Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 16 October 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action
Climate Change Advisory Council Annual Review 2019: Discussion
I welcome members and the viewers who are watching proceedings on Oireachtas TV. At the request of the broadcasting and recording service, I remind members, witnesses and visitors in the Public Gallery to ensure their telephones are turned off or switched to flight mode. The meeting will consist of two sessions, the first of which is an examination of the Climate Change Advisory Council's annual review for 2019. I welcome Professor John FitzGerald, chairman of the council, and Mr. Phillip O'Brien, member of the council secretariat.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Professor FitzGerald to give his opening statement.
Professor John FitzGerald:
I thank the Chairman. We are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Moreover, no matter how successful we are in our efforts to mitigate them, those effects will get worse over the next 50 years because of historical and continuing global greenhouse gas emissions. The impacts of climate change often seem distant from everyday life but, in recent years, we have experienced several extreme weather events, the cumulation of which clearly shows the adverse consequences of changes in our climate. Public awareness of the need for adaptation remains low. Adaptation is not only a matter for Government but will require an even greater response and investment by households and the business sector in planning for higher temperatures, flooding and so on. While sectoral and local adaptation strategies have been developed, we have identified gaps in respect of coastal areas, housing and planning. These areas have not been properly addressed under the current plans.
Robust carbon pricing is essential to support action by individuals and businesses to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. While it will directly encourage households and businesses to reduce emissions, the major effect will come from encouraging investment in low-carbon or zero-carbon technologies, including in heating and cars. That is where the real pay-off will come. The revenue raised should be used to ensure a just transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient and sustainable economy and society. We welcome the budget provision of €90 million for that purpose. The Climate Change Advisory Council, CCAC, had recommended that the carbon tax be raised to €35 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent in budget 2020, increasing to at least €80 per tonne by 2030. Nevertheless, the modest increase in carbon tax announced last week is welcome. While the Minister expressed the view that similar increases should continue every year until 2030, it would have been better if that commitment had been enshrined in legislation. The commitment in this committee's report to such a strategy is welcome and offers an assurance that we are beginning a journey in the right direction.
This year's budget began the process of ring-fencing revenue to support a just transition. Urgent actions are necessary in the agriculture, forestry and land use sectors. The council has given particular attention to these sectors, which we outlined in a special chapter in our annual review. We recognise that opportunities exist to reduce emissions while, at the same time, safeguarding farm incomes and providing multiple co-benefits to society. Beef and dairy production in Ireland is relatively efficient in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per unit product. However, improvements in efficiency have not been able to keep pace with the observed increase in absolute emissions. In recent years, the expansion of the national dairy herd has been a major contributor to increases in agricultural emissions. Reduction of the suckler herd would make an important and cost-effective contribution to mitigation and could support alternative land uses such as increased woodland, raise farm incomes and reduce the exposure of the sector to external market shocks, including Brexit. However, the dairy sector must also play its part through the implementation of technologies and management practices which reduce emissions. The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy is an important opportunity to design supports which will help farmers to restructure in a way that increases their income and rewards environmental and climate actions.
The CCAC is concerned about the low rates of afforestation achieved in recent years. Research and policy innovations are required to overcome the barriers to afforestation. It is only by talking to people who own the land that we can understand what those obstacles are. Afforestation activity might look like a win-win on a spreadsheet but it is not happening and we need to work out why. Each individual will have a different answer to that question.
The council has recommended that the Government publish a detailed plan for achieving its commitment to end the burning of coal at Moneypoint by 2025. We also recommend the cessation of peat-fired electricity generation in 2020.
The construction and building sector is operating near full capacity. There is an urgent need to increase its ability to deliver the necessary retrofit programme without impacting on the delivery of increased numbers of houses. The Government should lead by example through investment in retrofitting local authority housing. This would provide certainty to construction firms of a long-term commitment to retrofitting, as well as providing multiple benefits to low-income households and developing the capacity of the building construction sector to deliver for everybody who needs to upgrade a dwelling.
The CCAC welcomes the climate action plan as providing a significant step forward in tackling climate change. The plan includes proposals for a wide range of measures and new governance arrangements which will enable us to meet our 2030 targets. However, implementation in a cost-effective manner and robust governance of the implementation of the plan are critical if we are to realise our ambitions.
Professor FitzGerald noted that beef and dairy production in Ireland is relatively efficient in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per unit product. However, he went on to identify two difficulties with those sectors, the first being the size of the herd and the second relating to the need to implement new technologies and management practices. Will Professor FitzGerald elaborate on that point?
Professor John FitzGerald:
Teagasc has laid out a range of measures in this regard, many of which will save farmers money and some of which will not have much impact. The latter include changing fertiliser, which would reduce nitrogen oxide, NOx, emissions. It is a question of actually implementing those measures but, realistically, these things do not happen overnight. If they could be done overnight, we probably would not be worrying as much about the size of the herd. We expect they will be implemented gradually, but not fully, over the next decade, which could leave a gap. At the moment, as we all are aware, beef farmers are making nothing net out of their work and Brexit is likely to make that situation much worse. My understanding is that for many farmers, shifting some of their land to less intensive farming - using some of it for woodland, for example - could increase their incomes. It might also provide a more secure income. I have been working in agricultural economics for 43 years and beef farming has always been a difficult business.
With Brexit and with artificial beef coming along and a whole range of other issues, reducing the herd could secure farmers' income and lead to a substantial reduction in emissions. The problem is how to implement that change. I am 70 this month and if I were asked to turn into a farmer tomorrow, it would not happen. Likewise, it is not easy for beef farmers to turn into foresters and it will not happen overnight. This is something the farming community will do because it wants to do it and because it sees that it will be profitable and manageable. We need to look at overcoming the obstacles if we are to facilitate a transition that could be a win-win for farmers and for climate action. Such a transition can make a major contribution but it will not happen overnight.
I thank Professor FitzGerald for his presentation and his ongoing work in advising us in his role as chairman of the council. The priority recommendations in the committee's report impose a large degree of the encumbrance of the work that needs to be done on the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and on Teagasc. We must see those bodies being held to account. I am confident the Department will deliver in this regard. In fact, one of the best presentations to the committee was from that Department, which showed a clear understanding of the scale of the problem.
We need to see actions and timelines to implement and promote the uptake of these measures, particularly the mitigation measures and the pathways mentioned by Teagasc. We need movement on that.
I am taken by the witnesses' analysis and think it is on the money regarding what is happening in agriculture. There is an intensification in the dairy sector in recognition of market demand. At a recent conference I attended, I heard somebody from the dairy sector talking about a 30% increase in the dairy cow herd in the past three to four years. This person is working on the basis of a further 30% increase in the next four to five years. What are the witnesses' views on that?
There is a very specific reliance on the suckler beef herd on less good land, possibly more as a way of life than as a means to an income. This cannot be underestimated. Professor FitzGerald's final comment probably spoke to that. Turning a suckler beef farmer into a forester will not happen. There is a connection with the land and the production, purchase and sale of animals that is a way of life. It is like telling a musician to go and play basketball. It is as stark as that for farmers in that sector. The overintensification on the dairy side has a very significant knock-on effect. Notwithstanding the emissions related to it, it is having a very considerable knock-on effect because it is increasing supply into the beef market and reducing the price. Have the witnesses any views on the strategy around our dairy herd and dairy output? How do they view that?
Professor John FitzGerald:
What we say is that we really do not have space to increase significantly the dairy herd and its related emissions in the coming decade. If that happened, we would need a dramatic reduction in the beef herd. The Deputy made the point that they are not totally separable. Calves are produced in dairy herds and end up in beef herds. We would be concerned that the agricultural emissions targets would not be met if there was a 30% increase in the dairy herd. That would pose major challenges to the sector in terms of meeting its targets.
Interesting work is ongoing in terms of how, without changing a way of life, we can reduce emissions or increase the amount of carbon being fixed. One thing worth looking at that is being researched is increasing hedgerows so that we use them instead of barbed wire. A certain amount of land will be used but the hedgerows may fix carbon. That is an option that would not require a change of life. I am not saying that is a solution but research on it is ongoing. It could be interesting and would be compatible with existing farming practices.
Research is ongoing in Armagh into planting trees in pasture at intervals. The trees suck up the moisture when it is very wet in winter and farmers may be able to have their cattle out for 12 weeks longer, which brings about a significant reduction in NOx emissions. There higher NOx emissions when cattle are inside. Feeding cattle is expensive over winter. There are things that can be done. Further work that has not yet been factored in could see progress. Going back to the really important issue raised by the Deputy, a large increase in the dairy herd would pose major problems.
We have to look at that. Regarding land use and management, we need to have a plan in place for the next round of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, to capture that money. In my constituency office, I deal on an ongoing basis with farmers whose payments are cut because they overdeclared for a parcel of land that in the minds of those in the Department was not in active farming. It was not in grassland. When the satellite passed over and took a picture of the land, there was an area of scrub so the Department sought to exclude that and, therefore, reduce the area for which the farmer claimed. This has a knock-on effect on the farmer's payment because he or she is not regarded as actively farming the land. In truth, the area that has perhaps gone wild and is not grazeable is of greater benefit in terms of biodiversity and carbon capture in the long run. We have a lot to do in terms of that because we are forcing an unnecessary clearing of that land whereas farmers seem to be happy enough with. Perhaps it is poor land in the first instance where not much grass can be grown. If something else grows on it, so be it.
Professor John FitzGerald:
I agree with the Deputy, who is more expert on this than I am. What he is saying sounds eminently sensible and consistent with improving our performance on climate change. There is another CAP related issue about which we need to think. Peatlands absorb a large amount of carbon. As we move out of peat, they will need to be managed, but what happens if there is no income coming from it? We need people to manage peatlands. We cannot just leave them there. The question arises as to whether CAP should provide some compensation for farmers who manage peatlands in a manner that does us all a service by stocking carbon dioxide. We need to think of land use in new ways that will be good for farmers, biodiversity and the climate.
Deputy Dooley has covered most of the points I wanted to raise. Regarding Professor FitzGerald's point about not becoming a farmer overnight and Deputy Dooley's point about a suckler farmer not becoming a forester overnight, how do we change that mentality so that a farmer wants to become a forester? I am not defending one way or the other. I agree with what Professor FitzGerald is saying. He talks about moving away from the suckler herd to afforestation, but at the same time, he mentions displacement of beef that has been produced efficiently, as he rightly noted, by imported beef from Brazil, where they are cutting down rain forests. How do we overcome that argument with the farmer, because an element of, to use an abrupt word, stubbornness kicks in at that stage? While farmers might see the logic in what Professor FitzGerald is saying and see the financial benefits, they will ask why they should be reducing their herds that have come to them from their fathers and grandfathers, because as Deputy Dooley noted, it is a tradition in families, when all this is happening across the globe. This is a global issue. If we solve our problems in Ireland, how much of a factor will it be in the overall picture? Regarding the point about a farmer not becoming a forester, he or she will have to, so how do we cajole him or her into making that change?
Professor John FitzGerald:
We are talking about making changes over the next 11 years. I am 70 this month and will be 81 in 2030. Similarly, a farmer who is 70 this month will be 81 in 2030. As one gets older, one may be replaced by younger children who may have a different view. From talking to younger farmers, I can say that they see more of the logic in this. Those of us who are parents and grandparents may be influenced by our children to change our ways as we get older. We are not looking for an overnight revolution. We are looking for an evolution over an 11-year period as people realise that they might be able to do better through farming in a different way.
I have come across some of the issues, including scrub, hedging and incorrect declarations of land, in my constituency office as well. Things like that are very difficult to mitigate when we are trying to fight the PR battle and make the argument that has been made here about aid and the transition.
Another matter is that of Departments working in cohesion, for example, on the issue of planning further down the line for solar panels on agricultural buildings or lands, with feed-in tariffs etc. An amalgamation in this regard could give farmers an impetus to achieve carbon neutralisation.
I have a problem with something, and if I have a problem with it, then so do farmers. I am referring to the carbon footprint of food production in Ireland versus in South America. Will Professor FitzGerald comment on this issue? Climate change is a global phenomenon, but judging from my humble research, food production in Ireland is more carbon efficient than in other countries. I am not kicking to touch. Rather, this is the argument that is being posed.
I will be brief, as most of my comments have already been made. What is Professor FitzGerald's view of the dairy industry? He mentioned where he thought it would go and the most appropriate way it could develop over the next decade. It will probably be one of the key issues for the question of affordability. Consider what the commodity market is doing in terms of farming. Given production costs, the money realistically will be made in dairy. That is why there has been an influx of farmers, in particular younger ones, into dairy production from beef outlets. Could changes in dairy practices form a major part of the expansion? We use terms like "anaerobic digestion" and have policies to ensure a biogas network is built so that excess slurry and grass can be used to generate energy. Could a combination of anaerobic digestion and an expansion of the dairy herd allow rural Ireland to be profitable? There is a global drive for dairy products at the moment but no such global drive for beef products.
I do not mean to be rude about it, but forestry in certain parts of the country is considered to be on bad land. Is there a social responsibility on all farmers to give over a certain percentage of their holdings, big or small, dry or wet, to forestry? If so, how would that work?
I thank Professor FitzGerald for his presentation. Speaking as someone from Offaly in the midlands, where a third of our county is peat soil and has been used for harvesting turf for electricity generation for decades, the future of the peatlands is at the forefront of my mind. A certain amount of the boglands is being rehabilitated and restored by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Bord na Móna has completed harvesting except on some bogs. Given that its main client no longer requires as much peat as was intended, though, a serious issue arises in that regard. Private operators are harvesting peat for horticultural use and exports to the UK and so on. Has the Climate Change Advisory Council had an opportunity to consider how all of that will be managed in terms of the rehabilitation and restoration that are required? If the boglands are not being used for harvesting as they were in the past, how much carbon can be saved? I believe that the average figure for carbon sequestered by peatlands throughout the country is 57,400 tonnes per year, which is significant. Has the council had time to go into that in detail?
Has the council had a chance to consider the implications for Bord na Móna and the ESB of the recent An Bord Pleanála decision concerning the west Offaly power station at Shannonbridge? The station's application to co-fire peat and biomass to 2027 has been refused. We all agree that there should be a just transition, but it needs an agreed timeline and, all of a sudden, the transition has been fast-forwarded to 2020, if not the end of 2019 when the PSO runs out. The implications for the workers in the area are very severe. I would like Professor FitzGerald's view on this matter.
On 9 May, which was Europe Day, a joint sitting of this committee and the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine held an interesting debate. Dr. Sinéad McCarthy from Teagasc appeared before us. We considered the questions of food and carbon emissions from our beef industry. One issue that arose related to how most of the plant-based protein foods that we might rely on as alternatives to meat were imported. This was striking. None of those foods that one buys from Tesco or some other shops is made in Ireland. My understanding is that our soil and climate are not best suited to the types of crop in question. Such crops would have to be imported. If they are coming from the tropics, then we are talking about developing countries that face their own food shortage challenges and about the carbon footprint of bringing the food to Ireland.
Dr. McCarthy expanded on the notions that we were best placed to get our protein from meat and dairy as opposed to beans and other plant-based protein crops, given that our cattle were grass fed, and that, as one got older, one would have to eat more beans to meet one's protein requirements compared with meat. Perhaps these are not matters that the council has considered, but they need further discussion. The issue of food is emotive and the debate has not been expanded upon enough. The debate has been slanted by people who have not looked into it enough, and while there is a bigger discussion in the round, beef is getting a bashing. At the end of the day, though, we have to eat food. There are many dimensions to this issue.
Professor John FitzGerald:
I hope I manage to deal with them all. Taking Deputy Neville's and Senator Mulherin's together, Ireland has set an obligation to reduce our emissions by 2030. While we are more efficient than many other countries, we are less efficient than some. The council's supplementary working paper shows that, although Ireland is top of the class in some cases, it is not in others.
I will turn to the issue of carbon efficiency and what is coming down the tracks, particularly in terms of what Senator Mulherin mentioned. In July, I was babysitting my grandchildren in Boston. I took my 11 year old grandson and my seven year old granddaughter to the Museum of Science, which is one of the best in the world. There were two 15-minute lectures on that afternoon. My grandson stated that he wanted to go to one on synthetic biology and another on climate change. The former was well delivered and my grandson got all the issues. I did too, and I learned a certain amount. It covered how DNA had been transferred from beef to vegetable matter, specifically soya, and how beef was now being produced from that matter. The Vegan Timespanned it, saying it was awful because it tasted just like beef.
The next day, my grandson said he wanted a falafel sandwich. He knew a place near the children's hospital.
I took him there and he got his falafel sandwich but they were selling burgers with artificial beef. I did not try one as I did not fancy it and nor did he but two weeks ago, Barclays said that, within the next ten years, 10% of the world's beef would be met from artificial beef, which we will not be able to tell from real beef. The beef sector will be under huge pressure and if 10% of the world's supply is taken out by a cheaper alternative, the worldwide market will be much more difficult. Farmers in six states of the United States have got together to lobby for Burger King to have to label artificial beef as such, because they are very concerned. There will be knock-on effects because of the relationship between milk and beef, which Deputy Dooley identified.
Senator Mulherin asked about imports. Two thirds of everything on our supermarket shelves are made in the United Kingdom or imported through the United Kingdom. We produce dramatically more beef than we need to feed ourselves. The agriculture sector has to look at these issues independently of issues around climate change. Climate change will not be the saviour but it could be the reason compensation is paid to farmers to transition out of the sector. Senator Lombard asked about offsetting with anaerobic digestion. Teagasc has assumed all these things happen with a stable dairy herd, which is necessary to meet the target. It would not allow us to increase the dairy herd and it is taken for granted that we will implement all these measures to reduce costs and emissions if we are to meet our target. I do not see it as a get-out-of-jail card.
It was suggested that farmers be required to have a proportion of their land in forestry. As a non-farmer, I am reluctant to force farmers to do anything and it would be better to try to persuade farmers that it is in their best interests to do it. The CAP can be framed in different ways and there may be mandatory elements but we have not got involved in that.
Deputy Corcoran Kennedy asked about peat. Co-firing is not an answer because if the biomass comes from Ireland, it can be much more effectively used for heating in rural areas. If it is imported, it is a double no. In any event, a lot of peat would be consumed anyway and the combined emissions would still be awful. I take the point that bringing forward the closure to today is very disruptive. Bord na Móna was planning for a longer term. I was down on bogs in Offaly and Kildare to look at what is involved and it was brought home to me that we cannot just abandon bogs - we have to manage them. It will involve much lower employment and somebody will have to pay for it because Bord na Móna will make no money if it is not selling the peat.
I was asked about alternatives under just transition. There is €20 million which has been put aside in the budget for developing a retrofitting capacity in the midlands. One option could be for some of the workers to be trained to provide this service so that we would keep the activity and keep employment in the midlands. It is an innovative idea for using some of the €90 million in revenue. Bord na Móna showed me a number of things it is doing to prepare for alternative employment but these are not ready yet. From an environmental point of view, it was important to bring forward the closure of the bogs but how it is handled is important as a demonstration that climate change will not impose massive costs on a particular community.
It is very important. We keep coming back to beef. My issue is not trade but the fact that the likes of soya beans are being grown in South America where rainforests are being torn down. A lot of such beans may be grown in tropical areas of developing countries where people are challenged with not having enough food to begin with but we are shipping them over here. Europe signed up to the Mercosur deal and said we would get them in shape and operating to a satisfactory standard but these issues are not being discussed.
Professor John FitzGerald:
We are not getting involved in the issue of dietary change and we have not looked at this issue. I made the point that the beef and agriculture sectors face major challenges. We are concerned about dealing with those challenges in a way that is compatible with dealing with climate change. From what we can see, dealing with climate change will be compatible with protecting farmers' interests in the long term. We are not taking a position on the issue of alternative foods. We are saying that this is happening in the outside world and, whatever we do in Ireland, it will affect the market for agricultural produce. Given that the vast bulk of our beef and dairy products are exported, it is something we need to be concerned about and we suggest that transitioning to an alternative land use would be helpful for farmers and give them security in this uncertain external environment.
I commend the Climate Change Advisory Council on its annual review. It has many contentious proposals but climate change raises many challenging and contentious issues with which we need to deal, one of which is the reduction of the national herd. If we reduce our herd and our output to reduce carbon emissions, it has to be seen in the context of demand and if people still demand beef or dairy products, they will get their beef and dairy from elsewhere. I believe beef coming from South America will be the big challenge, not artificial beef. Does that not defeat the purpose of protecting the environment by reducing our national herd? I know Professor FitzGerald does not want to get into eating habits but my question is relevant to this issue.
Professor FitzGerald mentioned compensation for farmers.
I do not disagree with the analysis but I am putting some of the questions that might be asked by those in the sector. We are here to challenge the testimony and report of Professor FitzGerald. Professor FitzGerald spoke, quite rightly, about how there must be a just transition and compensation for farmers. How does he see that working in practice, specifically for beef farmers?
Professor John FitzGerald:
The evidence suggests beef farmers could make more money already by moving into increasing woodland. They are not doing so. It is not because farmers are stupid but rather that the scheme or schemes are not meeting the needs of farmers. Professor Esther Duflo, who won the Nobel prize for economics on Monday, has a very good paper on the economist as a plumber. One of the reasons she won the Nobel prize was that instead of designing great schemes, she argues that economists need to get their hands dirty in understanding why schemes do not work. They are dealing with real people, who can be different. We need to look at why the schemes that are there, which look great in a spreadsheet, are not working.
Professor John FitzGerald:
I am told many farmers could make more money, so what is the reason they are not doing so? It is not because they are stupid but because there are obstacles. I did research on the economics of biomass with ESB International and Teagasc 20 years ago. One of the problems for farmers was that if they produce biomass and there is only one buyer, farmers would have much experience of being beholden to one buyer and being screwed. We would need to look at developing the market. If farmers plant more woodland, will there be only one buyer and will they be screwed? We have not done that research. We are saying there is a problem. It looks as if the practice is profitable but it is not happening. The Department should design a scheme as the existing schemes are not working. They should be recalibrated so they will work.
I thank Professor FitzGerald for his response. There needs to be a balance between land use for energy production, whether that is solar, wind or the other options, and land use for food production. Has the council done any analysis of how we achieve that balance or is it for others? Quite rightly, Professor FitzGerald spoke in his opening statement about the just transition and we are talking specifically about farming and agriculture. What Department or agency should anchor the just transition for that sector where farmers need to make the transition from the beef, dairy or whatever sector they are in to something else, whether that is mixed land use, afforestation etc.
Professor John FitzGerald:
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has primary responsibility for agricultural matters because the CAP will be a major instrument. All of the income of beef farmers comes from the CAP because, on average, they make nothing from producing beef. This will be about how the CAP will be reconfigured in a way that is consistent with tackling the problem of climate change and rewarding farmers in a fair way. It is the challenge for the Department. In a small way other Departments are involved, but with the farming community it is probably primarily for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to deal with this. They can fight it out and I am not here to arbitrate between Departments. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is providing €3 million from the total of €90 million for green agriculture pilots. Although other Departments are involved, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will take the lead.
Professor John FitzGerald:
The Soviet-style national planner might have said a certain amount of land should be used for this, that or the other. Telling farmers what they are to do is not the route to go. Using much more land to suck carbon from the atmosphere is important. We should remember that grassland, if used correctly, can perform some of this role. We need to shift from the land use that currently contributes to the problem to land use that can help solve the problem.
There has been mention of a 70 year old farmer who might find it very difficult to make the transition. Has there been much engagement with the younger cohort, which may well be more positive about a transition that would improve the land as a carbon sink? I know Professor FitzGerald does not wish to talk about the dietary aspects but that research is important. In my niece's school and other schools, there is what is called meat shaming when kids bring in their lunch. Many kids, particularly young girls, are hiding their sandwiches or pretending they are vegetarian. There is a big shift to vegetarianism and veganism. There is a fundamental change in younger generation's lifestyles. Food Wise 2025 is seeking increased exports, so will we have to increase those exports further if we are to continue with a beef and dairy herd in the country?
The period of 11 years would not be long enough for evolution. It would be more like a revolution if it happened within a decade. If farmers decide to change practice and the focus of what is done with the land, could we judge the compensation they receive by how the local environment and community is improved, all in the context of the just transition? There would be a dividend that would depend on the effectiveness of improvements to air quality, a reduction in pollution, soil fertility etc.
Professor John FitzGerald:
If we consumed no more beef from tomorrow, the emissions would be identical as we would just export more beef. The Senator is right that this would not deal with the matter. I would be very cautious as an older gentleman about going around telling schoolchildren what they should eat. I know somebody went into a primary school preaching vegetarianism, which led to a child taking to vegetarianism but not eating any vegetables. That child ended up in Crumlin hospital.
Professor John FitzGerald:
It is not going to make any difference to emissions. The CAP is required to be framed to provide compensation for environmental benefits from agriculture. That should be the bigger emphasis. I am reluctant to place too many obligations on farmers by saying they must act in ways that are good for the environment, their incomes and the local community. We cannot place too many obligations on farmers. Setting up incentives for them to farm in a way that is good for biodiversity and climate action should be part of the process and it would provide income as well.
I will do some rapid fire questioning, if the Chairman does not mind. Professor FitzGerald is looking hale and hearty before his impending birthday. I congratulate him as he has been a great figure on the public landscape and he has always spoken with a great degree of common sense. It is very easy to listen to what he has to say as it is always based on common sense.
I want to speak to the binary argument of beef versus forestry. Given the years of experience, what is the perspective of Professor FitzGerald? That is either wearing the Climate Change Advisory Council hat or the professor hat.
Can horticulture drive a wedge into that binary argument and force us to think more laterally about what food we are producing and land use? Can we get a short perspective on that from Professor FitzGerald to begin with?
Professor John FitzGerald:
It is a question of whether it would be a significant factor in helping us meet our climate change targets. We have limited resources and we tend to stick to the high level by recommending changing land use to woodland or crops. We say these changes suck carbon out of the atmosphere and are they the way to go, rather than getting too prescriptive about the crops. Research has been done showing different grasses in the sward suck in more carbon at night and so on.
My second question relates to Professor FitzGerald's earlier intervention when he spoke about the need to legislate for the carbon price or tax trajectory. What would such legislation look like? If the Climate Change Advisory Council were to legislate for this tomorrow morning, what would it advise the Government to do? What would that legislation look like? Would it be highly prescriptive on the trajectory? Would it set out a certain price for every year leading up to a given target?
Professor John FitzGerald:
I would have liked legislation stating that the carbon tax will be €26 per tonne in 2032 and then specify up to €80 thereafter and so on. The precedent for this is corporation tax. Going back decades, the Government said corporation tax would fall to 12.5% ten years hence. Of course, one Oireachtas cannot bind the next Oireachtas so it does not give us a guarantee. However, given the commitment to this in the committee report, I anticipate that if it was enshrined in legislation, it might even make it easier for the next Government, whatever its composition. Instead of making the decision to introduce a carbon tax, the Government could simply do nothing and the tax would rise in line with the recommendation. That is how I would do it.
My next question relates to the financing of climate action. It is difficult for us as Members to draw a line under what is currently allocated for climate action. The whole philosophy is based on behavioural change. The people I represent are not in a position to switch from a diesel engine to a fully electric engine. They are not in a position to spend between €50,000 and €80,000 retrofitting a 1970s bungalow. If we are talking about financing, incentives have to be provided.
Local authority housing has extraordinary potential to take carbon out of the atmosphere. What would a scheme look like? Has the Climate Change Advisory Council given consideration to the cost of such a scheme? Has it looked at the entirety of the local authority housing stock in the country? We are starting with a project in the midlands, for which €20 million has been provided. We all absolutely welcome that, but I represent the people of Cork East. There are many people in Cork East living in local authority houses who do not believe they are eligible for such schemes. It is a question of how we incentivise private homeowners and those in local authority houses. I put it to Professor FitzGerald that if we do not have an entire figure for what has been allocated to retrofit houses, it is difficult to do an assessment of what we could allocate per house. Does the advisory council have a perspective on how we would finance that? I suggest that it must be part grant and possibly part savings. It is conceivable that when people reach a certain age, for example, when their children have flown the nest, there may be a few bob in the credit union. Maybe we could combine a grant, part savings and part loan. Has the advisory council given some thought to this?
Professor John FitzGerald:
We concentrated on agriculture in the previous report. We will have a special chapter on transport in the next report, after which the topic will be heat. However, it has not stopped us opining on some of the issues Deputy Sherlock has raised. The Government did itself no favours in the budget. I spent an hour trying to find where the €90 million was going.
Professor John FitzGerald:
I identified €71 million within an hour. Then, three days later, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform published a very good note that sets out where all of the €90 million will go. Of course, there is a great deal more in terms of public transport investment and so on. It would help if there was a green budget so that we could see where all of the money is going. My suspicion is that far more than the total revenue from the carbon tax is going on climate change issues, including the SEAI budget, for example. We could do better to help people find out what is being done in this area. While we are not doing enough, it would be better if people knew about what little we are doing.
The Deputy referred to retrofitting and upgrading. It is likely that the households of Ireland will need to spend between €25 billion and €75 billion over the next 30 years.
Professor John FitzGerald:
The vast bulk of it will have to come from their own resources. The State cannot pick up the tab. It would require a major increase in taxation or a reduction in other services to do it. That is a big ask. The question is how best to go about it.
Many people are prepared to spend their own money but do not how to do it. I have talked to a significant number of people about the problems in doing it. The €20 million ring-fenced for the midlands is a beginning to the strategy. We know the State owns 100,000 or 150,000 local authority dwellings. As the landlord, the obligation is on the State to upgrade those dwellings. We could begin there and offer several contracts to upgrade 1,000 local authority dwellings next year. The number the following year could increase to 2,000 and then 5,000 after that. In that way, a builder can know that if he specialises in that area, he will have a growing volume of activity.
There is one case in Kilkenny. Kilkenny County Council upgraded a local authority estate. It got an engineer and sourced a builder. Since the council was doing a large number of houses together, it got a good deal. An engineer checked that the specifications were right and the job was done correctly. What happened was that the private owners of the former local authority houses in the estate asked if they could pay for their houses to be retrofitted too. They were prepared to pay for their houses to be done because the hard work had been done by the council. That is the model. We should begin with the local authority dwellings. It has the benefit that, on average, people in local authority dwellings are less well off than people in the community as a whole. Also, many of them are elderly and may not spend enough on heating. If we upgrade their dwellings, it may lead to a health improvement. There will certainly be an income distribution benefit. Moreover, we help to develop the capacity for the rest of the community. That is why we have suggested beginning there.
Giving me a grant to do up my house is a waste of money. For many people, the problems of doing up the house and the disruption are a far greater concern. I wrote about how my wife and I did a job on our house a decade ago. We probably need to do another one. It was driven by my wife because she said we needed to be ready for our wheelchairs. The chaos in the house was something else. I will not say it caused a divorce - happily, we have been married for more than 40 years - but the disruption to life in making the change was significant. If a homeowner upgrades the house to a BER A2 rating, it may be necessary to put in underfloor heating. That means taking everything down. We need to look at how to do this in the least disruptive fashion and help people to do it. I will go back to what I said about schemes with farmers. We need to understand the obstacles first. We should begin with local authority dwellings where there are multiple benefits, spend the scarce resources there and see how we get on.
I agree with the last point made by Professor FitzGerald on the benefits of retrofitting local authority houses. I see this in my area and it is an extraordinary benefit to people.
I want to focus on the principle of carbon taxes. It is something of an accepted narrative that where countries have introduced a significant carbon tax, emissions have declined significantly. I put it to Professor FitzGerald that there are other explanations for the decline in emissions in some of the models we looked at, including British Colombia and Norway. Some of it had to do with industry switching from coal to gas, outsourcing to other industries or periods of recession when manufacturing was at low levels. There is a lack of evidence showing that significant increases in carbon tax actually reduce emissions.
A considerable part of it is because, as we just heard, carbon tax does not change the behaviour of people who cannot afford to change their behaviour.
Professor FitzGerald's former colleagues in the ERSI told us here at a separate meeting that they disagreed with the model of carbon tax that the Government is introducing. They favoured a fee and dividend model. We have a problem here, however. I refer to part of the admiration Professor FitzGerald has given this committee for the work we have done on the carbon tax. One of our key priority recommendations was to advise the Government to conduct a fuel poverty survey of the country to establish the levels of fuel poverty, not only by looking at who gets fuel allowance but more broadly, and to come back to us then about the carbon tax. The Government never conducted that. I ask Professor FitzGerald to comment on that. Should the Government do so now?
It was not the only key recommendation we made on carbon tax. Recommendation No. 4 argued that an inquiry should be conducted into the revenue that could be realised through the introduction of a carbon tax on the profits of corporations directly linked to the production and sale of gas, oil and coal and other fossil fuels. As an economist, does Professor FitzGerald think there could be a model of tax that would disincentivise the fossil fuel corporations, the hedge funds and the investment banks which benefit from all the fossil fuel corporations and their behaviour, and could we use the taxation system to effect necessary change from them? I have one more question presently.
Professor John FitzGerald:
There is a significant body of evidence that carbon taxes work. Deputy Boyd Barrett put this issue to me in June at the Committee on Budgetary Oversight. I talked to one of the experts on the area and there is research which showed it worked in British Columbia. Deputy Bríd Smith quite correctly states that much is going on simultaneously and one needs fairly sophisticated economic research to separate out the effects. Since 1992, there is a paper a year from the ESRI on this subject. There is a vast literature out there. Professor William Nordhaus, who won the Nobel price for economics last year, is another of these people who have done work on it. This is not just an issue in Ireland, but across the world.
If one raises the price, one changes investment behaviour. For example, Volkswagen is not necessarily a nice company. The company is investing heavily in electric cars because it sees the taxation on fossil fuels going up all of the time. The company will go out of business if it does not produce a cheaper alternative. In Ireland, within three years, one will be able to buy electric cars as the cheap alternative. The price changes the decision on investment in a crucial way. If one looks at Dublin's taxis, how many Toyota Prius cars are there? The reason is not necessarily that taxi drivers care more about climate change than the rest of us. It is because it is the cheap solution given the price of fuel. In particular, higher prices discourage one from burning fossil fuels; it is an investment decision.
On housing, why do people retrofit their houses? Many of those who have done so to date have probably wanted to do the right thing, but one will not have this level of investment unless by so doing people save money because it is the saving of money that will finance future investment. Going back to Deputy Sherlock, there is a model in The Netherlands, which works there, where they will retrofit one's house for free providing they can make the savings on energy over the subsequent 30 years. I am not sure that model would work well here but it might be worth looking at.
People make the change because it is the cheap solution. The evidence is universal that this works. It is the investment decision that is important. The reason we want to see a promise to ramp it up over time is so that when the Deputy goes out and buys her next car, even if the petrol car is cheaper, the Deputy will know that over the lifetime of the car she would be better off with an electric car. That is the argument for carbon taxes.
That is an argument but there is other evidence to show that it does not dramatically decrease emissions. If we look at the dramatic increase in emissions overall over the past few decades, this may be borne out. Carbon tax imposed on ordinary people to change their behaviour is a bad model, particularly in the model in Ireland where we have poor public transport, do not have access to cheap retrofitting and electric cars are expensive. Could Professor FitzGerald comment on the other part of my question?
Professor John FitzGerald:
The Deputy asked three questions. In one, the Deputy stated the ESRI favoured the fee and dividend model. It did not. If the Deputy looks at Dr. Barra Roantree's paper or Dr. Muireann Lynch's paper - she gave evidence here - they looked at a range of different options on how one feeds back.
Professor John FitzGerald:
Having been there, they do not have a corporate view. Anyway, if one looks at the Dr. Barra Roantree paper, it looks at a range of different options, as does the Dr. Lynch paper, both of which I am familiar with.
In terms of looking at fuel poverty, the Dr. Roantree paper, the Dr. Lynch paper, the Dr. Sue Scott paper of 1992 and a whole series of papers have looked at this. The Dr. Roantree paper, in particular, shows how one could give back the money in different ways which would leave people on low incomes better off. What the Dr. Roantree paper stated about the use of the fuel allowances is it will make those in receipt of fuel allowances significantly better off but the problem is that there are people who are not in receipt of fuel allowances who will not receive the compensation. Dr. Roantree, if one looks at the model there, recommended a broader change in social welfare. One does not spend all the money but in spending 30% to 50% on compensating, one could ensure that those in the bottom 30% of the income distribution would not be affected. The research is there. It is open to the Oireachtas and, through the Oireachtas, the Government.
This the problem though. The Government was to give us a piece of research that incorporated everything Professor FitzGerald is talking about to look at fuel poverty and to come back on that before it introduced a carbon tax. We worked hard at it for days trying to come up with a form of words that would put the onus on the Government to examine fuel poverty before the introduction. Professor FitzGerald is advising the Government. Could Professor FitzGerald advise us on what he would say to the Government on that?
Professor John FitzGerald:
What I am saying is: the advice is that the research is done. There is a series of papers out there. We have the information.
We made a decision that we would not take a position on how the money should be used. Our mission is to advise Government, including the Oireachtas, on how we can decarbonise at minimum cost and getting into distributional issues is beyond our remit and is the committee's remit, as the Oireachtas.
Our remit was ignored, I am afraid.
I want to come back to the question of the role of the climate advisory council. One of its roles is to provide policy evaluation to Government based on the best available science. My question pertains to the advice that Professor FitzGerald provided to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment on the future of gas and oil exploration in a letter date 20 September 2019. Professor FitzGerald used what he called "compelling" evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, about the combustion of known reserves of natural gas. That line was used to justify the continued exploration for oil and gas, and especially gas, off our shores. The scientists Professor FitzGerald is supposed to refer to, such as those in Oil Change International, have told us they have seen the letter and that there was particular isolated use of the letter. One of the points Professor FitzGerald stated is that natural gas has been identified internationally as an important transitional fuel. The scientists state that there is a formidable body of evidence to show that they have a diametrically opposed position. The response of oil and gas was to state that the letter that Professor FitzGerald used considering each fossil fuel in isolation vis-à-viscarbon budgets has no reasonable scientific basis. I have every respect for Professor FitzGerald and his job, but his council is made up mainly of economists, not of scientists. Professor FitzGerald's role to use the best science available to advise the Government was not properly used in this case, particularly in relation to gas exploration.
Professor John FitzGerald:
The note the Deputy mentioned was a piece of evidence we considered. However, we also considered a wide range of other evidence. There are two particular issues. The first is how to get to zero net emissions by 2050. The work done by University College Cork, UCC, suggests that, given known technology, the only way we will get there by 2050 is if we balance a very large amount of wind and solar with gas-fired generation incorporating carbon capture and storage so that there will be no emissions from the use of gas. We need some kind of technology. Technological developments may give rise to alternatives, but not at the moment. Gas will be needed beyond 2050. The UCC study is not unique. Our sister organisation in the United Kingdom, the Committee on Climate Change, which has more resources and is much further advanced than we are, has identified the same issue in the context of how to address the intermittent availability of renewable sources of energy. Said intermittent availability means that we need gas. To meet the 2050 target, we have an urgent task to turn transport around . We are concerned that the target set may not be achievable unless there is a dramatic change in policy on electric cars. The technology is not yet available for electric heavy goods vehicles. However, the move to compressed natural gas will substantially reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide from heavy goods vehicles and will greatly reduce emissions in urban areas which are damaging to health. Gas will be needed. That is the first set of evidence. We have considered evidence from UCC, the UK Committee on Climate Change and work done elsewhere in Europe on that.
The second set of evidence relates to a series of papers dating back over a number of years. We did not do a note on this. I authored the 2015 paper and it was published by the ESRI. The paper was commissioned by the Department of Finance a year and a half before Brexit and it related to the implications of the latter for Ireland. The ESRI published a series of papers in November 2015, including one by me on the implications for energy. It is the last of a string of papers by the ESRI over 15 years on the security of the Irish energy system. The concern has been that if the gas disappeared tomorrow, the lights would go off and we would be left to freeze. We doubled the capacity of the gas interconnector between Ireland and Scotland. We then paid for a doubling of the onshore gas pipeline in Scotland to protect ourselves. However, the advent of Brexit raises an issue. If, for example, there was a major interruption in the gas supply in Austria, which would affect all of Europe, under EU law, if there is a shortage of gas, member states must share it. However, the UK leaving the EU will mean that there is a state between us and the EU. I am old enough to remember the Suez crisis when they kept the oil for themselves when there was a shortage and the same applied during the Second World War. If there was an interruption or a shortage of supply in Europe, we could be cut off as a result. That would leave us , which leaves us insecure. Last week, National Grid published a paper voicing concern about the security of supply in Britain because if there was a shortage in the rest of Europe, it could be cut off. Under EU law, it is protected but that will no longer be the case.
Security of supply is not just an issue for Ireland. How should we deal with that matter? Previously, we doubled the pipeline. While the Corrib Field will remain in operation for the next decade, we have an alternative supply. We might not have it for heating, but would have it for net essential electricity if it was cut off. What do we do when the Corrib runs out? We could have an LNG terminal somewhere and bring in LNG or if we discovered gas, it would be of value in terms of security of supply. It seemed to us that there is little benefit to Ireland in drilling for oil. With gas, there is a potential benefit from the perspective of security of supply. Irrespective of what we do, it will make no difference to Ireland's emissions, which is our primary remit. I have a concern in the context of spending too much time on this issue, which will not affect our emissions. It is a distraction. We are far behind and we need to make big efforts. Devoting considerable time to this issue will make no difference to our emissions. We have answered the question and I have given the committee the evidence on which our decision was based.
This is my final comment. In the context of this critical issue, scientists claim we must keep fossil fuels in the ground. There is a serious divergence between Professor FitzGerald's advice to Government and what the global scientists scream at us every day.
I will make a comment that is useful to the discussion before asking questions. The environmental movement globally wants to move away from putting all the emphasis on individual responsibility and concentrate on tackling the problem at source. That is why we are fixated and interested in keeping fossil fuels in the ground.
Professor FitzGerald is right in saying there is an issue of security because of what is happening in the UK. In lengthy discussions with people involved in that process in the past three years, I have never heard anyone state that the UK negotiators are considering weakening the energy security arrangements or co-operation in respect of energy. As the professor indicated, the UK is absolutely exposed because its North Sea offshore gas flows are decreasing by 7% or 8% per year. The UK is critically dependent on Norwegian and continental gas connections for its security. That issue can be and I believe will be addressed in whatever Brexit outcome arises. If the UK tries to operate as an isolated system, it will be left with the most incredibly expensive electricity, in particular, which will kill its digital and other industries. The alternative to such investment in gas infrastructure is in electricity interconnection to allow that balancing capability on a big scale. This is big thinking. That would be a much more secure investment because investing in fossil fuel must stop now.
What Professor FitzGerald said about the budget is true. There is no clarity coming from the Department of Finance. In the area of transport, for example, it is just given as a lump sum for land-use transport. There is no breakdown between public transport and roads. I have asked the Committee on Budgetary Oversight and the Parliamentary Budget Office if they could answer that question but they have never been able to do it.
Let us put aside the existing expenditure. I know that is a bad habit in our budgets. We are always looking at the new. What is new in the budget is that we provided a potential €1.5 billion as a cash payment to businesses in the event of a no-deal Brexit and we gave €90 million to climate action. Would it not have been far better to give €1.5 billion to climate action in a way that would also have protected those sectors most at risk from Brexit to pay farmers to do as Professor FitzGerald suggested and take the corner part of a field to plant native forestry, which a farmer could do. They would be learning forestry by doing that. They could also cut the hedgerows. We could also invest radically in cycling and walking infrastructure or in apprenticeships to allow young people to build up expertise for retrofitting. Was Professor FitzGerald disappointed with the budget in that context? I would characterise it as €1.5 billion going to business as usual versus €90 million to some climate initiative?
Professor John FitzGerald:
This has come up since the council considered it. My personal view is the money for farmers as is the case of all compensation it must be temporary. It is a transitional payment. It is not €800 million a year for the future whereas there is a very substantial ramping up of investment, much of it in housing. However, it makes sense to use the money to help farmers transition out of sectors that are very badly affected, such as beef, into other sectors.
I would not write off all of that €800 million as being non-climate sensitive. It is temporary. Obviously, I would have liked there to have been more. My concern is that it is difficult to identify in the investment. If one thinks about the investment in housing, it is in local authority housing or social housing where all the houses have a BER of A. It is not like the cost of retrofitting but embedded in that is a significant amount of additional expenditure, which is related to moving the BER from, let us say, C to A. It is very difficult to identify what relates to climate change in the investment programme. Is climate change the reason for much of the investment in public transport? It is good for climate change but it is being done to get people from A to B because of congestion. It is difficult to break down, but it would be a help if the Government did provide a breakdown. It would exaggerate the environmental benefits out of the investment programme.
I will be very brief. My second question relates to land use. Professor FitzGerald referred to 40 years of agricultural economics. As he stated, it is really difficult for us to change habits. This committee recommended in its report the merits of a national land use plan, not just in respect of farming but also the restoration of peatlands, and the importance of that in respect to flood management, the protection of the wilderness and the restoration of nature. To my mind, we would move towards a completely different forestry model not just composed of commercial plantations because we face a biodiversity crisis as well as a climate crisis. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Teagasc seem to have set themselves stridently against such an overview plan. Has Professor FitzGerald looked at the merits or otherwise of that kind of big-picture or long-term view as to where we might be going in this transition for fear that we would end up with a series of piecemeal and sometimes contradictory measures?
Professor John FitzGerald:
What the committee suggests sounds very sensible to me. It is a question of what one calls it. The Government would be reluctant for the plan to be construed as something telling people what they are to do rather than saying what would be desirable for us all to do, if we were to put it in those terms. One other thing Deputy Eamon Ryan did not mention is how much land we want to devote to housing in terms of the density of population. It seems that it would be a sensible and useful thing to do. It is how one explains it. As a piece of research, it would be helpful if we could look at what has happened to land use in the past 50 years and where we would like to go in the next 50 years.
They are in two sets. Could the Chair indicate when I am halfway through my time and I will switch to the other set?
My first questions are brief and relate to economic matters. Like others, I have been struck by the fact that €90 million is peanuts. Given the many strong cases being made about areas that will need transition support, I have been struck by the difference between the €6 million just transition fund compared to the €650 million envisaged in the case of a no-deal Brexit. I accept that the timing is different. As Professor FitzGerald is aware, there are differences of opinion on the extent to which carbon taxing incentivises us or engages us in behavioural changes. That is not the rationale used in the context of its introduction. The core economic rationale has been environmental externality and the fact that the social and environmental costs of fossil fuels have been borne by society and, in effect, we have subsidised an artificial commodity price over a long period. That is the rationale that was used in terms of initially bringing in the carbon tax. Given that that is the rationale, should it not be the case that every penny of the carbon tax, not the increase, which is attached to an incentive logic, all of the €35 for example, be ring-fenced to deal with those external costs such as mitigation and adaptation? Given that that is the logic, should all of the €35 be clearly designated?
Professor John FitzGerald:
When I stated that €90 million is peanuts, we obviously would have liked a much bigger increase in the carbon tax which would have provided more revenue. In terms of the environmental externality, it does not necessarily mean one has to use the money in that way but it seems to us reasonable to what we call hypothecate, and use the revenue from carbon tax for environmentally beneficial purposes and to compensate the user.
Building on that and in light of the environmental externality argument, the tax applies to carbon, but does it not also apply in respect of other greenhouse gases that are part of the fuel mix, for example, to methane, which is a large component of shale gas? The costs relating to methane as a greenhouse gas are being carried socially and environmentally by society and that should be reflected in the same way as carbon.
Its carbon content is one thing. This is a core issue. The UNFCCC has said that 1 tonne of methane is equivalent to 34 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Professor Howarth made a very clear point to the committee last week. It is interesting that the EPA does not measure carbon dioxide in its national emissions inventory, it measures carbon dioxide equivalent. Should we be measuring other greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide equivalent and applying environmental externality?
The levels do not seem to match. We are adding 75 cent on natural gas at the moment, versus the increase in carbon tax. If that is the case, I accept that. I will come back to Professor FitzGerald.
I was very surprised about the letter the council sent to the Department. I was not just surprised by the content of the letter but its timing. The council is an independent body responsible for reviewing policy. The timing of the letter was very strange, politically, just before a statement, and it did not seem to reflect the council's own review, which is what we are discussing here, the annual review of the Climate Change Advisory Council. In the sections on energy, there were not lengthy opinions on the role of gas and continued gas exploration. That was not something that had been analysed in detail but seemed to be closer to the letter from 2015. It was said the combustion of all known reserves of natural gas globally would not in itself exceed 1.5°C. Obviously, any one measure is not enough but the key concern is that it contributes to the overall level.
The other issues that were mentioned were carbon capture and storage. The evidence we heard last week is that methane has a quicker rate of absorption, that, in fact, it can narrow the period that we have and that carbon dioxide has a longer lag time in the context of absorption. Are we effectively shortening the window of time by taking this approach? It is not a bridge, rather it shortens the road we are on.
First of all, the science on methane is different from that relating to CO2. It is currently converted at a particular rate but methane disappears from the atmosphere in ten to 12 years, whereas CO2 is there forever. That makes carbon dioxide the primary focus. The metric treats them as equivalent for the 2030 targets. I refer the committee to the range of caveats in our letter as to how the gas is used.
Deputy Pearse Doherty asked about the issue of timing at a meeting of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight and the Taoiseach and the Minister have also asked about it. There seemed to be a broad political interest in answering that question. In terms of preparation for the meeting, because the council have very scarce resources, I did not get the secretariat to prepare a paper covering all the other evidence but we are aware of other evidence. I dispute the suggestion that everything turns on the briefing note because that was a briefing note on one set of evidence. We made a considered decision on this and there are caveats to it.
In one of those caveats, Professor FitzGerald mentioned that natural gas is a suitable alternative back-up technology. However, we are now looking at importing LNG and, wherever emissions happen, they affect the global emissions piece. The Professor will know that if that becomes a project of common interest, PCI, it will come with expectations, for example for higher priority access to the grid. If natural gas is given the elevation of becoming a PCI and a level of priority is given to importing LNG and building a terminal, is that compatible with framing natural gas as a back-up? It seems to me that is putting it pretty well centre stage.
Professor John FitzGerald:
The area of security of supply is primarily one for the Department, the Government and the Oireachtas. In our reply, we reflected that it is a consideration. There are alternative ways of dealing with it. It may also be that other technologies come along which mean that we will do without gas combined with carbon capture storage.
I am going to wrap up because we have another group coming before us. I thank Professor FitzGerald and Mr. O'Brien for attending. We will suspend for a few moments to allow our next set of witnesses to take their seats.