The Big Read: 'You can't put cattle on the bus' - the post-budget carbon tax backlash in rural Ireland
The Big Read: Economists says it is the most effective way of cutting C02 emissions, but is rural Ireland carrying too much of the burden of the rising carbon tax? Kim Bielenberg reports
Behind the scenes in the corridors of power this week, two questions were on the lips of politicians and officials after the increases in the carbon tax.
Would the hikes in the cost of petrol, diesel, heating oil and other fuels spark a backlash in rural Ireland that could damage Fine Gael in its heartland at the next election?
And also, would the rise of €6 per tonne actually have any effect in cutting greenhouse gas emissions — and contribute to the rescue of the planet in any kind of meaningful fashion?
In recent months, there has been a public clamour for action on climate change, with the school strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg and the wave of success for the resurgent Green Party in local and European elections.
The demands for hikes in carbon taxes have been backed by scientists and economists.
Earlier this year, up to 27 Nobel laureates in the United States signed a statement suggesting that a carbon tax offers the most cost-effective lever to reduce emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary.
But many in rural communities are angry that the tax will affect those who live in remote areas most profoundly and that they are being portrayed as the villain in the planet’s tale of woe. As one farming figure told me this week: “Even if there was public transport in the countryside, you can’t put your cattle on the bus.”
Within hours, farmers had the Government in its crosshairs over the rise in carbon tax, which will add over €1 to a 60-litre petrol fill, €1.17 for a diesel tank fill, and €15 to a tank of heating oil.
The heating oil measure will be introduced in May at a time when Paschal Donohoe may hope that cash-strapped voters will have forgotten about it. But they may be waiting in the elephant grass.
On his tillage farm in Co Carlow, Kevin Nolan (pictured on the cover) is one of the country dwellers unhappy that farmers are being targeted. “It’s not my fault that I need diesel to run my business, but I am going to be punished,” says the farmer, who likes to embrace new technology in his fields.
Nolan says he has looked carefully at the viability of electric vehicles, and says powerful jeeps and tractors are being developed. “At the moment, the cost of these vehicles would be prohibitive,” says the tillage farmer.
“I can’t buy an electric vehicle, because what I need on my farm is not available. I’m sure that it will happen in the end with electric vehicles, but the incentives are just not there at the moment.”
Many cattle farmers may feel that the imposition of the extra tax, even if it is small, could not come at a worse time, as their livelihoods are decimated by the beef crisis, with the prices of their animals at rock bottom. There is also the small matter of Brexit to contend with.
Eddie Punch, general secretary of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA), says the hike in the carbon tax reflects an urban mindset.
“The metropolitan elite can see this in terms of a change of behaviour, because they have different options.
“If you have a Luas outside your door, you may decide to take it if it is more expensive to drive your car into town.
“People who drive their kids to posh secondary schools in the city can choose to let them walk, but a carbon tax is not going to change behaviour in the countryside, because there are no real alternatives.”
Environmentalists argue that the agriculture sector needs to switch to less intensive farming methods, and that the carbon tax is a vital part of the drive to reduce emissions.
The matter is seen as urgent, because farming currently contributes 33pc of our emissions.
A report by the Economic Social Research Institute, published this week, acknowledged that hitting the €80 per tonne target on carbon tax would hurt rural communities disproportionately.
The ESRI report found that hitting the carbon tax target would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 15pc by 2030.
However, it would also result in increases to energy prices of 10pc and lead to a 2pc hike of prices overall.
Rural households will be more affected than urban households because they spend a greater share of their income on heating fuels and transport diesel, according to the ESRI.
And, according to the research, poorer rural families would be hit the hardest, unless measures are taken by the Government to protect them.
Hike in diesel costs
The effect in urban areas is different, according to the research. Middle-income households face the highest price impacts in urban areas due to their high consumption of petrol and diesel.
Like many others who rely on fossil fuels to make their living, the Shannon boatman Viking ‘Mike’ McDonnell is exploring the possibility of switching to hybrid fuel on his vessel.
Viking Mike takes visitors on boat trips on Lough Ree and Clonmacnoise from his base in Athlone, and is now facing a hike in the cost of diesel at a time when tourism numbers are falling.
“I am reconditioning an engine at the moment, and I have always been toying with the idea of going hybrid or going electric,” he says.
“Battery technology just needs to move on a bit further for me to do it, but I think it will get there.”
As a boatman who travels up and down the Shannon and experiences the wild and occasionally freakish fluctuations in weather that have become commonplace in recent years, he has mixed feelings about the carbon tax.
McDonnell says the Government is raising the tax in a cynical fashion, and likens it to the way in which it raises revenue from cigarettes.
“When you look at cigarettes, they put up the price every year, but they don’t put it up too much, because it would stop people smoking and they want the money.”
Eddie Punch of the ICSA wonders whether the modest rise in the tax is merely a token gesture.
“It smacks of trying to be seen to do something — and, of course, civil servants say ‘yippee’ at the idea of more tax,” says Punch.
Many observers wonder whether Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has been caught between two stools in trying to slap on the tax.
The news of the tax hike may anger rural voters, much to the annoyance of Fine Gael backbenchers, but at two cent per litre of petrol or diesel, it may be too low to have an impact on behaviour.
After all, petrol and diesel prices fluctuate all the time and it is not unusual for the cost of a litre of diesel to go up or down by four cent in a matter of days without changing behaviour. Who is going to get out and walk for two cent?
It may be a different story, however, as the carbon tax rises become cumulative and the levy moves towards €80 per tonne over the coming decade.
By the time the Government or its successor has hit its tax increase target in 2030, the price of a 60-litre fill of petrol will have risen €13.76, while diesel will be up almost €16.
Filling a 900-litre tank with home-heating oil will have jumped by over €200, and at some point rural Ireland might shout stop.
“People may not notice two cent on a litre, but if the price keeps going up, at some point something may snap,” says Eddie Punch.
He likens the scenario to the yellow vest movement in France or the Beef Plan movement closer to home. In the latter case, farmers were driven to take direct action because beef prices continued to fall until they reached a point where livelihoods were put at risk.
Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron was forced into a humiliating climbdown after he introduced rises in fuel tax.
The suspension of the tax came after the Yellow Vest protests led to the worst riots in Paris in over a decade, with the centre of the French capital littered with burned out cars and broken glass.
The French riots perhaps prompted caution in Fine Gael about a sharp increase in the tax.
Macron did not make the imposition of environmental taxes any easier by simultaneously cutting corporate and wealth taxes, creating the impression that he was targeting the low-income earner.
While there is widespread annoyance at the carbon tax rise in rural areas, there are also plenty of farming initiatives that are championed as ways of cutting emissions.
Like many go-ahead farmers, Kevin Nolan is attracted to renewable energy as an extra source of income.
He has planning permission for a 30-acre solar farm, which would generate electricity.
Nolan has not yet pressed ahead with his plan, because the subsidised tariff for the electricity is not yet high enough.
At his suckler beef farm on Valentia Island in Co Kerry, Pat O’Driscoll says the carbon tax has come too early, because in many areas there are not yet viable alternatives.
“What’s the point in a carbon tax for farmers, when there aren’t opportunities yet to become more carbon efficient?”
O’Driscoll is part of a local energy co-operative on the island that hopes to produce renewable energy.
The co-op plans to produce hydrogen gas using wind energy and electrolysis, and the fuel could ultimately be used for cooking, heating homes, and powering vehicles.
Cormac Walsh of Energy Co-operatives Ireland says one of the benefits of hydrogen as a fuel is that it can be created using renewable energy and then stored in a tank.
While electric vehicles have attracted more publicity recently, hydrogen gas is developing rapidly as an alternative energy source.
“It can be used realistically for heating homes and factories, and even powering planes, trains and automobiles,” says Walsh.
Other rural communities are likely to keep a close eye on Valentia to see if ordinary householders can benefit from the co-operative approach to energy.
While there was widespread opposition to the tax hike in the farming community this week, Clare farmer Aisling Wheeler believes that we have to embrace a low-carbon future in order to survive.
Wheeler, who joined the Extinction Rebellion protest in Dublin this week, says she raises chickens and grows fruit and vegetables at her home near Ennistymon without using a tractor.
Unusually for a farmer, she advocates a transport future where pedestrians, bicycles and horses would be given priority on certain back roads in rural Ireland.
Motorists would be discouraged from driving along these roads unless they lived there, and there would be an extremely low speed limit.
There would also be a network of small electric vehicles to take passengers between villages.
“We have more roads per head of population than anywhere in the world — every one of them is prioritised for motor vehicles.”
“At the moment, I am dependent on a small car to take my kids to school, because the roads are not safe for cycling. If you prioritised certain routes for bicycles and pedestrians, people would be able to cycle.”
We can expect to hear a lot more about carbon taxes and climate change in the coming months. Like the planet, the issue is heating up, just in time for an election, and the Government may struggle to keep in with eco-worriers eager for the tax, and those in rural Ireland who believe that they are being unfairly shaken down.