Dáil debates

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)


5:20 pm

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party) | Oireachtas source

If there is consensus now across the House to take climate action, it is worth asking why it did not happen before now. One of the most common arguments against it was not even an argument. It was a question that was put forward to the effect that we want to do this climate action but who will pay for it? That argument was really powerful even though it was misleading. It contained the built-in assumption that it would cost a lot of money, that we would probably have to pay for it and that climate action was an additional frippery that would be added to the real business of living our lives. It was like building a conservatory under one's house or ordering another course in a restaurant. It was an unneeded extra, a luxury, and something we could not really afford and we needed to get back to business.

It is clear there has been a change of heart about that and we realise there has been a mistake. Our whole economic system was being measured with GDP even though the inventor of GDP in the 1930s said that it is not a measure of general welfare and we should not use it in that way because it is a measure of consumption and production. The faster that one exhausts one's finite resources is not a good way of showing how rich one is. The faster one gets through all the food in one's cupboard does not mean that one's family is getting wealthier. Why would we think that even for a second? Yet, despite that, we would see stories in the newspaper about a drop in GDP of 0.5% this quarter and asking if we were getting poorer or richer as a result. It was all ludicrous.

Wealth, human happiness and the success of a nation are not measured by how fast it exhausts its finite resources. I do not know how we had that idea. How do we measure viability and evaluate the investment of taxpayers' money in large projects? We have a cost-benefit analysis system. If, for example, a giant road is being built, a cost-benefit analysis measures the travelling hours saved by all the people who will be driving. This is multiplied by how much an average person would be paid to work, and that is the cost saving. What is not taken into account is the extra time it takes for people in the area who are not in a car, including those on bicycles, to cross the road or the time for which those on buses are stuck in a traffic jam. They do not count; their time has no value. The person working on a laptop on a train has no value. The lives, time and health of people walking along the road who are breathing in the fumes and who then get respiratory illnesses — our rate of asthma is twice that in any other country in Europe — have no value because it is really handy to pick just one number to do sums and compare things and to say that anybody who argues with it is wrong. Therefore, we are going to change how we do cost-benefit analyses of our major projects. We are not going to do it in the old way anymore. We are going to do something more sensible, just as we do not measure the health of our economy with GDP because it does not make sense.

In Ireland, the Government spends a lot of money and we are in an era of major State investment. A lot of the money goes through public procurement frameworks, which are guides to achieving value for money, obtaining good quality with money spent, spending transparently and fairly and ensuring there is no corruption or favouritism involved. We can add to that by requiring that we spend our money in a way that supports our strategies and Government policy on sustainability to help our environment and meet our social aims. We are allowed to do that legally by the European directive, and we will be progressing legislation in that regard over the course of the year.

It has emerged during the pandemic that there is an absolute need to have broadband. There was a debate some time ago as to whether we could afford it and whether there was a good cost-benefit argument for extending it to every house in Ireland. It turns out we cannot really live, conduct commercial life, interact with the Government and even interact socially without broadband. We must deliver it. We must accelerate the delivery and invest in it. It can help us to achieve our climate goals because it allows people not only to work from home but also to work in their community. They can go down to their village or suburb and they do not have to commute. In the past, the benefit of a project was measured as the amount of time saved by a driver. There was a clear reason for it: time spent driving is hell. Everybody hates the torture of a life that involves commuting back and forth, varying journey times, just not knowing how long journeys will take and hoping each one will be the quickest ever, with every one involving stress and unhappiness. Avoiding that hell by reducing the total amount of commuting and getting people to work in their local village or home will improve the quality of life for everybody. It will improve communities. Already in suburban areas, villages and towns, we see more people socialising on the streets. They have happier lives and are not involved in the absolute hell of long-distance commuting.

We come back to the misleading question of who will pay for what is proposed. Again, it is not an accessory. It is an absolute revolution in the way we will do things. The answer is that we are not going to do something additive or extra. This is not icing on the cake. We are changing the old way of doing things and replacing it with something new. Rather than this resulting in a cost, it will result in savings. Not needing to own a car saves money. Having an electric car saves money because fuel is not being put into it. An insulated home saves money on electricity and heating bills. We have to do this. On the concept of sustainability, which is a technical word that makes people turn off, ultimately something that sustains is something that lasts, and when something lasts one does not need to pay to replace it quickly, again saving money.

Can we make all these huge changes? Can we change our transport system, the way we do agriculture and the way we heat our homes and generate electricity? Faced with an existential challenge a year and a half ago, people all around Ireland and the rest of the world came together and changed their habits of a lifetime. They voluntarily made huge changes to their lifestyles. At the same time they were making these changes, scientists and doctors were working to push the boundaries of innovation. Working together with a common purpose, with science and medicine coming together to solve in a technical way the existential problem facing us, has meant we are now in the final chapters of the pandemic. If we can do this to combat a pandemic that was threatening the lives of our older people, some of whom are here, we can also change our system to protect our young people, including our children and grandchildren. We can make those changes. I am delighted to see this is no longer a party-political issue and that there is broad consensus. I hear people from all parties and none saying they want a climate Bill. If they want to make changes to it, that is great. Let us work together. A Bill is not perfect on day one; there is a process to go through. We will go through that process, work together, co-operate and collaborate to solve this problem for everybody in Ireland.


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