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Commentary on transport policy developments

29 Feb 2008

The news this week that Minister Gormley is to tweak his Motor Tax proposals is welcome, but almost inconsequential. It's no harm that those who bought less polluting cars since 1 January will now benefit from the new lower tax rates which weren't due to apply until 1 July. No doubt motor industry lobbyists who pushed for this amendment will now be less worried that consumers will delay purchases until later in the year. It's only fair that cars imported from the UK will also qualify for the new tax rates. Indeed, the minister should go much further. When you buy a second-hand car it should qualify for the new rates. At the moment the incentive to purchase a less polluting vehicle is only for new car buyers. Why not measure CO2 emissions as part of the NCT and apply the new emission-based rates to all cars on Irish roads?

All of this would be useful, but insignificant. The minister's own figures suggest that the current reform of VRT and Motor Tax will reduce carbon emissions from transport by less than half of one per cent by 2012. In contrast, the government has committed itself to reducing overall emissions by three per cent a year. Bear in mind that emissions from transport rose by 152 per cent between 1990 and 2005, and are projected to reach 265 per cent above 1990 levels by 2020 unless we act now to cut them. This at a time when the EU is proposing that we cut our emissions by 20-30% by 2020.

The Department of Finance opposed VRT reform for much of this decade because they were worried that if it was really effective at encouraging people to buy less polluting cars it would erode the tax take. It is now clear that the mandarins ensured that the over-riding consideration in the eventual proposals was revenue protection rather than emissions reductions.

The Motor Tax and VRT changes are equitable and progressive and they send a clear signal to people about the link between transport choices and pollution. But we will have to look to other measures to actually achieve the required emissions reductions.

The publication on Monday by the Minister Noel Dempsey of a consultation document on sustainable transport was timely therefore. The challenge is to achieve a profound shift in how we move people and goods around the country. The publication and the accompanying website (www.sustainabletravel.ie) have the potential to generate a much needed public debate on how to do that.

Even more striking was Minister Dempsey's "admission of failure in several areas" by government in implementing policies to achieve Ireland's targets under the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty he signed as Minister for the Environment 10 years ago. He conceded that when faced with choice of taking hard decisions or postponing them the government put them on the long finger.

This is admirably honest. Why then does he risk repeating the same mistake now by refusing to give a timeline for urban congestion charges or the provision of extra buses for Dublin Bus? It is clear that pricing and provision are central to real progress towards sustainable travel.

Buses are the cheapest and most flexible form of public transport you can provide. There is little risk they would all be "parked in Parnell Square" as the Minister worries. Every rush hour sees full buses pass frustrated commuters at bus stops across the capital. And the best way to ensure that new buses have the road space they need is to introduce a congestion charge at the canals. As in London, the charge should be higher for more polluting vehicles. Indeed every number plate should indicate a car's emissions rating just like the label on a fridge does.

We also need per-kilometre tolling on the M50 as it is upgraded, not just to contain emissions and prevent it filling up again as soon as it is finished but in the name of fairness. Why should someone in Rathgar travel to Wexford, Cork and Galway without ever paying any toll while someone going from Tallaght to Blanchardstown pays every time?

There are some good ideas in the consultation document, such as the need to encourage flexible working practices to reduce commuting and the openness to consider radical proposals such as Feasta's Cap and Share scheme. We need to think big. Previous market research indicated that the ideas people liked most were proposals such as free public transport and full-time working in a four day week.

Generating innovative policy proposals is not the problem. As Minister Dempsey admitted getting them adopted and implemented is the challenge. That is why Friends of the Earth launched The Big Ask campaign across 17 European countries yesterday to demand that governments put a commitment to year-on-year emissions cuts into national law. If we had put our Kyoto target into law the VRT and Motor Tax changes would have been adopted years ago, when they were first proposed. We would already have a carbon tax and we would be moving on to the next steps rather than desperately playing catch up.

The Irish government has taken the first step by committing to year-on-year emissions cuts. If it is serious about delivering sustainable transport, not to mention sustainable agriculture and housing it will move now to give that commitment the force of law.

Digital Revolutionaries