Top 10 great leaps forward in Irish environmental policy
Growing consensus ending subsidies of fossil fuels should be next environmental move
Christy Moore entertains protesters at the anti-nuclear protest at Carnsore Point, Co Wexford, in 1978. Photograph: Eddie Kelly
Plastic bag levy introduced in 2002 led to an immediate decrease of over 90 per cent in the number of plastic bags in circulation and became Ireland’s environmental get-out-of-jail-free card. Photograph: Frank Miller
Green Bin recycling in 2012. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
For the first few decades following the foundation of the State, environmental issues were not on the agenda for many, least of all those in government.
Ireland was comfortable with the notion that it was already the clean, green emerald isle.
And there was a degree of justification for this view – little industry and a low, dispersed population meant there weren’t that many people to dirty the place up. Then, at the very end of the 1960s, Sauron arrived in the Shire in the form of nuclear power.
No to nuclear power
A nuclear power plant was proposed in 1968 by the then Fianna Fáil government and was to be built at Carnsore Point in Co Wexford by the ESB. Anti-nuclear groups battled though the 1970s and musician Christy Moore became Ireland’s first environmental celebrity, staging a number of gigs at the site.
By the end of the 1970s, the plan had been dropped, but unfortunately from an environmental point of view, the coal-burning Moneypoint power station was built instead.
In 1981, another Fianna Fáil government announced use of nuclear power was no longer national policy. Ireland’s reliance on fossil fuels has recently prompted calls for a rethink on nuclear energy, but official Government policy remains opposed.
“Ireland is opposed to the use of nuclear energy, as it believes the environmental, health and safety risks and impacts outweigh any perceived benefits arising from this industry” according to the Department of the Environment.
Environmental Protection Agency
In response to growing pressure from Europe, Ireland did pass air and water pollution acts, but their implementation and enforcement by city and county councils was patchy.
The local authorities themselves were responsible for a quite a bit of pollution through the discharge of raw sewage into rivers and the sea, putting them in a somewhat compromised position. The solution was the creation of an environmental police force and in 1992 the EPA was set up to enforce environmental law.
The 1980s were a grim time, and made a whole lot grimmer, particularly in Dublin, by smog. Not only did smog put the city in perpetual winter darkness, it was reckoned to be responsible for several hundred deaths a year.
In 1989 a new junior environment minister Progressive Democrat Mary Harney came on the scene with a plan to ban bituminous or “smoky” coal. However, her superior in the department Fianna Fáil’s Pádraig Flynn had ruled out a ban just one year earlier, claiming it would hurt widows and old-age pensioners.
During the passage of the Air Pollution Bill through the Dáil, the main group Flynn met was the Coal Information Service – the lobbying arm of the coal industry – which maintained coal was “part of Dublin’s heritage”.
However, Harney got the backing of then Taoiseach Charles Haughey and the ban came into force in September 1990.
The Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, plans to expand the ban nationally by the end of this year.
In 1998, a major review of waste management in Dublin recommended the introduction of bin charges to reduce the levels of domestic waste going to landfill.
It was a marvellously unpopular proposal and two years later only plucky little Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council had taken the plunge, but, two years after that, local authorities nationwide were imposing the charge.
The problem was no one was paying it. In autumn 2003, after years of mass non- payment, the Dublin local authorities began non-collection and a mighty movement arose, the anti-bin tax campaign. There were blockades of bin trucks, socialists went to prison, and for health and safety reasons Dublin City Council collected bins. Although non-payment rates remained high, people’s behaviour did change and the amount of waste going to landfill started to decline.
However, the city council was losing huge amounts of money every year on the service, a pattern replicated across the State. Local authorities started to jump ship. Dublin City Council sold up in 2012. By the end of that year, the volume of waste going to landfill decreased from 53 per cent to 41 per cent.
Green and brown bins
Green bins, used for paper, plastic and packaging recycling, arrived in most local authorities around the same time as the introduction of waste charges, but the brown bin has been a bit slower to catch on. In 2008, Dublin City Council introduced use of a brown bin to households to reduce landfill use for compostable waste such as grass and hedge cuttings and food waste.
It’s now national policy and is being extended to all local authorities on a phased basis, expected to be completed by the end of next year.
While bin charges make people reconsider how much they throw out, the green and brown bins go further, making people think about what waste they’re producing and where it will end up.
Plastic bag levy
The plastic bag levy is Ireland’s environment get-out-of-jail-free card. Any criticism of our performance and we whip it out. Introduced in 2002, it required all consumers to pay 15 cent if they chose to take a plastic bag in a shop; this led to an immediate decrease of over 90 per cent in the number of plastic bags in circulation. From 328 bags per inhabitant per year when the levy was introduced, usage fell to 21 bags per capita within the first year.
We were the first, now everyone is doing it. The reason it worked so well? Irish people are tight and don’t like paying for stuff that used to be free.
The amount of motor tax paid for a vehicle registered before July 2008 was proportionate to the size of your vehicle’s engine – in other words, the more powerful your vehicle, the higher the cost of your motor tax. For new cars registered since July 2008, motor tax charges are determined on the basis of CO2 emission bands, with lower emissions resulting in lower charges. The recent Volkswagen emissions scandal has resulted in a more jaundiced view of the scheme in relation to its environmental benefits, but fewer big gas guzzlers on the road has to be a good thing.
The introduction of water charges should have been one of Ireland’s biggest environmental success stories, and maybe some day it will be, but a failure of metal on behalf of the Government means that day is a bit off yet. Pay-by-use water charges were due to be introduced in October 2014, but just over a month later the Government had changed its mind and decided not to start charging for water until January and to keep a low flat rate until 2018, which offers no incentive to reduce consumption. In that month when people thought they were on the meter, consumption in Dublin alone fell by 20 million litres.
Cycle to work scheme
In 2009 a scheme was introduced giving tax breaks for those buying new bikes. The same year, Dublin City Council introduced the city bike rental scheme. Before the tax scheme was introduced, about 6,000 people commuted into the city centre by bike, this year that figure exceeded 10,000.
In the first year after the introduction of the city bikes – now also in Cork, Limerick and Galway – more than one million people used them, that’s now up at the eight million mark. Together these schemes have achieved one of the greatest ever modal shifts in transport use.
The carbon tax was introduced on fossil fuels in 2010. It’s charged on motor and home heating fuel at a current rate of €20 per tonne of CO2 emitted.
The problems with this tax as an environmental measure is that, for many people, there is no alternative fuel. Carbon tax won’t be fully effective while the State is reliant on fossil fuel, and this is where a future policy might be applied.
There seems a consensus about what the next big environmental move should be. As long as the State supports fossil fuels through industry subsidy, Ireland is not going to be clean and green.
“The State needs to divest itself of all interest in coal, peat and shale gas – end the public subsidy of these industries and invest the money in creating jobs in retrofitting housing with insulation,” Green Party leader Eamon Ryan says.
In particular, An Taisce’s Charles Stanley-Smith says, peat should not be burned. “burning peat is the world’s worst thing to do. What you’re doing is digging up a carbon sink.”