Eamon Ryan brings radical plans to Cabinet to slash car use, but Taoiseach rules out congestion charges in short term

The Cabinet will be asked to approve a range of measures to accelerate climate action, with a focus on reducing private car use, speeding up the development of offshore wind farms and creating a biogas industry

Traffic in Dublin. Picture: PA

Caroline O'Doherty, Ralph Riegel and Niamh McGovern

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has emphatically ruled out any question of an imminent congestion charge for motorists entering Irish cities.

Mr Varadkar said that while such measures have merit in certain circumstances, major Irish cities like Dublin, Cork and Limerick are not ready for such a charge.

Transport and Climate Minister Eamon Ryan is tomorrow bringing an annex to the Government’s Climate Action Plan to Cabinet setting out how the country can accelerate climate action.

They will focus on reducing private car use, speeding up the development of offshore wind farms and creating a biogas industry.

The use of congestion charges to reduce carbon emissions within Ireland's transport sector is a measure included in some of the expert models prepared to examine how Ireland could achieve required greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Critics have slated any congestion charge as effectively a new tax on motorists who simply did not have acceptable public transport alternatives. However, advocates insist that radical action is needed.

"Congestion charges are not on the agenda for Irish cities," Mr Varadkar insisted today, speaking in Waterford.

"I think it is something you could see happen - and it certainly makes sense - perhaps in Dublin in the future when the Metro is picking up people in Swords and at the airport and when the Dart is serving people in the western suburbs and when BusConnects is a reality."

"But until we have public transport and cycling and walking facilities like London or Amsterdam I don't think a congestion charge is something that is going to happen in the near future at all."

The Fine Gael leader insisted that, at the same time, he wanted Ireland to ensure its cities followed a European example with good public transport options rather than some major US cities which are still largely automobile-dependent and where workers have to spend hours each day stuck in traffic."

He vowed that the Government will continue to invest in public transport infrastructure and key projects aimed at 'future-proofing' Irish cities.

The Cabinet will be asked tomorrow to approve measures by Mr Ryan.

They will focus on reducing private car use, speeding up the development of offshore wind farms and creating a biogas industry.

These are seen as some of the areas in which substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved relatively quickly.

The need for fast-acting measures is becoming increasingly urgent with latest projections showing emissions continuing to rise.

That is despite a legal requirement to halve national emissions by 2030, with interim targets for 2025 already looking likely to be breached.

Environment Minister Eamon Ryan will ask the Cabinet to sign off on a range of measures, including a renewed focus on transport emissions.

The Green Party leader will ask the Cabinet to approve the development of a “demand management strategy” aimed at reducing the need and appetite for private car journeys.

Long-discussed deterrents such as congestion charges, increased parking charges and greater pedestrianisation in towns and cities will be put on the table with a view to making firm decisions on them by the end of the year.

To head off likely push-back, there would be a parallel acceleration of public transport improvement plans.

The need for sustained focus on offshore wind development will also be stressed.

Several major projects are aiming to submit planning applications by the end of this year but the industry has said repeatedly it fears the struggling planning system will not be able to process their proposals in a reasonable timeframe.

Another area of focus will be the objective of having 200 anaerobic digestion plants in the country by 2030.

These would convert food waste, animal manure, silage and grass into biogas to help reduce the reliance on fossil gas.

They would simultaneously offer an alternative income stream to farmers willing to cut livestock numbers and grow grass to produce biomethane instead.

Mr Ryan will also ask for the Climate Action Delivery Board to be given an enhanced role.

Plans for measures to reduce car use have already caused tensions between the coalition partners the Green Party, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Speaking about the move on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland this morning, Associate Professor at the Department of Civil Engineering at Trinity College Dublin, Brian Caulfield, said Ireland needs to build more public transport infrastructure and it made sense to take away space from cars, including parking spaces.

“We’re always going to need parking, there’s a certain percentage of the population that just need to get around in their cars so that’s one thing that needs to be taken as a given,” he said.

“Employers in the Dublin city centre, they are very few private operators in the city centre that provide free charges.

“But in the city centre with the price of land and the price of rent private companies tend not to provide free parking.”

Fine Gael Dublin TD Emer Higgins said not everyone currently has access to good public transport.

“We need more investment on those infrequent routes,” she said. “Thinking of my constituents in Newcastle for example, if their 68 bus doesn’t arrive at quarter past seven in the morning, they have to wait another hour and a quarter to get another bus into town.

"We need viable alternatives that people will use, to really encourage them to leave the car at home and to be able to reply on a public service transport system.

“The feedback I’ve had so far [from constituents in her area] is that this won’t work for them and I’m sure other TDs are getting that feedback too.”

Asked whether it was feasible to half climate emissions by 2030 as set out in the Climate Action Plan, Prof Caulfield said it was “massively ambitious” and possibly achievable by 2035.

“I think by maybe 2035 we could do it when we get investment in public transport to take hold,” he said. “I think in the short-term frame we have it is going to be very difficult and if we are to meet these targets, transport can do it. It’s up to Government then to see which other sectors in our economy can take up the slack from transport if it is to make it.”