Denis Naughten has endured a torrent of abuse from environmentalists. The first climate change minister ever appointed, his National Mitigation Plan aimed at tackling global warming was roundly pilloried for being more a discussion document than a roadmap for reducing emissions.
He’s not fazed by the criticism, saying he’s committed to taking action and putting Ireland on the path of a low-carbon future.
But the public has to be part of the solution, and it must be convinced.
“One of the biggest problems I have with the issue of climate is the lack of connection between the scientists, environmentalists and the public,” he says.
“That disconnect has led to a situation where it’s not seen as a priority overall, and it’s not happening in conversations. There is a far greater appreciation of climate now in my own part of the country because of the severe flooding in 2015/2016.
“People are conscious of it. Farmers and rural communities are now at the coalface. This is not just an issue affecting Bangladesh or sub-Saharan Africa. It’s here and now.”
Part of the effort will be a National Dialogue on Climate Action, due to begin later this year. It will involve a series of debates across the regions, where views on how best to reduce emissions will be heard and collated to help inform policy.
“The whole idea of the climate dialogue is we need good national debates, bringing in the type of expertise which can provide the detail and effectively communicate it and bring it down to a local level.
“It’s to explain to people, for example, the connection between our peat-fired power stations and need to transition to sustainable sources of energy and maintain employment levels in the region, which I believe is possible.
“That gets buy-in, and allows communities to drive the agenda rather than a top-down approach.
“This Government has decided to make it a priority by having a single minister in charge (of climate change) and my job is to co-ordinate it across departments, to set out where we’re at and, come budget time, see progression in terms of actions.”
The Independent TD for Galway-Roscommon points to the link between transport emissions and air quality. Some four people a day die from poor air quality, while one-in-five children suffers from asthma, and it not only has a link with poorer health outcomes, tackling the problem will also reduce emissions.
He also says that EU 2030 targets to reduce emissions are currently under negotiation – we will miss our 2020 targets – and that his National Mitigation Plan will be a “living document”, informed by the national dialogue and debate.
Incentives will be used to drive change. On top of his plans for an electric car sharing scheme, he also wants to link motor tax with emissions.
“Every vehicle has a microchip in it. The NCT contract is coming up for renewal in three years’ time. We’re looking to see if the emissions data on that chip can be accessed. Based on that, people would go to the NCT and get feedback on the performance of the vehicle over, let’s say, the last three months, and their motor tax would be based on that emissions output.
“It would incentivise people to convert diesel engines to LPG (liquefied petroleum gas), encourage them to avoid congestion and to drive in a more energy-efficient manner.”
Electricity generation and heating is also high on the agenda. Next month, a public consultation begins on the renewable electricity support scheme where the amount to be paid to power generators using onshore and offshore wind, solar, biomass, ocean and other renewables will be set out.
A Renewable Heat Incentive is also planned over the coming months, where industrial users of heat are incentivised to switch to energy crops.
“But there isn’t much point putting in place an incentive for renewable heat and then have all of this product imported from abroad.
“I’m determined to make sure we establish a biomass industry.
“In the next couple of weeks I’ll be bringing a memorandum to Government for the establishment of a new semi-State company called BioEnergy Ireland.
“It will put the infrastructure in place to support growers, ensure there is a market and that logistics are there for chipping and transport. It’s not a quango. It’s a joint venture between Coillte and Bord na Móna and there will be no cost to the State.”
New guidelines on wind farm development are also planned in the coming weeks, which will include detail on how far they must be set back from homes and new measures around noise monitoring.
And way down on his list of priorities are questions about his political future.
Will he rejoin Fine Gael, and which leadership contender does he support?
“I’m supporting the new candidate for taoiseach and will sit down with the new candidate and repeat the conversation I had with the outgoing Taoiseach.
“The deal I have is with the Fine Gael party, not with Enda Kenny, and it’s the same for the other Independents.”