Interview: Denis Naughten on the challenges of putting Ireland on a sustainable trajectory

Climate minister says higher taxes and incentives needed to decarbonise Irish society

This will be the year Ireland embarks on a path to implementing substantial carbon taxes; attempts to counter rising greenhouse gas emissions and sets the country on a more sustainable growth trajectory.

Around the Cabinet table Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten will be the key driver of measures whose benefits may be decades away. He also has to lead the orderly abandonment of fossil fuels while persuading Irish people to adopt renewable energy.

With growing evidence of human-induced global warming, it has to happen, Naughten says. He believes monies raised [through fossil fuel taxes] should be ring-fenced to "decarbonise Irish society" though he anticipates resistance in some quarters. He is reassured by support at ministerial level, particularly from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohue "who are very positively disposed to moving the economy in this direction".

The Taoiseach has said he would “rather spend money now on meeting our commitments than on fines from 2020 onwards”. Failure means fines of up to hundreds of millions of euros, and much more painful remedial action up to 2050. There are minimum targets to be achieved by 2030, but the climate Minister wants more. “If we hit just those targets, it leaves us with a monumental task to 2050,” says Naughten.


As the economy has recovered, more flexibility is possible and he cites regional distribution of jobs – a lot of his constituents work in Dublin and Galway; not ideal from a climate perspective. With a dispersed population, transport is problematic. Broadband is critical to reducing transport emissions (currently growing at a much higher rate than agriculture), Naughten adds. Technology allows him overcome distance issues through video conferencing from his Co Roscommon constituency and the ability to work remotely brings a climate dividend, he says.

Behavioural change

A new behavioural economics unit within the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland is working on key trigger points and strategies. This year "nudge issues" will be pursued taking into account what works elsewhere. In February, the Minister is going to Scotland which has achieved remarkable emission reductions.

He is emphatic on the need for higher carbon taxes. The Department of Finance is reviewing current carbon tax levels and in the next budget, he expects movement, or at least the setting out of "a trajectory of where we are going to go". Climate now has to be considered in all capital investment decisions. Politicians look in four- to five-year cycles, he notes; civil servants tend to look in 10-year cycles but on climate "we need to look far further than that".

He rejects the view that the Department of Finance is not fully on board. "We've had to change the whole focus of Government and departments. Things had been trundling along without anyone really questioning where we were actually going [on climate change]... Across Government there's a renewed focus, particularly since a full-day Cabinet meeting on climate change in Kildare. "

Reducing personal and employment taxes while switching emphasis to carbon taxes has been successful in Nordic countries, but “their economies are based mainly on domestic consumption”, Naughten says. They’re not as dependent on manufacturing exports to the same extent as Ireland. There is also a risk of tying our economy into long-term fossil fuel taxes, so he favours some form of consumption tax instead. He points to the past success of the motor tax system to prompt a switch to diesel.

In diverting people away from fossil fuels, a range of innovative measures are needed. “There are absolutely no plans” to ban turf burning, he says, though a smoky coal ban is imminent. He is looking at incentives targeted at moving homeowners away from inefficient, carbon-emitting solid fuels.

As climate minister he believes having the energy portfolio is an obvious advantage in co-ordinating and implementing the response to global warming and in leading by example.

Multinational companies in Ireland are increasingly demanding energy from renewable sources. If companies are prepared to pay for renewable energy, Naughten says he “will look at that can be done” though it’s more expensive. New technologies, however, are likely to change that scenario and he believes “offshore renewables” will take off, while there’s “really exciting potential” in wave energy.

Sustainable energy

Ireland is about to move into biomass through the formation of Bord na Móna Bioenergy, but what is genuinely sustainable as an energy source is a concern. Naughten admits it has consumed a lot of time at European level. Frustration is added to by the absence of “an international gold standard” on biomass. The EU is upping biomass sourcing standards which he says won’t cause difficulty for Bord na Móna, as the strongest possible sustainability criteria are being adopted. “I have it made it crystal clear to Bord na Móna; to have the best and most robust possible sustainability standards in place.”

He accepts importing wood from the US and South Africa is an issue – use of logwood in power generation is unacceptable. There's limited Irish biomass available, although tree felling will increase. While Bord na Móna insists imported material has higher sustainability standards, his wish is to develop a biomass industry locating sustainable biomass locally as far as possible.

Biomethane, a “green” gas, was not included in the recently announced renewable heat support scheme, but the Minister wants to see its production supported once cost and regulatory issues are addressed. Being from a rural constituency, he sees its potential. With brown bins generating a lot of organic material, the best way to recycle it is through composting or generating biomethane using anaerobic digestion technology which can also avail of agricultural by-products and food waste.

2018 plans

A much larger Renewable Electricity Support Scheme to incentivise renewable electricity generation to meet renewable energy and decarbonisation targets will go to Government by mid-year. There will, says the Minister, also be a micro-generation scheme for communities using solar or wind power – once logistic issues are resolved. This, he says, will be critical to securing buy-in into the climate agenda. Lessons from a successful “smart farming” initiative in reducing emissions, protecting the environment and boosting incomes will be applied more widely.

Illegal dumping

On fly-tipping rubbish, Naughten reiterates his view that it amounts to “economic sabotage”, threatening tourism and the ability to attract investment to regions. Resources to stop it will again be ramped up this year. Local authorities will soon be asked for programmes to build on progress. He is buoyed by high profile convictions last year for illegal dumping although he notes that it is resource intensive. Multi-agency teams are now involved, jurisdiction issues have been clarified and 25 regional officers act across county boundaries. Best use of technology including drones is a priority. The Minister supports a review of penalties and weaknesses in legislation.

Citizens’ Assembly

The Minister commends the Citizen’s Assembly for raising public awareness about climate change. What happens globally has to be applied locally, and communities must be informed about measures to reduce their carbon footprint and how to adapt, he adds. The issue closest to him in that context is the more frequent, severe flooding in the midlands.

The assembly's recommendations will come before the Oireachtas for debate. In the meantime a National Adaptation Plan will be finalised and details of a successful public service energy efficiency initiative unveiled – an example of "the State taking a leadership role".

Naughten was once referred to as “Minister for the Apocalypse”. It goes with the territory, he says, a sense of doom and helplessness when it comes to global warming. Of late, he has sought to shift the public engagement debate on to air quality to illustrate how short-term measures can bring long-term health benefits while reducing emissions. What motivates him is that one in five children has asthma; one in 11 adults has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) due to poor air quality exacerbated by carbon emissions.

The presidency

He is open-minded on whether President Michael D Higgins should be allowed a second term, or if there should be an open race. "It's really up to Michael D Higgins himself as to what he plans or wants to do ... he has done a good job. Personally, I was glad in the first half of 2016 that we had a practising politician in that role, should it have been the case that Enda Kenny had gone back to Michael D Higgins seeking a dissolution of the Dáil."

The Minister believes he has been a good global ambassador and done a good job in “capturing the public mood” although sometimes it has not been easy for Government.

Look back

Asked if he has had a good second half of 2017, he says: “I came into a new department 18 months ago. I have been able to bed it down and ramp up resources significantly for action on climate and environment. We have a good team there now.”

“There was probably a certain amount of open hostility to me among NGOs when I came into the department, because I suppose they’ve seen so little movement over such a long period of time.” He believes most would now accept he’s sincere and committed to it. “Making decisions doesn’t happen quickly in government but the important thing is to start putting us on a sustainable trajectory.”