Wednesday, 20 October 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 16 to 21, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change last met on Monday of this week, 18 October, and a further meeting will be scheduled in the coming weeks. This Cabinet committee oversees the implementation of the ambitious programme for Government commitments in relation to the environment and climate change. These commitments include those reflected in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, which was enacted in July.
The committee also oversees implementation of the Climate Action Plan 2019 and the interim climate actions for 2021, as well as the preparation of the forthcoming climate action plan 2021.
Rural communities are leading the way when it comes to sustainability, but if we are to get buy-in from everybody in rural Ireland when it comes to low-carbon alternatives, we must put those alternatives in place. That is especially true of transport. I am a firm believer in the "every village, every hour" concept, so that no matter what village or town you are in in Ireland, there will be a public transport option - a public bus at the very least, available to you.
The Taoiseach is very familiar with west Cork and how remote the villages and towns on the peninsulas are, and the fact that they are not served by public transport at the moment. At the most, there is one public bus per day. I ask him to ensure that we explore the concept of "every village, every hour" and we make sure that there is a proper functioning public transport system to serve rural Ireland.
Furthermore, we must not let cost be a barrier for young people. The initiative to extend a 50% reduction in public transport to 19 to 24-year olds is fantastic, but cost is a barrier to young people using public transport and we must remove that barrier.
An investigation undertaken by Noteworthy.ie during the summer found that in comparison to other countries, the Government here is not spending enough on protecting Ireland's under-threat biodiversity. A 2020 study of biodiversity financing in Ireland raised concern that the key agencies charged with biodiversity protection are underfunded and understaffed to fulfil their remit.
I previously raised this matter with the Taoiseach, specifically on the National Biodiversity Data Centre. It is the dedication and expertise of the centre's staff that has driven the successful all-Ireland pollinator plan in the past six years. This strategy has delivered tangible island-wide outcomes and has been embraced by every section of society, urban and rural. The work of the centre and the terms and conditions of its employees, however, remain precarious. Its work is outsourced by the Heritage Council on rolling five-year contracts.
This is the only centre of its type in Ireland and the data it collects are fundamental to the State's response to our biodiversity crisis. The centre is woefully under resourced and its staff, all of whom are highly qualified, dedicated individuals, find themselves on precarious contracts due to the outsourcing model imposed on its work. I have repeatedly advocated for the National Biodiversity Data Centre to be placed on a statutory footing. In so doing, we can retain the great talent that we have. We can protect the data that the State and the country rely on and build a centre that is truly fit for the very substantial challenge ahead.
Will the Taoiseach engage with the Minister on this matter and consider it? Could we move collectively to ensure that this sensible and necessary action to place this centre on a statutory footing happens soon?
I have raised the plight of taxi drivers with the Taoiseach many times. They were hit very hard during the pandemic. Taxi drivers also have a key role to play in the decarbonisation of transport. Some €15 million was allocated after some big protests by taxi drivers during the period of Covid for grants to be available to them to get electric cars. To their disappointment and surprise in recent weeks, they were told that although only €6 million out of the €15 million grant scheme has been used up, no further applications are being accepted. That is inexplicable if we want to see the decarbonisation of the taxi fleet. Also, bizarrely, if people had committed to buy an electric vehicle that was worth more than €60,000, there would be an extension on the grant being available to them until March of next year, but if a commitment had been made to purchase a vehicle worth less than €60,000, it would not. That is bizarre.
I also understand, for some inexplicable reason, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grants for taxi drivers have a similar threshold of €60,000 in order to get a €2,500 grant. You get the money if you are a rich taxi driver who can afford a very expensive electric car, but not if the car is worth less than €60,000. Could the Taoiseach confirm that the scheme will be reopened, that the €9 million that was not spent will be carried over to next year, that there will be an additional allocation and that the arbitrary thresholds of €60,000 will be removed?
The public transport bus drivers who voted against the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Dublin Bus proposals on changing their routes and significantly undermining their existing working conditions are asking if the NTA has learnt anything from the vote. In particular, they ask if it understands that facilitating the race to the bottom, where privatised operators are undermining the conditions of bus workers in terms of their work-life balance, hours of work and so on, is the last direction in which they want to go.
If we want to expand public transport, we need to protect the working conditions of bus drivers and end the privatisation of routes. We need a public system where workers' conditions are protected and where we expand the routes available to people.
There is a new report from the UN Environment Programme out today and it concludes that fossil fuel production planned by the world's governments vastly exceeds the limit needed to keep the rise in global heating to 1.5°C. In fact, it finds that it is at 110% extra so we would be heading for more than a 3°C rise. In a way, that encapsulates the new form of climate denialism which is dominant throughout many of the world's governments, which is to accept the science and say it is clear that human-generated climate change is having a huge impact, to say we need to do what we need to do, and then simply to fail to do it, because doing so would mean taking on, in this case, big oil. The five biggest oil and gas companies between them have $5 trillion worth of oil reserves. They need to stay in the ground and those companies need to be put out of business, but the world's capitalist governments obviously refuse to do so.
The version of that in Ireland is reflected in the approach of the Government to big agribusiness and reflected in the discussion around the carbon budgets, which is to say, “Do not worry, we will do the hard part of the job after the Government is gone. Do not worry, for the biggest hitting sector, we will not actually reduce the size of the national herd." There is no indication of how we are actually going to bring down emissions. I thought the exchange earlier between the Taoiseach and Deputy Danny Healy-Rae was instructive. Deputy Healy-Rae was accusing the Taoiseach of saying that the national herd has to be cut and the Taoiseach was very defiantly saying that, no, he definitely did not say that. What is missing is some basic honesty that, yes, the national herd absolutely has to be cut if we are to meet our climate targets.
That does not have to mean and must not mean a reduction in living standards for small farmers. Small farmers should be guaranteed a living income and they should be given payments for carbon sequestration and ecosystem services. However, it does mean challenging the model of agriculture which currently operates in the interests of the big agribusiness companies.
Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan raised a very interesting issue. I accept his point that rural communities are leading the way in respect of climate change, and I would endorse fully his view of “every village, every hour”. This is an issue we need to return to in terms of providing local public transport and local services. Obviously, they can be provided by different providers but it is that people throughout rural Ireland would have regular access to such transport alternatives.
The Deputy is right in saying that young people, in particular, should be helped both with the provision of frequent bus services and with the cost of that. I accept the Deputy’s point that cost is a barrier to young people availing of public transport. The recent budget decision in respect of 19 to 24-year-olds is a very positive development, and that is something the Government wants to build on. The Deputy is correct that I am familiar with west Cork but there are Deputies present from different parts of the world. Young people have a lot of journeys to make and it is very challenging in terms of getting from A to B, particularly in Kerry, Cork, Galway and other parts of the west, the midlands and so on. I believe it is an area we should focus in on.
There is also the question of the symbolism it would provide but, more than symbolism, there is the reality of change. The reason that such a service is being provided is that we need to change how we do things in terms of transport alternatives in rural Ireland in particular. That would send a signal that we are very serious about addressing the issues of climate change.
I hear what the Deputy is saying about not letting costs be a barrier. I will change that to say that cost is always a challenge but it is also about prioritisation of the issues.
Deputy McDonald raised the issue of the National Biodiversity Data Centre. More broadly, the Government has significantly increased funding to biodiversity in the last two budgets and also to organisations, including the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, to get a stronger focus in terms of our biodiversity agenda, the national pollinator plan and so on. We are very anxious in this regard. The carbon tax funds give us opportunities to fund quite a range of biodiversity programmes, in particular in terms of environmentally-friendly farming. Some Deputies oppose that yet want us to do a whole lot of things in regard to biodiversity. We really need to increase resourcing to biodiversity. I will examine the issue in terms of the National Biodiversity Data Centre and I will speak to the Minister. We need urgently to work on all fronts in respect of that biodiversity agenda. I think progress is being made. The meadows looked very well during the summer and I think they have been cut now, so they will grow better again next season. Basic, simple things like that matter. I saw that this morning. I was with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and found there is a very significant allocation to beekeepers. It is interesting that the more organisations we go to now, we find they produce their own honey. I was in University College Cork recently and it produces a very good quality honey. I think Leinster House should develop beehives and we should be producing honey in here, and in Government Buildings likewise. Some of the staff suggested that to me when I was traversing it recently.
On the National Biodiversity Data Centre, I will speak to the Minister again in that regard.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of taxi drivers. I do not want to get into the nitty-gritty of the operation of every scheme. The Deputy said €6 million has been taken up out of €15 million in respect of electric vehicles. I think every opportunity should be given to people to avail of that.
Sometimes deadlines on schemes are to get people to apply because, otherwise, it goes on forever and people do not apply. Deadlines provide a catalyst to get a scheme up and running and get it moving. I will talk to the Minister in that regard and also in regard to the other matters in terms of the thresholds by which a scheme is extended or not. I will get the background to that and I will see if it is as the Deputy presents it. I will leave it at that because there were other issues that I spoke about earlier which were not quite as presented yesterday. No doubt we will return to those another day.
The Deputy also mentioned bus drivers more generally and working conditions. As transport develops and expands, whether it be through private provision, the public provision has to be expanded and developed as well. We need more services because we are going to have to increase public transport to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and, over time, reduce dependence on cars in cities and towns. That is going to become a reality in the years to come. As Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan said in respect of rural Ireland and bus provision, we need to have a good quality environment for workers to work in.
In respect of my engagement with Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, that was in respect of the accuracy of what he said. He was simply inaccurate in what he said. He could not produce the quote. That is the point. I will challenge that when it is said. I have no recollection of ever saying that. I will tell Deputy Paul Murphy one thing: I think we need food security.
Ireland is a leader environmentally and probably far friendlier on emissions targets than any other country. We are world leaders in terms of being friendly. We can do better and we have to do better, but there is always a balance between food security and the climate agenda, and it is a challenging one. However, we need to produce food in Europe.
We can see what is happening and, very often, how the balance changes. We look at Afghanistan. I was reading recently how Afghanistan in the 1970s was cosmopolitan and people were in far better condition. Look at Afghanistan today.