Thursday, 29 April 2021
Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
One of the lessons learned from the past year has to be the utter unpredictability of events. If we had been warned five or ten years ago that Covid-19 was on the way, what would we have done? We would have made the drastic changes necessary to avoid the turmoil and suffering of the past year. It is not an exaggeration to say we are in a similar place today. We know the science. We know climate change is happening. We know that, without proper action, it will have devastating impacts on society and the economy. We know.
This could be the most significant legislation this Dáil will pass. It has the potential to establish a clear and fair framework to make the changes necessary to protect our society and economy. Equally, it could contain fudges that will damn future generations to severe consequences. Addressing the Joint Committee on Climate Action in October, Dr. Áine Ryall, co-director of UCC’s centre for law and the environment, said:
We must deliver robust, workable climate legislation that supports a just transition and protects human rights. We must ensure that the new legislation has the necessary impact across society and the economy to deliver the transformative changes required within the necessary timeframes.
She outlined clear principles that have to be present in the legislation and climate action plans. They must be robust and workable, there must be a just transition and transformative changes must take place within the necessary timeframe.
Climate legislation must be robust and workable. Our plan to curb our emissions and reach our international obligations needs to be clear, achievable and guided by climate science. The much-lauded target of 2050 to reach net zero-carbon emissions is too late. We need to significantly reduce our emissions before then if we are to do our part to halt a significant and irreversible temperature rise. What is the actual plan to achieve this? Our current approach is failing badly. The Government’s 2019 transition statement states that our target for 2020 was to reduce emissions to 20% below their 2005 value. Instead, it was in the range of 5% to 6%. Successive Governments have been kicking the can down the road and passing the buck to the next Minister. We are operating on borrowed time, time which we are taking from future generations.
Last year, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the climate case found that the Government failed to specify credible measures for addressing climate change. Part of the finding is the need for each climate action plan to have clear targets. The public is entitled to know how the current Government, not the next Government or the one after, will actually implement emissions reductions and other measures within its lifespan.
Climate law experts have expressed concern about the target for 2030, which is included in the proposed new section 6A(5) to the principal Act, as lacking in legal certainty. There needs to be legal minimum interim targets that establish the basis for an average reduction in emissions of 7%. Otherwise, the reductions will just be rolled over from year to year, with responsibility passed from this Government to the next. If this Bill is to be all it claims to be, then any such ambiguities need to be removed. This legislation has to have robust and workable commitments that demand plans which will meet annual targets in a transparent and accountable manner.
The climate legislation must be just. A just transition must be at the heart of climate legislation. We need an approach of leaving no one behind. I welcome the inclusion of references to just transition in the Bill but the definition of climate justice is much too loose and the policies proposed and opposed by this Government thus far do not indicate a willingness to pursue this Bill or any kind of progressive change.
I echo the calls of Community Law and Mediation, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Ireland to include more robust definitions for climate justice that would ensure just transition, such as appear in Scotland’s climate change legislation. We cannot allow the burden of climate action to fall on the shoulders of those least responsible for the crisis. Climate action needs to be based in workers' rights, healthcare, housing and transport.
We also have to live up to our responsibilities to the people of the global south who are already enduring some of the most extreme climatic changes. Obviously, the part we can play is not as big as much larger countries, but it is not any less significant. All countries and communities are being called on to do their bit to avert the climate crisis. The Irish people know this and want this. We must deliver legislation that matches their commitment to a just transition and climate justice.
We need sustainability and equality to go hand in hand. Social and environmental policies are not contradictory - they can and should be complementary. We need progressive and ambitious measures to support low-income households and rural areas. Most importantly, we need joined-up thinking. A carbon tax is a necessary tool to reduce emissions, but it will only work if there are alternatives in place. Poor public transport in rural areas and a lack of active travel infrastructure means people have no choice but to use cars. It does not matter how expensive petrol or diesel is - they will still need cars. Without alternatives, carbon taxes are merely punitive and help build up resentment and anti-climate science rhetoric. A just transition recognises the supports needed for families and communities, but it also holds polluters to account. The majority of global emissions come from large corporations, especially fossil fuel companies. We need a tax regime that targets them rather than ordinary people.
Climate legislation must make transformative changes in the necessary time. Climate action requires systematic change - change in behaviour, change in the way we do business, change in the way the economy works. We have a choice to be proactive and lead the way in a green economy or stick to a business-as-usual model involving some greenwashing, which will inevitably lead to irreparable damage and job losses.
Climate action has to be understood and pursued as a necessity and an opportunity. Too often, Deputies and even Ministers present this as a cliff edge for farmers and fishing communities. As a farmer and a scientist, that is disappointing. Farmers and fishing communities need to be treated with respect, not fed such platitudes. The way we farm is shaped directly by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's policies. Deputies tirelessly defending farmers when it is not the latter's fault only serves to reinforce the false narrative that it is somehow farmers' fault, a narrative that supports a policy that does not support the majority of farmers. We need climate science-informed approaches that support all farms, not just the big players, and value practices that enhance the landscape and generate sustainable produce. The same is true of fishing. Many small-scale fishermen and fisherwomen can feel as though the Government is working against them rather than fighting for them. Inshore fishing represents the type of sustainable fishing that has been practised for generations in west Cork and other coastal and island communities. We need transformational change and plans that outline how we can guarantee that there is a viable future for small farms and fishing communities in Ireland, especially family farms and small family fishing communities.
Regrettably, the Environmental Pillar's recent withdrawal from the 2030 agrifood strategy committee reveals that the Government remains committed to a business-as-usual approach. The pillar highlighted that vested interests were prioritised from the establishment of the committee rather than the development of agricultural policy that could cut pollution and emissions while ensuring a just transition for farmers. The palpable frustration at the recently announced results-based environment-agri pilot project, REAP, is another example of the Government blatantly failing to provide the necessary change in the sector. Constantly clinging to increased efficiencies as a response was never good enough and, at a crucial point like this when we need timely transformative change, is disgraceful.
Most people agree that the Green Party has good intentions, and I commend it on introducing this Bill, but what we need to know is how, if at all, those intentions will be realised. Where exactly will emissions be reduced? When and how will that happen? Crucially, how will it happen in a fair and just way?
We are living with the effects of climate change. Ireland is 0.5oC warmer than it was in the period 1960 to 1990, it is wetter and we are seeing more extreme weather events, which are having significant social and economic costs. We have experienced the stormiest winter in over a century and one of the wettest winters since records began. We are experiencing extreme weather events like flooding time and again in west Cork.Farmers and fishermen can see the impacts of a changing climate. Young people have been taking to the streets demanding substantial and meaningful action. Climate scientists and legal experts have provided the frameworks and targets we need to work towards.
This legislation needs clearer commitments and more robust definitions of "just transition" and "climate justice" and must explicitly address issues around liquefied natural gas, LNG, fracked gas and the biodiversity crisis.
Dr. Andrew Jackson, assistant professor in environmental law at UCD, told the Joint Committee on Climate Action:
In conclusion, to stand a chance of limiting heating to 1.5°C, our emissions need to fall very deeply and very rapidly, starting immediately. We have just one shot at getting this legislation right.
We cannot throw away that shot.