Thursday, 29 April 2021
Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
This is possibly one of the most consequential and society-changing Bills this Dáil and, dare I say, any Dáil will discuss. It requires substantial and detailed parliamentary scrutiny. It also requires public engagement. It can be legislatively successful but it may not have an impact or support. Without public engagement and support, it may not achieve the results we need it to achieve. I am concerned that as we discuss the Bill, everybody else’s attention is on Covid-19. While that is understandable, given the changes involved in this legislation, the attention it requires has been diverted elsewhere. When the consequences of this legislation and the changes that it will place on our shoulders become apparent, the public may not support it because they have not engaged with it. We must all do a better job at this.
It is extraordinary that so many people deny the basis of this legislation and deny the challenge of climate change, even in the face of incontrovertible scientific evidence and the lived experience. I refer to the lived experience of two so-called one-in-100-year flooding events happening in the space of three weeks in Crossmolina in 2015. These are flooding events of a type that we did not encounter previously. The damage caused by them is becoming regular throughout the year. Even in Ireland, we have experienced extremes of heat and weather that are as direct consequences of climate change. We see it worldwide. The evidence, the damage and the challenge it presents cannot be ignored. This legislation is necessary.
Before we come to the end of Second Stage, it is worth reflecting on the fact that the German constitutional court made very strong findings relating to the German climate action Bill, its impact on younger people in particular and why they are being forced to take up that burden. It would be beneficial for the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to take the time after Second Stage to reflect on that judgment and the detail of it.
The past 12 months in the context of Covid and its sizeable medical and other consequences have shown us how something relatively small can shut down the world. We must reflect on what the worst aspects of climate change would do to the world if they were to be allowed to proceed. Unless we change our way of doing things, that is what will happen. However, Covid showed that a national effort can be mobilised in pursuit of a common goal and protecting society. It also showed that many things that could not be achieved for many years were achieved, with many policy decisions being taken very quickly and suddenly. The silos of government about which I regularly speak in the House suddenly came down in the interests of a common goal. We need to apply that approach in the context of this legislation and our climate action policies.
Covid also showed that communication is key. Communication that is empathetic and understands where people are at is the key to action and mobilisation. Unless we get that kind of communication, which has an understanding of people’s fears and the consequences for various elements of society, this legislation will not work and its aims will not be achieved. There is significant disinformation around climate change, as is the case in respect of Covid. When one puts up a social media post about Covid, be that on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or whatever, a message comes up to direct people to reputable sources on Covid. A similar approach should be taken by social media companies when it comes to discussions on climate change because there is too much misinformation that is destroying the discussion and moving people’s focus away from the actual key problem and down rabbit holes that have no bearing on the issue at stake. The social media companies need to step up to the mark in that regard.
Many of the roots of this legislation lie in a finding of the Citizens’ Assembly. It is welcome that there was citizen involvement. The Citizens’ Assembly model has proven quite successful. However, in the context of preparing the climate action plan, I believe the legislation will put the cart before the horse. The understanding is that there will be a national climate action plan which will lay down parameters and guidelines and is to be followed by local authority climate action plans which will take their lead from it. We would have a better chance of success were it to be the other way around, that is, for communities to come forward first and feed into the national climate action plan. I would like to see commitments in the legislation to regularly review the national climate action plan. There should be some sort of link between that review process and input from local communities.
It would be worthwhile to have local citizens’ assemblies based on the national Citizens' Assembly. I know there is a commitment that the public participation networks, PPNs, will be involved, but having a citizens’ assembly in each local authority area to focus on the issues considered by the national Citizens’ Assembly would make for far greater buy-in on and discussion around each local climate action plan. I was intrigued that many of the recommendations in the report of the Citizens’ Assembly on the national climate action plan secured more than 90% endorsement on the day. That is very healthy and positive but Members know that is not the way things go in real life. A more finessed local citizens’ assembly in each local authority area would give the Minister a far better insight into where people are and their fears and concerns around this whole issue.
For me, the climate agenda and action on the climate agenda are rooted in local activities and, in particular, the green schools programme at primary school level. We must thank primary school teachers and the green schools programme for inspiring so many young people of primary school age, creating awareness of the various aspects and challenges around climate change and prompting them to take action. Having taken action at school, they go home and take action there and, in many cases, force and drag their parents, guardians, grandparents and other family members into taking action. The strength of the primary school level programme seems to be lost at secondary school level and we need to consider why that is the case. I welcome the increased awareness and input on climate action issues within the new junior certificate geography curriculum, but I put it to the Minister that it should be incorporated in every subject. It should not be an issue just for geography. Climate action issues should be embedded within every subject. They can be incorporated into each subject to avoid a silo kind of approach and to have, rather, an all-education approach.
Local involvement outside of schools is crucial. I had the pleasure of engaging with the Westport Eco-Congregation on this issue. It was a really insightful discussion. Its members were coming at the issue from different angles and with various constructive inputs. It is a group that also takes action on the ground to deal with the issues. There are many groups that could be involved with local input into the local climate action plan process, thus ensuring the climate action plan process is rooted in communities across the island and that the climate action plan does not just come out of Government Buildings or the usual suspects but, rather, has local buy-in and investment.
I previously proposed to the Minister the idea of a green towns competition which would involve funding being put in place to allow towns across the country to compete to be Ireland’s greenest town. We in Ballina have set ourselves that ambition as a town following a challenge from former President and Ballina native, Mary Robinson. We have fantastic committees working on it locally that are trying to achieve what is required and to bring the community with them in doing so. The Ballina community clean-up group was established prior to Covid, but has taken on a new life during the pandemic. It is not just doing clean-up; it is investing in biodiversity and bringing nature back to the heart of the town. I compliment that group. It has mobilised people across the town to get involved because it is a local group that is getting involved with projects with which people can identify and wish to be on board. That is the kind of template that needs to be supported. It is local and can be supported in a manner that sustains and respects it and respects the input of those groups into the decision-making process.
I note that the public consultation on the 2021 climate action plan is currently open and will close on 18 May. There is very little awareness of that consultation. There were very intensive social media, press and television campaigns behind the consultations in respect of the national development plan and Covid, for instance. I put it to the Minister that in the two weeks remaining in the consultation period, we need to get to that kind of level of making people aware of this process, that they are welcome to take part in it and that it is in their interest to take part in it.
The Bill outlines new carbon budgeting processes and that is welcome. They will be challenging. I have a couple of concerns. Through many years, the elected Oireachtas comprising the Dáil and the Seanad has ceded power to unelected bodies. That is to our detriment. It has been constantly to our detriment in terms of getting answers and responsibility. The Bill proposes giving the Climate Change Advisory Council, CCAC, the power to set the initial carbon budget which the Minister of the day would then discuss with his or her colleagues and spend time on in terms of its implementation. I believe democracy would be better served if the Minister and the Government, who are answerable to this House, presented the budget and involved the CCAC in a key way. I welcome the strengthening of that body and its new powers.
In terms of parliamentary democracy and respect for ourselves as parliamentarians, our carbon budget by its nature should be introduced, in my view, by the Minister.
As for the input of communities, the document that goes with the legislation has a phrase to the effect that the climate change plan should offer the least burdens and the greatest opportunities in the pathway to decarbonise and achieve the carbon budget for a given period. We all agree with that. The least burdens and the greatest opportunities should apply in this regard. The burden and the opportunity should be shared. However, many communities feel the burden is heavy on them and the opportunities are limited. I speak for many rural communities, which already feel alienated from this process. I speak for the agricultural community, which seems to be in the firing line every time, despite what it has done over at least 20 years in terms of changing processes and ways of doing businesses and farming.
If this legislation is to work, have an impact and get buy-in, we must ensure, as is laid out in that document, that we offer the least burdens and the greatest opportunities to rural communities. We must ask the agricultural sector to come with us in partnership on this journey, rather than telling it what to do, blaming it or fingering it, and the Minister must engage in that partnership with it.
One sector that has made huge changes in the past 20 years is the hill farming and sheep farming sector. It potentially will be asked to make massive changes under the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. That cannot be allowed to happen, given what it has done already. Now is the time to engage with all communities around this, particularly the agricultural community, on a partnership basis, rather than a lecturing basis.
The challenges of decarbonising transport, including public transport, are necessary and welcome but, for rural communities, there is not an option. The option is one's car or one does not get to travel. We have to look at investing in public transport as well as decarbonising it, also opening it up, investing and ensuring it all lines up in rural areas. We have a myriad of services but few of them seem to talk to one another in a way that makes them practical and effective for people's day-to-day lives. With the Minister's transport hat on, let us try to put something together so that all our transport services add up. Let us invest in public transport as well. We have spoken about the western rail corridor. That is a perfect example of how we can link regional communities up with regional capitals for education, work and healthcare. A proper service in place will give people the option of leaving the car behind. That is not an option they have at the moment.
There are many communities for which the road is necessary. Not investing in roads is not an option. Otherwise, the Minister will isolate people or force them to live in the big cities where there is already overmuch pressure on systems and ways of living. The Government cannot ignore road investment programmes with a view to emphasising public transport. That will drive more people into cities and into bigger carbon usage.
The area of retrofitting offers massive potential and opportunity in terms of achieving the aims of the climate action plan, reducing our emissions and enhancing people's living experience. We talk a lot about it and there are big targets but it is about trying to start making those targets happen around the country.
The Bill contains a number of commitments in respect of oil and gas exploration. There is a programme for Government commitment in this area. However, work is also under way in the Department on an energy and security review to ensure our energy security is upfront and is being dealt with in the context of changing the energy inputs. It would be useful to have that review completed before we move towards a complete change of our energy mix. It does not make any sense for us to ban offshore exploration and ban fossil fuels in our gas and oil but still import fossil fuels from countries where that ban is not in place or where they are quite heavy users of fossil fuels. That makes no sense whatever and we need to be clear on that.
Before this legislation came in today we had the marine area planning Bill, which is very welcome. I commend the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, as well as the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on bringing that forward relatively quickly, despite its complexity. Without that Bill, this Bill will not happen. That Bill will change the opportunities for offshore wind but let us be sure that before we make decisions on our energy mix, we can be confident of the supply into the future.
I have raised hydrogen and other issues with the Minister previously and I fear there is not enough ambition around the potential uses of fuels such as hydrogen in relation to our energy mix. As the world is moving quickly to hydrogen, Ireland is uniquely placed in terms of using wind to drive on the hydrogen agenda. We can be a world leader there if we show more urgency.
As I said at the outset, this is hugely consequential legislation and it will change the way we do things in every aspect of our lives. It is happening in the Covid bubble and the legislative bubble and we need to do more to involve everybody in the discussion and make everybody aware of the consequences of this legislation. If we do not, we will lose people. We will not bring people on this journey but it is absolutely necessary to do so.
While people are willing to contribute and share their part of the burden, they need to see the opportunities for themselves, their communities and their families. They need to see those opportunities are real and not pie in the sky or a form of spin. They need to see that the changes they are being challenged to make in their daily lives have a point and that everybody is shouldering the burden, regardless of income or geographical location. They need to know the changes we are making in Ireland are being made internationally and that we as a country are sharing our burden and that burden is being shared internationally.
We all want this Bill and its aim to succeed but we have to ensure we bring people with us. We have to do a much better job of bringing people with us and showing the opportunities that come from this Bill. We have to do a better job of reassuring people that, while there will be burdens, those burdens will be shared fairly and shouldered collectively. If we do not do that, this Bill will only be a piece of paper. It will only have some sort of legislative impact but it will not have public buy-in and there is no sense in doing this unless we get public buy-in.