Budget 2020: Urgency for climate & biodiversity emergency?

Source: Greennews.ie

October 9th, 2019

The climate movement has seen a meteoric rise over the year, with the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion cranking up the pressure on politicians to bring in policy measures to tackle our runaway emissions.   

Yesterday, Budget 2020 offered the first real opportunity for the Government to put its money where its mouth is after declaring a climate and biodiversity crisis earlier this year.

However, with the immediacy
of the threat of Brexit, the attention of the Government was firmly placed on
preparing a contingency plan should a no-deal scenario play out. 

So, while prepared to go the extra €1.2bn mile to deal with the Brexit crisis, did Budget2020 also show the level of urgency required to deal with the climate and biodiversity emergency?

Carbon Tax 

The Government announced a €6 increase in the carbon tax as a first
step towards the €80 per tonne target set for 2030.

The increase – that comes into effect today – will see the price
of a litre of petrol and diesel increase by 1.6c and 2c respectively.  Increases on solid fuels for home heating will
be held off until next May after the winter heating season (and after the
general election cosily enough).

The
reaction to the small increase in the tax has been widely negative, seen as ineffective
and potentially counterproductive. The chair of the Climate Change Advisory
Council, Professor John FitzGerald, called the increase “disappointing”, falling
short of the €15 per tonne increase that the independent advisory body had
calling for.

Leading
environmental and climate coalitions said that the marginal increase in fuel
price – roughly €36 per annum for a typical motorist – is too little to
change behaviour yet enough to raise concern among the wider public already
suspicious of the tax.

SIPTU
agreed that the carbon tax increase is not sufficient to change behaviour,
while also failing protect the vast majority of low and average income groups.

While many welcomed the move to ring-fence funds for a Just
Transition, there was concern that not all of the revenue from the carbon tax
was put aside for climate action.

Several environmental groups, as well as Codema, the
Dublin Energy Agency, said that it is wrong that the €400 million raised per
year from the existing €20 per tonne carbon tax will remain in the general exchequer
fund.

Oisin Coghlan of the Friends of the Earth called, for
the State to ensure that all revenue raised in the future is ring-fenced and
for this to be “underpinned by legislation”.

“Households and businesses can’t make long-term spending and investment decisions based on one speech from a minister months before a General Election,” he added.

Train with milled peat for Edenderry Powerstation Photo: Peter Mooney

Just Transition
funding

The €90 million that will be raised from the additional €6 per ton
carbon tax increase in 2020 will be ring-fenced to fund the Just Transition and
new climate action measures.

€20m will be dedicated to the creation of a new energy efficiency
scheme targeted initially at social housing stock in the Midlands. A further
€5m will be provided for peatland rehabilitation and a further €6m will go
toward a Just Transition Fund.

In addition, a Just Transition Commissioner will soon be appointed
to engage with all relevant stakeholders, including Bord na Móna, trade union relevant
unions, the National Economic and Social Council and a local taskforce.

Catherine Devitt of Stop Climate Chaos said that it is crucial
that the Government works fast to set up this system as there has been a
significant delay in putting a Just Transition plan in place to date.

“[The
Government] must also ensure that the new Just Transition Commissioner has the
relevant authority and resources to ensure a process are put in place to ensure
people’s livelihoods are protected going forward,” she said.

Notwithstanding the commitment to provide €31 million for the Midlands, SIPTU said that the Budget fails to deliver on level of funding needed for a real Just Transition.

Protection for lower-income families

The
Government will use €21m from the carbon tax to put in certain safeguards for those
in fuel poverty and increase the fuel allowance by €2 per week (a near 10 per
cent increase).

The
Government has also set aside additional funding of €13m for the Better Energy
Warmer Homes Scheme to support those in fuel poverty. According to the
Department of Climate Action, a total of €52.8m will be used in 2020 to retrofit
the homes of people living in or at risk of energy poverty.

While
Stop Climate Chaos tentatively welcomed the increase in fuel allowance due to
lack of State preparation to protect those vulnerable to the change, Catherine
Devitt questioned the long-term benefit of this model.

“It
is questionable whether or not this top-up rebate will sufficiently tackle the
scale of fuel poverty in Ireland, and a significant number of people in fuel
poverty are not eligible for this allowance,” she said.

According
to SIPTU, the increase in the means-tested fuel allowance will only affect
one-in-three social protection recipients and does not extend to those in work.

The
Society of St. Vincent de Paul also said that measures to offset the impact of
carbon tax on low income households are “inadequate”. Many households, it said,
will be left struggling with increased energy costs notwithstanding the
increases in fuel allowance.

Many environmental and civil society groups outlined concern that Government
has failed to heed the warning of charities and the ESRI
that at least some revenue from the carbon tax needs to go back to the people
of Ireland to protect low-income families.  

The ESRI found that those on lower-incomes would benefit the most
from a return of the tax via a combination of increase in tax credits, welfare
payments and child benefit.

Green
Party leader Eamon Ryan said that the Government missed the chance to increase the
tax in a progressive way to “protect the vulnerable” through a tax and dividend
approach.

Karen
Ciesielski of the Environmental Pillar said that the a reformulated carbon tax
that supports low-income households would be the” ideal Robin Hood tax”,
bringing down emissions and also “warding off impending multimillion euro fines
for missing our binding climate targets”.

“The
Government needs to sit down with the Society of the Vincent De Paul and other
stakeholders to discuss how those most affected by incremental carbon tax
increases are protected and enabled to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels,”
said Oisin Coghlan, Director of Friends of the Earth.

Those under the diesel
rebate scheme, namely the haulage sector, were granted relief from increase the
increase in the carbon tax, while agricultural diesel remains exempt from the
tax. The CSO lists the diesel rebate scheme as an indirect potentially environmentally
damaging subsidy.

Biodiversity protection

The overall funding
allotment for the Department of Climate Action and the Environment will be €770m
in 2020. Over half of this funding will go toward the Department’s other remit,
that of communications.  

The Department of
Heritage, which looks after biodiversity issues, will receive €354m in 2020. Again,
the majority of spending will go toward its other remits in the arts, the Irish
language and built heritage.

A total of €7m –
including the revenue ring-fenced from the carbon tax – is earmarked for an “accelerated
programme” of peatlands restoration and conservation work.

According to the
Department of Heritage, this will result in 1,800 hectares (ha) of restored
peatland in 2020, as well as generating 100 jobs in the Midlands. To put this
in perspective, Bord na Mona has 80,000ha of peatlands, 30,000ha of which is
available for restoration over next 20 years.

An extra €1m has been
provided in funding to the chronically underfunded National Parks and Wildlife
Service for conservation programmes and the hiring of staff. The total budget
for the NPWS in 2019 is just under €14 million.

In comparison, €16 million will again
be set aside this year for the greyhound racing industry despite animal welfare
issues highlighted in an RTE Investigates
expose earlier this year.

Minister of State Andrew Doyle defended
the funding move, saying the industry could not implement reforms needed
without state support. Combined funding for the Greyhound Racing Bord and Horse
Racing Ireland
this year is €84
million
.

Public and active
transport

There were several small measures to
encourage the uptake of e-vehicles, including extension of the Benefit In Kind
zero rate to 2022 and VRT reliefs to 2020, although supports are nowhere near
the levels required to get us to our target of nearly one million electric cars
on the road by 2030.

An extra €3m (€6m in total for 2020) will
also be provided for electric vehicle infrastructure in a bid to double the very
low number of council on-street charging points. This is in addition to €10m from
the Climate Action Fund to support to development of the public charging
network.

An extra €8m will be made available in grants
for buying e-vehicles, bring the total funding for 2020 to €14m. A maximum grant
of €5,000 will be available for individuals purchasing an electric car and €3,800
for businesses purchasing an electric van.

Critics warn, however, that there is an absence
of bold measures to support public transport. The Department of Transport will
be allocated an additional €357m in 2020 to provide resources to deliver the National
Development Plan, criticised as too heavily focused on road infrastructure.

In 2020, funding will support the likes
of the M20 Cork to Limerick scheme, road upgrades and several new road systems
in the West of Ireland.  The 2020
allotment, however, will also support BusConnects, MetroLink and the DART expansion
programme, as well as the delivery of new longer trams on the Luas and a number
of active travel infrastructure projects.

The Government also decided to replace the one per cent  diesel surcharge introduced last year with an
emissions-based charge on nitrogen oxide (NOx) emitted from passenger cars
registering for the first time in the State from 1 January 2020. It is
estimated that this will raise €25 million.

The move is seen as a way to move people away from diesel cars that,
while emitting less CO2 than petrol, release higher levels of NOx and
particulate matter that cause air pollution and health issues.

While the move was welcomed by environmentalists, many wanted an increase
in the price of diesel to match petrol as a better way to make the public think
twice before purchasing a diesel car.

Green Party transport spokesperson Patrick
Costello said that the €9m allocated for greenways and urban cycling was “really
pitiful” and sends a clear message that the Government has yet to grasp the
value of cycling.

“To put this in context, Amsterdam has committed to a five year
spend on cycling infrastructure of €354m. And if we were to put €9m into the
roads budget it would get you just 300 meters of motorway,” he said.

The Irish Cycling Advocacy Network, Cyclist.ie, has asked for 10 per cent of all land transport capital investment to be allocated to cycling.

“Either the government is unaware that there is a climate emergency or else they are releasing the good news in bite sizes,” the group said following the release of the cycling support figures.

About the Author

Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London

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