Thursday, 17 September 2020
Climate Action: Statements
I am very happy to make this opening statement. I apologise that I was away from the Dáil yesterday, but I am very glad to be back.
We have a major challenge in front of us, but it is one that I think that we as a country will be good at. Tackling climate change is something we can be good at and I am convinced that it will be good for us as a people. One would not think that at the moment because in truth we have not been successful in recent decades in addressing the scale of the crisis with the speed of response by any measure. The assessment of the Climate Change Advisory Council, which the Supreme Court referred to in its assessment of our mitigation plans to date, is that we are off course and heading in the wrong direction rapidly. That is the most honest assessment anyone could give. We are talking about turning around full circle and heading in a direction that will see us turning from being laggards to leaders as a country.
I am convinced that we can and will do that.
I intend today to set out the various factors that give me some confidence in our ability to meet the challenge we face and to reflect on how we might start doing it. The first cause for optimism is the fact that the key to success in this endeavour is the conviction that we can do it. That includes political conviction but also personal conviction among the people of this country. In the past two years, perhaps in response to our previous failing, there have been developments on the political side that give me cause for hope. The approach we have taken in the Oireachtas in the past two or three years has had an effect. The establishment of the Citizens' Assembly on climate change was a seminal first step in the direction of answering the question of how we become leaders rather than laggards in addressing the climate challenge. That was the key and correct question which we put to the assembly. Ms Justice Laffoy, Ms Sharon Finegan and the team of people who were involved in that work are now engaged within the Department of the Taoiseach in co-ordinating some of our climate change response. They did a really good job at the Citizens' Assembly asking the right questions, presenting the right evidence and listening to the citizens who participated. Those citizens came back, in their series of recommendations, with a clear conviction that we can and will be good at meeting this challenge and that we want to do something about it.
It was appropriate that the Oireachtas, in response to the report of the Citizens' Assembly, established the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action, which included representation from right across the last Dáil and Seanad. The committee did very significant work in listening to the evidence, considering the various options and answering the question of how we become leaders rather than laggards. The report it produced contained a consensus on most matters. There was not agreement across the board on the issue of carbon taxation but on most of the key measures, mechanisms and targets, there was political agreement. That consensus was an important change and condition which gives me some hope of our success in the challenges we face.
I commend my predecessor as Minister, Deputy Bruton, on the work he did in the role. The approach he took was appropriate in a variety of ways. I refer in particular to the lessons he took from the Action Plan for Jobs, for which he was responsible earlier in the last decade and which had real success in delivering a systemic approach within the Government to addressing a specific issue. His applying some of those lessons to the climate issue was appropriate and correct. The climate action plan he delivered was welcomed by most environmental organisations of which I am aware and by this House. This Government, under the programme for Government we have agreed, has decided that as welcome and well structured as Deputy Bruton's plan was, it was not ambitious enough. That is correct and true. We said at the time that the early-stage reductions, in particular, were not commensurate with the scale of the challenge that climate change presents, including the requirement to meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.
This Government is setting out, on the back of the good work that was done in establishing that climate action plan, the work the Oireachtas committee did in the last Dáil and the work of the Citizens' Assembly, to take the progress that was delivered by those methods and to aim higher. Specifically, we are aiming for at least a 7% reduction per annum in emissions over the next decade and to be net zero and carbon neutral by 2050. That ambition is in tune with what the EU is now proposing and with what the Commission President, Ms von der Leyen, said yesterday in her state of the Union address. I hope it is achievable, even though the timeframe is very tight and nothing is certain. It may give us a possibility of meeting the Paris Agreement climate objectives of preventing average global temperature increases from going beyond the 1.5° C level that gives us some statistical chance at this stage - a possibility, not even a probability - of avoiding runaway, systemic climate change.
I refer to the EU and President von der Leyen because what is happening in that arena is another factor that gives me a certain hope as we face the challenge of climate change. I was involved back in 2007 to 2009 in the drafting of the climate directive and the renewable energy directive, along with my then colleague and former Minister, John Gormley. I believe that the only way we can manage this challenge is as part of an EU system. Europe took its eye off the ball on climate when the financial crisis hit and ignored the issue for the guts of the last decade. It was probably concerned about the competitive advantages the United States may have had because of cheap gas. In any event, it was fixated on the financial crash and the migrant crisis and, as a consequence, it took its eye off the ball on climate. I believe that has changed in the past two or three years. The most important European legislation in this area is not that relating to the targets or the raising of ambitions in that regard. In truth, the target of a reduction of emissions of 40% and a 33% increase in renewables in the next decade was not ambitious enough. Critical to the response and the change we have seen has been the introduction of new governance directives and rules to help meet the climate change challenge.
I believe this new governance initiative is appropriate for a variety of reasons. First and most important, it gives flexibility and responsibility back to the member state. It is not a case of one size fits all. It is not a diktat from Brussels as to exactly how things must be done. It is an agreed mechanism whereby each country, in sharing the overall objective, had to come up with a national energy and climate action plan which showed how it could best meet the overall target within its own circumstances. I mention those plans because they are the binding mechanism that will legally demand action of us for fear that in the absence of meeting the requirements, we would have to pay further fines, in addition to the fines we already face for not having met our 2020 targets.
The Government, on coming together, agreed a more ambitious programme with more ambitious targets than what had gone before. In effect, we are doubling our climate ambition, which will be a huge challenge. We agreed to submit the existing climate action plan to the EU as part of its national emissions ceiling, NEC, process in July this year. In so doing, we enabled the Commission to sign off on its assessment of all 27 national energy and climate action plans. Next month, the Commission will present an overall analysis of the plans that have been presented and what effort-sharing arrangements might be needed to enable member states to reach the higher target of a reduction of at least 55%, as set out yesterday by President von der Leyen. My understanding from the German Presidency is that it is a key priority to get agreement on those targets by the end of the year and to get agreement on the effort-sharing process. The key timing consideration in this is for the EU to be able go into the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, process, to go to Glasgow for the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties next summer and to be able to present a level of ambition that will, it is hoped, encourage other countries in their climate action efforts. These countries include China and the United States - Lord knows what we can expect of the latter at the moment - but also, critically, the group of developing and other countries with which Europe has allied in recent UN climate negotiations because we have a common interest.
The approach I am hoping to take is that we fit in within that EU process. Our strength is as a member of the EU contributing to a global response and hoping that Europe can use its leverage - it is not insignificant as a bloc of real scale - to negotiate with other countries to live up to the requirements of the Paris Agreement. In that context, I hope to introduce new climate legislation in the House early in October, as committed to in the programme for Government and in accordance with the proposed approach of the previous Minister, Deputy Bruton, on which I want to follow through. The legislation will strengthen the powers of the Climate Change Advisory Council, as recommended in the report of the joint Oireachtas committee. The council's first task will be to establish a national climate action objective which reflects our higher ambitions, including a net-zero carbon footprint rather than the 80% reduction set out in the earlier plans and a mechanism of three five-year plans which detail how we set ourselves on that course over the coming five-year, ten-year and 15-year periods.
It would also set out, to the greatest degree of specificity possible, what sort of approach we are going to take towards meeting the long-term target. In doing that we will answer appropriately the valid criticisms contained in Mr. Justice Frank Clarke's judgement in the Supreme Court case taken by Friends of the Irish Environment about the previous national mitigation plan. More important, however, we will establish the mechanisms internally with which our public service and State system will be able to help our people make the leap we are going to have to make.
There is an opportunity in this rather than a problem because there is an opportunity for a change which can deliver a better economic model than the one we currently have. At the centre of the change we are about to make there must be a just transition. There must be the development of a new economic model which is socially progressive as well as environmentally progressive. It must also give us a secure economy, which was the consistent refrain in the discussions of the previous Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and the Environment on whatever measures we were looking at. It is absolutely critical that we do that.
We will do this first and foremost by concentrating on energy efficiency. It is perhaps the least glamorous aspect of this and gets the least attention but it is actually the most important. We will do that by setting ourselves the goal of taking out all of the oil and gas-powered boilers in our homes over the coming two decades and replacing them with heat pumps and really high-quality insulation so we no longer have to burn fossil fuels to heat our homes. That is the guiding star in all of this. It is complicated because there are so many options and so many different areas of life it will affect, but the one simple message to our people is that we are going to stop burning fossil fuels. Within two decades we must finish using fossil fuels in the energy system as part of this path. That will bring huge benefits because a person living in a house that is properly insulated to B2 standard or higher will realise that there are huge comfort and health gains. Critically, it is the best way of tackling fuel poverty. The worst curse of fuel poverty is having to pay the fuel bill. If we can retrofit our houses so there does not have to be that spend on fossil fuels, that will provide a huge leap in social justice and improvement for all of the people in this country.
Part of the funding for that will be covered by the revenues we get by introducing a carbon tax. Some parties will try to dispute that as an approach but it is not the be-all and end-all. Indeed it is not even the key measure, but it is just one of the mechanisms by which we can support the funding of what is a €50 billion project. This is not small. This will create 30,000 jobs. It will, as I said, use largely Irish materials and Irish companies with real skills and expertise in the area, which will create huge gains. It will use funding from the carbon tax and, I hope, funding from the European Union as part of the Green New Deal that the President of the European Commission, Ms Ursula von der Leyen, set out yesterday. It will use funding from the climate fund, which we legislated for just before the summer recess, and it will use private financing. Critically, this work will be done on private homes and offices as well as public buildings and social housing. We need a whole range of different solutions. The carbon tax will provide one stream but it will be only one of many we will have to apply.
On the energy side, if we can, and we will - manage those efficiency measures, the opportunity on the generation side is immense. I was very proud last week that we agreed the successful launch of the first auction for renewable energy that sees us moving away from a REFIT support price for renewable electricity toward an auction system where the industry has to bid in to have the ability to sell into the market. I am glad to say that the bid price, if index-linking is included, was about 20% lower than the outgoing REFIT support price, and I expect that to continue to fall as the cost of wind and in particular solar power continues to fall. Again, critically, to deliver a new type of economy based on social progress and different types of ownership of capital and production, we are looking to expand further and build on the seven community energy projects which were successful in that auction scheme. I expect the next scheme to have a much larger number of similar community-based groups involved in tapping into new power supply systems.
On a much larger scale but still one on which we must still look at community and national ownership, we should be preparing ourselves in this Dáil, in this term and the following one, for the massive development of offshore renewable energy as one of the huge projects for progress in this country that is available to us. Our sea area is ten times our land area and it is one of the windiest areas in the world. We have real skills in project management, engineering and renewables. We were one of the first countries to go offshore with wind energy. Those six turbines in the Arklow Bank are now tiny compared with what other countries are doing. We were there at an early stage, but we did not keep going with it, and now is the time for us to catch up. The scale of the project is again immense. We are talking about tens of billions. It has to work in co-operation with our neighbours the UK as well as the rest of the Continent, whatever else happens on Brexit. This is an opportunity we will tap into.
Key to making it successful is progress on the marine planning and development management Bill which needs to go through this House in the next six months. That is the sort of timeline within which I hope we will be able to pass it. That will give an investment certainty, a planning certainty and a grid development certainty which will allow us to progress and to start to deliver at that scale. The programme for Government mentions 35 GW, and there is nothing to stop us going beyond that if we can build the right interconnection and transmission system to tap into that power supply. That sounds like it is at a scale beyond compare with anything done to date, and it is, but that is what we intend to do. That is the sort of project that will allow us to meet these targets and see a huge economic benefit for this country.
We also need to develop our grid onshore. There have been key developments on this in recent weeks. While I know it is contentious and there are different views, the Northern Irish planning approval for the North-South interconnector brings real urgency to the development of that project. Last week Deputy McDonald rightly raised concerns about the cost of energy to consumers. That project is critical to helping bring down the cost of energy and for having an all-island energy system. There is such uncertainty with Brexit at the moment but whatever happens it is vital we maintain an all-island approach to meeting the climate challenge, because if we try to do it as two separate jurisdictions and systems, it will not work and we will not be able to meet our targets. We will not be able to get all of the benefit which accrues from an all-island approach if we start separating out and do not have a connected grid.
That connected grid has to bring us right down to the street level. In the new system, as we take out fossil fuels we start putting in heat pumps and electric vehicles, managing that grid at the distribution level is probably the most important single project in this whole system. If we get that right, retrofitting houses and the electrification of the transport system will work. It is a huge challenge which the ESB is well up for and well capable of meeting. We will learn, and indeed we already are, how we do that in a way that allows us to apply some of the lessons to the rest of the world. It is not all bad in our country. We tend rightly to be negative about failing to meet targets, but in truth we have learnt a lot about how to integrate renewable power. We are probably ahead of every other country in that because of the learning by doing which we have had to do. The ESB can and will apply that now as we move to the next phase of the revolution, namely, bringing it back down to the street and house level.
On transport, and I will only touch on some of the big transport projects we are going to have to undertake, it will require political commitment to move away from the sprawled planning model we have allowed to develop in our country over the past 50 years. It has been a car-based system. It has already been agreed in the national planning framework, which I think most parties have agreed to, that we need to bring life back to the centre of our rural communities, our villages, our towns and our cities. We need to make it safe for our children to walk and cycle to school.
We need to build up local high streets so local retailers and enterprises can have a vibrant future as well as a low-carbon future. It will be the development of a system that is dominated by safe active travel and public transport. Of course there will be use of cars but it will be done in a way that does not see the cars dominant and gives people freedom of choice, options, and the high-quality local environment we see throughout the country, which is the person-centred development of on-street planning. The villages, towns and communities that are really successful are the ones that are starting to get this planning right and creating local environments that are low on air pollution and high on vibrant street life. This is where we need to go. It is a win-win in tackling climate change when it comes to changing transport policy.
We do need to change. We have to spend 10% of our budget promoting walking and cycling if we are going to make it work. I would like to hear from others if they disagree with what is in the programme for Government. We need to switch our transport spending so the remainder of the capital budget is 2:1 in favour of public transport over roads. The benefit will be that we can start to design our new housing and address the housing crisis by putting housing closer to public transport so people have a high quality of life and save time if they have to commute. We have to learn the lessons from Covid and take some of the changes that have come with Covid by moving away from the model of commuting every day of the week and opening up to the possibility that, even after Covid is gone, people will not necessarily be commuting four or five days a week.
I am only scratching the surface of what the possibilities are and what we need to do. The Dáil will have to agree in the next year or two at the latest, as part of drafting the new national energy and climate action plan, which is our contribution to meeting the Paris climate agreement, a land use plan that sets out how we critically bring together addressing the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis. The two go together. First and foremost, a land use plan has to start with a plan for rural Ireland and the development of communities. We cannot separate us from nature. We are all connected. We are part of the environment and we have to think of land use planning in this way.
As we develop vibrant rural communities, we will do so best by also looking at how we store carbon and how we pay our farming communities for the expertise and skill that will be needed in the storing of carbon, particularly in peat soils. As part of our just transition we will invest significantly in using the skills of Bord na Móna to manage bogs and peatlands as a critical element of meeting our 2030 and 2050 targets. Similarly, we will pay farmers for meeting the second key objective, which is the restoration of biodiversity. We will look at changing the forestry model completely and make the evolutionary step to the next form of forestry, which will be away from clear-felling, monoculture short rotation crops towards long-term close to nature continuous cover forestry. It will take time to develop this. It will take time even to get the saplings and, as we know, it takes time to do the planning. This is the change we need to make and the land use plan will set out what type of forestry will go where and what type of supports will be involved.
The land use plan will also need to set out how we manage and improve our water quality. The biggest failing environmentally has been the loss of pristine water and the ongoing scandal of pollution of our waterways by wastewater systems, nitrogen, excessive fertilisers and other factors that have led to the loss of our water quality. In tackling all of these issues together we will help to manage our floods in a much better way, preparing and adapting for the climate change we know will come.
The land use plan must also monitor and reduce the level of ammonia and nitrogen pollution. All of this can be done not by telling the farmer what to do or wagging fingers and talking down to someone. We are looking for their help. We are looking to pay them properly for making the change and to guarantee, as I believe there is agreement throughout the House, that we want to see the Irish family farm thrive in this climate changing world we have to address. It is doable. It just requires an ability to see and do things differently and to allocate funding, road space and decision making towards this task. It will be done best when we work collectively. I look forward to working with the climate committee when it comes to the introduction of the legislation and for it to have a critical role in the ongoing review and approval of the rolling budget approach we are looking to take.
This works best when there is political consensus and when there is not a division on the issue. We work well as a country when we set ourselves a common target. I hope that what I sense is true will be true, which is that all parties and Independent Deputies agree this is a project we should take on. It is not something that divides us. We may disagree on the policy details and the timing, and we may even disagree on the budget, but I hope we can agree on the overall objective that the country wants to be and will be good at this. In doing so we will meet the international obligations to deliver climate justice to the poorest countries in the world that will be hit hardest. In doing it we will also restore a new sense of connection between our own selves and our local environment and the nature around us. We live in a beautiful country. We are lucky to live in such a temperate and relatively stable environment. We need to keep it this way. If we can agree common purpose on understanding the scale of the promise and the vision on how we live in our own homes, local communities and a world we want to protect for younger people and ourselves, we can debate politically the details and we can even argue, but if we do not have as the first principle that we will do this, then nothing will happen.
I welcome the Minister back to the House. I shared a similar experience to his in recent weeks. It is part of living with Covid. It gives us a clear understanding of the importance of a testing and tracing system that is responsive and rapid. Personal behaviour and a sound healthcare system are the foundation on which our future will be built.
I welcome the inclusion of statements on climate action in the schedule. It is important we keep the topic at the top of the Dáil's agenda although statements on their own will not be enough, and the Minister is aware of this. We need tangible changes that will alter our current path. I look forward to the Minister bringing forward the climate action Bill soon and working with the Government to ensure it is ambitious and fair. The Minister might provide us with an update on its progress.
The challenge of climate change is undeniable despite what some might say. The science is clear and the evidence is powerful and alarming, whether it be in California at present, Siberia in recent months, the Arctic Circle or Australia. I have a brother in Australia with whom I speak weekly. When he speaks about bad weather it is not like the bad weather here. What he means is that it is so warm people cannot go outside or the forest fires are so close that the children cannot go to playschool. We have had our own experience in Ireland in a clearer way in more recent times. Through Met Éireann's detailed and reliable climate data, which has been collected since the mid-1800s, we can see Ireland's average annual temperature has increased by 1°C over the past 100 years. I commend the work of Met Éireann and the work of geographers throughout the country, including at the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Unit. The Minister's colleague at the Department of Education and Skills is still intent on downgrading geography as a subject at junior certificate level and this is a regressive move for the climate effort.
Our climate has changed and is continuing to do so. We are now seeing more damaging storms and more destructive floods as a result. The evidence is clear to everyone.
We have seen examples of this across the island such as the partial collapse of Dunbeg Fort in Dingle in 2018, the impact of coastal and inland erosion on the Spanish Armada wrecks off the Sligo coast and the collapse of Rathcannon Castle during Storm Ophelia. There are many other examples such as the extreme and concerning coastal erosion at Portrane, County Dublin.
It will not be enough to continue simply building flood barriers and hope for the best. Man-made protections are no match for the power of climate change events. Without significant change, this will be the new reality for billions of people across the globe for years to come. It will take a global effort to alter this trajectory. I believe Ireland can become a world leader in eliminating reliance on fossil fuels and changing our habits to greener alternatives. If it makes sense for people to do it and if it is done in a fair and equitable way, then there should be no issue.
For this to happen, however, the Government's approach must be one of bringing people along on the journey with it. Taxing people who have no alternatives or carbon shaming people simply will not work. The Government's proposed increase in carbon tax is exactly the wrong approach. This October the Government will increase the cost for people to heat their homes and drive to work with far more significant impact on income inequality and deprivation indices than on carbon emissions. Most people would love an insulated home and solar panels on their roof. Many would love an electric car or the option of no car at all. This is a million miles away, however, from most people's current household budgets. In fact, it is beyond the capabilities of the infrastructure and public services which the State provides, particularly public transport services, due to government underinvestment for years. Taxing people more this October and for the next ten budgets will not change this. In fact, it will make the issue worse.
Affordable alternatives need to be in place before a behavioural tax can work. In the meantime, it is not a behavioural tax but a punitive one. Not only does it hammer those who can least afford it, it leaves a sour taste in people's mouths about climate action. They feel they are being punished for something totally out of their control. It is the exact opposite to bringing people along on the journey that we are supposed to be on together.
There is the targeting of items such as two-for-one dinners included in the recently launched waste action plan. The action plan commits to working with retailers to end the sale of multibuy packs. There was a significant and understandable angry public response to this for two reasons. First, many people depend on these special offers to feed their families. When one looks at the cost of rent, insurance and childcare and other living costs, this is a reality for many families. Second, people thought of the many other actions that could be taken to target the environmental sphere. Two-for-one dinners are not the highest priority. There was a particular media presentation but it was dreadful.
The same applies for penalising people for buying more affordable clothes. It is insulting and offensive to people who are struggling to make ends meet. It reeks of that idea of going for quality over quantity and telling people to stop being poor. It reminds me of Terry Pratchett's book tax where those wealthy enough can afford good books which last longer and they save money in the long run while those who are poor go through many more books at more expense.
We have to understand the position which people find themselves and the way they engage with the environment, the climate and the economy. We have to meet them where they are. These proposals infuriated people not because they do not want to tackle waste in the fashion industry but because it is yet another tax on the consumer rather than tackling the root causes behind it. Solutions to our waste and environmental challenges cannot just always be a levy or a tax on consumers. This has always been the go-to and simple idea by successive Governments. It does more harm than good to people's attitudes to green politics.
On energy policy, I have spoken privately to the Minister on the North-South interconnector. My honest and heartfelt opinion is that it will not proceed as currently proposed. Planning permission, North and South, is not available due to the level of public opposition. Will the Government engage with communities to find a way forward? There is a way forward but it will only be found with genuine engagement. I would like to know the Minister's plans in this regard.
Transitioning from a reliance on fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy will play a key role in our national climate action effort. Recent industry reports have indicated there are significant challenges in that regard which the Minister acknowledged. What measures will the Government take to address them?
The level of community engagement in the RESS, renewable electricity support scheme, is a real positive. Is enough being done, however, to maximise the potential to look at new economies and new models of delivering energy? I do not believe there is. I am happy to work with the Minister as Opposition spokesperson to advance the opportunities for community-generated energy, as well as for communities to be able to plug in and contribute to the grid.
I live in County Meath where we want people to use public transport. For that to happen, public transport needs to work for people. We need an improved bus network and the Navan rail line to be opened. We have discussed this on numerous occasions and we will continue to do so. I hope it can be progressed. Sinn Féin has committed to playing a constructive role in opposition. We understand and accept the need for system change and to work towards a zero-emissions economy. We are clear in our position, however, that it must be done with, not to, communities. Fundamental to that is the principle of climate justice and a just transition.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to ensure that the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy is fair. However, many communities are sceptical about the Government's intention to be fair in the transition process. Much of the scepticism comes from their experience of the last time that the Green Party was in government. The living memory is that of a Government which introduced token measures which did little for environmental protection but hammered local communities. Have any lessons been learned?
One area where that question will be answered relates to horticultural peat harvesting. This activity is crucial to the mushroom industry, a particularly vital sector to my home county, Monaghan. Despite what the Minister's advisers may tell him, people at the coalface of this industry state there is no alternative to horticultural peat. If the peat is not available in Ireland, then it will be either imported from elsewhere or the mushroom industry will leave Ireland.
That is what I mean by tokenism. Such a move will do nothing for the environment. In fact, the carbon footprint would likely increase. The economy in my county, however, would be devastated. On 7 September, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, announced he was establishing a working group to examine the use of peat moss in the horticultural sector. I would have said this was a good move. However, crucially, he stated the terms of reference would include the predetermined outcome of graduating the elimination of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. That is not the action of a Minister or a Government that wants to deliver a fair or just transition. It exposes a lack of understanding of horticulture and the mushroom sector in particular. The articulated linkages that have been made between peat extraction for horticultural use with that of peat extraction for energy use are spurious and dishonest.
There is 1.3 million ha of peatland in this State. Only 5,500 ha are used for horticultural peat, amounting to 0.4% of total boglands. Some 500 ha would sustain the mushroom industry for the next 100 years.
Coupled with these medium- and long-term challenges that the Government appears intent on introducing, there is also the immediate debacle with the planning system, which has been exacerbated by the Supreme Court decision in July in cases involving An Taisce and An Bord Pleanála which, if urgent action is not taken, could result in several years of delay in the process and bring the mushroom production process in Ireland to a halt much sooner even than would have been envisaged.
The questions for the new Green Minister are the following. Will he resolve in the first instance the backlog in the planning and regulation process or will he pursue tokenism at the expense of rural economies, such as in County Monaghan? If the latter is his intention, he will face fierce resistance. The economy in County Monaghan, for example, is dependent on indigenous industries such as the mushroom sector. Successive governments have done virtually nothing for job creation in our county, so we simply cannot allow Government to remove some of the jobs that are in place in the name of environmentalism but, in truth, just as a facade to cover up for its failures to deliver a real and effective carbon action plan in its programme for Government.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Deputies should not think this will happen under their watch and that they can simply shrug their shoulders and blame the Greens. They should not try to act like mushrooms because people are wise to that. The Deputies from those parties have a responsibility to represent and protect our rural economies and communities. Those rural communities will be watching their actions very closely.
I am glad to see the Minister back again. I congratulate him on his new post. I hope the United Nations report on biodiversity did not keep him tossing and turning in the leaba last night. Between that report and the screening of "Unquiet Graves" on RTÉ 1 yesterday, I certainly did not get my seven hours' sleep, but I digress.
Few politicians get to debate not just the kind of future we will have but whether there will be a future at all. We are living through and causing an extinction event but, judging by the bypasses from Government, we seem content to diminish or ignore it. It sounds grandiose but it is dead simple. The dead part can be seen in the loss of biodiversity, habitats, species and coastline and the vanishing ice in the Arctic and on the Alps. The simple part can be seen in the difference between back then and now. Back then, every winter, when our mams washed our jeans and perhaps left them out on the line all night, when we went out to bring them in in the morning, they were stiff as boards, the grass in the back garden crunching beneath our feet. Now, though, the washing being like boards in the winter is virtually unknown to our own children.
In using this example I am not mistaking weather for climate; I am saying our more clement temperatures do not mean a more clement climate. In fact, the so-called "modest" 1° increase which some time ago people thought would boost food production in the world is already wreaking havoc on our planet. Rainfall normally associated with the Himalayas and the Philippines is now a regular feature of life along the Mediterranean. In poorer countries susceptible to flooding, parents teach their children to swim, not to win the medal in the swimming gala but to survive the inevitable flooding. Here at home we do not have to hear the billions of tonnes of Greenland ice thundering into the North Atlantic or see the record heatwaves or droughts or Australia or California burning to know that our climate is changing and not for the better. We look out the window and see the tropical storms and hurricanes creeping up into the North Atlantic. A warmer ocean means moister winds, giving us the A to Z of storms we saw on the weather forecast with Joanna Donnelly every evening this week, the trampolines on tour A to Z, as gales and torrential rains pound us with greater intensity and regularity.
Mother Earth did not do this on her own, though. She had a dig-out from politicians, corporations and the millionaires turned billionaires treating Earth as something to exploit for their profit as opposed to something to cherish for our children and our grandchildren. The truth is that capitalism is not a good bedfellow of sustainability and the environment. That is the real inconvenient truth for the Green Party, this Government and governments all across the world. The great and the good of Ireland mourn the loss of an EU Trade Commissioner who paved the way for a Mercosur deal which contributes to the annihilation of the Amazon rain forest.
In my constituency, in north Kildare, locals tell me they were promised the spent bogs of Bord na Móna would be rewetted and that they would get a lake, which would have been a great amenity for north Kildare. Instead they got a dump. On Kildare County Council Sinn Féin councillors consistently put forward motions on reforestation of rural council greenfield and brownfield sites with native trees. We sought the option of microgeneration for community groups and individuals. In fact, my cumann brought forward a motion on that at our Ard-Fheis.
We also wanted to incorporate geothermal heating systems in new council estates, whereby the green area would be used for that purpose. Of course, we were all ignored and plámásed because the truth is that this State has not got a notion about really tackling climate change that involves the State doing the heavy lifting. Instead it prefers to pretend it should all be left to the individual or to carbon-taxing the life out of poor communities with no affordable alternative. I want to call that out. I want to put forward citizen-centred solutions, so I am very grateful to Deputy Mary Lou McDonald for appointing me to the climate committee. I want to play a role and play my part to deliver the change that people see we really need - real change, radical change, urgent change - from consumer politics to economics where, in the end, all we are consuming is our Earth and one another. We are running out of time to save our planet from all this.
I remember my nana used to have a lovely "I told you so" phrase if we complained that we did not get something done when we should have foreseen it in time: Ní hé lá na gaoithe Iá na scolb. It is not on the windy day that the thatching should be done. It is very apt. It is not like we have not been warned. We know the predictions are stark. Capitalist economic growth costs and the price is our children's future. Like millions all over the world, I am not prepared to pay it. Today I ask an tAire, as leader of the Green Party and as a member of this Government, is he.
I welcome the Minister and wish him the best of luck in his role, which he has had now for a number of weeks. My comrades in Labour Youth produced over the summer a document, entitled Be Radical or Be Redundant, relating to a number of areas, including climate change. If we are to go from being laggards to leaders, as is the Government's aim, and one which we support, we need to be radical or else we risk being redundant.
Throughout this pandemic, which has dominated 2020 and dominated an awful lot of our thinking, anecdotal evidence has emerged from people, including I am sure everyone in this room, of the environment responding positively to the sudden pausing of regular industrial and indeed personal behaviours. If we are to take one positive memory from this year, I think it will be having a time to pause and to be able to see the environment around us, the biodiversity and the opportunities we have in our communities to improve the environment and to link that together with the State to make a real difference on climate change.
We have seen the disturbing and shocking images from California of the forest fires in recent weeks and the recent Australian bushfires, which ravaged the entire country and continent. In this country we have seen flooding regularly. In the week just gone, on the Continent several temperature records were set, some dating back 150 years. In my constituency we have issues such as coastal erosion, which over the past six or seven years has accelerated at an extraordinary pace.
This is not a once-off event. Coastal erosion has been happening for decades in north County Dublin at very modest levels. However, now we see the breadth and drama of it and the amount of land it is taking in such a short space of time. There is little doubt that this is a result of climate change. It is not just the California fires, the flooding in Europe, and the Australian bush fires. This is happening in every corner of the planet, including our very own.
Pandemic or not, we see the stark reminders every single day. Many of the world's Governments have reacted with rapid responses to Covid-19 and that is to be commended. We are all trying to flatten the curve. However, those rapid responses have never happened in relation to climate change. We know climate change is destroying homes, ruining livelihoods and killing people. It is another fight which we need to face collectively. It deserves action and a response to the scale of this global challenge. Climate change actions may bring certain practices and industries to an end or greatly reduce them but the future of our children and grandchildren is the goal we must aim for. It is the responsibility of world, international and local leaders to ensure climate action is used as a moment to bring a real green revolution. Workers and ordinary people will be the ones to deliver the green future but they cannot be the ones to carry the burden of delivering it. We must have radical and rapid action to save our planet and we must also have a just transition for our workers. We must act to save livelihoods, not only from the physical effects of climate change, but by ensuring a restructuring of our economy and creating well-paid public jobs with a publicly owned system of green energy production. At the heart of every climate decision should be workers, people and communities. We cannot allow the market to lead climate action and policy. It has no interest in it. It is not in the interest of the market to solve climate change. It is the exact opposite. The State has to lead and I hope that is a message the Minister believes and will carry in his term as Minister. The market and large industry have been the largest contributors to pollution and they must not hold continued influence over policy in Ireland or throughout the world. We must be radical or we face being redundant.
The Labour Party will support proposals to invest in the ESB, Coillte and Bord na Móna to create new sustainable jobs in clean energy, recycling and land management. This will ensure a positive future for workers and for regions of our country that are at risk of economic and social decline. We will support proposals for a just transition to a low-carbon economy and for setting up a just transition fund and task force to invest in businesses that are helping workers and communities to make that transition. We will support proposals to invest in public transport and cycling infrastructure; to encourage people in cities and large towns to make the change to sustainable and healthier forms of transportation; to ease traffic congestion; and to improve our air quality. That is why we need to see large-scale projects such as MetroLink, and I know the Minister is a supporter and advocate of that project and has been for many years. We need to see a radical expansion of public bike schemes into not just our major cities, but our big towns, and within our cities out to the suburbs to allow people to get to bus stops and train stations, where they are available, in a healthy and sustainable way. We need to see investment in infrastructure to make cycling safe. We also need to see investment in safe pedestrianisation and for people with disabilities. These measures from the bottom up in terms of our transport infrastructure will have a positive impact on climate change.
The Minister will not be short of ideas and solid proposals from the Opposition benches. Cynical people here will say that, as a Green Party Minister, he will receive more opposition from his own partners in Government in terms of policies and ideas than he will from people on this side of the House. We want to see action. We will be suggesting alternatives and we will support alternatives that will work because we need to be in this together. Climate action affects every one of us and the generations that follow will pay the price for our inaction now. There have been record-breaking floods, deadly heatwaves and billions of euro worth of crops destroyed by storms. People in Ireland are worried about what is happening in the world and what it will take to tackle the climate crisis before it is too late.
We call on the Minister and the Government in the promised climate action Bill to ensure the biggest polluters pay for the damage caused and that they are regulated to change practices; to ensure that the average worker does not bear the burden and brunt of the cost of climate change; that a real just transition for workers is delivered with a proper green new deal and a real investment in green energy; and that there is a ban on the use of fracked gas and oil. These are actions we must take. We have no time to dither on them. Each party in this House put forward proposals on climate action in its election manifesto. We need to start seeing them enacted. Last year we saw record-breaking demonstrations from people in the street in cities across the world. They were positive demonstrations and they energised people, not through local and general elections but through daily, weekly and ongoing political activity, be it under a party banner or not. We cannot sleepwalk into further destruction on this planet. We must be radical or we risk becoming redundant.
I thank the Minister. Our climate action plan clearly recognises that Ireland significantly steps up to its commitment to tackle climate disruption. With that in mind, I will raise the issue of forestry. According to the Uplift campaign, which has communicated with all the Deputies in this House, planting native trees to create rich native woodland such as oak, ash, elder and birch should be a priority to have cleaner air and create healthier communities. The Minister knows that. We have suffered decades of deforestation, which has led to the erosion of biodiversity, created barriers to commercial forestry and imposed massive conditions on homebuilders and community and commercial enterprises to offset it by planting hundreds of native species. We cannot have such a strategy. We need trees far and wide but we also need timber from these trees.
This leads to my concern. In my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny, several people have come to me with concerns for everyone in the forestry industry in the region. Creators, builders, landscapers and craftspeople rely heavily on supply from Irish sawmills. However, due to problems with the felling licences caused by serial objectors, the country's sawmills are finding it incredibly tough and their lack of supply has resulted in shorter working weeks. These are jobs which on the line.
Businesses in my home county of Carlow which utilise the products of sawmills have said to me they are afraid there could be more than 500 jobs at stake. Yesterday, I spoke to Andy Doyle, a constituent of mine from Hacketstown, a fabulous place to live. He owns Woodside Garden Products, a family-run business, and he does a lot of bark and mulch. He told me there are 15 jobs there and at the moment they are all under pressure. It is not only him but it is the lorry drivers and the people he is in contact with every day and that is a huge problem. This highlights that when an objection to felling is placed, it does not impact on the sawmills. New housing developments and new school builds could be put on hold if there is no timber in the country to finish them and it must be imported. It raises questions about how we feel about other countries' deforestation. It is not good enough to say one's neighbour does not recycle but as long as one does it oneself that is okay. It is not okay. We are either all on this planet or we are not. It is our shared space. We have to ensure a robust objection system, root out vigorously objections where they may occur and work with industry to solve issues where they arise.
The sawmills supply the timber to make pallets. Everything moves on pallets in this country. If we have a scarcity of pallets, it puts a huge delay on delivery of essential goods. It is so important to Ireland, not just to the builders but to all of us waiting for shops to be stocked. It is only in the past few months in speaking to different businesses across my constituency that I have realised the utmost importance of making sure that we have proper legislation, keep these jobs and keep this important industry going. We need joined-up thinking and we need to plant and offset trees. We fell, and there is no disputing that. Science tells us that forests take harmful carbon dioxide from our air and retain it in the biomass. Planting trees is good for jobs and so is felling them and planting again. It is a green circle. It is a sustainable industry.
Timber from our trees builds our homes, our schools and our crafts and we cannot stand over anyone importing that timber because that is not the spirit of the climate action plan. The sector has already seen the loss of two and a half months of turnover. In addition, new housing builds will only reach an estimated 16,000 units by the end of the year. We were given that figure by representatives of the construction sector at the Covid-19 committee.
Commercial forestry is a renewable resource, a green sector for jobs and we need to future proof our plans for this area. The forestry sector has a turnover of €2.4 billion, provides a €1 billion worth of exports and employs 12,000 people. These jobs and the livelihoods of families will be under threat in rural Ireland if we do nothing. I will be supporting the proposed agricultural appeals (amendment) Bill, which deals with this very issue in another Department. I am concerned, however, that we do not have a whole-of-Government approach to this issue and that is why I am raising it in the context of climate action. We must plant the trees but also save the jobs.
We have all been listening to the Minister and we probably all have our concerns regarding coming changes. The Minister said in his speech that we will all have to make changes. I agree with that completely. We have all seen the good weather we have had during this pandemic. That helps people in a way, but it is also difficult to tell our winters from our summers now. We seem to be reaching that stage. We must all work together, therefore, to ensure that we look after our climate and ensure that we play our part. I will be doing that. From schools I have worked with in recent years, I know that climate change will be a major part of our children's future. We must concentrate on that aspect and ensure that we educate our children about climate change and climate action. I thank the Minister for his contribution and I hope that he will respond to me with a written reply regarding my question on forestry.
We no longer live in the world we think we do. In our mind’s eye, we still see ourselves in the relatively benign setting of the Holocene, a period of comparative stability in our climate, which cradled the advent of human civilisation.
When I was born, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere was 333 ppm. That was above pre-industrial levels, but consistent with a relatively constant global temperature range. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, in the United States, the CO2concentration, measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, today stands at 411 ppm. The composition of Earth’s atmosphere has significantly altered in less than a human lifetime. The last time CO2concentrations were at this level was some 3 million years ago, when the planet was two to three degrees warmer and sea-levels were 15 to 25 m higher. We no longer live in the world we think we do.
Anyone born after February 1985 will never have lived through a month of below average global temperatures. The five warmest years since 1880 have occurred since 2015. The Minister knows as well as I do, and better, the debate our party had on the issue of entering into Government. It says much about the Green Party that we could hold that discussion publicly, respectfully air and exchange contrary viewpoints and come to a decision on the future road of our movement.
On one hand, many of our members felt that the programme for Government, however good, did not go far enough in terms of systems change or climate justice. I can accept and understand the merits of those arguments and have an undiminished respect for those who made them. On the other hand, there are parties within Leinster House that thought it more politically opportune to wait in the wings, either to consolidate their electoral gains or to build in opposition.
There were others, however, and I count myself among them, mindful of those arguments, aware of the possibility of political fallout and the difficulty of the road ahead, who chose to back the brave decision to go into Government in a time of crisis, or perhaps I should say in a time of crises. For good reason, the health crisis posed by the Covid-19 pandemic is at the forefront of all our minds and I welcome the resilience and recovery plan published this week which lays out this State’s roadmap to living alongside Covid-19 in the short to mid term. Concurrently, we must deal with the resultant economic crisis and plan for an investment-led recovery, one that prioritises decent jobs and a Green New Deal. Beyond that, however, and I cannot say in the long term given the urgent need for radical action, are the twin spectres of climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse.
Such is the scale of the climate crisis, that the President of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, made one of the strongest statements on the issue in her State of the Union speech earlier this week. Bearing in mind all the challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, President Von der Leyen maintained that “There is no more urgent need for acceleration than when it comes to the future of our fragile planet.” She, like many of us, recognises that the status quowill not protect the future of our planet.
In facing up to these challenges, astoundingly complex and difficult in their nature, we must in the first instance be wary of those who offer us simplistic solutions. We live in an era of a new populism which offers easy and attractive answers or engages in deflection or whataboutery. We can hear those voices inside and outside the gates of Leinster House. By the same token, the Covid-19 crisis has exposed the myth at the heart of the neoliberal capitalist model: that the State is bad and the market can cure all ills. In fact, what we have seen in recent months is the power of the State to do good and to harness and focus collective action for the collective good.
Similarly, market forces, as currently constituted, are ill-equipped to deal with the climate emergency; a time horizon which does not extend beyond the next quarterly report cannot enable long-term action. Likewise, a balance sheet which erodes natural capital at the behest of short-term profit will, ultimately, serve to impoverish, not enrich. We see this nowhere more clearly than in California at present, where unparalleled wealth flows into tech companies while the wildfires rage around them.
We in the environmental movement have, in the past, also fallen into the trap of individualism. Now, we have come to a better understanding that we must act on the power of aggregated individual actions, but that must occur within systemic change. In tackling the climate emergency, we must leverage the full power of the State and its people to affect societal change and we must act in common purpose to the common good.
President Michael D. Higgins, then a Teachta Dála, when speaking to the Tom Johnson Summer School in 2009, referred to the rich utopian tradition of the Labour Party. He rightly noted the failure of a wage income in a traded economy to take account of the caring economy, of voluntary activity or of cultural activity. I hope this Government’s work on well-being indicators will help to address that problem. Our current system fails in the same way to account for environmental goods: the intrinsic value, for example, of biodiversity falls outside its reckoning unless we modify our language, couching it in forced terms like "ecosystem services". The President, in that speech at the Tom Johnson Summer School, then quoted Tom Moylan, who said that: “What is needed is a courageous embrace of the utopian project, not self-denying resignation but self-aware engagement.” These words ring truer today than ever before.
We must set in front of us this utopian vision, not one of some imagined past, but one of a reimagined future, one where we have learned to live within our planetary boundaries, where we have harnessed the twin powers of the State and our ever-developing technology to protect our most vulnerable, both at home and abroad, and where we truly value the rich tapestry of the natural world around us that has so nurtured our evolution as a species. We must set in front of us this utopian vision, because the contrary is coming into ever-sharper focus.
Another President, Barack Obama, said: "We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it." Our programme for Government, A Vision for Change, sets out a beginning to that journey. The hill is steep and the way is long, but I am proud that our party has taken the brave decision to set out on that path. The urgency of the task to hand demands it.
Dare I say it, but I had some hope when the Green Party became involved with this Government that we might see some movement on a just transition regarding climate change. Instead, we got the blunt instrument of carbon taxes. Like many others, I have been disappointed by the Green Party and how it has been absorbed into the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael way of thinking.
The easiest, fastest and fairest way to deliver real change is to do it at a micro level. We need to fast-track the ability of homeowners to sell electricity back to the grid. This would make it viable for families to install energy-saving devices and microgeneration equipment. It is a small and simple change, but it is a change that would have a major effect on the pockets of our constituents in the medium term and a change that would have a major effect on climate change in our country.
I have twice asked parliamentary questions seeking new wind energy guidelines to be published. We need those guidelines now. A five-turbine wind farm has been proposed at Umeras between Monasterevin and Rathangan in County Kildare. This area is adjacent to the new Barrow blueway which is under construction. It is an area of immense natural beauty where flora and fauna are flourishing and is totally unsuitable for wind farms and turbines. I am not against wind turbines per sebut there must be areas designated in county development plans where they are not allowed. We need to protect our beauty spots and ensure that there is a sufficient setback from existing homes and, in Sinn Féin's view, the setback should be ten times the height of the turbine. The turbines proposed in Kildare are a massive 169 m high, almost three times the height of Liberty Hall.
In the same area, a local group has received funding from the just transition fund. The group will put that money, funds that were raised locally and other amounts allocated by local councillors to fund a feasibility study for Umeras Peatlands Park, a Lough Boora-style visitor centre which will give a boost to the local tourism offering. It will be close to Ballykelly Mills distillery, which is under construction, and not only will it contribute to the local economy, it will also preserve the raised bog for future generations. I commend the work those involved have done so far and wish them well in bringing this project to fruition.
I ask the Minister to ensure that there is a just transition. We cannot rely on the stick of carbon taxes to beat our older people in particular into submission. We need specific incentives for our older population, many of whom have breathing difficulties and would benefit from the removal of their over-reliance on fossil fuels. Older people are the backbone of this country and we need to ensure that we show them our appreciation.
I am glad to see the Minister in the Chamber today. Many families are having similar experiences to his and I hope the outcomes are as positive.
The Minister and I have similar views on many of these issues and I agree with an awful lot of what he has said. The Minister said earlier that this was going to be a huge challenge but he believes that we can do it, that we will be good at it as a country, and I agree with him about that. Look at how we have managed the Covid-19 crisis. We came together and showed solidarity as a community to fight the virus. Climate change is as big a challenge for us to get through and we will only do so together.
As has been shown during the Covid crisis, the key to solidarity and seeking to ensure we bring everyone along is communication. We have seen over recent weeks how a lack of clear and concise communication and bringing people along has the potential to undermine the message. That potential is also there on the issue of climate change.
We are pleading for solidarity and people have to feel that they are listened to and that they understand what is being asked of them. The Minister launched the waste policy last week. There are a lot of good things and ideas in that policy and the Social Democrats will be supportive of it. However, there was a sense at the time when he launched the policy that there was a lot of concern among especially vulnerable people in our communities, those on low wages and those who are already struggling. Those people felt that the policy was going to impact them in a negative way. Much of that came down to a lack of consultation and communication and a failure to see the problem from the side of those people. I know that the Minister had an advisory group to help him work on the plan. It was set up prior to his term in office and has been ongoing for a while.
I think there are 30-odd groups within the advisory group, including the Retail Action Group, the Rediscovery Centre, the Irish Farmers Association and the Chartered Institute of Waste Management. They are all important stakeholders that should be consulted in the development of such a policy but, unfortunately, there was no representative body for people at risk of poverty. That was a big gap. There was also no on-the-ground representative body for people with disabilities. The statutory disability group was represented but there were no grassroots representative groups that could speak on behalf of people with disabilities and at risk of poverty. If those voices had been involved in the consultation over the creation of this document and the development of this policy, the result last week would have been better, people would have understood from where the policy was coming and would not have been as fearful and concerned about the outcomes.
All of us here are aware that a just transition is incredibly important. Addressing climate change is not something that we can do while leaving a large section of our community behind. It has to be a just transition and the key to ensuring that happens is applying principles of fairness and proportionality. The Social Democrats believe that the best way to handle responsibly the transition to a low-carbon economy is to adopt ways which not only minimise the effect on the environment but which ensure that those least able to adapt are supported and are not negatively impacted by climate change policies. The transition needs to be fair to everyone, including farmers, fishermen, people with disabilities and those living in poverty. They are all stakeholders and we must poverty-proof, disability-proof and region-proof our climate action policies to make sure that all those affected are consulted in the drafting of these important policies. That did not happen with the waste document that was published last week. I do not think that was intentional but I ask that, in the future, the Minister ensures that those voices are heard and those people are a part of the consultation process for all climate change actions, documents and policies.
The forestry Bill does not fall under the remit of the Minister but there are overlaps with his responsibilities. I have serious concerns about the Bill from the perspective of environmental planning. The Bill seeks to limit people's ability to engage in the forestry planning process. I have concerns about its legality under the Aarhus Convention and I do not think it is going to solve the problem. I do not think that stopping people from having their say on these particular applications will solve the problem because the issue is a resourcing one. If the Department had ensured that there were sufficient resources to deal with the applications as they came in, we would not be in the position we will be when discussing the Bill next week and trying to force through something that will undermine people's rights to engage in environmental planning in this country. We need to protect and strengthen people's participation in environmental issues, particularly now. We also need to protect democracy and transparency which are cornerstones of climate action.
I was pleased to hear the Minister talk about the different stages and elements of addressing climate action and the emphasis he has put on biodiversity. This is something that I am keen to see incorporated into climate action development. It is seen as a separate process a lot of the time and there is a lack of understanding that it would be difficult to address climate change without also addressing the issues that affect biodiversity. There will be benefits for biodiversity when climate change is dealt with and we cannot address them as separate, siloed issues. My preference would have been for biodiversity to have been incorporated into the Minister's Department when the Government was being formed because that is the best place for it. It will cause difficulties that biodiversity falls under the remit of a separate Department and I think that responsibility needs to be integrated. At the moment, we have separate plans, reports and actions for biodiversity and climate change. We do not want to see that gap widening and we need to integrate all those plans and strategies to ensure a cohesive climate change and biodiversity focus over the next five years.
It is not just biodiversity. As the Minister himself mentioned, water quality, flooding and other issues the OPW deals with all need to be looked at through the lens of biodiversity. I am hopeful that will happen although I am not 100% certain it will. I will be raising it continually over the coming years.
I do not know if the Minister had an opportunity to watch Sir David Attenborough's nature programme during the week. It highlighted the incredible crisis we face globally. When we watch these programmes, we can sometimes think of this as something that is happening elsewhere like on the plains of Africa, Alaska or Antarctica. However, it is happening here and it is happening incredibly quickly. It is not something we can ignore. Experts estimate there has been a 97% decline in curlew numbers since the 1980s. That is huge. The curlew is not an isolated example. Our bee populations are down by a third. All of these fundamental biological aspects of our environmental system are fading away and we need to put all of our efforts into stopping that. Addressing climate change will be key in doing so. The problem is multifaceted and our response will also need to be multifaceted.
We need to ensure our ecosystems are incorporated into a cross-sectoral adaptation policy and are not treated as separate processes but as a complement to our technological and economic measures. When we talk about climate change we sometimes focus on emissions reductions, technology and electric vehicles but to address climate change we will need to look to nature a lot more. I am hopeful that the Minister is taking this on board and that, as part of his remit, he will ensure we are not only looking at the technological aspects of climate adaptation and mitigation but at the natural aspects as well.
I welcome the Minister back to the Chamber. I am glad to see he is doing well. I take the opportunity today to speak about the link between transport infrastructure, climate action and energy.
The first item I will raise with the Minister is the Cork metropolitan area transport strategy. This is a €3.5 billion investment package for Cork which will include commuter rail, bus corridors, light rail, park-and-ride facilities, walking and cycling facilities and the expansion of the existing road network. The national planning framework to 2040 envisages Cork becoming the fastest growing city region in Ireland with a projected population increase of 50% to 60% by 2040. The strategy will provide a coherent transport planning policy framework and implementation plan around which other agencies involved in land use planning, environmental protection and the delivery of other infrastructure such as housing and water can align their investment priorities.
This strategy presents a great opportunity to connect small towns and villages across east Cork with the city, to cut commuter times and, in general, to stop the spread of rural decline we have seen in parts of our county of Cork. Until now, this has been forgotten under previous national development plans. Connecting towns in a sustainable way is a great way to tackle the urban sprawl that leads to poor planning of development, which in turn increases traffic congestion and, thereby, pollution. These are unnecessary consequences of poor planning.
I also highlight the requirement to address the need for an increase in the level of public bus infrastructure and to make bus travel more affordable. At present, too few routes go to too few destinations. Services are infrequent, unreliable and, in many cases, enormously expensive, as I have highlighted to the Minister before. Since I first got involved in politics, I have campaigned for bus fares to be reduced.
To be fair to Bus Éireann, it recently reduced fees on its Expressway services and expanded its services around County Cork but a significant portion of work remains. A discussion needs to be had as to how to cut the cost of public service obligation, PSO, bus services if we are serious about getting cars off the road.
We must also look at the Leap card system around County Cork and the green fare area around Cork city. This area is highly unfair. It is does not suit anybody in my constituency who lives beyond Midleton. Towns like Fermoy, Mitchelstown and Mallow are completely excluded from the benefits when those living in them could easily be availing of affordable and reliable public transport.
Let us talk about how serious a problem this is. If one goes down to the Jack Lynch tunnel at 5 p.m. one will see a stack of cars clogging up two lanes of traffic as people go home from their work in Ringaskiddy and areas around that part of the south side of Cork city, where much of the major industry in the county is located. It is absolutely staggering but what shocks me most of all is that one will not see a single bus. No bus route that is sustainable or reliable enough connects the very big residential areas in Carrigtwohill, Midleton, Youghal, Fermoy and Mallow with those parts of the city to allow people to get to and from work. I would like the Minister to consider if it would be possible to utilise the Jack Lynch tunnel for much-needed public transport services.
I would also like the Minister to look into making rail fares more affordable. I was involved in the original push to bring Leap card services to Cork, as I mentioned before when addressing the Minister on a Topical Issue matter. Work needs to be done on rail fares in the Mallow area.
School bus capacity will also be a critical part of getting cars off the road. In my own constituency, since Covid-19 hit, there has been major problems with school bus routes including the route from Glenville to Fermoy, which local councillors have highlighted to me repeatedly. Something needs to be done by the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Education and Skills. The Departments need to take a more collective approach in the future rather than the Department of Education and Skills taking almost entire ownership of the issue of school bus routes, which is an area which could be improved upon without great effort or great costs to the Exchequer.
The Minister spoke earlier about the North-South interconnector but the big project in my constituency will be the Celtic interconnector between France and Ireland. The programme for Government commits to the rapid decarbonisation of the energy sector. One of the main aspects of this commitment will be the completion of the Celtic interconnector which will be based at Claycastle beach in Youghal, County Cork.
We recognise in the programme for Government that there is a need to provide for a just transition and to enable balanced regional development across the country. I would therefore like to take some time to talk about some of the measures needed to ensure successful implementation of the Celtic interconnector in Youghal so that both the country and the community I represent can benefit. Since 2011, EirGrid has been working with its French equivalent, Réseau de Transport d'Électricité, to find the best way to develop the interconnector to benefit electricity customers and markets in Ireland, France and the EU. The project is made up of several stages and is currently in stage 4, in which consultation is undertaken regarding what exactly should be built.
Claycastle beach in Youghal is emerging as the best performing option resulting in a subsea cable potentially connecting to an underground cable which would be buried behind the beach. In the spirit of community buy-in, it is justified that EirGrid should provide funding for local amenities in the area and community to encourage more pedestrian activity and to take cars off of our roads. To take a very simple example, the only secondary school in Youghal, my alma mater, Pobalscoil na Tríonóide, has very poor access for pedestrians. The school has been trying to address this issue for years but no funding has been available locally. I am very happy to work with the Minister's councillors on Cork County Council to see if it would be possible to address this. Our local authority is cash-strapped and has been unable to provide this infrastructure. This is a very simple way to resolve the issue and the Minister should investigate whether it is possible. This is just one example of how smart investment can help to reduce the use of cars and to reduce pollution. There are also decaying coastal defences along Youghal's front strand. This must be addressed if we are to adapt to our changing climate conditions. Given the scale of investment going into this infrastructure project, it is achievable for the Government to assist with this matter.
The positive externalities that will come from investment in Youghal would be very significant for the area and would ensure the benefits of a just transition are felt by people on the ground. We must learn from the lessons of the past regarding large-scale energy projects. Ensuring that local communities are consulted and respected in the implementation of such projects is vitally important. I fully support the need to move the economy towards a carbon-neutral society, but we know from large structural changes in the past that this will require buy-in from the local community to ensure it is successful. A consultative rather than a top-down approach from EirGrid is welcomed and very much needed. Alongside this, the commitment to work with the EU to make community participation an integral part of installing new renewable energy infrastructure is also critical.
We must ensure there is always a route for community participation in projects. This must be upheld to ensure the successful execution of the project.
The programme for Government has a commitment to increase the number of sustainable energy communities, which I very much welcome. There is prioritisation of microgeneration and this will let people sell power back to the grid by June 2021. This shows community energy can play a role in reaching the goal of at least 70% renewable energy. I look forward to the Department implementation of the community benefit fund and to the Department ensuring that the community category within this option is successful. I appreciate the Minister taking the opportunity to listen to my contribution.
At this range I hardly need a microphone, but it is great to get this opportunity to give my views on climate action and the Minister's approach to it.
When we talk about climate action I firmly believe we need to talk about biodiversity at every opportunity because the two are intrinsically linked. We are in the middle of a mass extinction with an estimated 1 million species threatened with extinction. Among the many findings of a recent World Wildlife Fund report, the most striking for me was the fact that many species in the past 50 years have experienced an 85% decline. This means people born in 1970 have experienced or seen an 85% decrease in some of these species right before their eyes or at the click of a finger. This applies particularly to wetland species and other species associated with wetland habitats. That is striking because these are the areas where we have seen it happen before our eyes or in the blink of an eye. Often we are met with evocative and emotive images of polar bears in the Arctic circle and orangutans in south-east Asia. However, it is really important that we look at what is happening at home as well because this is happening to Irish species in front of our eyes.
For those of us who enjoy monitoring and recording species it is visible. One example is a species like the yellowhammer, a small beautiful bunting, yellow, brightly coloured and unique. We have seen this species in decline over the past ten or 15 years. I remember seeing them in big numbers as a child around farmland areas. The numbers have declined rapidly. That is happening. It is tangible. It is there for use to see. It is similar with the curlew, which Deputy Whitmore mentioned. They still come to our shores as a wintering species. However, as a breeding species they are near extinction. We need to intervene and protect habitat.
We need to discuss extreme weather events. We are seeing extreme weather events globally. One need only look to California or Greece. They are on fire. Again, we do not have to look that far to be able to see what is happening. Right here, this summer while my constituency, Cork South-West, was underwater, the Wicklow Mountains were on fire. We can see an extraordinary contrast on a small island. This is evidence of global warming taking place before our eyes.
The programme for Government is strong. I know the Minister had a major part to play through his contribution to the programme for Government. I liked listening to the Minister's contribution. I liked what he had to say about the commitment to renewable energy and the fact that the climate action Bill is being brought to the House. The Minister's passion for retrofitting is clear. We need to accelerate some aspects. The idea of electric cars is getting considerable backlash. There are many barriers and there is talk of how it is not affordable, practical or achievable. We have to combat that. We can do this by putting infrastructure in place and making it more viable for people to buy electric cars. In that way we will achieve critical mass and they will become more affordable. With more electric cars on the road we will see a reduction in emissions.
I know the Minister's commitment and that of the Green Party to modal transport. The Minister will have buy-in from the Government partners on that. It is important at this stage to ensure that it does not become urban-centric. We need to look to rural and regional areas as well. Modal transport includes public transport such as buses for rural areas. It also means greenways and pedestrian ways. I can give a perfect example relating to Clonakilty. I know the Minister is familiar with west Cork. The town is right next to the beautiful beach at Inchydoney. The only safe way to get to Inchydoney from Clonakilty, which is only a couple of kilometres away, is by car. That has to change. Those days have to be in the past. We need to look at pedestrian access to connect the two. That example could be replicated throughout west Cork and Ireland.
I have been speaking about habitat and the need to protect habitat. That is vital. This is not directly related to the Minister's role but it is vital that we bring forward the REPS 2 agri-environment scheme as fast as possible. Every day I am sent images of ditches, trees and habitat destruction. There is this awful temptation to point at the farmer and say it is the farmer's fault and say the farmer has no regard for wildlife. That is not the fact of it. Most farmers I know do not get up every day and decide to destroy habitat. They are trying to earn a living. They appreciate wildlife and biodiversity. What is important is that at the moment we are incentivising them to do that through the single farm payment. They are being penalised for having habitat on their land. We need to start paying them to protect habitat and keep and plant trees on their land and protect important areas of wetland. That needs to happen straight away. We cannot wait for years for that to happen. I thank the Minister for listening and I hope he takes my comments on board.
I welcome the Minister. His presence shows the absolute necessity of having rapid testing facilities. That is something we need to keep working on from the point of view of ensuring we have the capacity to keep this show on the road. It is as simple as that.
I accept what several speakers have said in respect of floods, fires and winds. We need not look as far away as California. We have all experienced these in recent times so the reality of climate change is with us. This pandemic has shown up several weaknesses in this society, whether they relate to housing, health or workers' rights. Yet, there are opportunities. I agree with the speakers who have spoken about the absolute necessity of any recovery being a green recovery. Yet, it will not matter unless we can keep the show on the road. I wish to point to the fact that this does not operate in a silo on its own as regards climate change. We need to ensure imaginative thinking at an economic level and Marshall Plan-type imagination in respect of the stabilisation funding, future funding and the stimulus that will be required. Without the moneys and without keeping society and our economy on the road, we will not be able to operate the particular moves that are needed to ensure we have not only climate justice but climate change as well.
I wish to add my voice to the comments of some of my colleagues in respect of carbon shaming. It is a fact. Carbon taxes and so on are only operable in a situation where people have alternatives. Otherwise, we are simply impoverishing people who are already poor. The same goes for some of the initiatives relating to waste management and ending two-for-one, whether in respect of clothing or food. We need to be careful that we do not carry out actions that possibly have good intent but that will impact on those who can least afford it.
I hope the Minister will be in contact with other Ministers, whether in respect of the Office of Public Works or agriculture. Obviously, we have to deal with the reality that is brought on in some cases by instances where we have failed to manage water systems and where we are dealing with added rains due to climate change. We need to ensure that the catchment flood risk assessment and management project is put in place. This will ensure that we can reduce the impact of flooding on the lives of people who are in areas that are exposed. As time goes on there will be more and more of such people.
We had forest fires in the Cooley Mountains over the summer. While some good work was done by local firefighters in combination with the Air Corps and a great many volunteers, we really need afforestation measures in place. State land needs to be looked at. We also need to ensure that we have management of forests. I would like to think that the Minister and his Department are in contact with the relevant people in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Coillte to ensure this happens.
The Minister is also responsible for the national broadband scheme. When we talk about people working from home being, in some cases, a positive outworking of the current system in which we operate in that it reduces the number of people having to travel very long distances and can relieve some of the difficulties in areas like Dublin, we need to ensure that this is facilitated in as many areas as possible. We also need to examine bespoke solutions in certain areas because there are technical solutions that will make up for some of the decisions made previously that may be able to circumvent some of those difficulties. I would like to think the Minister will keep an open mind in that regard.
We need to look at the difficulty in respect of one-off housing. There is a belief that village developments are beneficial and can make more sense than individual one-off housing but those sort of opportunities do not exist in a great many rural areas. I refer to areas where there is not any village development and so on. We need to facilitate people living in rural areas.
People have spoken about regeneration and retrofitting. All I would say about retrofitting is that we need to look at council stock. Some of the council stock in Dundalk in Louth County Council is very old and in need of major works. The moneys are not available for the regular works so we need to ensure that we have a cover-all, multi-agency approach to all of this area.
I have listened to the Minister and the Green Party spokespersons over the past while talk about the measures that can be taken, the targets and the commitments. I have seen plans on the opening of various projects but then we all listen to the news and the reports of what is happening here in this country and globally, and many Deputies have spoken about it. The truth, however, is that the economic system of global capitalism we live under is destroying life on this planet as we know it before our very eyes and in this generation. I do not believe we are on the road, or have a plan to be on the road, to achieving the cuts in CO2 emissions that we need or that we have a plan to achieve the renewable energy that we need, the radical and far-reaching changes, to quote the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, and the radical transformation required across our economy and society to meet the challenge of climate change.
We remain wedded to the logic of capitalism, the free market and an ever-expanding economic system based on gross inequality and abuse of the environment. The majority of the people in that environment are victims of it because of the pursuit of profits and wealth for a tiny elite. Nothing shows that better than the Californian fires and the mass extinction of species. We know that EU funds will be open to gas projects. A report shows that Ireland's temperature will increase by 1.6oC by the middle of the century and another report reveals that the world has not achieved a single target in the past ten years aimed at saving biodiversity or arresting the sixth great mass extinction. While we have been preoccupied, rightly, with the Covid-19 crisis, this extinction and the climate crisis have rolled on regardless but they are hitting ever-new records and extremes, new devastation and locking us into greater catastrophe for this and future generations.
Even the fall in the CO2 emissions that are occasioned by the mass lockdowns across the industrialised world showed us that emissions declined by 5% to 7%. In reality, that is a blip in terms of what is needed. The concentrations are rising steadily and we are now at 411 parts per million, which is the highest in 3 million years. I hope these lockdowns might have shown the ruling elite that there are lessons to be learned in why we should not go after the personal behaviour of individuals because as much as personal behaviour changed during the lockdown, we did not manage to come near the achievement of a reduction in CO2 targets. In reality, any policy that goes after changing personal behaviour is not working and will not work. It is only designed to deflect us from the great ocean of truth that this economic system is driving extinction and climate change.
I will finish by commenting on some of the policies that were promised in the near future. Regarding the carbon taxes, I said previously when we were on the climate action committee and repeat that there are no safeguards to protect the most vulnerable when carbon taxes are increased. This Government, and its predecessor, has refused to conduct the needed research into the extent of fuel poverty in our population or indeed the risk that it poses. Increasing the cost of fuel, heating and electricity while offering no viable alternative to those who are most vulnerable is an attempt to pretend that individual behaviour is the problem. I remain opposed to this increase because I know its consequences.
With regard to renewable energy, I welcome moves to embrace and increase renewable energy projects, particularly in the community, but the problem with the scale of the increases is not that we are heading in that direction but that it is all in the hands of private global corporations. There is a problem with that. If we were to create a State renewable company and take over our own natural resources, it could result in huge investment and outcomes for the people. Instead, we are again leaving this important area to the vagaries of the market and I believe our renewable targets will, therefore, remain unfulfilled.
On the issuing of licences for gas and oil exploration, I welcome the Minister's confirmation that he will not be issuing new exploration licences but he needs to make sure that the large body of our waters that are in the hands of those who have bought up licences do not get the next step-up stage in those licences and acknowledge that the battle around that was won by the climate movement before this Government formed.
Similarly, on the question of liquified natural gas, LNG, we need to be careful that although we may have banned fracked gas from our shores we need to make sure that no gas is allowed to be brought to our shores in liquified form from abroad. That will be a battle for the Minister. I will be behind him, as will the movement, because in fairness to the Shannon LNG activists, it is they who have achieved that.
Catastrophic climate change is coming closer. No longer is it just killing people and destroying people's lives in the very poorest countries in the world but we can see, not for the first time, that it is striking home, like the Australian fires, in terms of what is happening in the west coast of the US, in California, in particular. In a way, it encapsulates the nature of the problem we face whereby the impact of climate change is creating ideal conditions for those fires to get out of control. Capitalism and private profit, however, is playing its role in helping that along, with the role of the energy company, a private, for-profit company, which basically did not do the repairs it was required to do because it treated that as an externality, like the way nature is treated as externality by capitalism, preferring to emphasise its dividends for shareholders.
Another set of fires that are devastating and provide a terrifying glimpse of the negative feedback loops we can see is the fires at the Arctic Circle, which are bigger than ever. In this season, there have been 35% more carbon emissions because there is a huge amount of peat under the ice, which perhaps has been burning for weeks or months, the ice melts and these explosive wildfires take place resulting in a huge amount of carbon emissions. The science is very clear. This is a runaway train and it will get faster and faster as a consequence of the carbon emissions.
The bottom-line point is clear. We do not have time for tinkering around the edges of this system. I will vote and fight for every reform but the only way we will avoid the kind of climate catastrophe that is not far ahead of us is by a complete transformation of the nature of our society and our economy. That can only be done on the basis of taking on the big polluters and, above all, the big fossil fuel companies and telling them that what are currently trillions of euro and dollars of assets on their balance sheets are now worthless because they will not be burning that oil and gas. In my opinion, that will only be done on the basis of democratic public ownership and planning for our planet and for people. I believe that can be done in a way that improves people's lives dramatically.
In a way, the negative elements of the waste action plan encapsulate for me the problem with the approach of the Green Party and of this Government.
If we accept so much in society as given, and if we take the nature of production, distribution, ownership and the economy as given, whereby we deal with the end product, we are left tinkering around the edges. Moreover, it often involves, or has a tendency to involve, hitting ordinary people. That is negative in and of itself but has the second negative effect of turning people off the kind of action we need.
There are progressive elements in the waste action plan, including the deposit-and-return scheme, the idea of making sure all goods will be recyclable and the banning of single-use plastic items. These measures are mostly required under EU directives but I welcome them. Obviously, the negative commentary focused on fast fashion. It was implied that there would be a tax on fast fashion or cheap clothing and it was reported that there would be a ban on multi-pack items. For me, this encapsulates the problem. The Green Party could have a whole range of good policies on the environment but the ones that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would let it implement would be the ones that hit ordinary people and do not have much genuine impact. They would say that those are fine. We have to deal with the issues of fast fashion and major waste in agribusiness, supermarkets and so on but we will not achieve this by dealing with the endpoint. We need to deal with them by dealing with the system. We also need to deal with them by dealing with inbuilt obsolescence, which is a real part of capitalism, the objective being to keep unnecessary production and consumption going to generate profit. We need to deal with the cultural obsolescence that comes from the advertising industry, which tells people they need the latest season's fashion, for example. We need to take on the advertising industry, which involves an incredible waste of resources and creates artificial demand and, therefore, additional waste. The only way to address this is to get to the root of the problem, which means tackling capitalism.
I congratulate the Minister on the success of the renewable energy support scheme, RESS 1. Having spoken to people involved in the production of community-based renewable energy, I have learned that the reviews of the process were positive. This should be acknowledged. However, I am asking today for certain changes to be made to how RESS 2 should operate to ensure we are supporting 100% community-based renewable energy projects as best we can. Such projects assist in the production of renewable energy in Ireland that is sold and used in Ireland, with the profits of sales returning to communities in Ireland. The scheme is a win-win for our economy and climate.
The RESS is an auction-based scheme that invites renewable energy projects to compete for a guaranteed price for the electricity they generate. The first of these auctions took place on 21 July last. A series of such auctions will take place until 2030 with the aim of delivering on Ireland’s renewable energy targets. RESS 1 was open to renewable-generated projects that were in receipt of a grid connection offer or were eligible to receive one under the enduring connection policy process. Other eligibility criteria involved planning permission and landowner agreements.
Under RESS 1, only 1% of the pot was reserved for community-based renewable energy providers. The other 99% was open to renewable energy produced by developers. The benefits of renewable energy produced by developers are, for the most part, exported and profits arising from its sale do not stay in Ireland. On top of this, using renewable energy in Ireland that is not produced here does not help us to meet our carbon reduction targets. Only renewable energy produced in Ireland can do this. Under RESS 1, the 1% of the pot put aside purely for community providers was further divided so half of the allocation could be applied for by community projects half-owned by developers. This was a further dilution of the very small allocation for community-based electricity producers.
I call on the Minister to increase substantially the proportion of the pot currently reserved for community providers in respect of RESS 2 auctions. I also call for the allocation to be reserved purely for community projects that are 100% owned by the community. Projects with developers involved should be restricted to the large allocation that is already available to that side of the industry. In tandem, grid capacity should be ring-fenced exclusively for community providers.
When power stations are upgraded, it will be vital that a certain proportion of the newly created capacity in the grid be reserved exclusively for community groups. Otherwise, we will have community groups producing sustainable renewable electricity supplies with little or no access to the grid. This has to change. Policies must support groups such as the ones in question. I call for these changes to be made in advance of the RESS 2 auctions. Community-based renewable energy producers need to be supported in this. They must be given a chance to compete in an auction for a greater percentage reserved exclusively for community groups that are genuinely 100% owned by the community. It is only right that policy should support the production of renewable energy produced and sold in Ireland, with profits remaining in Ireland. This is good for our environment and economy.
As a country, we are 85% dependent on fossil fuels. We have a small window of opportunity to reverse this trend and secure a better, healthier and more resilient future for the country. This means changing the ways in which we heat our homes, travel and power our country. A just transition can be aided by lending support to and promoting community projects because they produce renewable energy locally, protect our environment and provide our rural communities with a sustainable and efficient green income. Only by bringing rural Ireland along on our just transition can we truly hope to meet our carbon-reduction targets. Supporting projects such as those in question is not only the right thing to do for our shared environment but it also provides a just transition for communities in rural areas. Climate action must involve an economic opportunity for rural areas.
I ask the Minister to reconsider the increase to the public service obligation, PSO, levy. Considering the Covid environment and the extreme economic pressure on companies this year, I ask that the increase be postponed until after the pandemic. The cost base of companies has greatly increased. While I accept the mechanics behind the PSO levy and the reason for it, the increase should be re-examined and postponed considering the economic climate.
We were talking earlier today about forestry, the need for legislation to clear the logjam in forestry and the perennial objectors in the sector, who are few in number. The position is the same for wind farms. People who live a long distance from wind farms in rural areas are objecting to them. We need to examine this. Genuine objectors who live locally obviously have, and should have, the right to object but the legislation needs to be strengthened so only genuine objectors can object to wind farms. Again, they are the way of the future and we need more such projects in rural Ireland.
I am delighted to see the Minister back in the Chamber. Everybody in the House is relieved to know that all is well for him in the family home.
I welcome the confirmation last week that a number of Longford-based projects have been approved for funding from the just transition fund. It was particularly good to see the inclusion of an ambitious technology energy cluster project for the site of the ESB power station in Lanesborough. The proposal has the potential to put the Shannonside town at the centre of alternative and green energy production, and it would certainly open up a new world in a very specialist area of research and energy development for the region. I need to point out, however, that recent events concerning the issuing of a tender by the ESB for the demolition of the power station in Lanesborough and the sister plant in Shannonbridge have the potential to put the project and other just transition projects in jeopardy. It is important for the Minister and his Department to realise that the decision to grant funding for the project while the ESB proceeds with plans for the demolition of the Longford site is truly farcical. It is further evidence of the ESB's determination to cut and run and abandon the region.
I am somewhat concerned that a joint application from Longford and Roscommon county councils for funding for a proposed economic plan for the Lanesborough-Ballyleague area was rejected.
The decision was disappointing in the extreme as this particular community is very much at the heart of the area affected by decarbonisation with a local power station and the Bord na Móna Mount Dillon works on its doorstep. Indeed, this entire community where I grew up was founded on Bord na Móna and the ESB. I truly believe the proposed study would have been, and will be, the basis for future plans in the area and, as such, one would have thought it would have been ideal for just transition funding. I appreciate the difficulty for the two local authorities was that an element of the planning for the strategy had already commenced. On that basis, it was deemed ineligible. Similarly, I am aware there is no appeals mechanism for any project promoters to appeal the decision. However, I appeal to the Minister to go back to the Department and the just transition team and ask it to review this particular application again because I believe the strategy that will emanate from this project will be critical to future plans for the area. Indeed, it would be somewhat ironic, if not comical, that the actual research and subsequent plan was not funded through the just transition fund.
To conclude on a personal level, having grown up in Lanesboro and owing an awful lot to Bord na Móna and the ESB community, I know full well how important this strategy and plan will be the future of the community. Again, I appeal to the Minister to have another look at it.
I genuinely hope all is going well for the Minister on a personal level. I want to speak to him about an opportunity that now clearly presents itself in constituencies such as mine of Longford and Westmeath. It is an opportunity that businesses and workers were hesitant to explore for a long time because of fear of the unknown but had foisted on them because of Covid-19. I am speaking about remote working, the positive impact it can have on our environment and its role in the fight against climate change.
The benefits of remote working are numerous and, in many cases, extremely obvious, particularly, in constituencies like mine where public transport can be sparse, non-existent or fragmented. We need to reduce our emissions from vehicles and reduce our fuel usage. In April this year, we reduced our auto fuel usage by more than 55% compared to the same period in 2019 and because remote working involves significantly higher use of digital resources and tools, it generates a lot less waste. Not only has remote working benefitted the environment and resulted in lower utility costs for businesses, employers I have spoken to tell me they have seen a measurable increase in productivity, decreased sick leave days and an increase in their reputation among their customers. Covid-19 may have forced the hand to instigate remote working but in the vast majority of cases, it has delivered and can continue to deliver.
Covid-19 has brought, and continues to bring, untold heartbreak and hardship to many people. It has, however, also brought us, as a society, to the edge of opportunity to do things differently for the benefit of our environment and our communities, particularly rural communities. However, action is needed before that opportunity passes us by. We all know we must make changes and we are doing so for the protection and benefit of the environment and to help halt the devastating consequences of climate change. Here is a real chance to support that change while having a positive impact on improving physical and mental health and well-being with a work-life balance while at the same time positively contributing to the economic regeneration of our rural areas.
Covid-19 has taught us we must rethink how we work and interact with each other as well as the space around us. It has opened up the possibility of remote working to a much wider cohort and made us all see the multiple benefits of removing long daily commutes from our lives. During the most severe restrictions, people discovered areas of their own communities they never knew existed because they were so time-poor. If people in my constituency were not travelling up to two and a half hours each way daily to work, it would increase the amount of time they have to spend in their homes and communities. These are homes for which they are paying large mortgages but do not have the time or energy to fully enjoy and which are in communities from which they are virtually absent for most of the week. They would have time to be physically involved in their local clubs and organisations. They could enjoy their libraries, parks and their children's extracurricular activities, all while contributing to rural and regional regeneration and reducing their carbon footprints.
However, none of this will be possible as long as the communications status quocontinues. A young constituent of mine had to go two miles and then literally climb a hill before she could garner enough coverage to submit her schoolwork. In 2013, we all lauded Commander Hadfield as he tweeted from the international space station. It is a feat I am glad he was not trying to do in areas of my constituency because he simply would not have been able to. We have passed into shameful territory in this regard. High-speed broadband has become a vague promise and has taken on almost mythical properties. Phone coverage may be classed as "fair" in many areas of my constituency but I think we can all agree it is certainly not fair that in 2020 dependable phone coverage and quality Internet is not available outside of larger rural areas.
Let us not entirely lose sight of the "just" in just transition. The Minister's programme for Government talks of assisting rural economies, digital strategies and developing a strategy for remote working through the rapid roll-out of a national broadband plan. Where are these plans at and when will they become a reality?
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá súil agam go bhfuil sé go maith. Obviously, climate change is very real and we have seen ten of the warmest years on record happen since 1998. We have seen the CO2 of hundreds of millions of years of organic growth stored in the ground literally being put into the environment in the space of approximately 100 years, radically changing the chemistry of the environment. We are also at a time of mass extinction where hundreds of thousands of acres of our oceans are floating plastic islands. As a generation, we must probably be the dirtiest in the history of the planet.
Every time we discuss the issue of climate action in this Chamber, it is riven with contradictions in so many ways. The previous Governments, the Fianna Fáil Government and the two Fine Gael Governments, literally swam in greenwashed statements, press statements, photo opportunities, brochures and occasions to show off their green credentials. However, never have I seen Governments do so little as regards an aspect they talked about so much. One of the biggest threats to this issue is all the talk and no action of a political system that is phenomenally cynical. People are looking to virtue signal on this issue and yet we see precious little action on the environment. If anything is to happen, first and foremost, this Dáil must mean what says and do what it means.
I want to mention the media on this particular issue. When it is questioning politicians the media obviously needs a bit of fire and a bit of heat. There is nothing better to achieve that heat and fire than to put a politician in an awkward situation. However, every time the environment is discussed by the media they always focus on the really difficult issues. If one focuses on the difficult issues all the time, very quickly one will turn people off the idea of taking action on this really important issue. Of course, all this is not going to be easy and serious effort will be needed. There is, however, a phenomenal level of low-hanging fruit when it comes to the environment. There is a phenomenal number of opportunities to make real, positive change in our society and tackle the environment as well. This budget definitely offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where the needs of the environment and of the economy intersect in an investment stimulus that can start to focus on radically changing the way this country operates into the future.
What I mean by low-hanging fruit and the easy and positive things that should have been done years ago are things like the deep retrofit of homes.
In 2011, I introduced a detailed document on how we could in five years deep retrofit all the homes in the State that needed it, and it happened at the same time as an enormous crash when we needed to keep people in the construction industry. Obviously, it was never actioned in any way at all. The Government at the time, of course, put a few bob into retrofitting so that it could claim that a number of houses were being retrofitted every year. However, it has only scratched the surface of the housing stock - the public building stock and the commercial building stock - in the country. Obviously, deep retrofitting has the benefit of saving fuel, making the inhabitants more comfortable and saving significant amounts of money. One of the first things we need to do is spend radically on that element in coming years.
One country in the EU has no microgenerated electricity connected to the national grid. What country is that? Pat Rabbitte, if anybody remembers him, spoke about microgeneration to beat the band a number of years ago and still we have none. Obviously, I welcome the Minister's mentioning that the auction has led to approximately 80 projects. Despite all the talk we have had so far, not one project is plugged in yet and it may even take two years for that to happen. Microgeneration represents a real opportunity.
Farmers are hammered owing to low incomes, but they are ideally placed to produce electricity as a crop either through small-scale wind, solar or bio-digestion. We could easily allow for farmers to increase their incomes by €3,000, €4,000, €5,000 or €6,000 a year through microgeneration. That would allow us to substitute out fossil fuel imports that are coming from dictator-type countries. It would benefit our balance of payments, benefit farmers' incomes and benefit world politics, but it still has not happened. Even the auction system that was used previously does not allow for small-scale community facilities to get involved in that process, and I hope that can be allowed in the future.
Much of the green energy production that has happened so far has happened in large-scale, international vulture fund-type companies which have come in to build industrial-size turbines right up against people's houses. If one were to design a solution to turn people off energy, it would not be possible to select a better way than by doing that.
Public transport is another logical way to reduce our fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions radically, and yet public transport has been the poor relation of transport for the past two Governments. On several occasions I have spoken in this Chamber about simple projects like the rail line to Navan. Meath has the largest number of commuters in the country. It is the only county in the country where the majority of workers leave that county every day to go to work. No other local authority has that experience. Navan is the largest town in the country without a rail line and yet no Government so far has shown a jot of interest in it. We may have a review in the future of some kind of potential for a feasibility study. It goes back to the cynicism people have of process and talk without any action.
The Minister spoke about regional development. This country is turning into a city state. London is considered a major outlier in British terms regarding the economic activity happening in London compared with the rest of Britain, but Dublin's overgrowth in comparison with the rest of the State puts it in the ha’penny place. We have an overheating city with a sprawling commuter belt that extends to a third of the country. People are commuting from Munster, Connacht and Ulster into Dublin and we have an emptying rural sector after that. This crisis provides an opportunity to reverse the lopsided development that has happened. That change will not happen under current Government plans.
Cycling and walking are simple things. I have been cycling from Castleknock into Leinster House for ten years. I have been on the quays and seen mothers with two- or three-year-old children on the seats on the back of their bicycles fighting for spaces with trucks and buses. We appear to be designing road space to scare people away from making the transition to bicycles.
Farmers should be the guardians of the habitats that help for biodiversity and carbon sink. It is incredible that in applications to the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine for the single farm payment, farmers are required to exclude from any calculations land that is not in use, in other words bogs, wetlands and scrub. It is absolutely bonkers to use language about more biodiversity, but action going in the opposite direction. Any talk about climate change must take into consideration that the Government took an ideological decision to allow beef to be imported into this country from South America through the Mercosur deal. This means that vast swathes of Amazon forest will be felled to allow beef produced at a lower quality and in a less environmentally friendly manner to be transported thousands to miles to Ireland to displace Irish beef. It is not possible to run with that policy while claiming to be in favour of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
It is important that we bring people with us. Sometimes if we find that people may be changing their minds or resisting a particular policy, the Government or the system can come down heavy on them. Some of the Covid restrictions we have seen do not bring people with us. They actually seek to force people to come in a particular direction. I will give two examples of not bringing people with us. One is the outsize industrial wind turbines that are on land. We need to go offshore for our wind energy generation in the future. The North-South interconnector is another example of infrastructure that annoys people. It makes people furious because they are losing the quality of their living environment, the quality of their homes, and the value of their farms, businesses and homes. There is no greater way to turn people against the Government than by building more than 400 monstrous pylons right up against people's homes. That is the catalyst that causes resistance.
I ask the Minister to ensure that the plan for the North-South interconnector, which I support because I support an all-Ireland energy market, is undergrounded. I will introduce a Bill to the Chamber to underground the North-South interconnector. The Fianna Fáil website states that it wants to see it undergrounded. Sinn Féin also claim it wants it undergrounded, but the Executive in the North has just given planning approval for it there. We need to be able to end cynicism on these issues. There needs to be a sympathy between the language we use on these topics and the actions we take in this Chamber. That Bill on the North-South interconnector will allow for political parties to ensure they mean what they say. That North-South interconnector would have been built ten years ago if the Government at the time had the cop-on to listen to the people in the constituencies and had undergrounded it.
I went to Belgium to look at its network for transmitting electricity. It uses the consent of the people as a central aspect to planning and development in its system. That country is reducing the level of electricity transmitted on pylons because it is microgenerating it locally where it is used locally.
I want to talk about the challenge of climate action in the term of this Parliament. I am pleased, but not surprised, to hear statements from representatives of other parties in this Chamber confirming how urgent it is that we take action on climate change. No one party has a monopoly on the topic of climate change. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies in the remainder of this debate to hear their perspectives too.
It is incumbent on us all, from all parties and political traditions, to apply our best thinking on how we can transform society to lower our emissions radically.
The task ahead is so hard it is almost unimaginable. It will affect us all, urban and rural, young and old, rich and poor. For decades, the growth of our economy and society has been predicated on the burning of fossil fuels. We know we need to reduce this reliance extraordinarily quickly. The science is clear, it is brutal and there is little time for nuance. We will need all the talents in this House and outside it to make the necessary changes.
Those of us who describe ourselves as socialists will need to bring to the task our awareness of equality and our desire to make a fair society. Those of us who describe ourselves as capitalists will have to bring our awareness of the power of markets and enterprise to achieve innovation and rapid change. Those of us who are republican will need to bring our awareness of the importance of cherishing all the children of the nation equally, for it is our children who will have to carry the burden of our failures. Those of us who call ourselves technocrats must bring our awareness of the need to follow the very best scientific advice, no matter how uncomfortable our conclusions. Those of us who are democrats, which is all of us, will have to call on our awareness of the need to bring people along with us.
I will not attempt to categorise myself according to the political categories I have mentioned. I will say that those of us who consider ourselves to be environmentalists, among whose number I include myself, need to bring an awareness that we do not have all the answers. We have left it too late and we do not have time to celebrate a vindication. Indeed, we have made our own mistakes in our political response to climate change. We must work with everyone, from all political traditions, to achieve action on climate. What we must not do is attempt to use the need for action on climate as a proxy for other political battles. The battle is not one of eco-socialism versus eco-capitalism. The battle is about harnessing both eco-socialism and eco-capitalism and combining the best ideas from both traditions in pursuit of our urgent need to leave a habitable planet for future generations.
I am hopeful about the success of our efforts because the Oireachtas has already shown it can be done. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action in the last Dáil was a cross-party committee that undertook an incredible amount of work, culminating in the publication of a 157-page report which was extremely comprehensive. I pay tribute to the different political groups in the Oireachtas for contributing so ably to that committee, namely, Independents 4 Change, the Rural Independent Group, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, the Green Party-Social Democrats Group, Fine Gael, Solidarity-People Before Profit, Fianna Fáil and the Seanad Civil Engagement Group. Each group brought its own analysis of the changes ahead and succeeded in working with others to achieve a consensus on the way forward. It was universally recognised that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, did a fantastic job of chairing the committee. She is not in the Chamber this afternoon but I take the opportunity to thank her and the Deputies and Senators who contributed to the report. They have shown us the way forward through hard work and intense co-operation.
This Government has indicated its intention to take forward many of the recommendations of the report of the Oireachtas committee by way of a climate action Bill that will be published soon. I confirm my intention, as the incoming Chairman of the committee that will be examining the Bill, to work with all parties to interrogate that legislation and make it as ambitious as it possibly can be. We have a tough task ahead of us. If we work together, as Government and Opposition and from myriad political traditions, we have a small chance of succeeding in tackling the singular and existential issue of our time.
I am sharing time with Deputy Michael Collins. There is not one person in the Oireachtas who does not want to help with the climate action effort and who does not have a green initiative of his or her own. Even if the Government is 100% successful in its plan to reduce emissions and have a greener way forward for Ireland, it will leave 1.7 million people and 300,000 households behind in its programme. If we look at the process of building a new house, the planning permission states that one must include something that will contribute to a greener environment, such as solar panels, air-to-water heat pumps or geothermal heat pumps. I am in full agreement with that requirement but what will happen to the people who cannot afford to upgrade their house, even with grants?
The National Oil Reserves Agency, NORA, was established under legislation introduced in 2007. I understand the agency sought a meeting with the Minister but was refused. The Government should be sitting down with everyone. NORA has €300 million in reserve. That money comes from the 2 cent per litre of fuel which the Government continues to collect from every Irish motorist and householder. It is the person who does not have access to regular, reliable and convenient public transport who must pay this levy. The person whose home has poor energy efficiency and which requires tens of thousands of euro to get it heat pump-ready is paying out.
I am concerned about the impact of these measures on people in rural Ireland. I have a document in front of me with a graph showing certain statistics as they apply in different parts of the country. It shows that in Dublin, there is 10% reliance on oil products, while the figure for Limerick is 47%. I will go though more of these figures to bring the Minister up to terms with how rural Ireland is paying for his projects without any reinvestment going back into rural areas. Cork and Kildare both have a 40% reliance on oil, the figure for Roscommon, Carlow and Longford is 60% in each case, Mayo has a 62% reliance on oil, and the figure for Cavan-Monaghan is between 70% and 80%. The only place in the country that has reduced its emissions, because it has access to natural gas and other alternatives, is Dublin. That is being paid for by every motorist and householder outside of Dublin.
We might ask how the people in rural Ireland are being rewarded for carrying the levy. Approximately 686,000 households in Ireland are dependent on oil because there is no available alternative. Some 50% of the energy produced in Ireland is not liable to any carbon tax and there is no climate action levy applicable to it. It is a fact that rural people use the most fuel but that is because they have no other option and they certainly are paying for it. How does the Minister expect to reduce carbon emissions if he will not talk to the oil companies? If I go to the petrol pump tomorrow morning, I will pay €61.30 tax on every €100 I spend. If I am to get to work, I must travel and for that I must use fuel. At the diesel pump I will pay €56.50 in tax. The Minister is rewarding people in rural Ireland with funding of €8.5 million for gas projects in Dublin, €20 million to Dublin City Council for heating schemes and €4.5 million for the Tallaght district heating scheme. He needs to give people in rural Limerick and other parts of rural Ireland their money back and help them to reduce their emissions by putting the necessary infrastructure in place. I am asking the Minister to give us back our money. We are not willing to pay for Dublin to have zero emissions. We want zero emissions ourselves.
I am delighted to see the Minister back in the Chamber and I wish him and his family the best.
Climate change is a key topic and I am keen to ensure our actions in the Dáil will continue the safeguarding of our livelihoods and our way of life in our Ireland. I congratulate the Minister on the recent passing of the National Oil Reserves Agency (Amendment) and Provision of Central Treasury Services Act 2020 which will establish the Climate Action Fund. I sincerely hope it will be developed properly and efficiently by the Department. I also sincerely hope the Government will not raise the tax on diesel in next month's budget. At the moment crude oil is cheap and this has helped those with trucks and working vehicles simply to survive at this time. I see an opportunity to create new industries around energy in Ireland. I will be keen to discuss with the Government how we can create quality jobs and industries in my constituency and throughout Ireland.
I wish to raise some key points about action on climate change which I have previously raised. I welcome our transition to cleaner energy sources but we must transition in a practical, sustainable and just way. Our economy and living standards must be prioritised. We have all witnessed the severe disruption Covid-19 has brought upon us. The failure of the Government to invest in our health system and our hospitals has created a security of supply issue for our healthcare. We are still trying to flatten curves due to underinvestment and bad planning in our health sector. We must ensure that vital sectors such as energy, agriculture, fisheries, health and construction are not falling into the same trap of bad planning and that the Government does not run off like headless chickens in one direction just because the optics look good in the short term.
Offshore wind may be an opportunity for constituencies like mine, Cork South-West, to create jobs and it may suit the Government to site these wind turbines in areas like the south west. However, the Government must help Irish-owned companies to get off the ground in this sector so we can build and promote Irish expertise and ownership in this area. This will eventually allow us to export expertise globally. For example, west Cork and Cork Harbour could be great locations for the assembly of offshore wind turbines. There is also a big opportunity for us to develop rural areas in this sector if it is managed correctly.
We must play the long game when it comes to our energy transition. We need to consider all of the good options for our energy supply, especially given the crisis we are in. Renewables will not solve our energy supply issues overnight. It will take many years of good planning from Government Departments to solve them. Having access to competitive energy will be a key issue for Ireland as we come out of this crisis and head into the future. As we move towards cleaner energy, the most likely, realistic solution will be a combination of renewables and natural gas. We must ensure we have access to competitive energy in the meantime as well.
A case in point is that the Brexit readiness plan put forward by the Government is a shambles when it comes to energy. It states that it is expected that the current rules for trading gas between the UK and Ireland will be the same but that the UK will no longer be bound by EU law obligations. Expectations are not exactly something we can depend on, especially with the EU-UK negotiations. There is also no mention of what might happen if the UK puts tariffs on energy exports. This could hugely affect energy pricing in Ireland and hit us and our constituents directly in the pocket. Gas is responsible for more than 50% of our energy production. As the Minister knows, the Kinsale gas field recently finished production and we now import two thirds of our gas needs from the UK. This amount is increasing as the Corrib field is in decline. In the event of a gas supply emergency in the UK, how could we ensure we had gas flowing into Ireland given the UK is under no obligation to supply? Therefore, we have a huge security of supply issue staring us in the face. Even if there is a deal on Brexit after January, we must comply with our EU obligations on energy. I want us to look for the best sources of energy for Ireland, deal or no deal. The situation is amazing because we have had a long time to prepare and we are now sitting fully exposed as far as our energy supply is concerned. What is the Government doing to mitigate these risks? I ask that the Minister improve our security of supply situation for natural gas. The Minister should consider, at the very minimum, a floating liquefied natural gas, LNG, import terminal which can guarantee our security of supply while offshore wind and renewables are developed.
As I have mentioned before, I have companies coming to me that are ready to provide solutions to our energy issues and wish to move under existing policies. What are the Minister and the Government doing to ensure the security of supply of our energy and to support my constituents in the creation of local jobs around offshore wind and LNG projects?
I welcome this debate. I thank the Minister for being present throughout all three and a half hours of this debate, a portion of which I chaired. It has been very enlightening to listen to Members on all sides of the House talking about the importance of this issue. I am very fortunate to have been appointed to the committee which will look at the forthcoming Bill which is being worked on. I very much welcome the remarks of the incoming Chairman of the committee, Deputy Leddin, particularly his reference to the need for all of us to draw on all traditions in the House for good ideas. As he said, no party has a monopoly on good ideas when it comes to the environment.
There are a number of areas where the work of the previous committee and the previous Government in putting forward a comprehensive report on climate action and a climate action plan should be recognised. I refer in particular to the need to pay very careful attention to those who are less well-off. I echo the comments made by Deputy O'Donoghue about those we will miss, namely the individuals who cannot afford to invest in the level of improvements to their property which would lessen their carbon footprint and their heating bills. That of course refers to older people and people in receipt of the State pension, among others, who reside in their own private dwellings or local authority stock. There are schemes in place to assist, but sometimes a person is given a certain amount and cannot match it or come up with the initial sum required. That is an area we need to look at in the climate action Bill, when it comes before the Houses in the next few weeks or months, and in any future plans we have.
My constituency colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, covered some of the issues in our constituency quite comprehensively. I will not repeat them except to say that climate change has led to very significant flooding in some coastal environments in the constituency. This has particularly affected Portrane but also places like Rush. While the local authority and the Government have stepped in, they have done so very late, such that we have already lost one property and we are about to lose another. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is aware of this. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is very much aware of it given that it is his constituency. While we may have all the best will in the world when it comes to implementing proposals, sometimes we are very slow to come to the table and produce them. We have EU obligations to adhere to, as well as domestic legislation and proposals. It has been five or six years since the first of four Ministers with responsibility for the OPW visited Portrane beach. I was there on each occasion but it is only now that we are engaged in the public consultation process to implement something. While interim measures have been put in place, as Deputy Duncan Smith mentioned, five years have passed.
Deputy Smith also mentioned a number of areas which are very close to my heart and this includes public transport in northern Dublin. During Fine Gael's first term in office of the current sequence, the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, who is now the Tánaiste, opened the Luas interconnector. Many other projects must happen in order to take people out of their cars but BusConnects and Metro North, of which I know the Minister is very much aware, are projects I will be vigorously pursuing as far as the commitments in the programme for Government are concerned.
There are a number of other areas I wish to touch upon. The Minister mentioned some of them in his opening statement, which I was very pleased to hear. I refer in particular to land usage. This is not just about agriculture but also about the development of land and the impact that can have on our environment. I worked on several development plans as a county councillor prior to becoming a Member of this House. It is important that we recognise and perhaps upskill not just members of local authorities but also the staff of the local authorities about planning and what is appropriate to put into development land, particularly as we have so much of it in the north of the county.
The other issue I want to mention is that I am a firm believer in our afforestation programme but we need to be more ambitious. I would like to see more community groups engaged in this through local authorities or the Department. I would also like to see more indigenous trees forming part of the afforestation programme. We have huge swathes of pine and other trees in the country and it would be advantageous in the long term for us to look at particular native species.
I have already touched on housing standards. It is fantastic that the standard is now so high but I echo Deputy O'Donoghue's comments on the less well-off who are not in a position to upgrade their properties for climate change and carbon emissions.
I echo Deputy Leddin's hope that the committee of all parties will be able to go through the Bill when it is presented to us and vigorously assess how effective it will be in implementing the plans that are there and amending plans, if needs be, on the part of the State. I very much look forward to this and I thank the Minister for his time this evening.
I echo what Deputy Farrell said about the attendance of the Minister for the duration of the debate. It is something I would have expected of him given his interest and certainly, like myself, he was a very regular attender at the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action in the previous Dáil.
Seven or eight months ago, we would not have thought there was something incongruous about speaking with such gusto about climate action in the midst of Covid. The pandemic is a priority and people's minds are rightly focused on the issues facing us as opposed to the issues facing the planet and yet we recall, as though it were from a different lifetime, the early days of Covid when everybody went into their gardens and they were digging and planting. We could hear birdsong in the cities and towns. I remember getting a scent in the air that I had not experienced since I was a young boy and it evoked a whole load of memories. There was a great uplift of spirits when we thought Covid was going to last just a couple of weeks and we could adapt our lives with the learning we had from the weeks of lockdown. Those weeks of lockdown were instructive in terms of giving people hope and enabling people to see what quality of life is like, not only with their children and grandchildren but with nature, and that we do not have to travel to live a full life and have experiences through all the senses because they are all around us. We are blessed to have such a beautiful country in this regard. Even in the constituency I represent, people are 30 seconds from the hills and mountains and 15 minutes from the sea. Everybody in Dublin South-West is a matter of minutes from the mountains and the great resource they are.
I cannot help bring to mind the generation of those aged 20 and upwards. Those aged 25 were born just before the first crash and they lived through it. Those who are a little older saw their families suffer the consequences of global recession. Covid has come and they are living with it. They should be our priority because, to use their language, many of them have suffered the embarrassment and humiliation of having to return home to live with their parents and give up their independent lives and the ability to travel, explore, see the world and carve out an independent future for themselves. We will probably face a further global recession. On top of this, they also carry the burden of climate action, which is a considerable burden for a generation. Climate action on its own is heavy and weighty, never mind the existence of a pandemic and the budgetary and fiscal situation facing the country, although, following the First World War and the Spanish flu the east coast of the United States went through the roaring 20s for seven or eight years and then hit the darkest depression that has ever hit anybody. This generation needs minding, not in terms of cosseting but in terms of prioritising their future. I am 55 and climate action is having some degree of impact on my life but it does not look like it will have anything like as dramatic an impact on the life of my generation as it will on those coming behind us.
The climate action Bill has been mentioned throughout the afternoon. It deals with the big ticket items. There is no point in repeating what has been said and there will be other occasions to speak about it.
The Minister is familiar with the fact that a couple of Dublin local authorities took incredible, positive advantage of the fact we had a lockdown and implemented measures such as cycle tracks and pedestrian measures which they had been attempting to do for years. They did it under the cover of darkness but everybody applauded. They have been widely and positively received. Some were not as proactive as others. My local authority, South Dublin County Council, was not as proactive but Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and Dublin City Council deserves to be applauded for what it is doing.
On the Minister's desk is a review carried out by his predecessor on e-scooters. I would love a decision on them. A very climate action friendly move could be made along the lines of the city bikes scheme, not to throw it open to everybody but to have a system where speed could be controlled, safety could be regulated and parking could be remotely monitored using the latest technology.
Electric bikes are becoming popular and there is a promise in the programme for Government that they would be covered by the cycle to work scheme. That is fine but it still means people have to shell out quite a few quid. Electric bikes are not cheap but it is really exciting technology. As the Minister knows, in Belgium employers receive 125% tax relief on any e-bike measure they introduce in the workspace. These measures could be used to purchase e-bikes for their employees, to purchase equipment such as bicycle shelters or to construct shower facilities in the workplace. It covers any investment made in e-bike technology. Employers must demonstrate the employees have foregone their cars and are using the e-bike as a way of commuting to work. Some employees in Belgium are paid by their employer to do so. At the Velo-City conference last year, one employee spoke about receiving €70 per month. This is because the employees in question get so much per kilometre cycled if they forgo their cars. I would love to see us be a little bit more dramatic on this. I made this point to colleagues and I am disappointed not to see it in the programme for Government but we will keep plugging at it.
I am working on a Bill and the researchers in the House have been very good and I pay tribute to them. The Bill is on the disposal of waste packaging. I will chat to the Minister before I am ready to bring it to the House and I hope he will support it. Some stakeholders will not be too pleased about it because it would involve a degree of change but it would engender a chain reaction of behavioural change that could only be good for the environment and climate action.
We did not hear a single word denying the science of climate change as well as hearing the words of wisdom. This is why I stand up proud of the Dáil, our political system, the Seanad and the Houses of the Oireachtas. To go back to what I said at the beginning of my opening contribution, it is not all bad in our country. In other parliaments there is real division, doubt and dissension on this critical issue and science is not acknowledged. This is not the case here. I accept absolutely the words of wisdom. What we heard is that we do not want to hit the individual. The concern about carbon tax is that it is the only measure and all the guilt, shame and price is being put on the individual.
That is not the plan or what will work or where we want to go. This matter requires this and subsequent Dáileanna to work together. As Deputy Leddin said, this will not work on a divisive basis because it will just stop and start and we will not get anywhere. It will take a whole series of Parliaments making the investment and other decisions to make it easier for individuals to do the right thing without carrying all the costs or burden. One needs all the tools, however, as it is such a massive change we have to make. One needs carbon pricing and a whole range of other measures as well.
Another point I heard was to not forget or harm rural Ireland. Deputy O'Donoghue is the epitome of what I said about not denying climate change. I heard him saying that rural Ireland has to go zero-carbon too. Rural Ireland should be first. The thing we are about to do is technically difficult, particularly insofar as it involves particularly switching to electric vehicles and heat pumps, which will be the two big changes which will affect people's daily quality of life for the better. Electric vehicles are better cars. That is why Tesla is ten times the value of Volkswagen. Everyone knows electric cars are going to win. There are only 40 moving parts in an electric car but 140 in a combustion engine. One has a fraction of the maintenance and fuel costs. Electric vehicles are going to win.
The hardest challenge is going to be how we charge everything. All those one-off rural houses will be much easier to put an electric car in because one does not have the problems, as I said in my opening statement, with the distribution grid. Electric vehicles should be rolled out first in rural Ireland. It is the same with heat pumps. Managing a whole street of heat pumps and electric vehicles would be hard in urban Ireland. In a one-off rural house, however, we would not have that problem. The wind power is found locally in rural Ireland, by and large. Let us use that to power the future and progress of rural Ireland. Rural Ireland could proudly be one of the first places in this country to go zero-carbon. We will do whatever we can to support and make that happen for the people of Limerick, as well as Dublin.
I heard much concern about local economies, including the local forestry economy, and the need to use the Lanesborough and Shannonbridge power stations. We should use our carbon fund in that regard. Deputy James O'Connor spoke about how we must get building infrastructure in Youghal - a beautiful town - right. We get it right by working with communities rather than going against them. Deputy Carthy referred to Monaghan. We must ensure enterprises are retained in Monaghan but we cannot keep extracting peat. That may be difficult. It may require huge ingenuity, which they have in spades in Monaghan. That is why companies like Kingspan are successful in the green economy. That is why companies like Glen Dimplex in the north east are so successful. We are good at ingenuity, engineering and thinking how we can solve the quintessential problems of our day. We cannot do it, however, if we keep remitting carbon. Local economies and communities have to be centre stage in this.
I heard other Members say we need to change the whole model and the whole economy. I agree fully. For example, we could use this Covid opportunity to have remote working one or two days a week. Let us do things differently if it means savings in commuting and not having to spend on massive motorway networks.
Deputy Duncan Smith spoke about being either radical or redundant. We should go radical in terms of promoting cycling and the future of energy. The scale of change will be so great that it will change the economic model, and it will be a change for the better. It has to be a just transition.
I heard many Members say we have done enough talking, and now is the time for delivering. It is a pity that Deputy Farrell is no longer in the Chamber because I was going to take up his point about e-scooters. We need to pass legislation for them quickly. We need to do our job to make it easier for people rather than making them feel guilty that they are using them illegally. Why not have greenways like the one in Dún Laoghaire in other parts of south Dublin? I would love to sit down with Deputy Lahart and the transport committee of South Dublin County Council and any other council interested in this transition to discuss this matter. As part of our Covid response, we must consider how to change the transport system to get thousands of people on bikes, e-scooters and electric bikes, while keeping public transport safe for those who have to use it. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, which the Deputy mentioned, started the coastal cycle route in May and completed it in July. It is spectacular. We need to be radical.
Deputy Patricia Ryan and others said we have to be able to sell power back to the grid. We need to do this quickly in the House. Before Christmas, we need to get the wind guidelines out so there is not so much division and difficulties around planning. The biggest obstacle is lack of public confidence in and support for, as well as speed and clarity in, our planning system.
Deputy O'Rourke asked where we are going with the climate Bill. All it does is set up the framework to start considering all the measures. I hope that it will be in the House in early October. We are working on the final draft and it is due to go the Cabinet shortly. I expect it to be in the House in a matter of weeks. The real work starts early next year, however, because, as I said in my opening statement, we have to go to Glasgow this time next year with our heads held high that we have a climate change plan appropriate to the task. We need to get that climate Bill through before Christmas. We need to spend the first six to nine months next year having a proper serious debate on each of these sectors to determine what the real means of delivering on the target will be.
As Deputy Leddin said, this is not small change. This is beyond anything we have ever done before. We will work it out best when we look at all the different options. However, they have to be options based on science and not skirting around some of the hard decisions we will have to make. They will be hard decisions but good for our people. We will be good at this because the House is not divided on the underlying fundamental truth, the science. No one here said that this would not be good for our people in rural Ireland or those less well-off. That gives me confidence that we will be good at this and it will be good for the people.