Government plans to pause ban on turf cutting 'crazy', says environment expert

According to Professor Cara Augustenborg, air quality in rural Ireland would benefit hugely from such a ban.
Government plans to pause ban on turf cutting 'crazy', says environment expert

Vivienne Clarke

Updated at 12.15pm

Climate Council member Professor Cara Augustenborg has described any Government plans to pause a ban on turf cutting as “crazy”.

Professor Augustenborg, who is an expert in environmental policy, told Newstalk Breakfast that Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s position on the turf ban was “very, very strange” since he was a medical doctor and would be aware that such a policy would save lives.

Air quality in rural Ireland would benefit hugely from such a ban, she said.

“I actually think it’s crazy that the Government has been working on this issue for over 30 years.

“Successive governments including the last Fine Gael government were all part of the smoky coal ban that was brought into Dublin by Mary Harney in 1990 and has been credited with saving 350 lives a year in Dublin.

“So that’s over 11,000 people who have lived longer in Dublin in the past 32 years than would have if we’d continued to allow the burning of smoky coal and yet this ban does not extend to people living in smaller villages in Ireland.”

It was actually dangerous at times to go out for a walk in towns like Tralee, Ennis, Enniscorthy or Macroom because of the burning of solid fuels, she said.

It was not just smoky coal that was dangerous, she added. Other types of solid fuel were equally dangerous including some types of turf and even some types of very wet wood that when burned give off high levels of particular matter that’s very damaging.

“So this particular Government has used the science and said, ‘Okay, we acknowledge that many types of fuel can be damaging to people’s health, so we will look at all those dangerous fuels, and we’ll ban the commercial sale of those fuels to protect people around us.'

“I find it very, very strange now that suddenly the Tánaiste - a medical doctor I might add - who knows the health impacts of these kinds of fuels would delay this issue for even one more day and not let other people in Ireland outside Dublin avail of this and protect their health.”

'Suprised and alarmed'

Minister of State Ossian Smyth has said he was surprised and alarmed when he heard comments by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar that proposals on turf cutting could be paused.

The issue had been ongoing for some years, he told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show.

“Paused was not the right word” as the agreement was that commercial “stripping” of bogs would end, but that individual turbary rights would continue.

The clear intention was that the commercial distribution of turf for profit would stop, but that small scale sale between neighbours would not be impacted, he explained.

People would continue to have the right to cut their own turf. It was a cultural tradition and was important for some people to keep warm. Small scale cutting and buying was not a problem, said Mr Smyth.

Halting the large commercial operations was what had to stop. That was the change that had to come. Climate change was a secondary aspect, in this case it was a health issue as 1300 people die from inhaling fumes from solid fuel.

Left in poverty

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has warned that people should not be left in fuel poverty as a result of the proposed ban on the sale of turf.

Ms McDonald told RTÉ radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show that the measure would make life more difficult for some people and that instead the Government should be making life easier for people.

While she agreed that the commercial harvesting of turf should be paused, Ms McDonald said that some families needed turf as a form of fuel. Homes could be left cold without turf and old people could have to stay in bed wrapped up to stay warm.

“People deserve better. The Government needs to get its act together.”

Mary Lou McDonald
Mary Lou McDonald said that the measure would make life more difficult for some people, © PA Wire/PA Images

People should not be left in fuel poverty because the Government had been slow in doing things that speed up the transition to renewables, she said.

When asked about the performance of Sinn Féin in the most recent Irish Times/Ipsos poll, Ms McDonald said that the party had managed to grow its base since the last general election. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael combined were now below 50 per cent support which would have been “unthinkable not so long ago”.

“The scene is set for profound political change at the next general election.”

People did not want the same politics, an alternative had now emerged with Sinn Féin. There was an appetite for change, and it was not just a Sinn Féin phenomenon.

If Sinn Féin were to form a Government after the next election on the basis of the results of the poll they would require a partner, she acknowledged. Ms McDonald said she hoped that Sinn Féin would get the “strongest possible mandate”.

The party “won’t make the same mistake” of not fielding enough candidates in the next election, she added.

There were “many other players on the pitch” looking to build their mandate, she said.

When asked if Sinn Féin could influence Fianna Fáil “to peel away” from the coalition with Fine Gael, Ms McDonald said that was not the issue, it was whether there was an acceptance that there needed to be a change in direction.

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