Government action to tackle climate change is “the next big progressive cause” the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said yesterday.
He was speaking as his ministers, TDs, senators and general election candidates gathered for a think-in ahead of the Dáil’s return from its Christmas break today.
“As Ireland’s party of the political centre we want to become the party demonstrating the most leadership on climate change,” Mr Varadkar said, though he went on to admit that he was not setting “the best example” himself when it came to reducing his carbon footprint, due the demands of his job for frequent travel.
Mr Varadkar has just returned from a week visiting Irish troops and Irish Aid projects in Africa.
He confessed he was “trying to eat less meat – both for health reasons and for reasons of climate change” and conceded that perhaps ministers should invest in hybrid or electric cars.
Ministers freely admit the Government’s record on tackling climate change is poor. However, both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton promised a Government-wide plan later this year which would begin to reverse steadily increasing carbon emissions here.
“It is going to be the defining issue of this century,” Mr Bruton said. He said he was working on a “whole of Government plan” and intended to consult widely.
He acknowledged the Government was “well off-target” but pledged to make Ireland a leader in climate action, despite the lack of effective action so far.
Central to the efforts will be a programme of steady increases in the carbon tax over the coming years.
However, the Government, still scarred by the experience of its predecessor with water charges, is terrified of a public backlash against the tax increases so it wants to spread the political responsibility for the move by ensuring cross-party consensus.
But Ministers also want to assure taxpayers the move will not be a revenue raising exercise. Instead, the proceeds will be returned to taxpayers either through tax and social welfare allowances, or a “carbon dividend” paid to taxpayers every year.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, the Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe reiterated that increasing carbon tax was a device for changing behaviour and not “purely being about maximising additional revenue.”
“It’s about changing the choices that families and citizens make,” he said.
He said that if the Government could achieve political consensus on the issue - ie, sufficient support from other parties - he could set out a long-term programme of carbon tax increases into the future. The tax, he said, would be “mostly revenue neutral” and receipts from the tax would be returned to citizens.
Mr Bruton stressed that the point of any carbon tax increase was not to raise revenue, but to “change behaviour”.
“The important thing is that money will be recycled back, so people will be either getting a cheque in the post or getting rebate through the social welfare and tax system that compensates them,” he said.
“This isn’t a money grab to take money out of your pocket. This is to help people to make decisions for the long-term,” Mr Bruton added.
But the Labour party said that the Government’s “lack of ambition” on climate change was disappointing and the environmental group Friends of the Earth called on the Government to include the carbon tax in a series of decarbonisation measures rather than increasing it as a stand-alone policy.