Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 9 May 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
I thank Deputy Healy-Rae. I am delighted to be here this morning to chair what is a very important session. I thank all the witnesses for coming before us for what has been a very informative engagement. I am Chair of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action. This committee was set up to consider the Citizens' Assembly report. We published a cross-party report on 16 April, which I believe is the beginning of a new era for policy direction with regard to how the State deals with climate change. As the witnesses will know, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is working on an all-of-Government action plan with regard to rolling out these policy changes, which will be critical for this and future generations. I will not delay because I know the clock is ticking and my colleague, Deputy Ó Caoláin, is waiting to step in to chair the next session.
Our first speaker is Mr. Pádraig Flattery from the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. We also have Mr. Axel Leahy from the National University of Ireland, Galway, Ms Louise Fitzgerald from University College Dublin, Mr. Connor McGookin from University College Cork, and Ms Caroline Moran from Dublin City University.
Mr. Pádraig Flattery:
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the committees for inviting me to speak. I am a PhD student in the ICARUS climate research unit at the Maynooth University department of geography. My work is a drop in the ocean of climate change research being undertaken around the world every day, all of which bolsters the consensus that climate change is happening, that it is urgent, and that human activities are responsible.
I have been asked to speak today on the topic of climate action and sustainable development. When I first read the title of this topic, I immediately thought of speeches made by the young Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, who has helped mobilise a generation against the actions of their governments by holding weekly school strikes. At her recent speeches to the World Economic Forum and the United Nations she told the delegates, "I want you to panic". In the brief time I have I will try to explain the scientific basis behind why she wants people to panic, and how climate action and sustainable development must be embraced to create a sustainable future for the next generations.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, states that we must keep global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change. Warming of more than 1.5°C increases the likelihood of climate tipping points being triggered. These tipping points are thresholds that, if exceeded, can fundamentally alter the state of the climate system. To provide members with an example, one possible consequence of warming above 1.5°C is the thawing of permafrost in the Arctic, a process which is already under way and which releases vast amounts of methane, which is more than 25 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2, which will result in significant irreversible warming and is likely to trigger the collapse of other systems, including the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. This ice sheet is already melting more and more each year. If temperatures increase and the ice sheet reaches a point where it will melt entirely, we will be committed as a planet to a sea level rise of 6 m. If we allow this to happen, there will be unimaginable global consequences which pose a genuine existential threat to humanity.
When people hear climate scientists speaking about these changes in the Arctic and Greenland, they wonder how it relates to us here in Ireland, but these sea level changes will be felt on a local as well as a global scale and our coastal cities will be threatened. If we do not take action to prevent this happening, it will not matter which country did not meet its targets or which national interest was prioritised. We have already warmed by around 1°C, and will reach 1.5°C warming somewhere between 2030 and 2052, meaning we have a decade to make radical changes to our economy and way of life.
The reality is clear. As members of the EU we are committed to reducing our emissions by 40% compared with 1990 levels by the year 2030, just 11 years from now. The EU has set the goal of an 80% to 95% reduction in emissions by 2050. Current Irish policies are not aligned with our goals. While the EU as a whole will achieve its 2020 emissions target, Ireland will significantly overshoot ours. This sets us up to fail at achieving our future targets, and the longer we wait, the more difficult it becomes. We need to encourage sustainable development and ensure all members of society can reduce their carbon footprints by decarbonising public transportation, energy generation and agriculture to give everyone the opportunity to make the right choices regarding their emissions. While grants for new electric cars are encouraging, how many people can realistically avail of them? The importance of a holistic approach to adaptation is emphasised by a 2018 statement from the IPCC:
If poorly designed or implemented, adaptation projects in a range of sectors can increase greenhouse gas emissions and water use, increase gender and social inequality, undermine health conditions, and encroach on natural ecosystems [...] These trade-offs can be reduced by adaptations that include attention to poverty and sustainable development
The joint committee’s report on climate change and cross-party action echoes this sentiment in its call for a just transition to a green economy.
We need to safeguard the lives of all our future citizens. We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last generation who will be able to do anything about it. Individuals can and do take action, but the onus is on politicians to find solutions, create dialogue, and work towards our common goal of creating a better world for us all. Sustainable development is not only possible, it is essential if Ireland is to maintain our green reputation on the world stage. As shown by the committee’s recent report, the transition to a green economy is an opportunity for economic growth and job creation in rural and urban Ireland, and ought to be embraced for the benefits it will bring. The recommendations of the report are far-reaching and inspiring and must be implemented urgently. They range from citizen-scale efforts to retrofit homes to renewable energy generation to a national push for offshore wind generation and decarbonisation of our economy.
As a direct result of protests by the Extinction Rebellion group, the UK declared a national climate change emergency just last week. This was closely followed by Wicklow County Council which announced a climate and biodiversity emergency last week. This shows us that there is hope, but time is running out.
Mr. Axel Leahy:
I thank the committees for giving me this opportunity to speak. I know members will fully understand my French accent, so it will not disturb them too much. Climate change is urging us to take actions and to change our way of life radically. Such actions and policies will require unprecedented levels of collaborative decision-making between all actors in society, including the public. Yet, voices of local communities are still, in 2019, facing brick walls. As European citizens, we need to be given the opportunity to participate actively and to have a real input on decisions that have effects on our daily life.
We know the positive effects that public participation can have. We know, for instance, that local communities can substantially enhance the quality of decisions with locally grounded and value-based knowledge. We should not see decisions tailored to reduce our vulnerability to climate change as purely technical. This is not to say that experts should not contribute - their role is crucial - but common technical approaches to decision-making, such as cost-benefit analyses, cannot be the sole remedy to our problems. Often, the real value of assets and landscapes can hardly be monetised and summarised into graphics, as they will have a deeper value and a deeper meaning to local communities. Moreover, we should not forget that local communities are situated at the forefront of climate change, being the first to experience damage from storms, flooding, erosion or biodiversity losses. Why should they then be kept silent? Public participation is, after all, a democratic right.
The problem is that today's conventional forms of public participation do not work. First, uploading a document on a website and then asking people to submit comments or suggestions does not guarantee that these submissions will have any effect on the decision.
Second, and most important, these forms of engagement do not resonate with most people. Do Members of the Oireachtas believe that people of my age regularly check the websites of their local authorities? This is the core of the problem. There is a gap between our decision makers and the public. This criticism demands that new mediums of participation need to be established in Ireland. The Citizens' Assembly is a fantastic example that we can build on, but it cannot be limited to that. Most decisions that affect our everyday lives take place in our communities at a local level. Should every local authority have its owns citizens' assembly? Why not? There are countless examples of successful forms of active participation. Citizen panels, citizen juries, citizen advisory committees, participatory budgeting, participatory planning, participatory mapping, e-participation and citizen science are forms of active public participation that have proven to be successful around the world. Why should we limit those examples as isolated case studies rather than trying to make them the common practice?
The ball is in the court of those who represent us. As we saw recently with the school strikes for climate, many people, especially those from the younger generation, are willing to engage in climate actions. Strong and ambitious policies need to be implemented at national level to create nationwide structures for public participation and incite local decision makers to abandon the status quoand find innovative ways of engaging directly with their constituents. Climate change represents one of the greatest challenges of our century. We desperately need to reduce our carbon emissions and adapt to present and forthcoming impacts of climate change. Decisions aiming at driving these societal changes cannot take place behind closed doors. We need to seize climate change as an opportunity to change profoundly the way our democracy works in Ireland and in Europe.
Ms Louise Fitzgerald:
I am speaking not only as an Irish Research Council-funded scholar based at the UCD school of politics and international relations but also as someone who cannot remember a time when I was not faced with fear, anxiety and a deep sense of sadness about the current ecological and climate breakdown, which is already causing pain for millions of people around the world. This is why I have dedicated the last four years of my life to researching how we can develop effective and successful policies to deal with our climate and sustainable development challenges. My presentation is based on cutting-edge research within political science as well as dozens of research interviews I have conducted in Germany in an attempt to understand the factors that have helped to underpin the success of Germany's historic energy transition. I am looking at the factors that help to create policy that is politically and socially acceptable. This is really the Holy Grail. I hope to demonstrate how we can make stringent policy without facing electoral penalties.
I will mention a few insights and factors that have the potential to help us in our work. The first of them underpins what has been said about the importance of citizen-centred energy and green industrial supports. The key causal mechanism here is something called coalition building, which is essentially about the development of policy that seeks specifically to build coalitions of support for a green policy that allows policy measures to be ratcheted up over time. The provision of direct industrial incentives to support the growth of particular green industries, such as renewables, is an effective way to build these new coalitions. This has been borne out in the case of Germany, where it was a main driver of the energy transition. The expansion of green industrial supports gave citizens access to the energy grid. A payment for the energy fed into the grid supported the development of citizen-centred and community-centred renewable energies. This solidified the societal acceptance of energy transitions, which is a key factor in determining our success as we go forward.
A second insight is that carbon-pricing approaches can face significant barriers to effective implementation. An understanding of the dynamics of the political landscape is necessary in this context. Carbon pricing incentivises regulatory losers, those who are going to lose out as a result of certain policies, to organise politically to prevent such policies from being implemented, thereby rendering measures difficult to implement and making them no more than marginally effective in the short and medium term. It can be costly and time-consuming to tweak proposed instruments in order that they can be implemented in any form. The EU emissions trading system and its related offset schemes have faced significant challenges. Research indicates that switching to green industrial supports and focusing on such supports as well as on citizen-centred energy faces fewer political barriers and is more conducive to effective and sustainable policymaking.
Clear action on decarbonisation can have a powerful signalling effect and can create a facilitative framework. Conversely, any moves to build new fossil fuel infrastructure can have lock-in impacts that undermine and derail sustainability transitions. It is important to note that natural gas infrastructure projects that are planned within the EU's list of projects of common interest, including the planned Shannon liquified natural gas terminal, categorically impede our ability to decarbonise in a timely manner. Alternatively, research has started to show that supply side policies, such as bans and moratoriums, have significant economic and political advantages compared with demand side policies. The political advantages of such an approach include superior potential to mobilise public support, including within fossil fuel industries, as well as low administrative and transactional costs.
The EU can provide a framework for developing effective and just pathways to sustainable development and successful climate action. Countries as small as Ireland can have a substantial impact within this framework. Much of the work that is being done now involves the development of new norms of behaviour. This has a powerful contagion effect. We have an opportunity to implement a dynamic policy for effective climate action and sustainable development, but the window is closing fast. Climate and ecological breakdown are hitting us faster than was ever predicted. On our current path, a safe planet for human life will disappear before today's children reach the age of those we are addressing this morning.
No financial argument makes any sense when faced with these facts, regardless of whether it is hedged in terms of budget speak, bureaucratic processes, profits or vested interests. The survival of all of us and all of those we care about is directly threatened by climate change. This is not political. It is a scientific fact that is based on science, physics and the laws of nature. All Members of the Oireachtas will face important decisions in the coming weeks and months. I want them to understand that everything they care about will be touched by climate and ecological breakdown. They need to think about that and act from a place of love when they are making decisions. Young people are asking politicians to give them a chance to live a dignified life and to have a safe world in which to live. We are asking them to let us hope. This is not about us versus them or young people versus politicians. That is old thinking. This is about the shared fate of all of us who are interconnected on this planet. We are in this together for better or for worse, so let us make it better.
Mr. Connor McGookin:
I thank the committees for the opportunity to speak. I have three brief points to make. I will probably echo much of the frustration we heard in the previous statements. First, climate change policy must be stepped up ambitiously. Second, there is growing public appetite for climate action. We have heard about Greta Thunberg. Third, local actions must be adequately supported. This should not just be about high-level ambition. As Deputies and Senators are probably aware, European leaders are meeting in Romania today to discuss the future of Europe. At this summit, eight countries and 210 cities are urging national leaders and the European Council to adopt a zero emissions target for 2050. Last November, a report produced by the European Commission set out a number of pathways for achieving net zero emissions by 2050. This commitment is essential if we are to avoid the apocalyptic narratives of climate change. It is up to the EU 27 to lead the way.
I would like to mention one example of how Ireland is failing miserably to meet this responsibility. Last October, a stark warning in the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave us just 11 years to make a meaningful difference. Embarrassingly, this was followed by a failure to provide in the budget for an increase in carbon tax. This reflects the lack of political leadership that has slowed the progress of climate policy across the world. Thanks to a young Swedish girl, a growing movement throughout Europe is now demanding greater government ambition and moving climate policy onto the agenda. The recent report of the Joint Committee on Climate Action, which achieved cross-party consensus, was a significant milestone. The all-of-Government action plan that is being prepared is another important step in the right direction. The achievement of political consensus is not the final hurdle, however. We must build from here to secure social consensus.
While high-level ambition is essential, many of us have a lot to learn if we are to understand what this means at local level. This is the focus of my own research. I have explored new approaches to energy system modelling and planning that account for local values and perceptions. As Mr. Leahy pointed out, there is a need to address some of the flaws in the planning and decision-making processes that can lead to opposition to infrastructural projects like large-scale wind developments and overhead pylons. In 2015, the White Paper on energy mentioned that there was an "increasing recognition of the value that effective communication and a participative approach between developer, local community and local authority can bring to the development of energy infrastructure".
This has been echoed in recent policy with repeated references to phrases like "energy citizen" or "community engagement". I imagine we can all agree this is a welcome narrative and is undoubtedly important for the energy transition.
However, within communities, several constraints are hindering meaningful progress. I will list some of the key challenges and opportunities. These have been compiled from my personal research and that of some of my colleagues. First, volunteers are required, but depending on them will not be adequate. As local champions these people are often part of several community groups and are already stretched. The existing community networks represent a major opportunity but must be engaged in a respectful manner. Second, I reiterate that core funding is needed. Regular funding must be made available for the administration and co-ordination of community energy groups if they are to function effectively. Third, until policy barriers in the form of tariffs, planning, finance and grid access are addressed, it will be unhelpful and perhaps counterproductive to continuously talk up community ownership of energy. The final point is closest to my heart. Community energy does not guarantee community acceptance but a more transparent and inclusive decision-making processes can help ease tensions and inspire positive action.
I will summarise my contribution. I have noted the need for European leadership in stepping up ambition. I touched on the noticeable growth in public appetite for meaningful climate action. National leadership, extensive local engagement and clear benefits for communities are essential in driving the energy transition.
Ms Caroline Moran:
I thank the committee members for the opportunity to contribute. Last September, I began studying in DCU on the climate change masters programme. I have always been interested in reading up on environmental news and over several years I have become increasingly concerned about climate change and environmental degradation. Since beginning the course two things have happened. I have realised how bad the situation is, but also that there is still hope. It has hit home for me that there needs to be a fundamental change in our society if we are to tackle this problem in the short time there is left to effectively halt the worst of what could happen.
Ireland is rightly seen to be at the back of the pack. However, the recent report from the Joint Committee on Climate Action is a welcome step in the right direction. We can learn much from our European counterparts about what has worked and what has not. We can build on these in an Irish context.
Effectively communicating the challenges and opportunities to citizens is the most important step. There is a lot of fear and misunderstanding regarding climate change. Public debate on what must happen to transition to a low-carbon economy is essential. We need to have open conversations in the media and at the dinner table about how we must change the status quoand the best ways to do this for our local communities and large-scale industries.
I look forward to an all-of-Government action plan, as I believe it will help drive the public debate in a meaningful way to give the general public clear guidance on what is being proposed and how it will affect them personally and society as a whole.
The announcement by Bord na Móna last October of the loss of more than 400 jobs in the midlands shows the need for extensive planning and programmes to retrain workers or aid in job replacement schemes for those who will be most affected by the transition to a low-carbon economy. Last October, the Spanish Government and coal miner unions reached a transition deal. It offered early retirement or retraining for coal miners who are to lose their jobs as the industry is scaled back. This is an example of good practice that can be repeated in an Irish context. Some industries will be disproportionately affected, such as agriculture and peat production, while there will be more opportunities for green jobs elsewhere and these must be embraced. Workers who believe their livelihoods are being threatened need to be engaged in what happens but at a community level there must be a discussion as well. The Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, campaigning on a green new deal platform, won the recent Spanish elections with up to 50% of the vote in some mining towns. The party had worked with the coal miners unions previously.
Recently, there has been a surge in social activism around climate change, such as the school strikes for climate and the extinction rebellion. I went to the two events held in Dublin. As a former teacher, I know how hard it can be to motivate teenagers, but at the school strike, I was moved by the enthusiasm students showed that day. At the extinction rebellion protest, I was inspired by the diversity of participants who showed up. These movements show that the public are becoming increasingly aware of climate change, biodiversity loss and the general destruction of the natural world that is occurring at an unprecedented rate. There has never been a better time to engage the public on the urgency of the crisis facing our planet. Small-scale actions that individuals can take will not be enough without large-scale actions and policies by governments. The EU, Ireland included, must lead the way and take bold unmitigated action now, with engaged citizens at the core of this transition. The release earlier this week of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services is another stark reminder that our current system is failing and putting life on earth at risk. The technology to make the shift is in place. The financial risk will lessen the sooner we take action. The public will to act has never been stronger. It is time to change.
I thank everyone for those excellent contributions. I will go to my colleagues with questions. The witnesses might note the questions and then whoever wants to come in can answer them. Is it okay if we proceed that way? Agreed.
The witnesses have raised some important and key issues that the Joint Committee on Climate Action has been considering during the past seven months. Ms Fitzgerald mentioned one of our key concerns, which is the price of carbon. Although it was only a small part of our work, it was a key concern in respect of protecting the most vulnerable. We considered the need to be politically palatable in bringing people with us and not making the mistakes we have made in other areas in engagement in with the community and bringing people on board. That is why these conversations are important for us. We have a body of work to complete and we can see that. This is only the start. Community engagement and how we communicate to the citizen are important. We must protect the most vulnerable and those facing fuel poverty. Key sectors will find the transition hardest, including the peat industry, the farming community and rural communities. These are key areas that we have to work on as well.
I am keen to hear of any of the witnesses want to expand on what we can do in respect of the price of carbon. They will have seen from our report how we are conscious of protecting those affected and the need to have a short, sharp engagement on the issue of the price of carbon and the key sectors that will be affected. What else needs to be done on the regulatory and policy side? What is the nature of the regulatory and policy mix needed for that to be a success? That is one key component.
There was a major emphasis in all the contributions on new mediums of participation. Mr. Leahy mentioned this and the question of community engagement. This again is a whole-of-society approach. The Government has a role to play but we cannot do it all; it has to be within the community as well. One issue we have faced as elected representatives is that when we want to put in place renewable energy projects there is local opposition. We talk about communities coming together feeding into the grid, tapping into the grid and selling their own electricity back into the grid. We need to unlock the planning regulations. The issues goes beyond acceptance. If the witnesses have any more insights, I would be grateful to hear them.
I will bring in my colleagues now. Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy and Senator Máire Devine are first. We will then hear from Deputy Tom Neville.
I thank all the witnesses for their contributions. They will not find any argument from this side in respect of the challenge facing us all nationally and globally in terms of trying to halt global warming.
Mr. McGookin talked about reaching into local communities. I wonder if he has looked at whether public participation networks are a good starting point. I attended an event recently in my county of Offaly. The public participation network there established Green Offaly, which is a great initiative. Should initiatives like this be happening throughout the country? It is something the Joint Committee on Climate Action discussed and recommended.
Ms Caroline Moran referred to Bord na Móna. I am from Offaly. A just transition is something that we are anxious to ensure. Has she been keeping track of the efforts Offaly County Council has made recognising the challenges to the communities involved and the workers? We need to bring together all the stakeholders to ensure that the workers involved are aware of all the benefits for them in terms of social protection as well as the opportunities for retraining and upskilling. An event is being planned for the week after next. It is a job-matching initiative in which local companies will come together with the workers who are taking voluntary redundancy.
There are many positives. Other areas could learn from it. Is Ms Moran keeping track of this? It is important that we be aware of such efforts.
I thank the witnesses. I am still a member of the Joint Committee on Climate Action. We were the black sheep of the committee when we voted against the carbon tax. The committee has done 90% of its work collaboratively, but we were concerned about the just transition and the tax's imposition on less fortunate people who are struggling.
I would like the witnesses to expand on another point. There is an emergency in our public health system because of climate change, and it will be even more harmful for communities tomorrow. This is about communicating with communities not only about heatwaves, floods, storms and the resultant deaths, but about the day in, day out worldwide epidemic of asthma, respiratory tract infections and diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD. Many of these have to do with pollution, for example, the quality of the water that we drink. According to the World Health Organization, WHO, this threat costs many billions of dollars and causes millions of deaths per year. The WHO believes that will only increase. Should we declare this an emergency alongside climate change?
We have received representations from the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association, INHFA. It made an important statement that has stuck with me, namely, that we must rethink how we feed the world. In the 1960s and 1970s, we did not have meat with every meal. We could not afford it, as it was a luxury. However, it has become so commonplace now that we expect it even though it is responsible for much of the destruction of the environment and our bodies' health.
When one sits down in a canteen, bistro or café, everything is packaged. When did we stop being communal and sharing sugar bowls and milk jugs? These simple points seem stupid, but they are down to hazard analysis and critical control point, HACCP, legislation. We must revisit it, as it is so clinical and clean that it is damaging us, in that we are not being exposed to stuff and material is being wasted. It is nonsensical that we all just sit around with sachets that we tear apart, adding to the destruction. The global scale is larger, but I am interested in this matter.
In his career, my father spent eight years in the Upper House, so it is a privilege to be able make an address in this Chamber today on such an important issue. I sat on the Joint Committee on Climate Action and, hopefully, will sit on a permanent version chaired by the Co-Chairman, Deputy Naughton.
I welcome the witnesses' presentations. I went on a great journey of discovery during the eight months that I sat on the committee. My knowledge of the parameters and facets of this issue was minuscule. The witnesses are preaching to the converted as regards the necessary timelines and actions.
I was struck by the question of consultation and building coalitions raised in one of the presentations. That is paramount to our success. If we do not build a coalition and agreement across all parties and sectors of society, there will be a knee-jerk kickback. Be it political or something else, it will be a "Them" and "Us" response that could set us back ten or 15 years or even a generation. We do not want that.
Our committee viewed public consultation as paramount. I was interested to hear about how an industry coalition was built on the ground in Germany, but Ireland needs to go to an even more micro level. Since we have a smaller population, we are a more integrated society. For example, managing directors of companies have siblings who are farmers or teachers. As such, we wanted to propose town hall-type meetings that would involve peer-to-peer and community learning involving people from all sectors of society - young and old, farmers and doctors, unemployed people, those in receipt of disability payments and so on. They would educate one another from the bottom up or at the same level. Politicians taking a top-down approach will not work. Europe and America have kicked back at such an approach. We must alter our communication style. That will be paramount in coalition building. It will require maturity, not only from people, but also from political parties. The latter must take a step back from the politics and build a coalition of consensus to drive this through. I would be interested in hearing more about the coalition building that happened in Germany.
I welcome our guests, who have spoken passionately. These are issues that we considered in significant depth in writing our report. Action is needed. The requirement that we live more sustainably, which we have not been doing for years, is at the heart of this. It is the fallout of industrialisation and so on. If people were surveyed, everyone would agree with the targets under the Paris Agreement. It is only when one starts to drill down into who will take the pain and cost that a problem arises. That is what we must address if we want to see action. As Deputy Neville stated, though, there must be a consensus.
Recently, I attended a climate action forum of secondary schools in my county of Mayo that was facilitated by the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, the county council and the latter's climate action officer. We were sitting around a table and one of the issues debated was that of cost. In terms of transport, for example, we talked about how, if the pupils' parents had to get electric vehicles, it would cost them money regardless of how large a grant the State provided. The same would be the case with heating systems. When I asked them if they believed that would be acceptable, they could not say that it would be.
There is another political reality. No matter what people say in the abstract about targets and the need to take action, the experience in Canada, Australia, Finland, France and Germany has been that, when politicians take political action, a large number of people do not agree with doing so. It does not mean that we should balk at trying to do the right thing, as we cannot continue taking from the Earth something that will not be replenished and will cause greenhouse gas emissions. We are smarter now and have more technology. We must be smarter and live more smartly. However, the idea that everyone is in agreement is incorrect. It is not even that they do not believe that there is climate change. Rather, they are more concerned with living in the here and now than with taking on additional pressures. If someone is in receipt of social welfare payments, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, can fund 100% of certain energy efficiency works on his or her house. If someone is earning a low income and, accordingly, will only receive partial supports, he or she will be under pressure. These are the people who will be financing their children going to college. From where will that money come? The bill will be significant. That is even evident from our social housing programme, given the additional cost of building houses. People are revolting against costs. That does not take from the witnesses' message, but we must refine our discussion to listening to people's concerns.
I have raised an issue previously and, while I do not want to labour the point, it must be borne in mind that when the witnesses refer to the measures that are necessary to tackle climate change, they are asking for more to be done by people living in rural areas. They are asking rural areas to take wind farms and grid infrastructure. They are asking for peat-burning power stations to be shut down. Where I am from, such a station closed a number of years ago. The area is only a shadow of its former itself economically.
The issue of community gain is very relevant there.
There is also the issue of farming and the speaker from Teagasc earlier made a sensible proposition. We are very well suited to producing protein from dairy and beef. It does not mean that we continue exactly in the same vein but this is not discussed. There is now a situation where farmers are saying they have been doing all of this. The national herd has increased and that is why our greenhouse gases and emissions of methane have increased but farmers are farming more efficiently than ever before. They are put to the pin of their collars by payments on environmental measures, water quality and biodiversity. They have an appetite to do more but feel persecuted. People are disengaging.
I will say one final thing. The generation coming after us ask us to look at what we are doing. The reality is that the parents of the children I was talking to would give their left arms for their children. Their grandparents would do the same. The generations that have come before are trying to cope and do their best. They care and want to be given credit for that. We have to get realistic solutions which balance idealism with the reality to achieve them and not crush people in the process.
We will have a revolution. It will not be like those revolting in London who are from more middle class backgrounds and have time on their hands. The ordinary person will revolt which will create another set of problems that will set us back economically. We cannot take from the advances and lifestyles we enjoy. We must find technology to match that.
The last speaker on the environment was positive and hopeful, as I am. Human beings have great capacity to innovate and, although there will always be issues and problems, there can be business opportunities here. We see a lot of signals sent out by China and India, major emerging economies, that they have to go to green technology and transport etc. Ireland has to take these signals if it wants to participate in the global economy. We must also be clever. It is not only about misery, it is about opportunities and living in a different way.
I apologise to the speakers that I am having to come and go from the Chamber but I was very interested in their presentations on this issue. I campaigned with Trócaire on climate change in 2008 when a group of young activists, who are no longer young, were demanding action. Even then, climate change was not new and there were huge impacts on many parts of the world and many communities were seeing their futures destroyed.
It is good that there is momentum now and climate change is centre stage in discussions. Europe Day is about Europe and the real test will be if Europe will place the sustainable development goals and climate change actions at the centre of the new five-year European strategy. Will they also be at the centre of the multiannual financial framework, the European budget? Simply putting climate action front and centre for photos at the moment will not be enough.
The European Investment Bank put €11 billion into fossil fuels between 2007 and 2013. The European climate action fund is proposed to be €5 billion. I want people to discuss the balance between where we invest and how we can stop taking backward steps.
One of the speakers mentioned the LNG terminal which is an example of something that was funded by European investment funding. How do we get that joined up? It comes down to public participation.
I am passionate about new forms of participation and we need them. I like the idea of town hall meetings, I think they are important, and I also think people should be looking at their local authority's development plans and putting in opinions. That is important. It is crucial to ask how we ensure the public discussion does not stay in a silo as a separate discussion on climate, but rather bring climate action into the economic discussion around budgets. We need to ensure that closed-door economic decisions such as trade agreements and procurement are joined up and informed by climate considerations. We need not to have any backward steps. I would like to hear the comments of the speakers on that matter.
Another consideration is the comparative roles of the public and private sectors which was touched on by some of the speakers. For example, it might be tempting to support the electric car industry because it has the potential to make profit whereas public transport might not, but public transport might lead us to make much greater progress much more quickly. There will be things that will cost money and will not necessarily be profitable but, if we do not take the action now, the cost will be borne elsewhere in the world and by those most vulnerable to climate change.
That brings us to the question of carbon pricing. I am on the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection and am very passionate about just transition. We must not wait for people to become redundant from sectors that are no longer sustainable but need to talk to them while they are still employed about their plans for the future. I have been arguing for that in the context of just transition. We must manage the pragmatic issues around just transition in Ireland and look to climate justice on a global level so we not only address the concerns in Ireland but look to climate justice for other parts of the world.
The price of carbon is artificially low and needs to be higher. The price has driven an unsustainable global development model. Do we make social protection payments? Fuel poverty payments will get us to a certain level but, as was rightly said, many people on low incomes will not be caught by the fuel supplement. How do we recognise and ensure that industry is reflecting the price of carbon and does not have artificially deflated prices because of artificially deflated carbon costs while ensuring that individuals are not taking the worst of the impacts? Those are the key questions. Perhaps we should look at bans, moratoriums and levies on sectors.
I will conclude because I want to hear the responses of the speakers. It comes back to the question of business as usual. Where do we frontload? Can we, and should we, balance keeping interests aligned while ensuring that we do not wait for certain climate actions to become profitable?We have to frontload it. All of the speakers had practical thoughts on how we do that.
My key questions relate to climate justice, just transition, the public and private spheres and how to ensure this is an economic transformation as well as a social movement.
I do not feel we are at panic stage yet. There is a great deal we can do on climate change in a relatively short time. We are supposed to achieve certain targets within ten years and it is well within our capacity to achieve them in that time period even though we are late starters.
The first thing we had to do was to convince people of the necessity to change and become less reliant on fossil fuels. As we do that, we must also become less reliant on the electricity generated from fossil fuels. Once we have crossed that part of the divide, the rest will follow readily. There is serious interest in electric cars this year where there was no such interest in the past.
Some of us have, over the past number of years, tried to sell the idea of alternative energy and the renewable energy sector and been publicly criticised and ridiculed for it. That is part of the battle we must face into. We must balance our approach, try to ensure that we do not target part of our community, or be seen to do so, in our journey towards achieving the necessary change. We have the capacity to do that, provided we do it right, and avoid the possibility of postponing forever something we need to start doing now.
I do not want to cut people's time but the key concerns are very clear if our speakers can briefly try to target them. The shorter the contribution the better it will resonate with all of us. I will start with Mr. McGookin.
Mr. Connor McGookin:
I am an academic so I like talking. The first point made was about carbon tax and we looked at that and what it would mean to raise the weekly allowance in order to offset the extra €10.
It was something like €4 in the winter and €2 in the summer. We will revert to the committee as we have some figures on that. It would not hit the people in fuel poverty. Much of what comes from our research must account for fuel poverty.
Climate change is a cross-cutting matter and there were questions as to how to overcome the problems. There are significant benefits to dealing with climate change, particularly in the rural sector, and I hope dealing with climate change would address many of the problems of rural degradation and help to revive many rural areas. It would help farmers through diversification of income by generating electricity, growing other crops or being paid for the carbon captured in their forests. Reforestation would be a major part of achieving carbon neutrality, along with restoring wetlands.
Public participation networks were a recommendation in the report from the Joint Committee on Climate Action, which is why I left them out of my bullet points. I certainly agree that we need such town hall meetings and there is an attempt to achieve this with the national dialogue on climate change. It is important to capacity building in communities to have access to impartial experts who can point to the facts and challenges being faced. It is about open discussion. My research in the Dingle peninsula relates to this if the members are interested.
Somebody mentioned going through the local authority and we thought that if we could follow the example of the UK and Wicklow in declaring a climate emergency, local authorities should have it as a top priority to have a climate change officer who would be able to advise homeowners or community groups. It is an important element in building capacity, which has been mentioned quite often. There was mention of the middle class accessing grants. It is a major problem. I know in Australia, poorer people were basically subsidising richer people getting solar panels put on their homes. We must be careful to avoid such things.
Ms Caroline Moran:
There was mention of Offaly and Mayo with respect to peat production. As has been mentioned, it is really important that there should be plans in place before peat production is closed so workers can have options in what they do afterwards. If there is to be a change, those workers need different options and time to think. At a community level there must be thought on what new industries can be brought in to benefit the entire community.
There was mention of carbon tax and feed-in tariffs for solar photovoltaic equipment, which is really important. The uptake of solar photovoltaic technology in countries with feed-in tariffs has been huge. If there is fuel poverty or people have low incomes without supplements, they could get profits from a feed-in tariff rather than just a grant. Retired people in their homes during the day may use electricity while it is generated and therefore it would cut their costs. Conversely, if people are at work all day they do not get the benefit of energy that is being produced but they would see a benefit through a feed-in tariff. They would get the money back. Such a process could work, especially in rural communities. We have spoken much about farmers and if they are leaving land spare, there could be large-scale solar photovoltaic installations to generate income as well. We need to be creative in what we do.
Ms Louise Fitzgerald:
With regard to coalition building, I am speaking to this new dynamic understanding of policy that is coming out of social and political science research and how we can harness the feedback effects of policy and understanding the political landscape. This goes beyond just public consultation, which is also a good step. This is also about what policy choices we make and the outcomes and effects they have. To underline what has already been said, feed-in tariffs, for example, have the effect of building powerful coalitions. In Germany there were all sorts of actors who became supportive of the policy and really tried to protect it, including people who may not necessarily have been green-minded. They support it being ratcheted up.
It is really important to note the social dimension. We have seen the yellow vest movement in France and what happens when we do not have this lens in implementing the decarbonisation policy. There was mention of a just transition and this should not be about climate action versus farmers or peat workers. Farmers are on the front line of climate change and they are already experiencing it. We have seen that with the fodder crisis. The fossil fuel age is collapsing and one way or another, peat workers will see an impact from climate change policy. We must achieve this in a just way.
I will speak briefly to carbon pricing. As I stated, I am drawing on an understanding of policy dynamics. Carbon pricing should be seen as one of many tools in a policy mix. One of the issues is the need to build alternatives and allow people to have alternatives through something like a feed-in tariff. To draw on a German case, there was a delay in trying to implement carbon pricing through the emissions trading system and, essentially, there was neglect of the areas of transport, heating and the idea of a more systemic just transition. Now the country is facing the consequences, so we would do well to learn from their mistakes and not have this happen with carbon price implementation in Ireland. Green industrial support, citizen energy, bans and moratoriums can be used. The paper I quoted was by Mr. Fergus Green and Dr. Richard Denniss from 2017 and it is available online. They argue that supply-side bans have a host of advantages and gain much support, including from actors like the fossil fuel industry, which we might not expect.
Citizen energy feeds into the transformative elements and resilience in communities and globally. It builds more community resilience and this enables communities to face climate change issues. That work comes from people like Mr. Craig Morris. There is a need to look locally but also globally at what is coming. People in Mozambique are panicking, for example, and people across the global South already facing the impact of climate change are panicking. We would do well to respond right now to what we are all facing.
Mr. Axel Leahy:
I will not respond to each point because there has been much information that is brilliant. We could speak about this for hours and all the information has almost given me a headache. There is one point that has been mentioned a few times and it relates to consultation. It is one type of participation but this cannot just be about consultation. According to my research, many different authors and academics have stated that typical formal consultation does not work. Submissions may not be taken into account with a final decision and there is also the question of when consultation happens. Does it happen when all the options are closed and if so, how efficient can that be? There is the question of timing in participation.
I can give a brief example. Last year the national adaptation framework was published in January and it marked the first step in a process of building national adaptation for different sectors and local authorities. It was put out for consultation in September 2017 and there were 27 or 28 submissions. It was not a very high number. The submissions are available online and only four were submitted by private individuals not representing an organisation or State agency. This demonstrates a problem. Is the general public just not interested in those policies or is there a lack of communication in advertising those formal consultation processes? It is something we must be aware of and we probably need to go a step further than just consultation. It would amount to considerable responsibility for local authorities but this needs to happen at a local level.
Mr. Pádraig Flattery:
I do not share the opinion of the member who said there is no need to panic and we have enough time. There is certainly a need to panic as we are missing our targets for 2020 and we are set up to miss the 2030 targets. If by 2050 we are to be carbon-neutral or reduce our emissions by 80% or 100%, we are not on track to do it, even if we implement many of the recommendations of the report.
To focus on agriculture, my research was on soils and soil carbon in Ireland, taking into account the effect of extreme weather on those soils. Our natural grasslands are carbon sinks because they are grazed by cattle and they provide minerals for the soil. Those soils are carbon sinks in the same way that our untouched peatlands are. There are 7 million cows in Ireland producing methane.
I do not understand how we square getting to carbon neutrality by 2050 with retaining that number of cows. We need also to recognise the benefit the cows have to the soil. These are complex issues and communicating their complexity is very important, especially if we do not want an "us versus them" strategy coming out. Farmers are certainly looking after their land to the best of their ability as they want to pass it on to future generations. Focusing on the complexities of the issue is important but so is recognising the limitations of our current actions.
Mr. Flattery came in very concisely in addressing our key concerns. We would love to engage with him further through our committee and would welcome any evidence-based information he has. It is all about evidence-based policy now and Mr. Flattery has some great ideas around carbon pricing and all of that, which we need to be listening to. We need help with this as well. I will pass over to my colleague, Deputy Ó Caoláin, who is Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality.