Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 20 September 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action
Third Report of the Citizens' Assembly: Engagement with Ms Marie Donnelly
I thank Ms Donnelly for her presentation and for the valuable and useful information she has presented to us. She spoke earlier about mandating and legislating for certain issues. She spoke about a carrot and stick approach. She used the bag levy and the smoking ban as examples. I think there is an interesting point here. Those measures did not impose a cost on consumers. There was an inconvenience, but it was an acceptable inconvenience because there was no net cost to the consumer. I think that is an important thing. We need to look not only at Ireland but also at Europe. I had a conversation with a German farmer who has a wind turbine. We discussed the reluctance and resistance to renewables, especially wind, from the Irish agriculture sector. He said that the fundamental difference is that the wind turbine the farmer in Germany can see when he looks out his kitchen window is his wind turbine, but that is not the case in Ireland. It is an important difference. In certain circumstances, renewables have had a legacy of generating wealth and taking it out of the locality. It goes to big corporations and businesses - out of the country and away. I think there is a need to ensure the wealth that is generated through renewables in a locality can be distributed and spread around within that locality. An important change is needed in this respect.
We have seriously missed a trick with regard to microgeneration, community initiatives and the ability to share the power that is generated. In parts of Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden and in other places, people have been given the ability to generate energy and power and share it with their neighbours. That is not the case here. That capacity is still absent here.
Ms Donnelly referred to agriculture many times in her contribution. Agriculture and transport are often cited as the villains when we speak about many of these issues. I think we still need to do some work on sequestration of carbon in agriculture. There is a lot of ambiguity around the numbers, the reality of how much carbon we could sequester and what those values are. There is a need to attribute those things to agriculture and give it the credit it is due.
I firmly believe agriculture can be part of the solution. I was interested to hear biogas being mentioned earlier because there has always been an intense heated debate about the competition between land for food and land for fuel. The fundamental difference is that investment in anaerobic digestion in Ireland and in the UK often involves sole traders or big business. There is one person, rather than a collective or a co-operative, behind the investment. I firmly believe there would be an appetite for a shared initiative involving a number of people. However, the requirement for capital investment and access to finance means that this sector tends to be confined to sole investors or big multinationals.
There was a brief reference to geothermal technology, which I find quite interesting because I do not think it adds up on a commercial basis in the absence of a subsidy. Given that the agriculture industry is completely and wholly dependent on subsidies, we need to be mindful of the fact that it is not a good place to build a business model on. We need to look at renewables that will work in business terms without subsidy and support.
We need to be aware of the consequences of our actions and conscious of the competitiveness needs of business, especially in the agrifood area. It is important that we take an holistic approach to this matter, rather than cherry-picking certain bits and pieces. If we focus on wind, for example, it can have a knock-on effect. I will give an example. I visited one of the most energy-efficient buildings the other day. I went into a beautiful office looking out over the city, but it was very hot and warm. The guy I was meeting had his desktop fan on to blow cold air across his desk because he was not allowed to open the fantastic triple-glazed window in this office. I do not know whether they thought he was going to jump out of it.
There was no provision to open it. Reference was made to the climate in this room today. The air-conditioning is running flat out. It would be lovely to have a window that could be opened. We must be careful because although we now have the mechanisms to give us controlled environments, it sometimes may be better to go back to basics and open a window or take off one's coat.
Ms Donnelly referred to utilising agricultural stubble. Again, that is part of the discussion about the consequences of our actions because one must remember that if one removes the stubble, one takes out organic matter from the soil, which can lead to soil degradation. We must be careful not to cherry-pick.
There is a role for universities and researchers in this regard. Researchers are working on energy pathways, efficiency and life cycle. It is important to do the entire calculation and also to factor in the societal benefits of doing these things. Ms Donnelly rightly highlighted the health benefits which we very often do not factor in to the cost of renewables.
Historically, we have accepted there is a problem but always assumed that someone else will solve it. How do we get people to accept responsibility and take ownership of these problems?