Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
Climate Change Negotiations
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
I participated in the world leaders' summit at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, COP26, in Glasgow on 1 and 2 November. At the action and solidarity round-table discussion for leaders on 1 November, I expressed Ireland's strong commitment to global action to deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement and keep the global temperature rise to 1.5°C. On 2 November, I delivered Ireland's national statement to the plenary session and took the opportunity to reiterate our climate ambition, nationally and at European Union level, and our commitment to supporting small-island developing states and least-developed countries, many of which are very vulnerable to climate change. I announced that Ireland is more than doubling its climate finance contribution to at least €225 million a year by 2025.
The conference provided an opportunity to engage with many of my fellow leaders from around the world. I had formal bilateral meetings with the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and with Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama. Over the course of the summit, I also had informal meetings and exchanges with the United States President, Joe Biden, the Prime Ministers of Iceland, India, Israel, Norway, Palau, United Kingdom, Vietnam and many of my European Union colleagues, including Presidents Michel and von der Leyen. I also spoke with the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, as well as Northern Ireland First Minister, Paul Givan, and deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill. During my visit, I also met a delegation of researchers and students from University College Cork, members of the Dingle Sustainable Energy Community and youth delegates from Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, whose attendance at COP26 was supported by Irish Aid.
The overarching COP26 decision, the Glasgow climate pact, commits all parties to accelerate action on climate this decade. It recognises that the impacts of climate change will be much lower at 1.5°C compared with 2°C, and it resolves to pursue efforts to stay under the lower limit. Importantly, this means that the goals of the Paris Agreement can still be met. It strikes a balance between increasing climate ambition, delivering on calls for increased climate finance and adaptation supports and provides for a new dialogue on the issue of loss and damage, which is critical to supporting climate justice for those most exposed to climate change. It also provides for parties to revisit and strengthen their 2030 emissions targets in 2022.
The focus now is on delivery, including Ireland's commitment to cut greenhouse gases by 51% by 2030 and to reach net zero carbon by 2050 at the latest, as legislated for in our climate Act.
The Taoiseach has outlined his meetings and speeches at COP26. In his address to COP26, he said that every second of delay makes the task to cut emissions that bit bigger. He is correct. The crisis is cumulative and while we wait to take action we allow the problem to get worse. Unfortunately, not only were many of the outcomes of COP26 frustrating in betraying a lack of urgency at world leader level, in Ireland we are also seeing repeatedly long delays and missed deadlines in this Government's response to climate change.
We very much welcome the ambitious national climate targets. It is necessary that those targets are in place and that we all sign up to the targets of a 51% reduction by 2030 and to achieve net zero by 2050. That is vital, but we are not seeing the necessary detail of how we will achieve those targets. Last night, I addressed this to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan. Following publication of the climate action plan, which sets out these very ambitious targets, I asked him when we would see publication of the accompanying detailed annex of actions, with timelines, to support delivery of the plan. The response I got from the Minister was that it would be published in the coming weeks. This detailed annex of actions and timelines is essential to provide all of us, and all the different sectors, with the information necessary to show us how we will achieve the necessary emission reduction targets. Will the Taoiseach now tell us exactly when this crucial document will be published, given that we have seen such delays in publication of the action plan and other crucial documents?
During consideration of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act last year Sinn Féin proposed, in an amendment, that appointments to the Climate Change Advisory Council should take the form of a public appointments process, based on the process of appointment to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Our amendment was rejected by the Government.
It cannot be news to the Taoiseach that it is the general expectation that a transparent public appointments process is in place for such appointments. There have been years of reform on this matter and, in fairness, I acknowledge the former Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, who gave this matter much attention when he took up office in that Department. The public outrage at the Katherine Zappone appointment was not a result of her lack of qualifications, far from it, rather it was in response to the insider culture it represented.
The Taoiseach can levy all the charges he wants of the Opposition trying to do down the Government, but the reality is he knows full well that the appointment by Ministers of former colleagues, or in the case of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, an active member of his party, is not right. It is the public first and foremost who find this culture offensive, but by actively avoiding an open appointment process Ministers undermine those they appoint regardless of their eminent qualifications.
I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that his Ministers put in place the appropriate public processes for such appointments in the future.
Yesterday, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities outlined new rules for data centres that want to connect to the electricity grid. I do not believe these changes would have come through if the issue had not been highlighted and campaigned on by climate campaigners. However, I also do not believe that the commission has gone nearly far enough. One condition is that centres must provide their own emergency power supplies. Will the Taoiseach tell us when that condition will kick in? Will there be any stipulation that these emergency power supplies will be based on green energy? Will the 70-plus data centres be allowed to develop supplies based on fossil fuels, should they so decide?
Does the Taoiseach agree the 11% share of our national electricity output used by the centres can only be expected to rise, given no prohibitions were announced yesterday, only new conditions? Does the Taoiseach agree the changes, in large measure, amount to kicking the can down the road? If so, does he not think a moratorium or ban on new data centres might have been a better option for our country?
The threatened sale of the Killegar forest in Enniskerry, which I highlighted and on which I am glad to say Coillte backed off, and the one raised by Deputy Cairns that the Taoiseach was talking about earlier on, indicate a fundamental problem with the mandate of Coillte, namely, that it is operating to commercial imperatives, rather than as a guardian of the forest estate and as the entity that is trying to expand that forest estate to deal with climate change and carbon sequestration and to enhance biodiversity. Something is fundamentally wrong with the way it is operating.
That mandate needs to be changed to prevent the sale of public forests and in order for it to act as a spearhead in dealing with the spectacular, ongoing, decades-long failure to meet our afforestation targets, to deal with our fundamentally unsustainable forest model based on monocultures and Sitka spruce and the market conditions around that and to deal with the need to assist farmers in embracing afforestation by supporting them rather than as is often the case where they find themselves at odds with Coillte which commercially dominates a market rather than doing the right thing by our forest estate.
Deputy Bacik raised the issue of the publication of the more detailed action plans. In the course of her questions, she said she had been engaging with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications last evening. The Government has committed to publishing that detailed annex of actions, because it is important. I do not have a precise date here and now, but the Minister and his Department are finalising that. By any objective standards, this Government moved especially speedily to introduce the new Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, which creates a legal framework for this Government and future Governments in respect of meeting clear obligations on climate change. That has to be followed by the climate action plan, which has been published and the detailed actions, but also by the carbon budgets for every sector.
The challenges will increase. I am not saying this will apply to the Deputy, because I accept her bona fides on climate change, but the challenge will be in implementing all of these actions as it will mean change. It is a bit like the opposition to carbon tax. We get attacked everyday because of carbon tax. One has to ask the question as whether people are serious about climate change overall because all the international advice is that it works on a long-term basis. Of course, it does not work in terms of winning votes. I know that.
However, these are the kinds of calls we will have to make right across the board in every sector. The temptation will be to cynically focus in on certain areas of these changes, to undermine the overall effort for Ireland to play its part in meeting the 1.5°C because we are not strong per capita performers on climate change. We have to acknowledge that as a country and we have to move quickly. That is why the legislation around the marine planning Bill is essential for offshore wind. That has to happen and those frameworks have to be created for investment in offshore wind in particular and throughout other areas. This will be published.
On Deputy McDonald's point, those appointments were made in full accordance with the legislation and I think the Deputy acknowledges that because she said her party put forward an amendment which was not carried. There was a suggestion somewhere that the Minister had gone outside the legislation. He had not. Is the best the Deputy can do on climate change is just raise appointments under the Act? What about the substance of climate change?
That is what COP26 was about. The fact the United States has changed, because of the election of President Biden, has given a huge fillip globally to the whole climate change agenda. In partnership with the European Union and Great Britain, it has to be said, there is potential. Other countries have to come on board. The partnership with China towards the end of the COP26 was important and the US and China have signalled they will work proactively together in respect of that.
With regard to the appointments made by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, no one can question the qualifications of the two individuals concerned, their commitment or that they would be good members of the council. It was in accordance with the Act passed by this Oireachtas. To be balanced and fair about this, there is a wider range of issues on which we should collectively be working and we should be honest about our approach to climate change in that regard.
In response to Deputy Barry, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, which is the legislatively created regulator, is responsible for the regulation of these areas. The conditions are balanced. It is important self-generation and backup generation would be provided. The experience is that, in many instances, many companies are now investing in renewables as compensatory measures. Recently, I was in Eli Lilly in Kinsale, a pharmaceutical company which has been there for more than 30 years, providing more than 1,000 jobs in Kinsale and more elsewhere. It has transformed what was land around the plant into the largest solar farm in the country. Likewise, DePuy Synthes has purchased two forests to ensure its contribution will be net zero in terms of its production facilities.
Many multinational companies are proactively working on the climate change agenda. There is no reason that should not include companies that build and operate data centres. The world is going through a digital transformation, as are we as a country. Infrastructure will have to be provided. We should not have a runaway system of data centres. I do not believe in that at all. There should be limits to this and conditionality attached to it. The CRU has provided a regulatory framework that changes the landscape and that will challenge companies to make a stronger contribution to our energy requirements, security of supply and climate agenda.
Deputy Boyd Barrett's point was raised earlier in the Order of Business. I have said consistently that State agencies now have to have climate change as a central part of their mandate. Bord na Móna and Coillte, in particular, should have it as the core part, given how much land both of them have and the retention and expansion of carbon sinks should be their number one priority.