Thursday, 29 April 2021
Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I am quite glad that I get to speak on the second week of the debate on the Bill because it gives me a chance to read and listen to the contributions Deputies have put forward, which has been very interesting. There has been quite a spectrum of responses to the Bill. For some the Bill goes too far and there is a feeling that it might pit communities against the inevitable reforms that will be required by the very real changes brought about by global climate change. I agree with some of those concerns. We have a challenge in terms of making the just transition work for farming. Ireland is not unique in the reaction to some of the change around carbon emission reduction and the fear it will impact on the average worker and those who farm the land most.
For others, the Bill does not go far enough. There are concerns around governance not being robust enough and that not all Departments will be involved. I also take those concerns seriously. It may be that we need to calibrate the reporting or governance around them as the Bill takes shape and is working. If this is not an all-of-government project, it will not work.
My concern in all of this is the impression conveyed by both sides of the House and both sides of the argument that this is an all-encompassing initiative and is almost like a full stop in terms of our country's approach to addressing our role in climate action. For me the Bill is, in fact, an answer to, if not a pathway away from, a lost decade where inaction and calculated political indifference saw us at the bottom of every table of progressive climate action. Let us be honest; many Deputies in the House are not particularly bothered and do not particularly care about climate action or the impact climate inaction might have on their constituents.
That is their prerogative but it is important that every side of the argument from every side of the House recognises that the decade of inaction and indifference we have just experienced has left the Irish nation singularly vulnerable to the economic, social and environmental impacts of climate change.
Whether one believes in or cares about it, climate change is not a slow train coming at the Irish people. It is a very fast train coming down the tracks at us and due to our international agreements and the extreme weather events we are experiencing in our own backyards now, we will have to deal with it. We can no longer ignore it or escape it.
This could have been easier. In the past ten years we could have reached out to farmers to gradually phase in land management and biodiversity measures. We did not do that. We will have to do more now in a shorter timeframe and we cannot pretend that will be easy or without worry for small and medium farmers.
In the past decade we could have been talking to communities about pooling their resources and capitalising on the very real opportunities that we see other communities in the EU capitalising on around community ownership of renewable energy sources. We did not do that either. We will now spend millions of euro on retrofitting homes and on retro-engineering community energy, instead of being ahead of the pack on public investment in green technology.
We could have spent the past decade looking at high carbon emission industries in specific communities and targeting them for just transition supports in order that the average worker would be able to upskill and benefit in a real way from the new jobs that will be created by the inevitable change that is coming in all our industries in response to climate action. We did not do that. Our ability to retrofit our homes, install solar power and run district heating systems will be slower now than it could have been because we will struggle with capacity in the sector.
We should not be proud of the past decade because it was a political and societal choice to ignore the need to plan for our children’s future and for their survival. We decided not to do that. This House decided not to do that and the new task will be harder, more painful and more expensive than it needed to be because of that choice.
This is an incredibly important Bill. It sets out internal Irish structures to finally address climate action. It is a one of a suite of measures that sits in parallel to other things we must act on now to safeguard our future and plan for our children to not just survive but to thrive. The first on that list of parallel issues would be the issue of biodiversity. Ireland is in the middle of a biodiversity crisis. We have widespread species collapse, river pollution and mismanagement - we have just seen the burning of our beautiful national park in Killarney - and the widespread loss of habitats across the country. The curlews, corncrakes, barn owls and bats that I used to hear above my head growing up in Limerick were common around Ireland. If we continue along the current path, future generations will not enjoy that.
It is now time to consider recognising the right of the Irish people to nature as part of their right to live in an environment consistent with human dignity. For the families who are battling rising flood waters and the incredibly high number of children up and down this country who are struggling with asthma across our towns and villages due to low air quality, it is fair to say we may have reached a tipping point for them where the degradation of our natural capital may now be impeding the human rights of Irish residents.
Second, Ireland must become a leader in global climate agreements. Our efforts to meet net-zero emissions must be complemented by adaptation and resilience measures and, importantly, the mobilisation of climate financing for countries that have not developed modern infrastructure. We give out about the infrastructure in Ireland all the time but we are incredibly privileged here. We live in a well-developed country. Many countries around the world do not enjoy that type of infrastructure and we need to work with them to ensure that the move towards climate action does not disenfranchise them.
The issue of emissions from farming is a global one. I would put it in the second bracket of global climate agreements because farmers feed the world and the world will have to reverse the recent unhealthy move to meat-heavy diets and return to a more balanced diet, which existed a generation or two ago. We have no target for herd reduction in this Bill but the reality is that we could reduce the herd by more than 70% and we still would not have to import beef for consumption here. What we are doing by not addressing this issue is onshoring carbon emissions from other countries so that they can eat beef. We will have to pay the fines on those carbon emissions. In effect, the Irish taxpayer will be paying the environmental fines to allow somebody in Essex or Surrey to eat a steak. Import or export, this is a global community issue. All of us will have to eat less meat. We will have to have less livestock just to survive.
Third, Ireland had an interesting year in 2020. We placed people in significant roles in finance within the EU. Mairead McGuiness was placed as the EU Commissioner with responsibility for financial stability, financial services and capital markets union. It is an incredibly important role. Our own Minister, Deputy Donohue, was placed as chair of the Eurogroup. Instead of acquiescing to the global move towards tax reform that President Biden has been citing in recent days, it is time that we used our outsized international presence as a small country to lead reform because there can be no climate justice without tax justice.
Finally, we must actively lead within the UN on the children's environmental rights initiative, CERI, which has three primary objectives. The first is the UN recognition of the human right to a healthy environment, with specific reference to children. The second is the creation of a general comment from the Committee on the Rights of the Child as it relates to the environment. The third is the decision by the parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to clarify and advance fulfilment of children’s right to a healthy environment through an optional protocol.
Last month, at the Human Rights Council's 46th session, a core group led by Costa Rica issued a statement calling for states to engage in a consultation process on the recognition of the right to a healthy environment. Sixty-nine countries supported that call. I am proud to say Ireland was one of them. We should progress that and act with them to make sure that happens. Ireland should now sign the Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action launched at the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 in Madrid. This is an obvious area of leadership for Ireland and it builds on the Kwon-Gesh pledge, which was pioneered by Ireland and the Marshall Islands in 2019, which is not that long ago. It places young people and children at the heart of climate decision-making. UNICEF wrote to all New York missions on Earth Day this year to ask them to progress that pledge.
After our lost decade, those are the initiatives and that is the place for Ireland to now lead on climate action.