Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Climate Action and Low Carbon Development: Statements
This has been a hugely significant year in the country on the issue of climate change. It has been a year when public consciousness and desire for action has risen stronger than any time I can remember in the past 30 years of campaigning on this issue. It came from what happened in the previous year, with the IPCC report of October 2018 setting out the differences between a 1.5°C and 2°C rise in global temperatures. It came as well because of the World Wildlife Fund report published in the same month of that year showing we had lost half of all wildlife in the past 50 years by biomass weight. This was followed by David Attenborough and the controversy about plastic and the environment. The issue of how we are destroying nature by our actions was centre stage, particularly coming into this year. In any review of the year with regard to climate change and any look back at the history of what happened this year, people will also think of Greta Thunberg and the climate strikes movement. A few weeks ago, this Chamber was used for the youth parliament, which was a remarkable event, given the passion, intelligence and integrity of what was said. The Minister said it himself in his contribution. We have to listen to what those young people are saying.
What is so strong about what Greta Thunberg is saying is that she brings us back all the time to the key science and the October 2018 report from the IPCC that states if we are to have a 66% chance of staying below 1.5°C globally, we could release approximately 420 gigatonnes into the atmosphere. We continue to release and expand the number, with approximately 41 gigatonnes a year. This is why there is a focus on the next decade being the critical decade. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Greta and the students throughout the country who brought it centre stage.
I want to concentrate on the good news as well as bad. We had a Citizens' Assembly to which the all-party Oireachtas committee reacted. If we listen to what other countries and other people say needs to be done, we have actually taken some of the steps. We did it in a positive and collaborative manner that I hope will set us up well. I am happy to commend the whole-of-government action plan coming out of this where I think it got it right in terms of the idea of a whole-of-government approach. This island is small enough to be flexible and pull together but big enough to show proof of concept. We are a capable island, country and people when we set ourselves a goal on which there is consensus. There has been progress this year in the broadest political sense and it is because the Irish people want us to do this. We all know this. We all hear it when we are at the doors. I do not believe it will change. Irish people want us to go green. We are tired of being laggards and we are ready to be leaders. This is probably the most positive development this year.
Despite the failure in COP, and while I was pleased to be at the talks last week, it was deeply depressing to see the lack of progress, there is also potentially good news in the fact the European Union is now clearly setting itself the strategic goal of tackling this being our economic strategy. Tackling climate change and the biodiversity crisis is central to everything we will be doing as a continent and Union. This will have to be matched by a significant increase in the targets we are setting ourselves in preparation for COP 26 in Glasgow next year and much more ambitious targets for reductions in 2030 and 2050. In fact, there is a need for full decarbonisation before that date. This brings us to a challenge because the whole-of-Government action plan on climate is clearly not going to be ambitious enough. We cannot state we are part of the green new deal and that we really are leading if our emissions reductions are 2% per annum. I do not mean to score political points on this but it is just a reality.
The next Government will face a real challenge in delivering a multiple of that figure in annual reductions.
I met Paul Allen from Zero Carbon Britain - Centre for Alternative Technology at the Conference of the Parties, COP. He made the point that people focus all of the time on what the end goal date is for the decarbonisation and where we are at in terms of 2030 or 2050, which is true, but in terms of protecting the climate, it is what we do in the next few years that matters. If we leave emissions high, they remain in the atmosphere for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, such that the earlier we make the cuts the more significant the reduction that will occur in terms of pollution in the atmosphere. The curve is important. Starting early is the right thing to do in environmental terms.
There are two categories in terms of the Government's approach that need to change. There are categories on which we reached broad agreement at the Oireachtas committee, as reflected in the Government's action plan. I welcome that there is a significant ramping up or realisation of the scale of retrofitting we have to do in our domestic public buildings and commercial buildings. We are all agreed on that. The only problem now is how we do it when we do not have the workers in place to do it and we do not have the financing arrangements in place. We are only doing a minute fraction of what we are committing to do. For example, is the target 50,000 houses per annum but we are only doing a couple of hundred? That is the scale of the challenge. At least we know that is an area we are all agreed we want to address.
Similarly, it is significant that we have broad agreement on the Government plan which aims for 70% renewables by 2030. That is not an unambitious target for anyone who knows anything about how to manage this in an isolated, synchronised grid system. That will present a real challenge. I think we will benefit from it. We will meet it and we may be able to go further and in the learning by doing we will surprise ourselves and gain economic advantage. Again, nothing has been introduced yet, particularly in terms of offshore wind or in solar power, which shows us how we will actually do it.
Similarly in terms of the switch to electric vehicles there is broad agreement, although I have a different view in terms of the nature of the mobility services we need to be providing in transport. Again, ambitious targets are set but where are the real measures to deliver? That is a task for the current and next Government to rise to. In a whole range of other areas we do not have the ambition yet and we do not have consensus. We do not have consensus on transport. What this Government is doing on transport is utterly unsustainable. It runs completely counter to any climate change ambition. It is not serving our people in any way because it is just leading to gridlock. The entire transport policy needs to change. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has been a complete waste of space when it comes to his contribution to the climate debate.
In agriculture, the situation is different. The agricultural system and the farming groups and others are realising that things need to change and that there is huge opportunity in re-wetting our bogs, farmers helping out in forestry and in paying farmers properly, which is not currently happening, for genuinely origin green products. This is an area where again Government policy is not working but everyone else is starting to realise that the old game is up, even though the Government is clinging to it. A new strategy needs to be put in place.
Similarly in regard to waste, the Government is clinging to its mantra that Repak is working: it is not. The Minister rightly cited the instance of how much carbon emissions come from our use of materials but we have seen nothing yet in terms of ambitious and aggressive measures to reduce our level of consumption to introduce a circular economy. The same applies in forestry. I welcome the Government announcement that there will be no further oil exploration. We need to do the same in regard to gas and we need to stop the importation of fracked gas.
Looking forward to next year, what do we need to do? We need to put Brexit and climate together. One of the tasks will be to ensure that regardless of the trade deal that is done with the UK we maintain energy collaboration and wide environmental collaboration with the UK because we will not be able to do this alone and nor will the UK. We need to be part of a regional European electricity market and we need to make sure that there are common standards. In whatever Government follows the next election, we need a programme for government that is designed around a green new deal, matching what the European Commission said last week. It changes everything. It involves everyone and it takes what is good in the last year and it builds on it, with far greater ambition towards a just transition of which we can all be proud.