Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action

Examination of the Third Report of the Citizens' Assembly (Resumed)

12:00 pm

Lord Deben:

There was quite a lot there. We compiled a report on fracking. We have to distinguish between the issue of fracking and the protests on the bridges in London, a matter to which I will return. We have to follow the science in this regard. If one is going to insist that people accept the science relating to climate change, then one has to follow the science in respect of other matters. The science relating fracking is very clear. As long as one does three things, fracking is perfectly reasonable. First, one has to ensure that any gas produced from fracking is a replacement for gas that would otherwise be imported from somewhere else and is not additional. Second, one has to ensure that there are proper environmental controls in place. For example, sometimes there is a rogue well which bursts upwards and has to be capped immediately. Controls for that need to be in place. Third, one has to ensure that infrastructure is not built which then gives an excuse to go on using gas beyond the point at which it is possible to do so within the envelopes which we have put in place. That is what we have said and fracking has to be done within those restrictions.

People might not want fracking. However, we must remember we will need gas until the early 2030s, as we have said in the context of our budgets. Let us say, as an example, that a reasonable amount of gas is found and a company wants to frack. It will be producing gas with less environmental impact than the gas that would be imported from other countries, many of which are not believed to be taking any of the steps they should take.

I am not an absolutist on this. I believe if we can get some fracked gas at a lower carbon cost than the imported gas for that period as long as it does not give the excuse for continuing longer - that is part of the deal - that is the right thing to do and the science certainly indicates that. To get people to believe in climate change on the basis of science, we must use science across the board.

I find the protesters rather different from the Deputy. I have a great deal of sympathy with the protesters on the bridges of London; I will come to that in a moment. However, I find the fracking protesters wrong because they are trying to say their non-scientific position should be forced on the public because of the scientific position on climate change. That seems like an illogical position. That is why we did the independent report and why the Government is supporting it.

On the campaigners, the greatest problem with climate change is that even though we believe in it now, we are not moving fast enough. The urgency is tremendous. It is very important for those who care about it to remind people of that. While I am not sure that all their tactics are right, I have a sympathy with people who get out there to encourage us to move faster. That helps us enormously. It helps the good side of Government enormously and has a good effect on some of the sillier members of government who do not take this seriously. I have a greater degree of sympathy with that.

Of course, the Deputy equated it with what is happening in Australia. In Australia there is every reason; it is a very bad government which is not doing anything on climate change and should be ashamed of itself. Any protest there is different. At least in Britain we have an all-party consensus. It does not matter to me what sort of government we have because it will do the same programme. There is no doubt about that. We are fortunate; Australia is in a much worse position. The present government under Mr. Morrison is worse than the previous one - I did not think that could be. The previous one was no better than that led by Mr. Abbott. If one cannot be better than Mr. Abbott, then one really is in a mess. They have a reason, therefore, to be powerfully opposed.

On the issue of the independent body, I believe that treasuries are always opposed to this because it means they are restricted in what they can do. However, they have to be because climate change demands that we have long-term plans. Treasuries like to able to move things very rapidly and in general terms that is right. However, we are not in that situation; we are in an extinction situation. This is a really serious thing. Treasuries do not like it, not because they are not green or because there is something evil about them; it is simply that those in the treasury do not want that kind of control. We had it in Britain. When we managed to get a parliamentary majority for the Climate Change Act which was unthought of, the adviser to the Labour Government went into the department then responsible for climate change, flung the Bill across the table and said - I will not use the word she used - "There you are; you've got your Act." They were furious not because they were opposed to it, but because it meant the Treasury no longer had that control and that is exactly where they are now.

We need to say to those in the treasury wherever they are, including here in Ireland, that we know what they instinctively want, but they cannot stay there because we are fighting a battle which will distinguish human beings as being really human. We either win this battle or we lose the battle for our own existence. Therefore, we must win this battle. Part of it is about us being human and we need to find new ways of expressing that.

Having an independent committee is crucial. I would give it the powers that we have but I would make a distinction. I know what the Citizens' Assembly suggested, but it is quite important that I do not have the powers to legislate about particular answers because that brings me into the political arena. I have the powers to fix the budgets and keep them fixed. Governments must find the way of meeting those budgets. As I have said, it does not matter to me how they find the way, but they have to do it. My power is to make sure they do it.

The Deputy asked me what the penalties are. The penalties are that this is justiciable. They would be taken to the High Court, which would insist that they produce policies that would meet it because that is what the law requires. We must reduce our emissions by 80% by 2050 and we must meet the targets in the budgets - the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, which are the next two budgets. The law can be brought into play at the point at which it is clear that the government is not taking the measures it ought to do. The courts will not prescribe what the government must do, but will point out to the government it has a target to meet and it must prove to the courts that it will meet it; that is what the law requires.

That is the power this committee ought to have. I would not ask me to do the legislation because if I do that, then I am choosing between, for example, electric cars doing so much and houses doing so much. That is a decision for government democratically reached. What is not a decision is how it adds up. I do the sum; government can do bits of the sum but it must add up to the figure that I and my committee do. That is the power and that is the distinction. If it is done any other way, the Government will claim it is above politics but it will become politicised. The moment it is given legislative powers, it then has a competition with the Dáil. There is no other way out of it. The committee should not do that. The Dáil makes those decisions and those choices, but the committee sets the standards against which those decisions have to be made. I do not know how we managed to invent this, but it is really a very good invention.