Eamon Ryan’s smoky coal consultation meets mixed public reaction

Concerns expressed about impact on fuel-impoverished households

Green Party parliamentarians challenged the widespread belief that smoky coal burned better. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Green Party parliamentarians challenged the widespread belief that smoky coal burned better. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

Cleaner air is not an aspiration that any politician in their right mind would oppose. But Minister for Climate Action Eamon Ryan’s public consultation initiative on a nationwide ban on smoky coals has met with a mixed reaction from politicians from different parties.

Several people questioned the timing of such a move in the middle of a pandemic. Others were dubious about the suggestion that the ban could be extended over time to wood with high moisture content and to peat products. Others said that targeting solid fuel would impact on the poorest.

Against that, Green Party parliamentarians challenged the widespread belief that smoky coal burned better.

“This notion that smokeless coal is not as good calorifically as smoky coal is a myth that needs to be dispelled,” said Green Senator Róisín Garvey.

“It’s actually cheaper and gives better heat per euro than smoky coal,” she said.

“Number one, smoky coal has to go. But it’s all about a just transition away from smoky fuels. It will take a few years. We understand that. We in the Greens don’t all live in retrofitted houses or drive electric cars. My own house is heated by a solid fuel stove.”

Her colleague, Waterford TD Marc O Cathasaigh argued that air pollution from solid fuel led to 1,300 premature deaths in Ireland in 2018, according to a European environmental agency.

Sinn Féin TD Claire Kerrane said cleaner air must be supported but the measures, if not introduced properly, could have a huge impact on the poorest, people living in remote areas and those dependent on solid fuel.

“There are excess winter deaths already because of energy policy,” she said. “St Vincent de Paul estimates 400,000 households are living in energy poverty. We hear stories of older people wearing coats at home or spending their days in local libraries to keep warm”.

‘Dire consequences’

Jennifer Whitmore of the Social Democrats supports the move away from smoky fuels, but adds: “It needs to be done in a way that does not penalise people who are least in a position to deal with it.”

Several TDs questioned the timing. “We need to concentrate on the issues of today,” said John McGuinness of Fianna Fáil.

“There are so many other priorities such as Covid, the Leaving Cert, and closed businesses.”

Michael Ring of Fine Gael also said during the pandemic was not the time to do it as it would add to the stress of people living in rural areas.

“I will be speaking out if it’s hurting the people. Climate change is fine but you can’t hurt the poor people,” he said.

Sean Sherlock of Labour said any move to ban wood with high moisture content was “a bridge too far”.

“People buy a trailer of [wood] blocks every year. There are thousands of people living in fuel-impoverished households and [a ban on high-moisture wood] will have dire consequences. I would be opposed to any such move at this juncture.”

Clare Fianna Fáil TD Cathal Crowe said the air quality in Ennis was so bad on several days last year it had higher pollutants than Mumbai in India. He said there was merit in the extension of the smoky coal ban.

Like Sherlock, he said banning other solid fuels such as high-moisture wood might be retrograde. Most households could not afford to retrofit or upgrade their homes.