Wednesday, 23 September 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 6, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change was formally established by the Government on 6 July 2020 and had its first meeting on 30 July. It oversees the implementation of the programme for Government commitments in regard to the environment and climate change and receives detailed reports on identified priority areas, including the annual climate action plan. Its initial focus is to oversee the immediate priority areas identified in the programme for Government. These include the climate action (amendment) Bill, the development of a national retrofitting plan, just transition and support for moving to a higher rate of renewable energy. In addition, it considers progress made on the implementation of the current climate action plan.
The next meeting of the Cabinet committee will take place in the near future.
We finally got a legislative programme last week. I was quite disappointed with it on a number of levels. There are issues I raised with the Taoiseach, some of them very sensitive and important, which he did not see fit to include. The programme for Government commits to introducing a climate action Bill within 100 days of the formation of the Government. Will that happen? It is 88 days today since the Government was formed and it is running out of time. It will be a comprehensive Bill and if it is not brought forward next week, the Government will not meet its deadline. I am not sure how seriously this issue is being taken. In the debate on our Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020 earlier today, the mantra we heard from three Ministers was that rushed legislation is bad legislation. It seems that the climate action Bill will be a fairly last-minute one.
The same mantra that is being used to oppose one Bill is being used to bring in another Bill. The programme for Government commits to an average seven-year reduction in emissions and will define how five-year carbon budgets will be set. It provides that a net emissions target for 2050 will be set out in law. The longer those provisions are delayed, the harder it is going to be to implement them. I believe there will be a delay in getting this done. It is something I strongly support and want to support. I was the person, as Minister, who brought in the initial climate change legislation, making Ireland only the second country in Europe to do so, and I signed up to the Conference of the Parties, COP, on behalf of this country.
When will it be introduced? Will the Taoiseach inform the House on which date inn the next two weeks it will be brought in and when it will go to Government?
The Taoiseach has already flagged that carbon tax will increase again this year. How will we ensure fuel poverty is dealt with? Will the Government ensure the fuel allowance is increased? Will it commit to increasing the fuel allowance season? Four extra weeks were granted last year. Will the fuel allowance apply from October to April again this year?
What is the position regarding the just transition group that has been set up? On a personal level, I remind the Taoiseach that Littleton, County Tipperary, is not to be forgotten about as part of that process. The plant there had to close its operation as part of this process as well. The midlands are often talked about where peat production is concerned but Littleton, as I am sure the Taoiseach is aware, is another area that was badly affected. I had to fight to have it included in the just transition work.
I raised the issue of increased utility costs with the Taoiseach earlier this month. During our exchange he gave an undertaking that the Government would engage with Electric Ireland on the matter. I wrote to him subsequently raising the matter again and last week I raised it again to follow up on the outcome of those Government discussions. At that time, the Taoiseach informed me he had passed the matter on to the Minister with responsibility for climate action, communications networks and transport, Deputy Ryan. I wrote to the Minister last week seeking details of the response from Electric Ireland to his discussions but he has yet to respond. I am asking a very simple question and I am at a loss as to why we are going around the houses on this. I ask that the Taoiseach expedite this matter in order that I can have a report on what Electric Ireland said to him because these price hikes are looming in early October.
I have one additional matter to raise. The programme for Government makes a number of commitments in respect of protecting and developing Ireland's biodiversity. The National Biodiversity Data Centre programme was established by the Heritage Council in 2016. Included in its work is the hugely successful all-Ireland pollinator plan. This initiative, with the support of Tidy Towns and the local authorities, has heightened awareness of biodiversity in every community across the island. Despite this, this organisation is not underpinned by legislation and operates with a very uncertain funding framework. Staff on the project have significant knowledge and specialised skill sets. Will the Taoiseach bring the work of the National Biodiversity Data Centre into the Heritage Council and underpin the organisation and its objectives in legislation?
I suspect the suggestion from the Minister with responsibility for climate action, communications networks and transport, Deputy Ryan, that taxi drivers should be removed from bus lanes was some sort of misguided notion about protecting the environment from CO2 emitting vehicles. I have already asked that that proposal be abandoned. I have a positive environmental, climate action proposal to put forward. If the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, accepted that the ten-year rule for replacing vehicles should be extended to 12 years to avoid financially penalising taxi drivers who might have to replace their taxis, that would also give them time to do something the taxi drivers would very much support, provided the State did it properly and gave them support, namely, electrifying the entire taxi fleet. This has been done in London. There are vehicles that are suitable, although the Government would have to do something about the vehicle registration tax, VRT, and give significant grants. In the interregnum that we now have due to new restrictions and Covid, the Government could kill two birds with one stone. We could have a just transition whereby the taxi drivers are not punished by the Government but actually helped through this difficult period, while also using the interregnum to plan for the electrification of the entire taxi fleet. If I had more time, I would talk about the electrification of the bus fleet which should also be considered. That is a serious proposal whereby the Government could help the taxi drivers who are now in trouble and also plan for the future by reducing CO2 emissions from cars.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. The heads of the climate action (amendment) Bill were approved by Cabinet this week and the legislation is at a fairly advanced stage of drafting. It is quite comprehensive. It will set a target to decarbonise the economy by 2050 at the latest and then make-----
-----the adoption of five-year carbon budgets setting maximum emissions by sectoral legal requirement. It will also establish the climate action council on an independent statutory footing and ensure greater gender balance and increased scientific experience and expertise in its membership. The objective is to have the Bill ready and published within 100 days, give or take a day or two.
On the issue of County Tipperary, Deputy Kelly will note that the Minister with responsibility for housing, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, got a €20 million initiative through Cabinet this week for retrofitting in designated local authority housing estates across the midlands and County Tipperary, as well as other counties. Those estates will be identified by the respective local authorities. This is the first significant part of the just transition response and it is needed to energise some of the county councils to develop capacity to deliver retrofitting programmes in their counties. That is something we want to expand more with local authority housing and an expanded programme of retrofitting across the country. A lot of skilling up of personnel will be needed as well to enable them to do that. We also want to create incentives for the private sector to engage in the retrofitting programme.
On utility bills, as Deputy McDonald knows, there is no mystery to how utility bills are devised. The regulator has a key role in that. Very often, the regulator becomes the Government overnight in terms of how issues are presented.
I am a great advocate of the all-Ireland pollinator plan. It does very significant work. I will talk to the Minister about the issues the Deputy has raised around the legislative underpinning of the National Biodiversity Data Centre.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised issues related to the carbon tax, as did Deputy Kelly. Under the Government's programme, substantial amounts of funding will be raised from the tax over the next decade or so. It will be potentially up to €9.5 billion over a ten-year period. The idea is that €3 billion of that will be available to prevent fuel poverty and ensure a just transition. That will involve the fuel allowance rate and other issues related to that. It will also involve substantial funding for retrofitting and the national retrofit plan. Funding will also be provided for a rural environment protection scheme and a rural environmental plan separate from the Common Agricultural Policy, which will be designed to incentivise farmers on the issue of biodiversity farming practice that would be good for the climate and for protecting biodiversity in the country. While this did not have total agreement, there was agreement on it among parties which were genuinely committed to the environment and getting something done on it. Last year, the increase in the carbon tax raised €90 million which was used to protect the vulnerable. It was also used for the just transition and investing in the low-carbon transition. Also last year, €20 million was spent on the fuel allowance and €13 million on energy poverty efficiency upgrades.
The programme for Government sets out the broad thrust of how we intend to divide up any carbon tax revenue.
We intend to hypothecate it and ring-fence it so the taxpayer is clear that the money raised on a carbon tax will be used for express purposes with a view to achieving our climate change targets while protecting those on low incomes and social protection payments through the fuel allowance and retrofitting, which will give long-term savings to those in local authority housing who would benefit from a good, comprehensive retrofit programme.
To respond to Deputy Boyd Barrett's question on bus lanes, my sense is he has wronged the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I know this would not be his intention. He has never said that taxis would be barred from bus lanes. He told me he did not know where that suggestion came from. He has met the Irish Taxi Drivers Federation and is anxious to work with it. Some of the issues raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett last week and the week before are matters that are under consideration. The Minister is very disposed to the idea of electrifying, over time, the taxi fleet but this could not happen without the type of supports the Deputy has suggested and identified. One has to work with the industry in pursuing these objectives and aims. The Minister is clear that his engagement with the Irish Taxi Drivers Federation and representatives of taxi drivers will continue on these issues and, in terms of the future, how they can make a contribution to the overall effort to decarbonise the economy itself.
As I have said, I will relay the Deputy's points to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I am sure the Deputy will also have opportunities to engage with the Minister on these issues. He is a positive individual whose basic objective is to try to bring people on this journey to a cleaner, healthier and better society by meeting our obligations on climate change because it is the existential crisis of our time.