Tuesday, 5 November 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 and 5 together.
The Cabinet committee on the environment was established in July when the Government reorganised the Cabinet committee structures. It covers issues relating to the environment, including climate action and the implementation of the Government's climate action plan. The need for an all-of-government approach to climate action is obvious. This includes a deliberate and sustained focus by all relevant Ministers and Departments. The work of the Cabinet committee on the environment is an important part of this.
The Cabinet committee on the environment met for the first time on 30 September 2019. At its first meeting the committee discussed the first progress report on the climate action plan, which was published last week. The first progress report outlined the status of 176 steps for delivery, which were either due for completion in quarter two or quarter three of this year or are ongoing. A completion rate of 85% has been achieved, incorporating 149 measures across all sectors of society. The report details some of the key milestones delivered to date in furtherance of the climate action plan, including the introduction of a scheme for 1,200 on-street public charge points for electric vehicles. This is being led by local authorities.
We introduced a climate action focused budget with a commitment to increasing the price of carbon to €80 per tonne by 2030 and ring-fencing all new proceeds from the carbon tax for climate action and just transition. Other measures include the first Luas tram extension, the introduction of new requirements to ensure all new homes are at nearly zero energy buildings standard, and new rules for public procurement, meaning that €12 billion of State investment each year will be invested sustainably.
The Cabinet committee is due to meet again on 2 December 2019. Its focus will now shift to the delivery of quarter four 2019 actions and beyond, setting us on a pathway to decarbonising our economy and society.
I thought that was covered by the previous question. That said, it gives me the opportunity to go back to the Taoiseach on the issue of electric vehicles. The Taoiseach is not facing up to the reality of the points that I and most people are making. No one is criticising ambition, but there is a responsibility to ground whatever proposals we are making in some framework of reality. No one I have spoken to sees any credibility attached to the electric vehicle target. The Government needs to do more to illustrate how it came to that figure and how it expects an extra 1 million vehicles to materialise within the next ten years given the poor performance to date in terms of transformation of the public transport system, which has been especially slow and belated indeed. We can add to that the issue of the smoky coal ban. The Government has simply not taken up the cudgel on that. It has funked that particular decision and decided not to finish or complete it, even though it was started well over 30 years ago. That was when the ban was first introduced. The air quality is showing this in the capital and elsewhere throughout the country.
On the one hand we had the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, at the launch warning about increased exposure to ultraviolet rays and skin cancer caused by climate change. On the other hand, the Taoiseach is saying we will have warmer winters, less heating and energy expenditure and fewer deaths as a result of the cold weather.
The first point is that we are having more extreme weather. That is what people have identified globally, and when I say people, I mean experts. Not only will there be more severe and dangerous storms that will cause injury and loss of life, but there will be an increased frequency of those storms globally. Certainly, this has materialised in Ireland in recent years. It has been one of the factors in alerting people to the issue of climate change. It has heightened people's sense of awareness and concern.
The whole idea of the carbon tax in many respects was around this energy question in terms of reducing the dependency on fossil fuels. The idea of the fuel allowance was to compensate for that. This is the first time I have heard that we will have lower fuel bills in terms of this entire agenda. We have just passed a budget that includes a measure to help people manage their fuel bills in future. There has been a tendency, particularly from deniers of climate change, to suggest that climate change will be great because we will have warmer weather in Ireland and that this somehow has pluses and so on. The Taoiseach needs to be careful about making those comments because it can undermine the broader case to try to convince people about the reality of climate change, that it is happening, that it will impact on people's lives and that the overwhelming outcomes and consequences of climate change are negative in terms of the quality of people's lives and in society in general. Those of us in this country are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, especially low-lying areas. I am not clear at all that we have taken the proactive measures necessary to deal with that issue in the short to medium term.
Does the Taoiseach not think he should apologise for trivialising the issue of the climate emergency by making those comments? It really gives succour to climate deniers like Donald Trump to make glib trivialising comments of that sort. It would be helpful if the Taoiseach said they were comments he regretted.
I question the Taoiseach's more general bona fides on this given the continued commitment to go ahead with the liquefied natural gas terminal in Shannon, which is going to import toxic fracked gas from the United States. It is okay to ban fracking here, and rightly so, because of the damage it does to the environment, but we have no problem with visiting it on the people of the United States.
I also want to ask about public transport and the Government's commitments in that regard. We have been holding a series of meetings on BusConnects over the last while and when one looks into the facts of public transport in this country, one really has to wonder about the Government's commitment to getting people out of their cars. How does improving public transport square with the fact that bus fares in the last ten years have increased by 80%, the PSO subsidy to Dublin Bus has dropped dramatically from €87 million to €50 million and there are now fewer buses in the Dublin Bus fleet than in 2008? How do these stark facts about the poor state of our public transport system, which is one of the most costly in Europe in terms of fares, square with a commitment to improving public transport in order to get people out of private cars and thus reduce CO² emissions? I put it to the Taoiseach that they do not; they square more with a privatisation of public transport agenda which will do nothing to reduce CO² emissions.
People were very taken aback by the Taoiseach's very flippant comments that climate change would make our winters warmer, bring all sorts of health improvements and increase people's longevity. To be honest, one would expect stuff like that in tweets from Donald Trump but not from the Taoiseach. I doubt that many people on the island of Ireland would agree, given the kinds of storms we have been having recently. The Taoiseach has gone out in his full gear with various front-line workers. He has been delighted with the photo opportunities and has warned us all to stay indoors. Now, suddenly, it is all about having sunny, warm back gardens once climate change comes. He should withdraw the remarks and to younger people in particular, who are deeply interested in climate change, he should say it was a joke that just went wrong.
Air quality in Dublin is very poor and getting worse because there are so many vehicles on our roads emitting particulates. As a result, we have an epidemic of asthma, which is not a recognised illness qualifying for free medical care. Huge numbers, particularly of children, are suffering from asthma. People in bad housing are also suffering. We have lots of children in bad housing where there is mould and so on and they are particularly at risk of asthma. How does the Taoiseach join the dots? That is really what this question is about. Does he have someone in his Department who takes a look at how we deal comprehensively with these issues?
At the moment, BusConnects is promising or promoting the possible destruction of over 1,000 very mature trees in different parts of Dublin. The Taoiseach must see the trees with the ribbons around them as he travels around the city in his car. We just do not have enough public transport. There are people standing on buses most of the time. Unless this Government picks up the baton and starts working in the here and now on climate change, we are not going to persuade people to get out of their cars. We must have more public transport which should be cheaper. We must do everything possible to get people out of their cars in order to lower emissions which are very damaging to the people of Dublin, particularly to those who suffer from asthma triggered by the poor air quality in our capital city.
I do not think the Taoiseach will be offended if I say that he has a tendency to be a bit flippant in his public commentary. Sometimes it gets him the headlines that he desires but, as Deputy Micheál Martin will attest, it does not always go that way. His recent comments about climate change do a grave disservice to his office, his Government and to the responsibility that he, as Head of Government, has not just to this State but to the broader global community. Attempting to trivialise what is effectively a climate emergency sends a very poor message to campaigners and those who are dealing daily with the effects of climate change, including asthma sufferers and those who are confined to their houses due to severe storms and so on. In truth, the Taoiseach probably knows that his comments were ill-judged or did not land correctly.
The inference of this group of questions is that we are facing a potentially catastrophic climate emergency with such overarching policy implications that it warrants a Cabinet sub-committee of its own. Is that something that the Taoiseach would consider given that climate change has an overarching impact on all policy areas? I do not think there is any Cabinet position or Department that is immune from the impact of the climate emergency.
I state at the outset, in case anyone has any doubt about it, that climate change is real, is happening right now and is man-made, unprecedented and detrimental to human life and well-being both in Ireland and globally. Any benefits that may arise from it are far outweighed, many times over, by the damage it is doing and will do. I said that last Thursday as well. That is why we are taking action. In the last few weeks alone, we took the decision to increase the carbon tax. That was not a popular decision but it is one that anyone who is serious about climate action knows must be part of the solution. We secured €500 million to build an interconnector between France and Ireland so that we can sell our wind energy to Europe. We decided to restrict exploration in our waters. We ordered more rail cars which will increase capacity on our rail services around Dublin by 34%-----
The Luas capacity expansion is under way and a new national train control centre has been approved. We have decided to take coal and peat out of the energy system in favour of wind and solar power. We are promoting electric vehicles and changing our bus fleet to hybrid vehicles. We have introduced new building regulations to make sure that new buildings are zero or near zero energy rated. We are investing in retrofitting. We have banned fracking. We set up a climate action fund by way of a levy on the oil industry. That is only the start; just a few examples of the practical things the Government I lead has done-----
-----in the last couple of months to bring about climate action, something about which we are very serious.
On what I said on Thursday, I am happy to clarify that it was, as The Sunday Business Poststated, an observation, not a policy statement. I can see how it was open to misinterpretation by those who may be pursuing a climate sceptic agenda. However, I would like to provide a little bit of context for my remarks. The document we were launching was the climate change sectoral adaptation plan for the health sector, 2019 to 2024, published by the Department of Health. Page 14 of the plan states:
It is also important to note that there are a number of health benefits projected to occur as a result of climate change, for example warmer weather may reduce the risk of cold-related illness and death and may potentially improve mental health and wellbeing and increase physical activity levels.
This is a scientific and evidence-based document with seven pages of scientific references and citations backing up its contents. I also draw Members' attention to the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, introduced by the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly of the Labour Party when it was in government. It is an Act that we all voted for. Section 5 of that Act requires the Government, in its national adaptation plan, to avail of any "positive effects of climate change that may occur". The then Minister and those Members who voted for that legislation in the House at the time not only believed that there may be positive effects of climate change, they also wrote it into the law and made it a requirement that the Government take them into account in its adaptation plans. I do not think anyone would argue that Deputies Alan Kelly, Eamon Ryan, Micheál Martin or the environmental NGOs, who all supported writing that provision into law, are like Donald Trump or are climate change deniers.
No, there is not always one.
Switching to electric vehicles is an important part of the low-carbon transition. The Government will continue to help individual motorists who want to make the switch to an electric vehicle. We have allocated €8 million in the budget to maintain grants at their current levels for individuals purchasing electric cars.
This is in addition to the planned departmental expenditure. A further €3 million will be provided for new electric vehicle infrastructure and an additional €3 million has been allocated for investment in new electric vehicle charging infrastructure. This includes additional funding towards the cost of installing on-street charge points, the expansion of the home charging scheme and the provision of funding to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to roll out fast charging points to taxi ranks and transport hubs around the country.
I was asked about extending the ban on smoky coal. I explained previously that we have received strong legal advice from the Attorney General that to do so would be legally fraught because burning turf, briquettes and wood does as much damage to our air quality as burning smoky coal. We do not believe we would be able to stand over that in court were we to do it.