Thursday, 29 April 2021
Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for looking after our interests. I appreciate it.
When the school student climate strikers came out on the street in this country and across the world, they shouted and had on their banners and placards the slogan "System change, not climate change!" They also loudly shouted about the need for a just transition as being absolutely critical to delivering the radical climate action we need to stop climate disaster. This Bill should be a reflection of the demands and aspirations of those school student climate strikers and the demands they are making for truly radical action to prevent a climate disaster. I would like to be able to celebrate it as such but, to be honest, it is not. There are so many compromises and get-out clauses in this that it may well be a dead letter.
The Bill is littered with the phrase "as far as practicable". It is a constant refrain. It is stated that, as far as practicable, we will do this, that and the other. If it is not practical, we will not be doing it. That is the clear implication of the constant use of that phrase in terms of the responsibility of Ministers and the factors they must take into account. In spite of all the references to climate justice, the single reference that the Minister was forced to put in, which was not included in the first draft in the context of the just transition, is that of "as far as practicable". As a result, the just transition is an optional extra. Many of the targets are also optional extras, particularly when one looks at some of the key assertions made in the Bill. Section 4 states:
For the avoidance of doubt no remedy or relief by way of damages or compensation is available with respect to or arising out of any failure, of whatever kind, to comply with any provision of this Act or any obligation or duty created thereunder.
There it is, with that one paragraph there is a legal get-out clause in respect of everything, of every single aspect of the Bill. Why those get-outs are needed becomes apparent when one looks at some of the other measures that are put forward in the Bill.
The Bill refers to: "the need to deliver the best possible value for money consistent with the sustainable management of the public finances". Where have we heard that before? That is neoliberal, capitalist austerity lingo. There is no doubt about it. That is what it is there for. No doubt it was heavily lobbied for by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Where have we heard that stuff about the sustainable management of the public finances before? The Bill goes on to refer to “the need to maximise employment", of which I am very much in favour. However, there is then a reference to "the attractiveness of the State for investment and the long term competitiveness of the economy". This means we will not be doing things that might impact on the attractiveness of the State for investment and the long-term competitiveness of the economy.
What is envisaged is not system change when one takes those get-out clauses into account. In fact, that is a legal assertion that we are going to work within the existing system and that said system is the absolute framework outside which we are not going to step. That is not what the school student strikers were saying. They were saying that we have to break the shackles of the existing system that has given us the climate crisis. Unless we do that, what we are referring to is the pursuit of profit by the companies that are destroying the environment. We must consider that 70% of global emissions come from 100 corporations. If we are setting it out in law that we are not willing to do anything that might annoy these corporations or make us less attractive to them, that is a get-out clause and it means we are not going to take the action against the companies that are responsible for destroying the environment. That is what it means.
I suggest to the Minister that the use of language referring to the sustainability of the public finances in the Bill rules out the radical move towards a greater use of public transport that we need. The evidence suggests that. If we want to take radical climate action and get people out of cars, we must increase investment in public transport and make it cheaper and more accessible. Let us look at what is actually happening with public transport. Cash fares have gone up 87% in the past ten years. In 2008, the PSO element of public transport funding was €85 million. The PSO was cut every single year until 2019, prior to Covid, and currently stands at €47 million, almost half what it was in 2008. At the same time, we have announcements that Expressway services in rural areas such as Wexford, Waterford, Sligo and Dundalk are to be cut. The public transport system, which is not based on profit, is being slashed in favour of private for-profit transport providers that have no interest in cutting fares and every interest in increasing them in order to increase their profitability. We have seen the outsourcing of 10% of Dublin Bus routes. Do we honestly think Go-Ahead Ireland has an interest in providing free public transport or making routes that do not make a profit for it available? Of course it does not. That is not what it does, it is out to make money from people. Such companies cut the unprofitable routes in favour of profitable ones. That is how they operate. If we want a public transport system that is so state of the art that people would not dream of getting into their cars, we must have the level of subsidy required to invest in routes that are not profitable from a narrow commercial point of view or from the point of the view of the so-called sustainability of the public finances. That is what we need if we are going to make the radical transition that is necessary. We need to be able to say to taxi drivers that it is not going to be a punishment for them. I have asked the Minister repeatedly for this. This year, many of them are facing the possibility of having to exit the industry because they do not have the money to replace their cars and they most certainly do not have the money to pay €50,000 for an electric taxi that is disabled-accessible. All that is available to them is €20,000. Where are they supposed to get the other €30,000, particularly when they have lost a year and a half's income? They will not be able to do it. They will be pushed out of the industry. There will be no just transition for them. That is the reality of these things.
Let us take forestry as another example. We had a report in October 2020 that Irish forestry is not a carbon sink, but is now a net carbon emitter. How on earth could that be the case? It is explained in a report commissioned by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It is because we have the completely wrong forestry model that is run for profit. It is about plantations of Sitka spruce and clear-felling. When one operates forestry on that basis, one cuts when the market will deliver the profit. Clear-felling also gives rise to large amounts of emissions and destroys the biodiversity we need to address. It is critical to address the climate and biodiversity emergency. We need to move to continuous cover forestry and agroforestry on a massive scale, and I regret to inform the Minister that that means bucking the market. We cannot be hemmed in by attractiveness to foreign investors and by the so-called narrow sustainability of the public finances if we want to do those sorts of radical things.
We have the carbon tax and the just transition for ordinary people. Critically, we need to retrofit. At the moment, we are punishing people. Some 400,000 people are in fuel poverty. What are we doing to provide investment to ensure a just transition in order that people are not punished by the carbon tax? I will tell the Minister what we are doing in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. We are providing an extra €1 million that will be used to retrofit 41 houses next year. That amounts to 1% of the housing stock. That is not radical. All the rest of the people who are living in fuel poverty, some in council housing and some not, will continue to be punished with the increasing carbon tax because we are not serious about putting in the investment. That 1% is roughly replicated in the context of the money that is being put into retrofitting on a national scale. We are not doing it and that is because, in order to do it, we have to break away from the neoliberal market model. We have to say that it does not have to be sustainable in the narrow sense but that it has to be sustainable in the actual sense of the just transition and of the system change we need in order to facilitate climate action.
I am deeply worried that this Bill has the outward appearance of radical action but contains all the get-out clauses which mean that the system will not change and that just transition will not be delivered.
Where is the binding reporting mechanism for the just transition to make sure that happens? Where are the powers for the just transition commissioner to call people to account if the just transition does not happen? They are not there because the investors we are so worried about would not want them.
Where are the taxes? It was insisted that we were going to tax the big corporations that continue to pollute and which are the real problem. They are not there. I am worried. As I said, this is decoration. It is the appearance of radical action when actually it is a balancing act to appease the big polluters and corporate interests.