back to people, put it back in their pockets so that we reward people who live low carbon-emitting lifestyles.”

Meanwhile, former president Mary Robinson has criticised Ireland’s track record on tackling climate change at an annual gathering of Irish ambassadors in Dublin Castle.

However, she stopped short of specifically criticising the Government’s failure to include a carbon tax in Budget 2019, as others have in support of tax-based measures to protect the environment, sources said.

On a per-capita basis, Irish people generate 13.7 tonnes of carbon a year, compared with an EU average of 8.7 tonnes

Mrs Robinson told the closed Global Ireland 2025 gathering of Irish diplomats from around the globe that climate change was an urgent matter and warned that time was running out to take action.

Pointing to the violent “yellow vest” protests in France following fuel tax rises imposed as a climate-change measure, the former president said climate taxes will have to be imposed fairly.

Worst emitters

Mrs Robinson declined to elaborate on her comments when contacted by The Irish Times, saying she wanted to abide by the event’s Chatham House Rules, an informal agreement protecting the source of remarks at a closed function.

On a per-capita basis, Irish people generate 13.7 tonnes of carbon a year, compared with an EU average of 8.7 tonnes – that amounts to being among the worst emitters of any country in the developed world.

Annual EPA analysis shows the country is locked into a pattern of rising emissions that is unlikely to be reversed until the mid-2020s at the earliest.

This is primarily due to a booming economy – notably, rapidly rising emissions from transport – and high carbon (in the form of methane) associated with agriculture, which accounts for a third of all Irish emissions.

Irish farming has become more carbon-efficient in beef production and dairying, but the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says agriculture is responsible for 18 per cent of the total release of greenhouse gases worldwide (more than the transportation sector).

Ireland’s performance on climate action in response to global warming has consistently been ranked as the worst in the EU and among the worst in the world under the annual Climate Change Performance Index.