Saturday, 22 December 2007

Several shades of Green

Environment: Only six months in Government, and already the Green Party has discovered that power brings its problems, writes Frank McDonald , Environment Editor.

Getting into Government was a baptism of fire for Green Party leader John Gormley. On the day he took office last June, he was informed that his predecessor, Dick Roche, had signed an order for the "preservation by record" of a newly found national monument at Lismullen on the route of the M3 motorway.

Re-routing the M3 away from the Hill of Tara and the archaeological landscape that surrounds it was one of the Greens' demands in the negotiations to form a Government, but their Fianna Fáil partners wouldn't budge; the motorway was to go ahead as planned. Legally, there was nothing the new Minister could do to set aside Roche's directions that the prehistoric Lismullen henge should be archaeologically excavated, properly recorded and then removed from the path of the M3.

Gormley pledged to protect Tara and its environs by designating it a "landscape conservation area", even though this was an essentially meaningless gesture when the Gabhra Valley between the ancient seat of Ireland's high kings and the Hill of Skryne to the east was about to be scarred by a motorway snaking right through it.

But the new Minister, whose portfolio includes heritage protection, repeatedly said he had no authority to order a re-routing of the M3. Campaigners for the preservation of Tara's setting were outraged by what they saw as a betrayal of their cause by a party all too anxious to get its hands on the levers of power.

Five months later, Gormley suffered a major political setback when An Bord Pleanála decided unanimously to approve plans by Dublin City Council for a huge municipal waste incinerator on the Poolbeg peninsula - a highly contentious project that he had vigorously opposed as one of the local TDs. Again, there was nothing he could do to alter the outcome. Under the Planning Act 2000, the Minister for the Environment is debarred from interfering in the deliberations of the planning appeals board or, indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which issued a draft licence for the proposed "waste-to-energy" plant a week later.

All Gormley could do - and he did so regularly over several months - was to indicate quite publicly that national waste-management policy favouring incineration was in the process of being changed. However, it hadn't been changed by statute, so An Bord Pleanála and the EPA could only base their decisions on existing policy.

The fact that the appeals board declined to cap the tonnage of waste to be incinerated at the Poolbeg plant - as its own senior planning inspector, Padraig Thornton, had recommended - made its decision an even more bitter pill to swallow; it certainly didn't go down well in Ringsend, Irishtown and Sandymount.

The Minister may seek to circumvent approval for the incinerator by issuing a policy directive under the Waste Management Act 1996 that would have the effect of undermining the economic viability of the project. But it is difficult to see how he could set aside the council's contract with a Danish-American consortium lined up to run it.

However, there were many things Gormley could do to advance the "green agenda". For example, he moved swiftly in publishing an amendment to the building regulations that would increase the energy-efficiency of new homes by 40 per cent. Another measure, which he announced in the State's first "carbon budget" earlier this month, will ban wasteful incandescent light bulbs from the Irish market from January 1st, 2009. This is expected to deliver carbon emissions savings of up to 700,000 tonnes per year and cut householders' electricity bills by €185 million annually.

Gormley's party colleague, Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan, has published a draft Energy Efficiency Action Plan, which provides additional funding for the highly successful Greener Homes Scheme as well as a limited "initial pilot programme" to encourage owners of older houses to upgrade their energy performance.

CHANGES IN MOTOR taxation, with all vehicles to be rated exclusively on the basis of their CO2 emissions (with larger ones such as SUVs paying proportionately more), are designed to enable motorists to make more informed choices in buying new vehicles - so that, ultimately, the "gas guzzlers" will be shunned as much as energy-wasting fridges.

However, as Gormley noted in his carbon budget speech, emissions from Ireland's transport sector have risen by 180 per cent since 1990 - mainly as a result of the spectacular increase in car ownership and use. Yet the lion's share (€2.7 billion) of public investment in transport during 2008 is earmarked for more roads and motorways.

The Minister billed the first "pilot" carbon budget as bringing climate change to "the heart of Government decision-making" - putting it on a par with managing the economy.

"We have to think carbon," he told the Dáil on December 6th. "If we are to successfully tackle climate change, if we have to de-carbonise society, then we have to put a price on carbon, and I hope that all deputies in this House will begin to understand the necessity of a carbon levy." Obviously, many of his Fianna Fáil colleagues in Government didn't share this view, because there was no provision in the Minister's carbon budget to impose such a levy. Instead, the issue was referred for further study to the proposed Commission on Taxation, which could take years to report back. In short, the carbon levy was flunked.

Comhar, the Sustainable Development Council, which sees the levy as key to ensuring that we meet our Kyoto Protocol targets, was disappointed. "Every year that passes without a levy is a year lost in making the progress that has to be made," said chairman Prof Frank Convery. "It is imperative that we introduce this levy in the next 12 months."The decision to kick for touch, even on the introduction of a modest €5 per tonne, would suggest that Minister for Finance Brian Cowen has yet to "buy in" to the firm pledge in the Programme for Government that the State would reduce its CO2 emissions by an average of 3 per cent, year on year, between now and 2012, when the current Kyoto "commitment period" is due to expire.

Budget Day provides the clearest indication of a Government's priorities, and this year's was no exception. However it was dressed up by Gormley in his carbon budget speech, it is evident that the Green Party has a tough road to travel in effecting real change.

Ireland's ranking in 44th place (out of 56 countries) in the latest Climate Change Performance Index will have come as a disappointment to the Greens. But then, they're barely more than six months in office and it will take a lot more time for them to make an impact.

The Irish Times

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