Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Post-European Council: Statements
I wish the Minister of State well. I understand that she was unwell during the week. I also wish her well in her work. I wish a Happy Christmas to her, to her family and to the other Ministers dealing with this matter.
In the course of the recent pre-Council statements, I raised the challenges that would emerge to Ireland's farming and agriculture sector in the context of the EU commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. I did so while highlighting the findings of the European Commission Joint Research Centre report which found that Ireland was the most carbon-efficient producer in the European Union per unit of dairy production and the fifth most carbon-efficient producer of beef per kilogram. Those are its findings and not ours. I also asked what would be the policy position or guidance we would be giving to the EU when it comes to outlining the ways in which we can approach carbon neutrality by 2050. I would very much like to hear some detail of that today. If the Minister of State cannot provide it, I ask that she commit to communicating the information to my office as soon as possible.
The conclusions reached by the Council acknowledge that the transition to climate neutrality will bring significant opportunities, such as potential for economic growth, for new business models and markets and for new jobs and technological developments. It also accepts, however, that achieving climate neutrality will require overcoming serious challenges and that work must be done to put in place an enabling framework that benefits all member states, taking into account different national circumstances in terms of starting points. We must also establish our starting point on the record of where we are with our carbon footprint and the good strides and achievements we have made. We cannot be totally demonising the farming community all of the time. That is what is happening in this House and abroad. We need to stand up, assert our position and let them know from where we are starting. I say that because if we start on the floor, where they would like us to start, we will be destroyed.
That is a vital point to remember. As I pointed out a few moments ago, Ireland and Irish farmers have an excellent reputation in the context of reducing carbon emissions. I met some of the farmers who were outside yesterday a number of times. Very few politicians went out to meet those farmers on the street. Those farmers do not want to be here on the street. They left early yesterday evening, thankfully, and did not cause much disruption, but they could have. Those farmers are frustrated by the prices and by the way they are being treated in being dismissed and demonised. It is totally unfair. I wish Mr. Tim Cullinane, a Tipperary man and the incoming president of the IFA, well. He was elected yesterday and I offer him my congratulations.
There was a low turnout in the recent by-elections and there was also a low turnout in the election of the new IFA president. Institutions are failing the people. The farming institutions and the EU institutions are failing rural Ireland and the farm families. We are just demonising them and portraying them as bad people and polluters who do care about the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are good custodians of the environment and do much in that regard, including in the context of animal husbandry, crop management, planting trees and various other kinds of work. They are interested in doing that. Young people, as young as ten, were making tea and soup for people inside in a horse box yesterday. They are interested in the future and that is why they were here yesterday. It was not to glibly cause trouble with Dublin protests. That is happening while the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, is almost absent. He was away yesterday and some of the people outside thought he was on holidays. I do not know where he was. I think he was in Brussels and I said that to the people outside. He could have been on holidays for the last four years because he has paid lip service to farmers and done nothing for them. Farmers have an excellent reputation in respect of reducing carbon emissions. Day in and day out, they are being demonised in this House, in the media and all over. It is the duty of the Minister of State, at this level, and that is why I asked before she went, what she was going to bring to the table at that meeting. I am asking her now to let us know in her reply, or to at least communicate with my office, what she put on the table. She should have defended the people who put her in here.
They are a responsible sector and they want to play their part. I cannot reiterate that point enough. I also refer to the farm organisations. That said, the sad thing is, however, that they are not getting thanked for their work on mitigating carbon. They do not want thanks. They are not getting it, but they do not want it nor expect it. They do want to be recognised and respected for what they are doing. Instead, they are being demonised and held up as killers of the planet and other such nonsense. That is patent nonsense. It is unfair, unnecessary and unwarranted. This is going to present very real challenges, not just for farmers but also for our entire economic model.
In 2016 alone, the agrifood sector generated 7% of gross value added to the tune of €13.9 billion, produced 9.8% of Ireland's merchandise exports and provided 8.5% of national employment. That is not something to be sniffed at. It is vital that we protect and sustain this area. When employment in inputs, processing and marketing is included, the agrifood sector accounts for almost 10% of all employment in our State.
That is no mean figure. It has to be acknowledged and supported but the Government only pays lipservice to it. We fought hard in the programme for Government negotiations to have every policy rural-proofed. The Government must have shredded the document the hour after it got into office because nothing has been rural-proofed since. I have yet to see any proposal from the European Commission which would be capable of protecting our economy from the kind of shock that would happen if we were to pursue this climate neutrality approach.
The European Council in its conclusions last week also welcomed the European Commission's announcement that it will aim at facilitating €100 billion of investment through the just transition mechanism. The fact is, however, that we have seen what just transition means in an Irish context with the loss of jobs to the midlands region, as well as in Littleton, County Tipperary, and the complete erosion of industries which have supported those counties for generations with nothing to replace them. The fund put in place by the Government to get the workers affected into new jobs or reskilled is pathetic. It would not even pay the envelopes containing the redundancy notices. Just transition is a great phrase. It sounds almost gentle. The reality is quite different, however. In most cases, wherever it goes, it brings thousands of job losses with it and nothing to replace them.
Who is really benefiting and what are we actually transitioning toward? Sin é an cheist mór. There is a subterfuge going on here with many platitudes but no benefit. We do not want benefit over anyone else. We want recognition and fair play. I have always believed that fair play is fine play. Many countries are expressing doubt and a great deal of caution around where Europe is going with climate policy. We have seen this with respect to the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP25, held in Madrid. Those countries that are not wholehearted supporters of the COP25 agenda were accused of obstruction, even when they presented specific concerns with the proposals which would negatively impact their economies. Where are we going if we cannot have meaningful dialogue and representatives are demonised as obstructionists? If countries cannot bring forward objections to these forums, then what is all the talk about consultation and agreement really about? Our little country and the efforts it has made must be recognised.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, announced that Ireland is signing up to a multi-annual pledge to the green climate fund which helps developing countries make the transition while doubling our annual commitment with a total contribution of €18 million from 2019 to 2023. This is in addition to €196.7 million in international climate finance Ireland has contributed from 2016 to 2018 to developing countries, a not so insignificant sum to our small economy. Ireland has also committed an additional €3 million in total funding in 2019 to the least developed countries. This support is focused on those countries that are vulnerable to climate change. While I support this, we need to be acknowledged for what we are doing. Although most of that is worthy, there is still a concern that we have given €200 million to international climate financing without any real public engagement on that amount. We are told we are obstructionists if we ask questions about this.
I noted that in its conclusions, the European Council invited the European Commission to report regularly on the socio-economic impact of the transition to climate neutrality. We must see more of this. We must know the social and economic impact of what we are signing up to. That information needs to be made widely available. Will the Government make this kind of analysis much more readily available to the public to allow it to assess the social price of our carbon commitments?
While the Government stood down a €5 million spin team, it still does much spinning. It might put some of that energy into telling our colleagues across Europe and the world that our farmers and farming families have played, are playing and will play their part. They try to be self-sufficient and export the best of beef. All we want is some modicum of respect and fairness.