Dáil debates

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

2:12 pm

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I thank Deputies for providing me with this opportunity to update them on the plans of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in regard to a just transition. Ireland is committed to achieving a just transition while ensuring nobody is left behind as we move to a climate-neutral economy and society.

The climate action plan 2021 places a just transition at its core. The plan sets out four principles that will guide policymaking and implementation over the coming years to ensure we can effectively monitor and manage our transition and that our responses remain flexible in order to respond to future transition challenges and target the areas in need of support. The first of the four just transition principles is that we pursue an integrated, structured and evidence-based approach to identifying and planning our response to just climate transition requirements. The second principle is that people are equipped with the right skills to be able to participate in, and benefit from, the future net-zero economy. Third, costs will be shared in order that the impact is equitable and existing inequalities are not exacerbated. The fourth principle is that we place social dialogue at the heart of our climate policy to ensure impacted citizens and communities are empowered and are core to the transition process.

The climate action plan sets out that each Minister should approach the development and implementation of climate policies within his or her sector in line with these principles. We will also be accountable in regard to how we proceed. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 gave the Oireachtas the power to scrutinise our progress and it is right that this scrutiny should extend to how we are implementing our just transition principles. A shared understanding between Government and affected parties in this transition will be necessary to plan policy accordingly. In light of this, the Government has also implemented a refreshed national dialogue on climate action, NDCA, that will have just transition at its core. The NDCA will be the key mechanism for facilitating the social dialogue process as part of the transition. This will consist of awareness-raising, communications and activation. It will ensure community engagement and participation takes place at sectoral, local, regional and national levels.

The Government has also committed to establishing a statutory just transition commission.

It is envisaged that the commission will support Government policy development in this area with specific objectives relating to: first, monitoring progress on the implementation of the just transition framework and preparing reports and recommendations to the Government and the Oireachtas; second, commissioning research and identifying research needed in respect of a just transition to facilitate evidence-based decision-making across Government regarding a just transition; and third, providing advice and support to the Minister and the Government on stakeholder participation and dialogue in a manner that effectively integrates just transition considerations.

Taking each of these in turn, it is essential that the Government has access to high-quality independent advice on the steps it should take to deliver a just transition, in line with the framework set out in the Climate Action Plan 2021. This advice should be evidence-based and it should be grounded in the day-to-day reality faced by individuals and communities. It is also important that the commission provides the Oireachtas with a trusted source of information and advice to assist it in its role in holding Ministers to account. Building on this, the commission should be able to set the agenda for research into current and future needs and challenges relating to just transition. This anticipatory or foresight role is essential, given that the climate ambitions the Oireachtas has set for Ireland through the 2021 climate legislation extend to 2050. Stakeholder participation and dialogue have repeatedly been shown to be a key ingredient to promote a just transition. The work of the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, in this area has found that co-designing inclusive, focused and participatory engagement processes with those most impacted at an early stage is key to ensuring that a transition is just.

The national dialogue on climate action is the key mechanism the Government will deploy to facilitate the social dialogue process as part of the just transition. The proposed commission is likely to have an important role to play in advising the Government and public, private and third sector actors throughout our society on best practice in dialogue and engagement for a just transition. The Minister is currently developing the mandate for the commission and this will be brought forward to the Government for its consideration by the middle of this year, in line with the timeframe set out in the climate action plan. To support the delivery of this work, and building on the work that he has already undertaken as just transition commissioner in the midlands region, the Minister has asked Mr. Kieran Mulvey to support him in the development of the mandate for the new just transition commission through undertaking stakeholder engagement relating to the mandate of the proposed commission.

The midlands region is the first in Ireland to directly experience the negative impacts of the transition away from fossil fuels, with the end of peat extraction for power generation. The Government has dedicated significant funding to support workers, companies and communities affected by the closure of the peat-fired power stations and the ending of peat extraction by Bord na Móna. The just transition commissioner has made an important contribution to the Government's overall response in the midlands region, helping to facilitate dialogue and bringing forward concerns from affected communities, residents, workers and businesses. The commissioner has produced four progress reports. The recommendations they contain have been addressed by the Government through the midlands implementation plan, which is detailed in the Climate Action Plan 2021.

The national just transition fund, launched in 2020, is supporting projects across the wider midlands region that will have significant employment and enterprise potential and will support the transition of the region towards a low-carbon economy. The fund is supporting projects from a diversity of sources, including: from communities, local authorities and the private sector, in the areas of business development; education, training and upskilling; development of co-working and enterprise hubs; renewable energies and retrofitting; tourism, heritage and recreation; community development and capacity building; greenways and walking. Collectively, these projects will support the midlands in the transition to a low-carbon society not only by job creation but also by creating a more resilient, diverse and innovative region. The total value of the 55 projects that have been approved is €30 million, with €20.5 million of this being provided in grants through the just transition fund. It is estimated by the projects that this will lead to the creation of an estimated 154 direct jobs as well as 932 indirect jobs throughout the region.

In addition to the just transition fund, the Government has also committed to invest up to €108 million in the enhanced decommissioning, rehabilitation and restoration scheme, which will create over 300 jobs and will be delivered by Bord na Móna to rehabilitate 33,000 ha over 80 separate Bord na Móna bogs. In 2021, the first year of this project, 19 rehabilitation plans were approved, with works commenced on 18 bogs. Plans for the 2022 campaign on a further 21 bogs in the midlands region are well advanced. Furthermore, the Government continues to deliver the midlands retrofitting programme and the deeper energy efficiency retrofit programme, both of which continue to support the development of warmer, easier-to-heat and more comfortable homes, enhancing air quality and providing savings on energy bills.

Looking to the future, Ireland has been successful in securing €84.5 million from the new EU Just Transition Fund for investment in the longer-term transition of the midlands region over the coming decade. This EU funding will be complemented by Exchequer funding. The EU Just Transition Fund is specifically designed to address the adverse effects of the climate transition in carbon intensive regions across the European Union by supporting regions to work towards balanced socioeconomic transition to a low-carbon economy. The Department is preparing a territorial just transition plan to enable us to access the EU Just Transition Fund. This will set out the development needs of the territory to be supported and the types of activities to be supported under this new fund. The Department undertook a public consultation on the draft territorial plan earlier this year. A summary report of responses and written submissions received have been published on the Department’s website. These submissions are being reviewed to further develop and finalise the draft territorial just transition plan.

The draft territorial plan identifies four key development needs for the midlands region: modernising the business environment and creating employment; enhancing the skills profile; environmental sustainability and industrial heritage; enhancing the regional profile. In recognition of the specific regional focus of this new fund, the Minister has appointed the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly, EMRA, as the managing authority for the fund in Ireland. Working closely with the Department, EMRA will have a central role in the development and implementation of the programme of expenditure under the just transition fund over the coming decade. Once approved by the Government, the plan, together with the associated EU Just Transition Fund programme, will be submitted to the European Commission for approval during the course of 2022. Expenditure under the programme will commence once approved by the European Commission.

The programme of Exchequer supports already committed to the midlands, together with the significant additional funding that will become available over the coming decade, aims to assist the region in its just transition in order to create a climate-resilient, economically prosperous and environmentally sustainable region. It aims to deliver capacity and to generate and share solutions and knowledge in support of Ireland’s overall ambition to move towards a climate-neutral economy. Furthermore, lessons from our experience in implementing a just transition in the midlands will be invaluable in shaping and informing the development of policy on the matter into the future as we continue on our journey to integrate just transition principles across all sectors and areas of society.

It is great to hear a baby in the Visitors Gallery. It is a reminder to all of us that we are discussing the climate change challenge and the just transition for the sake of young people, and that baby will be experiencing things long after we are gone. That is why we are here. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies.

2:17 pm

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome these statements. They take place on the day of the publication of another major report outlining the damage global warming is doing to our planet and all its inhabitants. The State of the Global Climate report from the World Meteorological Organization, WMO, shows that the four key climate change indicators - greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise, ocean heat and ocean acidification - broke records in 2021. The WMO said this is another clear sign that human activities are causing planetary scale changes with long-lasting ramifications for sustainable development and ecosystems. The findings and statistics in this report and the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, findings will come as no shock to most, as the science has been clear for decades. What has been missing, however, is action. We know what needs to be done and we know how to do it. What we need now is the Government to lead and deliver.

There will be no transition without a just transition. That is a matter of fact. A just transition is a critical component of climate action.

A just transition means the bringing together of workers, communities, employers and the Government in social dialogue in order to drive the concrete plans, policies and investments needed for a fast and fair transformation to a low-carbon economy and to ensure that employment and jobs in the new economy are as decent and well-paid as those left behind. I wish to raise concerns, first, with the timelines, but also with the narrow scope of what the Government means by a just transition, which seems to be limited to the midlands. It certainly needs to apply there, but it also needs to apply in the broadest sense to everybody who is involved in this transition.

We discussed the importance of a just transition and climate justice at length during the extensive debates on the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021. During those debates, Sinn Féin and others brought forward amendments that would have defined what constitutes a just transition in the Act and ensured that the climate action plans were drafted with reference to just transition principles. The Government rejected all amendments tabled on Committee Stage and Report Stage however, and, as a result, the Act and the climate policies flowing from it are weaker because they fail to meet the bar of equity and fairness. They fail to deliver a just transition.

Retrofitting is one such policy area that is failing the just transition equity test. Sinn Féin agrees that we need to retrofit the housing stock to reduce emissions and energy use, but where we disagree is how the Government is approaching it. The Minister has introduced a new scheme this year, which prioritises ability to pay over need. If someone is fortunate enough to have €25,000 available, he or she can now get a grant of €25,000 to retrofit their home, regardless of whether the financial help is needed. I am sure the Minister of State will tell us this is balanced out by the free energy upgrades for others, but what he fails to mention is the 8,000 homes already on the growing waiting list and a delay of 27 months to get works done. The target of completing 400 homes a month is still not being achieved, despite what has been claimed by some. Under the new plan, those who have money are generously supported to get a warmer home sooner. They are at the top of the list. For every euro in carbon tax they pay, they are getting a very good return. People who qualify for the free energy upgrade must sit tight for two years or more. Someone might get to them eventually. All the while they will pay more in carbon tax to heat their homes. They will get some return on the carbon tax, but it will be slow and in the vast majority of cases the retrofits are not deep retrofits. However, renters or those on a low income who earn too much to qualify for the free scheme but not enough to afford works themselves, like very many people, are out of luck. Such people will get no return on their carbon tax.

The national retrofit scheme is devoid of equity. It is benefiting those with means over those in need, and was not designed with a just transition in mind. There is a better, fairer way. We could start with the national social housing stock. We could identify those living in fuel poverty or reliant on solid fuels and start with them. We could put an income cap in place to ensure more money can be targeted at those who need it most. There are options in this area, but the Government is choosing not to take them. It is a long way off a just transition, but at the very least we should make sure that this transition does not drive people into poverty or further into poverty. The Government is failing to do that. It is just transition, it is not just stop being poor transition.

It is not just the retrofitting policy that fails the test, it is the same when it comes to electric vehicle grants. People with the money to buy a brand-new €50,000 car can get a €5,000 grant and €5,000 off the vehicle registration tax, VRT. They will also get a home charger grant, cheaper motor tax and reduced tolls. That is a very good return on their carbon tax. If, like most, however, you are unable to afford a new car, there is nothing for you except higher prices at the forecourts due to the ever-increasing costs. Similarly, PAYE workers can get a significant discount on a bicycle or an e-bike, but there is nothing for students, the self-employed or unemployed. To state it clearly again, Sinn Féin agrees with retrofitting. We agree with the need for electric vehicles. We agree with the need to get more people cycling and involved in active travel, but we want to see fairer policies that will deliver these measures while prioritising those most in need. We need an approach encompassing a just transition. The Government's alternative is driving a wedge between people. It is leaving people behind and in the only measure that matter, emissions reductions, it is failing miserably.

The Minister will have received correspondence in advance of this debate from the Just Transition Alliance. This alliance includes the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, TASC, SIPTU, Fórsa, Friends of the Earth and others. They have called for the establishment of a national just transition commission, in advance of formal legislation at the end of the year, based on social dialogue and comprised of representatives of the Government, trade unions, employers, affected communities and civil society. The commission would focus on job retention; the protection of living standards; skills development; the creation of decent work in respect of new employment opportunities; the prioritisation of the most vulnerable regions and sectors; and would be underpinned by a commitment to genuine community and regional development. Sinn Féin supports this call. I hope the Minister of State can update us on this area.

The transition to a zero-carbon society and economy does not have to be punitive or achieved through eco-austerity. The framing is completely wrong. This transition should transform and improve the lives of millions in this country by means of warmer homes, cleaner air, shorter commutes, cheaper electricity and greener spaces. Unfortunately, this Government's approach means that most people just see cost. They see hypocrisy when it comes to data centres, and they see unfairness when it comes to policies. We need to invest in public transport; build good quality public housing; invest in wind and solar renewable energy; undertake a truly ambitious afforestation programme; and retrofit our national housing stock, starting with those in need, not those with ability to pay. A just transition should be at the heart of all Government policies, and it is conspicuous by its absence at the moment.

2:27 pm

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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From what the Minister of State said, it is clear that the phrase "just transition" has virtually no meaning under this Government. There is nothing just about the course it is pursuing, nor is there much evidence that Government policies are leading to a transition at the pace required. In the area I follow closest, agriculture, Government policy has been exposed as a fallacy. While always quick and eager to impose penalties and additional charges on family farmers in rural communities, these are never matched with the provision of alternatives. In effect, the Government charges people for not using alternatives that are available to them. We hear that the receipts from carbon taxes are ring-fenced for transition measures, but that is simply not true. It is claimed, for example, that farmers will receive €120 million annually from the carbon tax towards agri-environmental schemes, but that is disingenuous in the extreme. The funding does not even replace the moneys for farmers the Government parties gave away in the EU budget negotiations. It is incorporated into the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, budget, despite assurances that it would be additional. Basically, farmers will receive fewer supports while being asked to do more. Then we hear Fianna Fáil Deputies and other trying to sell that as a success.

In the areas where the interests of farming and climate action collide, the Government fails at every single turn. Organic farming, for example, presents a unique opportunity to support family farm incomes through pursuing a premiumisation model in a way that completely aligns with our environmental ambition, but this Government has set an abysmal target of 7.5% organic conversion, as against an EU target of 25%, and under a Green Party Minister of State, we are nowhere near reaching even that meagre target. Likewise in forestry, a sector where we could be making a significant impact on carbon sequestration, we have an unmitigated disaster. Rather than the delivery of a forestry policy that supports the environment, local communities and the timber industry, this Government has overseen a scenario where all three have failed. It is the same story in areas where farmers can take a lead in renewable energy provision, such as in solar and anaerobic digestion. Blockages and barriers are the order of the day. Nowhere within the Government's agriculture policy can we point to a provision that could in any way be described as pursuing a just transition.

What is required to secure the future of our family farms is a fair CAP, fair prices and fair play. The delivery of these principles are also central to a just transition if that term is to have any basis in the language we use. Government parties continue to pursue the penalisation model, hiking charges on fuel and energy, but doing virtually nothing to allow those who bear the brunt to source alternatives. Through its retrofitting and electric vehicle grants policy the Government is essentially providing for a further transfer of wealth from those who are struggling the most to those who are financially better off. It is a twisted policy that bears no semblance to what a just transition should actually look like. Let us recall that the parties of Government have never achieved a single climate target that they have set.

Rather than delivering on climate action, it further frustrates, angers and alienates those who could, should and want to play a positive role in protecting our environment, biodiversity and air and water quality. The Minister of State needs to change direction or he will again fail to deliver the change that is required.

2:37 pm

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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I want to outline to the Minister of State why the Minister, his party leader, is so deeply unpopular in rural Ireland and why he is so out of touch with rural Ireland. I want to describe to him the practical realities for people in Donegal. We have a situation whereby two thirds of homeowners in Donegal rely on home heating oil to heat their homes. Even more rely on solid fuel. They heavily rely on these two sources of fuel to heat their homes, particularly in winter. Despite the price of home heating oil increasing by 130%, something that has had a major impact on families in our county and across the west of Ireland, not a single cent worth of help was provided by the Government. Incredibly, the Government instead increased the carbon tax even further this month. Nothing was done to help those families. There are no supports available to help them retrofit their homes. They will have to take out further loans, unless they are lucky enough to have tens of thousands of euro in their savings accounts. There is nothing of real substance at all to help families to heat their homes.

Let us look at people who have to work and study in Donegal. The public transport system there is not fit for purpose. It has been under-resourced for years. It is not designed to connect workers with their workplaces. As a result, they have to have cars. Almost everybody who wants to work in Donegal must have a car. Everybody who wants to study in Donegal must also have a car.

Time and again I have submitted parliamentary questions to the Green Party leader, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, to ask about electric charging infrastructure in Donegal. There was no urgency. There is nothing being done. If you are a homeowner who needs to heat your home or if you are a motorist who has to have a car filled with petrol or diesel to get by, you do not have alternatives in Donegal, unless you are very wealthy. What does the Government do for these people? It does not give them the carrot; it gives them the stick, every single time. It hits them with a carbon tax again and again and again. It punishes them for choices that they do not have. It punishes them for choices that they do not have. That is why there is anger. That is why turf was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back. People had enough of the indifference to their plight and the indifference to the reality that they face every day. If the Minister of State wants to know why there is this anger towards the leader of the Green Party and the Minister, that is why. The Minister is totally disconnected and totally out of touch with the reality of people's lives.

The Just Transition Alliance is telling the Green Party that it has not put in place a just transition commission. It is not in place. It has no dialogue with the social partners. It has no dialogue with the unions that represent the workers. The Green Party lectures people in rural Ireland about their responsibilities, but it never meets its own. It never meets its own. That is why there is such anger in places like Donegal. It will only grow more and more until the Green Party starts to listen to them and stands by them, rather than giving them the stick every time.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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We will now move on to the Labour Party. Deputy Ó Ríordáin is standing in for Deputy Bacik.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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The annual State of the Global Climate report provides another damning indictment of our failure to adequately respond to and tackle climate change. Four indicators broke records last year, namely, ocean heat, ocean acidification, greenhouse gas concentrations and sea level rises. We are out of time. We are out of time. However, if we want to avert further damage, we need a just transition that takes people with us. We needed it a long time ago.

When the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 was passing through the Houses, there was extensive debate on the amendments proposed by the Opposition to strengthen and define exactly what a just transition would mean. Unfortunately, the Minister did not incorporate this principle into the Bill. A just transition is a concept that originates from within the global trade union movement and is central to a labour and social solidarity understanding of climate protection measures. Our transition to decarbonisation must be carried out in a fair and just way that will not adversely impact on those who are most affected by the cost-of-living and energy crises.

When I speak of a just transition, I mean the protection and creation of jobs, improved living standards and reduced emissions, protecting our biodiversity and generating new sustainable communities. We need a blueprint for the future and a structured dialogue that is inclusive of all stakeholders. We must ensure that investment to address our climate emissions and to meet our targets takes account of the need to bring people with us and to protect employment and communities. We need a flexible and accessible skills and education system to meet the needs of a net-zero economy and to address inequalities where transitions are occurring. As I said before, improving energy efficiency of the housing stock is an opportunity to do this.

Investment to restore peatlands, urban tree planting and woodland management are all ways in which we can action a just transition and ensure that communities are not hit in terms of employment opportunities. The recent controversy regarding turf is a prime example of the work that is needed to deliver a real just transition by addressing energy and security and protecting our bogs. The Labour Party has called for works in the context of retrofitting and energy efficiency measures for those homes that rely on sod turf to be accelerated. That will require financial investment through grant aid. There is no point in telling anyone who cannot afford to upgrade their home or to buy alternative fuels that they must change. The State needs to support them.

The Labour Party is in full support of the Just Transition Alliance and of its call for the urgent and immediate establishment of a national commission. Indeed, this is one of the first issues that was raised with the Taoiseach by Deputy Bacik when she became leader of the Labour Party. Apart from informing us of the extension of the contract of the current just transition commissioner until the end of the year, the Taoiseach did not shed any further light on when the commission will be established. What we need to see now is a date for the establishment of the just transition commission and the mandate of the of the commission. It must incorporate International Labour Organisation guidelines and must align with the UN sustainable development goals.

When the commission is fully established, we hope the Minister will use the experience gained in other jurisdictions, such as Scotland, Canada, Germany, Spain and New Zealand, to inform its work. The publication of detailed investment proposals and an action plans to deliver projects is necessary. Achieving that will require additional financing. In its most recent budget proposals, the Labour Party called for a doubling of the just transition fund and for increased investment in retrofitting. The midlands is not the only community at risk. We need a more ambitious response from the State. Accountability, implementation targets and transparency on decision-making must be central to the commission.

The question of preserving intergenerational solidarity will also be critical to its proposed work, because a younger generation is growing frustrated with the failure of those in charge to address the climate crisis. In Ireland, we have a problem with rising emissions and our emissions are going in the wrong direction. We cannot adequately plan for a just transition without the publication of sectoral emissions ceilings. The Minister of State might confirm when those will be published. We face immense challenges in the areas of transport, agriculture, food production, afforestation and electricity generation, to name just a few. We need to see those ceilings and to get to grips with the challenge. Crucially, we need the State to play a leading role in the energy sector. Why are we not directly financing offshore wind through the ESB and through other semi-States to retain those natural assets in public ownership?

I want to conclude on a point at that the Labour Party has made before. Our natural environment has suffered for too long from the impact of unregulated free markets and untrammelled economic growth. We must build an economic and class analysis into our response to the climate crisis, so that we do not see environmental policies in a silo. These cannot exist in a vacuum. We need a State that leads the charge on climate justice, developing a new model of climate-neutral growth through a just transition. That is why we need the commission now. Our economic planning and climate response must be in sync. These are two sides of the same coin. We need a new economy that generates wealth and that also supports emissions reduction. When my colleague, Deputy Bacik, became leader of the Labour Party, she said that in the coming months we will publish a new strategic economic plan for Ireland. It will put a clear emphasis on regional job creation and on a just transition.

2:47 pm

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I very much welcome the opportunity to speak on just transition. It is an area I have a deep interest in. My ministerial responsibilities span two Departments to play a key role in ensuring a just transition. There is significant overlap and opportunity in what we need to do to decarbonise our society and make it fairer, more just and more equal. Current cost-of-living issues highlight this fact.

Almost by definition, expansion of public transport and active travel options help to level the playing field when we speak of inequality in Ireland. For the first time in 40 years, we have had a reduction in public transport fares; by 20% until the end of the year and by 50% for young adults. We are only getting started on our plans for active travel and public transport. I have to acknowledge the fact this week is national bike week. We have started what needs to be a major shift towards cycling. In particular, I will mention the enormous potential of electric bikes to replace car journeys. As Minister of State at the Department of Rural and Community Development, it is important to mark the scope of the electric bike in urban areas but very much in rural Ireland too.

I will reference a project funded by my Department in conjunction with the Department of Transport that is a key example of the way forward for a just transition. Last week, with Deputy Ó Cathasaigh, I visited a social enterprise in Waterford, Renew Enterprises, which is run by ex-prisoners who upcycle and repair old bikes and electric bikes, prevent them from going to landfill and sell them cheaply or gift them to those in need. At the same time, these workers are learning transferable bike repair skills. This is a very good example of a grassroots community-led project that intertwines social inclusion and decarbonisation at a local level.

I will go from the local to the very high macro level when I talk about just transition. A move to a low-carbon society and economy will give us the capacity to fully and truly realise the values of a republic that prioritises equality of outcome for all. This can be done by transforming the orientation of our economy to become a large net exporter of renewable energy. Over time, this will allow us to frame and resource the institutions of the State to fulfil that vision of equality of outcome for all.

I oversee the roadmap for social inclusion. The roadmap sets out two overarching ways to tackle social exclusion and poverty: investment in and improvement of public services; and improvements in income, either by increased employment or social transfers. The roadmap will be reviewed this year to better reflect the post-Covid realities and a programme for Government that has a strong emphasis on a just transition. These tracks of improved public services and better incomes will be better achieved in an economy that owns and exports its energy.

I will make an important point about carbon tax. This Government, and the Department of Social Protection in particular, has ensured that the net impact of carbon tax increases has been to redistribute resources to the poorest in society. It may not suit other narratives but it is being used as a progressive income redistribution tool, not to mention how it funds the national retrofitting programme, which will grow to being a central pillar of just transition in Ireland by putting increased resourcing into those most at risk of fuel poverty.

I will touch briefly on some other areas of responsibility in the Department of Rural and Community Development. One of the best ways to ensure a just transition is to listen to, be led by and support grassroots community groups. I am glad to say the new climate Act places an obligation on local authorities to consult with public participation networks in the development of local climate action plans. I recently launched a number of pilots that are aimed at improving the quality of consultation with groups that represent marginalised people. I oversee the national social inclusion and community activation programme. This is, in essence, a team of 600 community workers throughout the country who are supporting individuals and community groups in areas of disadvantage. Again, at a very local level and with the support of the social inclusion and community activation programme, communities are developing projects that intertwine social inclusion and decarbonisation, for example, by helping to develop sustainable energy communities, by providing and maintaining community gardens and allotments, and by raising awareness of climate change. I am particularly struck of late by local development companies that are supporting community transport initiatives.

An economy that controls and sells its own energy, continued progressive redistribution of wealth, a sea change in the use of public transport and active travel, a retrofitting programme that reaches those most in need and communities around the country taking the lead and interweaving social inclusion and decarbonisation measures will ensure a just transition.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. It is a conversation we will need to rehearse over and again in the coming years and decades. A just transition has at its core the principle of solidarity so that, as we make changes to our economy and society in response to the existential implications of climate change and biodiversity breakdown, we protect our most vulnerable. That must be in terms of both climate mitigation and climate adaptation to include those impacted by the structural changes we must undertake in our economies, but also those directly and adversely impacted by changes in our planet’s climate.

We must also be clear that a just transition is a framework to enable us as a society to make difficult decisions in the fairest possible way. It is not, and I have heard it deployed in this way, a reason or an excuse to defer, delay or deny difficult decisions. A failure to act and a business-as-usual model will be catastrophic for our entire biosphere but those impacts will be felt earliest and most keenly by those who have contributed least to the problem. They are feeling it already. From east Africa to India, the impacts of a changing climate are already playing out before our eyes.

It is this international dimension I will concentrate on. Other Deputies will concentrate on the Irish context and that is a critical discussion to have. There are important and difficult conversations to be had about how we protect people in energy poverty, and how we reform our food systems, our transport systems and our energy systems. A just transition has to be the underpinning framework for those conversations. Our commitments under the Paris Agreement, however, are global in nature. As was restated in the Silesia declaration on solidarity and just transition in 2018:

..natural disasters and other exogenous shocks, exacerbated by climate change, bring devastating effects to vulnerable workers and people living in poverty with limited savings and no social safety net, increasing the challenges ... and the obstacles to just transition, especially for countries characterized by fragile environmental conditions and least developed countries

In preparing for today’s debate, I read the European Community Humanitarian Office crisis report to the European Commission on drought in the Horn of Africa, where climate is changing and rains are failing. In Kenya, more than 1 million livestock have perished. In Ethiopia, women and girls walk for most of the day and part of the night for a jerrycan of water. In Somalia, 1.4 million children under the age of five will face acute malnutrition through the end of the year. Do these Somali children feel hunger any less keenly than my five-year-old at home? Do Somali fathers love their children any less than I love mine? I very much doubt that is the case.

The people of east Africa need rain and grain, not beef, butter and powdered milk. People across the developing world need a voice in any conversation on a just transition. They need Ireland, as a developed country, to live up to our climate commitments, and also to advocate for things such as a meaningful loss and damage facility. If we are genuine in our commitment to a just transition, it must not just be for communities in Ireland. That commitment must extend in solidarity to people beyond our shores to encompass the entire global community.

Photo of Alan DillonAlan Dillon (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Ireland faces a challenging time in meeting its climate action, EU and COP26 obligations. The need for climate action is clear and the changes we need to make to address climate challenges will affect all aspects of the way we live our lives. The move to green enterprise services and energy use in public and private transport has already begun. Many operations in Ireland in the manufacturing services and retail sectors are making major advances in the positive climate action policies implemented. The climate action plan generally references just transition in terms of fairness, inclusion and protection of the most vulnerable. It also references just transition within climate policy as a transition to a climate resilient, biodiversity rich and environmentally sustainable and climate neutral economy.

In this debate, I will take a balanced view in assessing the scale of challenge and identify practical, deliverable solutions to facilitate a just transition for someone living in rural Ireland. We must ensure people and communities are placed front and centre in our climate action policies, which have the potential to open up new employment and enterprise opportunities, new jobs, new skills and a chance to create a more productive and resilient economy. Through the national and EU just transition funds, the Government needs to deliver flagship projects throughout the country, at scale, to assist communities in the transition to a carbon neutral economy.

The Government must invest and support local authorities to undertake the grant administration role on behalf of the Department on delivery of these projects that will be adequately resourced in the years ahead. The Government must also maximise its resources and strengths in the green economy that will support employment opportunities for rural communities in areas such as renewable energy, sustainable tourism, energy retrofitting, the bioeconomy and the circular economy. The Government must also enable community energy projects to support the target of generating at least 70% of electricity by renewable means by 2030 through supports such as the community benefit fund and a community category within the renewable energy support fund. Prioritisation by Government must also be given to the development of microgeneration of renewable electricity, allowing people to sell excess power back to the grid through the establishment of the microgeneration scheme.

Ireland has made significant progress in its commitment to climate action from fossil fuel divestment, a ban on fracking, to the development of the national just transition fund. However, many obstacles remain, and there is much work yet to do.

2:57 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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We now have two speakers, Deputies Cronin and Stanley, who both have two-and-a-half minutes each.

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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In addressing just transition we need to mark where we are today in regard to climate change and its impact throughout the world. In our politics and public life there is still the sense that climate change and the just transition are still some time away and that we still have time to prepare for them. However, this week parts of India reached 49oC and parts of Pakistan reached 51oC. That scorching heat makes record-breaking heatwaves 100 times more likely. As some forecasters have put it, extreme heat events that would usually take place every 300 years might now occur every three years. Closer to home in Europe, Cordoba in Spain is expected to hit 43oC this weekend. We are not immune to any of this.

At this stage we have to wonder whether the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications actually gets it. Far from giving party political advice, this really is not about seats or elections because we are facing an existential crisis. The Green Party is meant to be synonymous with environmentalism, so the Minister of State really has a huge responsibility here. He seems to have been captured by the old-fashioned pre-climate change economics of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil where growth is king and let us not upset big business. On just transition it seems to be taking a genteel, almost academic observer position on something that needs a radical and revolutionary response. When it comes to just transition we do not even have a proper definition of it, despite the efforts of Sinn Féin and many others among the Opposition.

I am really concerned about the people who are already barely hanging on, crucified by price hikes in rents, fuel, energy and, shortly, food. These are people who are not racing around the suburbs in SUVs or flying off on holidays a few times a year. The people to whom I refer live miles from public transport and can only afford a banger rather than a new electric vehicle. These people have done the least harm and cannot be left to fend for themselves. How on earth are they going to manage to just hurry up and transition given that they are already so far behind, so excluded by a tepid response to a scorching issue?

Sinn Féin wants just transition, not the order to simply hurry up and transition that we seem to hear from Government. Our world is on fire and the Government is tiptoeing around with artisan buckets as opposed to the hose we need to keep people and life alive on this planet, delighted with itself for using environmentally-friendly buckets and saving the price of calling the fire brigade. As Deputy Ó Cathasaigh said recently, when he started off on a marathon, he was not prepared for it. He realised very quickly that the world does not, and will not, care. We really want to be getting on with just transition.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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Global warming is accelerating, of that there is no doubt. Peat harvesting in the midlands was to be phased out over a ten-year period. It was phased out in ten months. The people of the midlands, who were most impacted by that, in particular those in Laois-Offaly, sucked that up. Those people have borne the brunt of that and have got on with it. However, Bord na Móna is currently facing legal threats from a group which is trying to block the removal of harvested peat. This is peat that was harvested four or five years ago on bogs such as Cul na Ceart, Cúil na Móna and Cashel bogs. That peat is stockpiled and can only be used legally for horticulture in Ireland. That is the agreement of the contract for moving the peat. I want Members to hear this because I am an environmentalist, and I think the Minister of State is also and will understand what I am saying. This peat is covered in polythene. The polythene will disintegrate over the next couple of years if it is not removed. The polythene will enter watercourses and the peat piles will become destabilised and enter the watercourses because there is dry peat underneath. This will cause pollution in the vicinity of the bogs. Bord na Móna wants to rewet these bogs. As we all know, we need them as carbon sinks. However, Bord na Móna cannot rewet them while the peat stockpiles are on them, so they need to be removed. Bord na Móna is trying to find an environmental solution and cannot do it if this threat is followed through. What are the Government and the Minister of State doing about this? We need to get on top of it.

I have a second issue to raise in regard to retrofitting homes. Homes in Laois-Offaly are badly impacted by the transition away from peat because it has the highest number of homes dependent on peat and solid fuel. They do not have an option. Many homes do not have oil. They have no retrofitting because it is not coming quickly enough. An answer to a recent parliamentary question indicated that only ten deep retrofits were completed last year. The Government said that 5,000 will be done in 2022 but there are almost a million homes to be done. We need to ramp that up drastically.

Some €650 million was collected in carbon tax last year and more than €400 million in the previous years. Money needs to be ploughed into ramping up the retrofitting of homes, in particular homes that are not even double-glazed. There are low-income households whose homes - I have been in them - do not have insulation and double glazing and the heat is flying out of them. Those people are being most impacted by fuel poverty. We need to help those people and we need to get on top of it now.

We need a just transition. What we have had so far is an unjust transition. In particular I want the Minister to pay attention to that Bord na Móna issue of peat stockpiles. We need to rewet those bogs. This group is stopping an environmental solution and is going to cause environmental damage. Someone needs to talk sense to this group.

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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I thank the Minister of State for the opportunity to have this debate today. It was a pleasant surprise to see it on this week’s agenda. I was anticipating perhaps some announcement from the Government in regard to just transition and the plans for it. I am disappointed with the level of progress outlined today. From listening to and reading the Minister of State’s speech, it seems that one thing is missing all the time. I do not know why the Government is so hesitant to put it down in black and white what it means by “just transition”. How is this defined? It is one of those phrases that gets trotted out at regular intervals by people in government and in opposition yet we have no actual definition of what a just transition is. Until we have a definition there is absolutely no way anyone can be held accountable for meeting or not meeting it. In the absence of a definition, how do Departments, Ministers, NGOs or local authorities know whether they are doing the right thing? A definition would provide a checklist for Government and for everyone to say what their policy is, that they meet this aspect of just transition, that they see the economic transition is not great and have identified social consequences and that they will ensure there are no social consequences. We need a checklist and a definition would give us that. I and others tried to get a definition into the climate Bill but the Government refused to take that on board. I tried to get a definition into the recent circular economy Bill but, again, the Government refused to take that on board. It is not that it has not been done in other places. Scotland has done it. I do not understand the hesitancy in government to put down what a just transition is to ensure it is not just a term trotted out when it is expedient for Government.

I welcome the fact the Minister of State outlined the just transition principles in his speech. He talked about placing social dialogue at the heart of climate policy.

It is important to namecheck the trade union movement in that. Just transition started off as a trade union and workers issue. It is broader than that but it is important that the work, dialogue and contribution of trade unions is acknowledged and that the part they can play be counted in the principles.

Principle No. 3 states: "That the costs are shared so that the impact is equitable and existing inequalities are not exacerbated." The Government should be more ambitious. Not only should we make sure that existing inequalities are not exacerbated but we should be ambitious about making sure we start addressing those inequalities. Now is the time we are at a crossroads and have opportunities to use the environmental, social and economic change that we will have to implement to meet our climate targets. Let us use this as an opportunity to make things better and ensure we do not make things worse. I ask that the Minister of State reflect that in the policies.

I do not get a sense of urgency with just transition. The Minister of State talked about the just transition commission, which was a programme for Government commitment and which is a commitment under the climate action plan. However, I understand it will be 2023 before that is established. That will be three years into the Government and a year to a year and a half after the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 was passed. There is no point in doing this work after the policies and the legislation are in place. Just transition needs to be a foundation and the framework by which policies are developed. It should not be brought in after the fact because that will undermine the policies. Just transition needs to be developed now and the commission is needed now, as quickly as possible. This is something I have been raising since I was elected and I reintroduced a Bill of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan’s on a just transition commission because I recognised that it was something that had to be done quickly. The time for talking is over and it is time for action now. There is a risk of these policies being developed in a way that will make things worse for people and that then the commission will come in and try to rectify that practice. I ask, therefore, that there be some sense of urgency with this.

When we look at the record of Government to date in rolling out programmes, we must ask if it has taken just transition into account to date and I would have to say it has not. There have been attempts, such as the retrofitting programme, which is targeting low income households and people on social welfare with grants. However, there is a huge swathe of people, including low to middle income earners, who need to make changes and who will be getting little support from the Government when it comes to retrofitting. There was an opportunity to target those people and to apply just transition principles to ensuring the retrofitting programme did what it should have done, which unfortunately did not happen.

The Minister of State said that there needs to be social dialogue and that the Government needs to listen and consult and I ask him to reflect on the discussions we had on turf recently. Some 3,500 people engaged with that consultation process and it was clear from the consultation report that people did not know what the Government regulations were about. They thought it was a ban on turf and they told the Government that. The Government did the consultation but it did not listen and that is an important point to make. If the Government is talking about just transition and engaging with communities, then it should take what they say on board and listen to them.

3:07 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Cathal Crowe has four minutes, followed by Deputy Cowen, who has seven minutes.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Acting Chairman to help me with the timing-----

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I will help.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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-----and let me know when the four minutes are up.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Cowen will.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I am sure Deputy Cowen will tell me to sit down shortly.

We are here to talk about just transition and the word "just" needs to be focused on. It means fair and equal and just transition is good but it is not geographically fair or equal. If you look at a county like Clare, which I represent, over a number of years we have had an incremental winding down of operations at Moneypoint and the winding back of coal burning operations. There is no just transition for people in Clare and for those who have worked in that plant for many years. There is a bright future and the Green Atlantic project and there is the prospect of 600 jobs and a multimillion euro investment. There is light at the end of the tunnel but for people in Clare and for people who wait for the development of that Green Atlantic offshore wind project, they have to wait a full decade. Given the rate of inflation and how cyclical things are, it is essential that just transition is again renewed and considered on a more geographically fair and equal basis to include County Clare.

I want to talk about turf. With the way speaking time goes in the Dáil, it is not every day you get a speaking slot on a topic you want to speak about. When I was elected in 2020 with many others, as a newcomer to the Dáil, I signed up to a programme for Government that contained many things. Some Wednesday nights I vote for things that are wonderful and sometimes there are things that I have found to challenge my set of beliefs. One thing I never agreed to in a programme for Government was to ban, in any shape or form, the harvesting or sale of turf and I am glad that proposal has been wound back. We need to tackle air pollution and air quality in the country but turf cutting in a county like Clare is dying out anyway. I know of few people cutting turf and those who do so bag it up in old fertiliser bags before selling it at the local petrol station for €5 or €6 per bag. It is a small trade that is dying out and it was mean spirited, anti-rural and all those other things to even consider banning the harvesting and sale of turf.

I want to speak about wind energy guidelines because these are also intrinsic to the debate we are rightly having about greening our economy and meeting all of our climate change targets. Wind energy is already supplying a large amount of our electricity but there has been a set of guidelines, in draft format, on the desk of the Minister for Environment, Climate Action and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, since early 2020. The current wind energy guidelines date all the way back to 2006. They are 16 years old, they are not fit for purpose and they are among the most outdated in Europe. Depending on which side of the fence you sit on, if you are in the industry and you cannot wait to build more of these and multiply them throughout the countryside, or if you are a resident who is concerned that these are too near your home with the flicker effect and the noise outputs of them, both sides of this argument need to move on with real guidelines that are meaningful and relevant to the planning process nowadays. Yet another planning file was put out in Clare yesterday with further information on a wind energy project because the guidelines are unclear and insufficient and we have planning officials trying to interpret 2006 policy against what modern standards are. It has no correlation whatsoever and I ask that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, might move that quickly. I will do a generous thing and give some of my time to my colleague, Deputy Cowen.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Like others, I welcome this opportunity. We never have enough time to get through all we want to get through save for reminding the Minister of State of the obligations that are on Government and of the commitments that have been made and to seek to ensure that those commitments are acted on and provided for and have the desired effect and impact. I am from the constituency that is arguably the most impacted by the acceleration of decarbonisation in recent years. We have seen the earlier than anticipated closure of power stations in Lanesborough in Longford and in Shannonbridge, Ferbane and Rhode in Offaly. We have seen Bord na Móna's industrial excavation of peat cease as a result of that and its commitment to decarbonisation has resulted in the anticipated closure of Derrinlough briquette factory in 2024.

This is an industry that has served our region so well since the 1930s and 1940s until the 1980s when there were up to 6,000 or 7,000 people employed in those industries. Bord na Móna was set up in the 1940s with a remit to develop that region and to ensure there were ample jobs and opportunities. It can no longer fulfil that remit so the onus and responsibility falls back on the Government to take up the mantle and provide for that process. In opposition, I worked with the then Government and the then Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, to ensure and agree that the increases in carbon taxes be ring-fenced for the purpose of just transition for the midlands region. Poverty-proofing provisions were initiated, in addition to other initiatives and the midlands just transition board and team were provided with ample funds.

I wrote to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste last week. I noted that the proposed territorial plan relating to the midlands just transition fund is due for final submission by Government and subsequent approval to the European Commission. I commend the Government on matching the already committed €84.5 million EU funding in the national development plan ensuring that €170 million will be put in place for the coming years. It is imperative that the procedure of submission and approval is done as soon as possible.

It is now almost three years since Councillor Eamon Dooley of Offaly County Council and I visited Brussels to meet the Commission. We made the case for the inclusion of the peat regions of Ireland in the fund already approved for the coal regions of Europe, providing necessary funding to assist those regions in responding to the acceleration of decarbonisation. Thankfully, that was approved and the new Commission and new Government ensured that was progressed. I also welcome what appears to be universal backing for the appointment of the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly as the administrative entity to deliver just transition.

I further acknowledge the Government's commitment to ring-fencing the revenue derived from those increases to initiatives to assist in the transition away from dependency on fossil fuels. It is vital that the recently announced national retrofitting scheme should as soon as practicable accommodate a special provision for households currently dependent on solid fuels for heating purposes to be afforded an 80% grant towards the transition in addition to the installation grant already provided in the scheme.

I also encourage the Government to ensure policies and directives associated with clean air policy omit turf-dependent households and recognise their need to obtain that solid fuel either by virtue of their own property rights or by purchasing from local turf cutters with whom they have established commercial and personal relationships over many years. I agree that any such sales should not be advertised or transacted in retail outlets. I have no doubt that with the incentives mentioned together with the updated building guidelines the practice of turf cutting will cease organically in the years to come.

I highlight to the relevant Ministers my support for the recommendations Offaly County Council made in its submission during the consultation process on the territorial plan. I remind the Minister of State of the section which concurs with the conclusion of a comprehensive analysis carried out by EnvEcon which found that Offaly is the county most negatively affected by accelerated decarbonisation, followed by Longford, Westmeath and Laois. I have no doubt as a result of that and as a result of independent analysis and data that has been made available that targeted funding will reflect these findings from weighted multicriteria assessment. I know that my colleagues in Laois, Deputies Stanley and Flanagan, will agree with that contention and acknowledge the information that has been presented now as qualifying data to support that contention.

As the Minister of State will know, I have made a complaint to the European Commission about the activities of a dominant force in the electricity market in this country. I have contacted the European Commissioners for Energy and Competition. I met the Commissioner for Energy along with local MEP, Billy Kelleher, last week. I note the inaction to date on the part of the CRU, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and the Department. I urge the Minister of State to use his good offices to ensure that the Government is more proactive in this matter because the inaction over the dominant player's territorialism is part of the reason for Ireland having energy costs that are way out of line.

That is not just my contention based on the independent assessment and data that I have made available but in recent weeks a EUROSTAT report confirmed that Irish energy prices to households and businesses are 25% above the European average. It is a serious matter for industrial and domestic consumers. The Government needs to get to the root of this irrespective of the inferences, insinuations and assertions I have made which, of course, will be investigated. The Government needs to be sure that the ambition contained in the programme for Government has the potential to succeed. Some would argue that it is not as ambitious as it should be considering the vast wealth of resources we have off the west coast and the potential to create a pan-European supply together with our partners in Europe, especially southern Europe, regarding the wealth of solar power they have.

We can be at the front of a pipe rather than at the back end of one along with many other parts of Europe which are dependent on Russian gas today. I hope the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, initiates an investigation into the workings of the CRU, EirGrid and the wholesale energy market in this country to find out why we have not realised the ambition we had for the last ten years, never mind the great ambition that needs to be acted upon in the next ten years.

3:17 pm

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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The just translation concept was conceived to assist counties and communities most affected by the move from fossil fuels to transition in a just manner to other forms of energy generation and other means of employment where generational employment had ended. Last year Sinn Féin sought to define a just transition and just translation principles and to ensure that Government adhered to them when preparing climate action plans and carbon budgets. The Minister rejected our amendments and the amendments of others to the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill which would have improved this very week definition of a just transition. We wanted accountability. We wanted Government to explain how proposals and policies would affect different sectors, households, communities and regions and the ways in which Government would support them in transitioning. It was an entirely pragmatic and reasonable approach but was rejected outright.

To date my constituents in Longford-Westmeath tell me that their experience of just transition has been overwhelmingly negative. While extraordinary sacrifices have been made by the communities across the midlands, to date this has not been matched by support and services from Government or State agencies in a way that reflects a true just transition. That is why towns such as Lanesborough in Longford and others like it experienced unprecedented levels of anxiety like never before when it became clear there was no sign of the jobs lost being replaced with any form of meaningful quality employment opportunities for those workers most affected.

A truly just transition can protect and create jobs, and also protect and restore biodiversity and generate sustainable resilient communities. Job losses are not the automatic outcome of moving to greener energy. That comes from bad planning and poor policy decisions during the transition process. There must be proactive engagement and structured dialogue. Key planning indicators need to be established and met. That is key to a just transition process. However, for some inexplicable and inexcusable reason that has been absent to date. That simply is not good enough for communities most affected by the transition to greener energy. They must be the priority for a meaningful just transition. Areas like those in my constituency cannot simply be left behind or be told if not in words definitely in actions to simply suck it up.

Photo of Johnny MythenJohnny Mythen (Wexford, Sinn Fein)
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According to the EU, the idea of transition is that no one is left behind. However, rural areas of Ireland are being left behind. Rural public transport is non-existent. Rural public services are non-existent. The Government is not doing enough to mitigate the ground-breaking and life-changing proposals that those in rural areas are being asked to operate under. Rural communities function on a completely different eco and social plateau from large urban areas. This is a major concern when it comes to climate action. People in rural areas want to play their part in climate action. Up to €84.5 million has been allocated to Ireland under the EU just transition fund. This funding is highly focused on the midlands. Many rural areas, such as county Wexford, will also need financial support for just transition. Rural areas operate on a small ecosystem. Farmers, fishers and those working for small and medium-sized enterprises circulate their money directly into their local economy.

Remove one cog from the wheel of climate action, for example the fishers, farmers or foresters, acting without a robust and just economic alternative, and the whole thing collapses. It has a domino effect.

What action plan, roadmap and timelines are there for a just transition for the rest of rural Ireland, including Wexford? Public transport and the reliance on cars are among the main targeted areas of climate action. In Wexford, we do not have a reliable and accessible form of rural public transport to rely on, nor have we the proper infrastructure to support electric vehicles. This Government needs to transform rural transport in areas such as Wexford if we are truly to move people away from reliance on cars.

The Wexford coastline is an area that is most suitable for offshore wind farms. I support wind energy and the value of energy security for Ireland, especially when we see the awful effects of the war in Ukraine and the international fallout for energy supplies. We can, and should, plan for our own self-sufficient and sustainable supply.

When it comes to Wexford, we must always take cognisance of the traditional fishing and charter boat industries. They cannot be forgotten as custodians of the sea when it comes to these large, green infrastructural changes. Unfortunately, the Government's green schemes are not working. Quick transition seems to be the priority rather than the most important element of fairness. Sustainability and pragmatic solutions must be rural-proofed, inclusive and, above all, practical and workable. Biomethane, hydrogen, wind and solar energy must remain the focus of the Government.

Food security must be considered region by region. Rural Ireland has a major part to play in developing our country in a self-sufficient and prosperous way. A just transition is about making sure we leave nobody behind on our journey to a greener environment. I urge the Government to seriously consider and act on the points that have been raised.

3:27 pm

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I welcome this important debate. Just transition is not just a national policy but an international policy. Environmentalists use the great phase that we must act locally and think globally. Everything we do locally is everything we do globally. For a just transition, we need to think of the environmental space as the place and country in which we live and the world we all share. That policy is important, as the Minister of State knows, because to tackle the environmental damage that has been done, and continues to be done, we need to be radical in what we do, individually, collectively and politically.

I wish to speak about one aspect of the just transition, namely, the retrofit programme. I will speak from personal experience. The estate in which I live in Clondalkin, which is made up of 40 houses, applied for the community energy grant scheme. Deep retrofit of a house is revolutionary. It has transformed energy bills. In an ideal world, it would be fantastic if everyone could do likewise but that is not possible because it takes time to retrofit housing.

I will share with the House some statistics that show the challenge around the retrofit of, in particular, local authority houses. South Dublin County Council has just under 10,000 and less than 1% were retrofitted last year. If one does the maths, it will take decades to complete. The scheme has wrapped up this year with the retrofit of 250 houses. At that rate, it will take a considerable amount of time to complete. I have heard some reports, though not relating to the estate I am from, that some of the works have been haphazard and that there may be a problem in terms of the standard of the retrofit. It could be problematic not only in the present but also in the future.

The retrofit programme needs to be extended to everybody. It is important to do that regardless of people's means. We are asking people to spend €50,000 upfront and that is an enormous amount of money. Many people cannot afford that and it can be a barrier to retrofitting.

In Italy, the vast majority of people will get a retrofit of their homes completely free of charge. The Italian Government has brought forward that policy for retrofitting. It is good that there are no financial impediments to retrofitting.

Retrofitting is one of the cornerstones of a just transition. Everyone who has a house, whether provided by a local authority or a private house, in this country is lucky. Our energy bills and carbon footprints need to be smaller and that can be addressed and achieved through the retrofit programme. We need to be more ambitious and ensure the programme is State-led rather than looking for the invisible hand of the private sector to address those issues. That can be problematic because of the limits on the number of houses, particularly local authority houses, that can be retrofitted. The figures at the moment suggest it will take decades before the last people on the list have their houses retrofitted. Retrofitting can make an enormous difference to people's homes, particularly in wintertime when their energy bills are high. A person who is facing fuel poverty spends a considerable proportion of his or her cash on energy bills. If such people had their houses retrofitted, it is a no-brainer that their bills would go down and they would be spending less. The environmental damage would also be reduced. That should give us pause for thought.

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the discussion about the just transition mechanism. It is a dynamic and proactive framework that identifies opportunities for public and private investment that is both sustainable and inclusive. It is a fair and effective way of ensuring that everyone can work together to fight the climate emergency. The just transition fund is designed to assist countries across Europe to meet the challenges of the green transition in line with our goal of making the EU climate neutral by 2050. Doing this effectively and fairly is critical because that is how we ensure nobody is left behind.

Ireland's ambition is to become a world leader in climate action. That is a big statement but we need big thinking now because we are no longer living in a time of climate change; we are living through a climate emergency. Everyone in Ireland can make the changes set out in the climate action plan and we need to encourage and support everyone to make those changes.

Ireland is set to receive €84.5 million from the EU just transition fund over the programme period. That is a big figure but big thinking needs to be backed up with big financial supports. That is why we need to think nationally. As we know, the wider midlands region has been proposed as the only area for investment under the just transition plan. Some people have expressed the fear of being left behind. This must be a transition that works for the whole country, not just the wider midlands region. We need to support everyone to introduce climate change mitigation measures and that is why I welcome the range of benefits and supports offered by the European Union.

The just transition will protect people and communities by offering reskilling opportunities and investments to combat energy poverty. It will assist people and communities who want to gain access to clear, affordable and secure energy. Nationally, we are seeing a step change in energy efficiency and in our societal desire to be more climate conscious. The just transition mechanism is also going to support companies by supporting them to transition to low-carbon technologies and economic diversification.

Before being elected to Dáil Éireann, I worked as chief of staff for a multinational organisation. Driving corporate climate responsibility is something about which I am very passionate. That is why I strongly welcome the investment in creating new firms, start-ups, research and innovation activities. That allows us to bring fresh and innovative ideas to the table to address the climate emergency effectively. The mechanism will support the investment in public and sustainable transport.

Sustainable transport is a serious issue that must be addressed to deliver on climate action. This week we saw practical measures come into play to enable people in my constituency and right across Ireland to access public transport at a more affordable rate. That is a genuine incentive and we need to ensure that commuters are getting an added incentive through the Taxsaver ticket, which they are not currently because it has not been changed to reflect the new scheme.

Public consultation on a draft of Ireland's territorial just transition plan took place earlier this year. Feedback was gathered at it and one of those feedback workshops specifically sought the views of younger people working, living or studying in the midlands region and it is really important that we listen carefully to what they had to say. We owe it to our younger people who have been so vocal about their feelings on this issue to listen. We cannot and must not let them down. Floods, storms and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, more destructive and more fatal. Climate change is the truth. It is not a lie. We owe it to the next generation to leave Ireland in a state that is fit for their purpose. We need a just transition to ensure that Ireland can achieve this and achieve our climate action goals.

3:37 pm

Photo of Brian LeddinBrian Leddin (Limerick City, Green Party)
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Yesterday I had the honour of attending the Norwegian constitution day celebrations at the ambassador's residence with a number of other guests, including Members of this Oireachtas. It was a great occasion and I got to meet a number of people who are working on developing the wind energy sector in Ireland. Indeed, the Norwegians are very interested in what Ireland plans to do in that regard. I had a very interesting conversation with Mr. Liam Curran of Enterprise Ireland and Mr. Cormac Gebruers of the National Maritime College of Ireland in Ringaskiddy, Cork. At the risk of quoting Tracy Chapman, we were talking about a revolution; a revolution that Ireland is going to experience in energy generation. We are going to become a net energy exporter. I see Deputy Devlin smiling. He attends meetings of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action week in, week out and hears about this and contributes to the debates, as does Deputy O'Rourke. It is something that we talk about a lot, the revolution that is coming to Ireland, if we plan things well. For me, that revolution must have a just transition attached to it and it will.

Mr. Gebruers talked about Irish coastal villages and communities and he said that some of them only make sense from the sea and there is some resonance there. I certainly have always thought that. As a young man, I rowed on the Shannon Estuary up towards King John's Castle in Limerick city and the perspective one gets from our waterways, whether from the sea or from our rivers, is quite unique. It is clear that so many of our communities only make sense from the sea. The energy revolution that we are going to have is going to make sense for these communities, right around Ireland. Towns and villages like Foynes, Kilrush, Killybegs, Ringaskiddy, Castletownbere, Rosslare, Dundalk and many others are set to benefit hugely from this energy revolution that is coming.

In talking about a revolution and a just transition, we are talking about breathing life back into these communities and turning around decades, and in some cases, more than a century of decline. Just transition is about education, reskilling and providing opportunities for young people to stay in their own communities because many of them want to. That is true of our small villages and towns as well as our cities, and that is what just transition is about. It is a term that is often misused and abused. It can be a political football, kicked from Government to Opposition and back. If we are honest about what a just transition is, we need to see it as an opportunity to open up employment and enterprise for our communities all around Ireland. Climate action requires a major change in how we live our lives and for many it will mean changes in work, education, how we get around, what we eat and how we travel. Change is always perceived to be hard and when it is not managed or planned, it can be devastating for people's livelihoods and communities. If managed well, with a just transition, it will mean better jobs, more resilient communities, a cleaner environment and a healthier ecosystem.

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to examine the Government's progress on delivering a just transition as Ireland implements a low carbon future. At the heart of the policy is recognition that families and communities must be supported and protected against the negative impacts of the transition away from fossil fuels. Key to supporting these initiatives is funding and we have seen €84.5 million secured from the EU's just transition fund for investment in longer-term transition over the coming decade. The fund will be complemented by Exchequer funding, which is welcome.

I have been a long-standing supporter of retrofitting schemes and I welcome the Government's national retrofitting scheme. However, I am concerned about the delays in progress and about the capacity of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, to roll it out at scale. I am also concerned about the lack of progress in retrofitting and improving our local authority housing stock, particularly in advance of what will be a very difficult winter. I ask the Minister to redouble efforts in this area to ensure that the local authorities have funding available to implement quick fixes as they prepare for a more extensive programme over the course of the decade. Recent changes to the better energy warmer homes scheme to expand eligibility for home owners in receipt of the disability allowance for over six months and who have a child under seven are extremely welcome. I ask the Minister to make a concerted effort to highlight these new opportunities.

I ask the Minister to examine the effectiveness of the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, to ensure it has sufficient resources to police energy companies and to ensure that customers are being offered the best rate. I have had reports of consumers being told certain products or special electricity rates would not suit them when it is clear from any objective analysis that they would be better off. I would also ask for arrangements and regulations around the district heating schemes to be examined. I have had reports of some district heating customers receiving notice of a fourfold increase in natural gas rates but as district heating customers, they have no power to change supplier.

As we move towards a low carbon economy, it is critical that people at risk of fuel and energy poverty or communities at risk of economic disadvantage are supported. The Government's medium and long-term strategy is sound but I would like to see more ambition in the short term.

Photo of Pauline TullyPauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I live in the heart of rural Ireland, in the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. The vast majority of people generally agree that we need to change the way we live in order to tackle the climate crisis but this needs to be done in an equitable way. The price of home heating oil, for example, increased by 50% in the 12 months to January 2022. This was prior to the recent decision by the Government to increase the carbon tax. Imposing these increases in carbon taxes while inflation is already disproportionately impacting the living standards of low- and middle-income households is completely unfair.

Carbon taxes and the cost of petrol and diesel are having a disproportionate effect on people in rural Ireland. Petrol prices have increased by 30% and diesel prices by a similar rate and yet the Government recently voted to increase the carbon tax on transport fuels and this will be increased further later in the year. As farmers and contractors must rely on heavy machinery which operates on diesel, they have no option but to pay for diesel. Parents in rural areas need to drive their children to school or childcare and they must drive to work because, for the most part, there is a lack of proper public transport. There are no trains going to Cavan or Monaghan and bus services in many rural areas are very light on the ground.

Turf and peat harvesting are also being restricted on many bogs throughout the country. This has led to the importation of briquettes and peat and that does not make any sense whatsoever in the context of the climate crisis. Many rural families depend on turf to heat their homes. A proper plan needs to be put in place for the harvesting of peat products for the domestic sectors that need them.

Retrofitting houses is an important part of fighting climate change but even with grants, it is far too expensive for most people. The waiting list for households eligible for free energy upgrades such as the better energy warmer homes scheme is now in excess of two years. Between 2019 and the end of January this year only 118 homes in Cavan and 85 in Monaghan have been completed under this scheme, which is dismal. There is a need for far greater investment in this area.

We cannot allow social justice to be removed from climate action. We need to invest in public transport, good quality public housing and in wind and solar energy.

We also need to undertake an ambitious afforestation programme, begin the process of retrofitting our housing stock and expand our renewable energy infrastructure.

3:47 pm

Photo of Denise MitchellDenise Mitchell (Dublin Bay North, Sinn Fein)
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At the centre of any debate around climate change there needs to be a discussion on how ordinary workers are protected from the sharp edge of any new policies. The move towards a greener society is very doable but it is important that the Government brings everybody along with them, and that it does not hammer those who cannot afford to switch to alternatives in the short term. One only has to look at the Government's new retrofitting scheme to find an example of policy that disadvantages those who have the least ability to pay. If you are lucky enough to have €25,000 to spare you can apply for another €25,000 even if you can well afford it. There are also grants for electric vehicles but the catch is that you must be in a position to buy a brand new electric car.

The vast majority of people cannot afford to access any of these incentives. Those people who could do with a leg up are never going to get ahead if the bar is set too high. Policies need to be proofed with the social and economic impacts in mind. We need to avoid penalising people who have not got an alternative. In Sinn Féin's alternative budget for 2022 we allocated €10.8 million towards a just transition commission. The Government has plans to establish a commission but it really needs to be done now as a matter of urgency. A just transition should be to the benefit of everybody and not just those with deep pockets. We need to do everything we can to support those who do not have the money to go green.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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At the outset, I want to say that I am not a climate change denier but I am a realist. So far, I have not heard enough debate that I could say is a level debate or equal to both sides. I reiterate some of what I said in the statements on agriculture last week. The level of balance when it comes to debating climate change and climate action measures is non-existent among our public service broadcasters. Private media companies are entitled to promote particular editorial opinions on whatever subjects they like. The same should not be the case for public service broadcasting.

One of the most impactful pieces of legislation to pass through these Houses last year was the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021. It floated through these Houses and the media with little scrutiny, while opponents of the Bill were treated with disdain by the ruling classes. Not only did the Opposition parties such as Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, the Labour Party and People Before Profit unite with the Government to support the Bill, unbelievably they complained that it did not go far enough. Then, having voted for a Bill that places an enormous cost burden on the ordinary working person, they stand up here on a regular basis complaining about the cost of living and that the Government should be taking measures to deal with it. Did any one of those who supported the climate action Bill, think through the consequences of the Bill before voting for it? It will make absolutely no material difference to climate change, but it is causing serious hardship to those struggling to make ends meet.

Did those who voted for the Bill not realise that raising the carbon tax every year until 2030 will have the greatest negative impact on the poorest in society? Petrol and diesel prices are rising again almost back up to the €2 per litre mark. Those who rely on public transport and who are in a position to be able to avail of public transport, are not affected by the rising cost of fuel, yet these are the people who received in the past few days a 25% discount on their travel costs. The 15 cent excise reduction amounted, at the time, to a 7.5% discount on fuel. Due to rising prices, however, it was not really a discount at all. Yet, those who use public transport are getting a 25% discount. The people cannot use public transport because it is not available in their area, particularly in most of rural Ireland, are effectively being left out of Government supports but paying the taxes that the carbon tax has increased.

Those who are affected most by the rising cost of fuel are those in rural Ireland and those who simply have no alternative. It would seem that Government policy is trying to gradually phase out rural Ireland altogether. Planning authorities are trying to make it next to impossible to build a house in rural Ireland. So much so that in years to come, and very few years to come, the rural GAA club, the rural school, the rural pub and the rural church will be a distant memory in many areas while we will all be herded into suburbia and while here on this small island our heritage, culture and society is being eroded in the name of saving the planet, China will be building more coal-powered plants. The cost of these mad climate policies is estimated by Professor Michael Kelly at €200,000 per household. There has not been a proper debate about whether or not our approach is the correct one, if it is going at the right pace, or if it is focusing on the correct things.

I spoke last week about Ireland's pathetic performance when it comes to planting trees. Trees are a proven and effective way of absorbing carbon and are vitally important. Yet, the Government seems totally disinterested in meeting the targets for tree planting. Not only is the Government not interested in planting trees, it is making it very cumbersome to manage woodlands due to a ridiculous licensing system, which needs reform. Carbon tax is currently €41 per tonne and people are at their wits' end trying to make ends meet with these increases. Unless this runaway train is halted by a large dose of cop on, at some stage carbon taxes will increase to €100 per tonne by 2030. We cannot tax ordinary people into poverty as a solution to climate change.

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I wish to say a few words about this in the short time that I have. In my mind, just transition has been explained by Deputy Leddin and others as doing something in society that is correct and right to make sure that our communities grow and that there is enterprise in them. I agree with all of that. We should have more resilient communities but we need to transition to that and we cannot just do it overnight. There are some things we must take into account. Much has been spoken about the turf regulations that the Minister of State will bring in during October. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, to consider all of the local authority houses in the State that rely on turf to heat their homes, to have hot water and to cook. Will the Minister of State consider how quickly he can provide the funding to the local authorities to retrofit these houses so that they have actually transitioned from solid fuel to air-to-water, and the cost of that?

Take the electric vehicles we are putting into this country. We are encouraging people to buy these cars. I know of one man who sold the electric car he bought last year on the basis that there is no infrastructure of any means in place for him to charge his car. Basically, the biggest issue of all is that he cannot put in a charger at home because the ESB will not connect the proposed charging point directly to the meter out the back due to the distance to his electricity meter. That kind of stuff has got to stop.

The deep retrofit programme, which has been announced, is still not in place. People cannot avail of it. Surveys have been carried out but we are not getting to do the work. Another issue that keeps arising with the retrofit scheme is the quality of the materials we are using, if they are actually fit for purpose in a country like ours where we have huge variations and wet weather and if the external insulation will stand the test of time. Are we creating problems? Reports have been prepared on that. That type of thing is truly something where we could be walking ourselves into an environmental disaster rather than into a place where we are saving our planet.

We have had discussions on public transport. It needs to be improved upon and it needs to be provided for everybody if we are to have a just transition.

We must make sure, for instance, that the railway line from Claremorris up to Athenry is put in place. We are doing a rail review at the moment. I believe, however, that there are actually things that can be done if we are really serious about providing public transport rather than taxing people who have to use their cars because they have no other way of going to work.

The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will tell the Minister that if he listens to Galway Bay FM, or the national traffic reports, he will always hear about Bóthar na dTreabh in Galway. The reason that is blocked up is because people have to travel by car from the east of the county to work in the city and back out again in the evenings. And what is wrong? We cannot build a bus lane from Claregalway into the city. We have been talking about it since 2007 and we still have not got around to actually building it. Everybody wants to do it but it is not being done. If we are really and truly fair about just transition, we need to act and set out a detailed plan.

3:57 pm

Photo of Neasa HouriganNeasa Hourigan (Dublin Central, Green Party)
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I am going to use my time today to make an argument for the inclusion of two particular groups as primary parts of just transition. Before I do, however, I wish to make the point that it is fantastic to have the chance today to talk about just transition and there are many good things to talk about, including the EU just transition fund and the €180 million in funding committed to Bord na Móna's bog restoration. There are actions afoot, which is so positive. I am concerned, however, that we have not yet legislated for the just transition commission. I believe we may be a few months away from that legislation. I wish to highlight the fact that although we are talking about huge sums of money when it comes to just transition, and quite rightly because it is a huge undertaking, the commission itself will not be an expensive undertaking. The just transition commission in Scotland from the years 2018 to 2022 cost only £321,000. The future generations fund in Wales is funded every year to the tune of £1.5 million. While we are not talking about big money in this regard, it is incredibly important that we have a legally robust framework and the commission certainly is very important in that.

Two groups must be primary elements in the just transition, the first of which is unions. Some of my colleagues in the Chamber have already pointed this out but the phrase "just transition" is a union phrase. Many of the industries that will be most impacted by the move to a low-carbon society are highly unionised workplaces. It is incredibly important that from the very get-go, we bring unions into the dialogue from the ground up. Unions are their workers, and we need workers to tell us how to transition in a way that makes sense for their communities. I ask for that in the first instance.

In what is kind of a counterpoint to the issue of unions being at the very heart of just transition, the second group is identified with the caring economy. I say that as a woman and as somebody who has been a carer. We have a huge number of people who may not be drawing a wage but who make a huge contribution. We know the many carers in this country are worth almost €2 billion to the economy. They do incredible work. In terms of demographics, we probably are moving to a more caring economy where there is less work and more caring in the home. It is incredibly important that we put those people and communities and those types of families at the very heart of a just transition. That is not an easy proposition but it is one that is well worth doing.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to have initiated the structures, provisional as they are, for just transition. Important principles have been already established, such as the hypothecation of carbon tax, the just transition commissioner, the dialogue that has been at the heart of the process in the midlands, the local authority-centred partnership that has been so important in driving programmes and the various programme calls in all sorts of areas of human need. I hope the experience of that interim approach will inform the Bill and our building upon that for the future.

However, this is on a day when we see new global evidence that our planet is burning as we speak and we are not doing enough to stop it, with concentrations of CO2, sea levels and heat and acidity in the oceans all reaching new levels of deterioration in today's reports. On such a day, it is essential that we recognise that climate action and just transition must be two sides of the same coin. They are not separate things; they are absolutely two sides of the same coin. Just transition is about helping people to make a transition, not compensating them for the cost of unsustainable emitting activities. That is an important principle - this is about making the transition. It is about different toolboxes for different areas of human activity. It will be very different in agriculture and travel than it will be in heating, and it will be different again in industries that are acutely impacted by changes in fossil fuel.

It is my belief - I have said it often and I will say it again - that adopting a circular economy perspective is really helpful in getting different sectors to evolve the sort of partnership that sees action and just transition in the same light. The circular economy approach emphasises environmental damage over the entire supply chain. As it is no secret that 80% of the environmental damage is baked in at design stage, it is in those early conceptions of what this is about and how we meet our travel or building needs that the mistakes are made. It also emphasises that nearly half of all our emissions come not from fossil fuel use directly but from material use. Therefore, if we can economise on the way we manage our resources to keep them in circulation and reuse and refurbish them, we can make a huge impact. It is really important and that circular approach emphasises that. It stresses particularly opportunities that will emerge from delivering our travel or heating needs or our needs for nourishment in a way that is sustainable. That creates new and sometimes different opportunities.

I will give the Minister an example, and I better keep an eye on the clock. Accenture estimates that 98% of the environmental damage of land travel can be got rid of if we do three simple things, namely, to move from selling products in the form of vehicles that lie idle in our driveways to selling travel as a service, to electrify our fleet and to apply circular principles to material use. It is extraordinary if we rethink, and that is what the circular economy offers the chance to do. Our challenge is how are we going to have prosperous farms, competitive businesses, connected communities and fulfilling opportunities in a world that is net zero? Those who come into this House and try to pretend that the practices and infrastructures of the past, which got us into this whole situation, are ones that are sustainable are doing their constituents an enormous bad service. They are locking them into a way that does not allow us to achieve what we need to do. It is easy to blame big data, big oil, China, fracking or some other person in a black hat for what is going wrong. It is us who must make changes. We are one of the highest emitting countries in the world. We need to make changes. Failing to act now means that it will be harder in the future. Worse still, however, it will be our future generations who will pay for our unwillingness to confront the issues.

Photo of James O'ConnorJames O'Connor (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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First, I will respond if I may. It is important that some very valid points have been made by members of Government parties and, indeed, by the Opposition as well. I am giving my own perspective to the Government as somebody who lives on a dairy farm in the very heart of rural Ireland in the constituency of Cork East. There are significant worries about some aspects of what the Government is planning. It is important for us to address those issues.

I am also speaking from the perspective of a young person looking at what we need to do to adapt our economy to make our it more sustainable and promote more sustainable practices when it comes to things like energy generation. When it comes to a just transition, one particular point referencing agriculture is that I really feel we need to do more to address that issue.

I am very excited about the work has been undertaken in collaboration with the Attorney General around the reforms of the planning process. There is serious urgency around the need to adapt how energy is generated in Ireland from a security point of view, however, which we definitely will see as being a major problem later in this calendar year. I know the Minister has been doing work on that particular matter. It is also from the point of view of sustainable practices. I have a request of the Minister in his portfolio, through the funds he has made available. An important point is we need to put additional funding in place. When it comes to dairy farming in this country, which, may I say, is one sector I believe is under attack, those involved want to invest to a greater extent in more sustainable practices.

One key area is energy generation, and helping dairy farmers, in some degree or fashion, to become more climate friendly and adapt to change in our world.

Ireland is a world leader in food security and in 2023, one of the major focal points of work done by governments everywhere will involve ensuring that enough food is produced to feed the entire population of the world. Of course, the situation in Ukraine has exacerbated concerns about global food shortages. We need to ensure, therefore, that we are making prudent changes in areas that will not harm food production in this country while also addressing the challenges Deputy Bruton eloquently outlined in his contribution regarding the need to do what is right. As a young person, I fully agree with him, but when it comes to the finance that is available, we must help people in rural Ireland to adapt to that change. It is just too expensive for many of them to get rid of their diesel cars, for example, and purchase electric vehicles.

Another issue I have raised repeatedly with the Minister, of which I would like him to take note, relates to the need for a scheme to be put in place immediately such that a family that buys a diesel or petrol vehicle will know what is going to be in place to five or six years in order that they will have certainty to plan for that change. I live in the general Youghal area, a town of 8,000 people, yet I can count on one hand the electric vehicle points in the town.

This gives an idea of the change we need to undertake, and the Government needs to lead in this area. We need to lead by example, put the funding in place and work with local authorities. Energy security and energy generation is one area on which we are not doing enough. It is exciting to see the work undertaken by the Attorney General to reform the planning process, which will help us increase the level of renewable energy generated in Ireland. As somebody living in the south of the country, I know that there is significant economic opportunity for people working in agriculture who have suitable land to earn money from the generation of electricity. Approximately 50 acres of solar panels can generate almost €100,000 per annum, in some estimates. That gives an idea of what members of the agricultural community could make by investing in solar and renewable energy, and we need to do more work in that regard.

4:07 pm

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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My position on the so-called just transition has been clear since the process was announced. My major concern is that Government policy is destroying jobs by escalating a process that simply cannot and will not deliver what it promises without significant damage to local economies, particularly in Offaly and Laois. This is reckless of the Government, not least in the absence of alternatives or permanent, sustainable jobs. I have made a detailed submission to the consultation on the EU Just Transition Fund and the development of a draft territorial just transition plan in February and I again outlined these concerns, which I have done on many occasions since the just, or unjust, transition process was announced. We are still no closer to knowing when the fabled €84 million in EU moneys will become available, and the Government needs to step up to the mark with that. Under no circumstances should our economies in Laois and Offaly suffer because of poor decision-making, ill judgment and the imposition of an unjust transition.

Of course, the transition process cannot be separated from the Government's wider carbon mitigation and reduction strategy and the new European Green Deal. Astronomical costs are associated with the implementation of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, which will cost €180 billion between 2021 and 2030. It is crazy what is happening and is allowed to go on every day. It remains my view that this legislation is regressive and will only compound the difficulties of counties such as Laois and Offaly, which will certainly bear the brunt of the transition process. Indeed, Offaly will suffer 38% of the job losses.

I remain unconvinced about the entire rationale for the transition process and the so-called need to utterly transform the rural economy on the basis of a calculation of need and urgency that simply does not stand up to non-ideological scrutiny. The Government is ignoring other research that exists.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am afraid the Minister's understanding of a just transition is very different from mine and that of many other people. He kicked up a hullabaloo a number of weeks ago regarding the sale of turf. Given the small volume of turf being sold in the country, that he prioritised it in such a way hurt many people in my county, Kerry, where many people have traditionally cut turf over the years to keep themselves warm.

In a way, I have to thank the Minister. Many people realise there is trouble afoot and that fuel and heating oil is getting very expensive, and they have gone back to the bogs this year because they do not want to be cold on Christmas night or to have nothing in the hearth to keep themselves warm. Many of them, therefore, have returned to cutting turf. If the Minister left people alone, the practice would die out in any event because the next generation, or perhaps the generation after that, would not cut any turf. Instead, he is trying to force people into electric cars, without sufficient infrastructure, and closing Bord na Móna. Every day since that began, the cost of electricity has increased. The Government has no alternative in place.

As for the retrofitting scheme, the Government is offering grants of €25,000 when people do not have the matching money to come up with €25,000 or €30,000 more. Elderly people have only so much time on their side and the Government could give smaller grants for insulation, yet they say they are denied that. If they have ever got so much as €300 or €400 in the past 20 years by way of a grant, they will be ruled out of getting any grants now. Likewise, carbon tax has no effect on the circumstances in which we find ourselves and only hurts people.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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In the Minister's constituency, only 6% of the electorate rely on fossil fuels, so it is easy for him to talk about a "just transition". He might be familiar with the television series "Star Trek" and the line "Beam me up, Scotty", but his just transition is beaming him from place to another and there is no transition for the person who has no alternatives. A total of 700,000 houses rely on fossil fuels, equating to approximately 3 million people, and Minister talks about a just transition. A just transition is about giving people a choice and an alternative to move from one option to another, but first they have to be given alternatives, not ultimatums.

Did the Minister know that his own Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action, chaired by Deputy Leddin from Limerick, has refused to meet representatives from the biofuel industry, which could reduce emissions in this country by using biofuel mixed with home heating oil? It would cut emissions by 50% until we find an alternative. Did he know that Euro 6 engines, in which we asked him to invest, could be filled with biofuel, which would reduce emissions by 10%? He has refused to let the representatives appear before the committee. He is not looking for alternatives; he is looking for his way or no way, and it is not a just transition. He does not see any alternatives except what is in his own little world. A just transition involves bringing people along and giving them alternatives. We have alternatives to lower emissions but he will not even let the representatives appear before the committee. That is wrong.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Connolly.

There is no doubt that we are in need of a just transition in order to ensure a better quality of life for everyone in this country and across the globe.

If we care about the future of this planet, we need to transition to a zero-carbon economy either immediately or as quickly as we can. The effects of climate change are already being felt across this planet and it will not be long until we are fully feeling them here.

We need to do all we can to stop this process before it is too late or, at this stage, to slow it down because solving the problem is no longer possible. However, we cannot do this at anyone’s expense. The average citizen should not be taking the hit for this transition. Large corporations have been the biggest culprits in causing this climate devastation. They have a debt to pay to the planet and its people, especially those from the global south, who have felt the greatest effect.

Unfortunately, the transition process in Ireland has been overwhelmingly negative. Extraordinary sacrifices have been made by the likes of peat workers, more than 1,000 of whom lost their jobs and received no support from the Government afterwards. Despite this, the Government wonders why people in rural Ireland are so against climate policies. As Hall and Oates might have put it: you are out of touch and we are out of time. We need to ensure that all those who lose their jobs due to transition are offered support and replacement jobs immediately or that something is put in place to make that happen. Until this is addressed, the transition process will only become synonymous with job loss and lower living standards. We do not have time to delay this any further.

I support the Just Transition Alliance’s call to establish a national just transition commission. This would help in creating replacement jobs and in creating a more sustainable society. We need to protect rural communities in Donegal and in the midlands in particular who have experienced the greatest loss by ensuring job retention and a high standard of living. The problem is that climate change is quickly becoming associated with loss, whether the loss of jobs, of communities or of the ability to live pretty equally. That is not what it should mean for people but there is a real danger that we are making this happen and losing people right away.

I also support the Just Transition Alliance’s call for a strategy that ensures a maximum retention of key energy assets in public ownership and the call to officially designate energy as an essential public good. We cannot achieve our aim of a just transition without the public ownership of energy assets. Keeping these assets in public ownership will ensure greater power and greater accountability for a sustainable transition. The west coast of Ireland is going to be the location for the solutions, and rightly so, but they will be handed over to private bodies. At best, we will gain some tax revenue from them. That is the best we can hope for.

It is also important that it be a core policy priority of Government to guarantee access to affordable energy. We can only ensure this by making sure that energy is treated as an essential public good like drinking water and education. We need to live up to the just transition pledge that we signed up to at COP26. The time for talking is over; we need action now.

4:17 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution to this debate. I support the setting up of a just transition commission. How we deal with a just transition will be the measure of whether we are serious about climate change. I am fully with the Minister with regard to climate change. I have said this on the record repeatedly. However, our record in this area is, at the most benign, one of extreme tardiness. On 9 May 2019, we declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. That was not a proactive move on the part of the Government. In July of the following year, the Supreme Court quashed the 2017 mitigation plan because it fell short of the level of specificity required to provide that transparency and to comply with the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015. In his speech on the budget, the Minister for Finance told us that the world is burning. There has been report after report. The sixth report of the IPCC is absolutely damning. I will not go into the statistics within it.

Let us look at what we are talking about here. Some rural Deputies feel that their areas are being left out. I have the privilege of representing a city and a rural area and I know this division is absolutely detrimental to our solidarity and our approach to climate change. This was not helped by the recent announcement that the sale of turf is to be stopped when 23% of the homes in County Galway use turf-fired central heating. That type of idiocy, which leads to more and more division, is simply unacceptable.

We are penalising the people on the ground who have actually led us on sustainability. I have mentioned this about Galway so often that it now bores people. The people of Galway led on recycling 20 years ago but the power was taken away from them. Instead of building on such initiatives, we have listed decarbonisation zones throughout the country, which is brilliant. These are sitting in the Department or in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. There has been no movement at all on this or on a feasibility study for light rail in Galway. There has also been no movement with regard to park-and-ride facilities in Galway. This has been in the plan since 2005. I could go on and on. There have been absolutely no practical measures on the ground. There is an opportunity to make Galway a green and lean city as its population increases by 50% with a light rail system or at least a feasibility study in that regard.

There has been no attempt at all to look at what we are doing with the big corporations and the data centres. Perhaps the Minister could read his correspondence afterwards because I have only a few seconds of his attention. The biggest problem for me is the marketisation of everything. I will mention a recent article in The Irish Timesabout Scotland. A big player in the fashion industry has bought up 210,000 acres on 12 estates in Scotland with a view to trading his emissions from the fashion industry. If that is this Government's way forward, I will have no part of it.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I very much appreciate the contributions of the various Deputies. That characteristic of listening to each other and coming to a common understanding of what we should do next is going to be essential in the development of a statutory just transition commission. I hear the various concerns from across the country, which are many, varied and valid. We have to create a system that is flexible, fast and effective. I agree with Deputy Hourigan's point that the example of the Scottish and Welsh Governments, which have established statutory just transition commissions that have such characteristics, gives us a model and an approach we can take as we go forward.

I will also reflect on what Deputy Bruton said in his contribution. He put in place a system with regard to the establishment of the just transition commissioner, Kieran Mulvey, and work has been done in the midlands in the last three or four years in respect of both the dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of Bord na Móna, which is now expanding and has a very bright future as it moves from brown to green, as its own strategy describes it, and the support and development of a whole variety of new enterprise community development projects, which have been funded through our just transition fund. These will bear real fruit and are a good example of how we can make this transition work in a way that is just and which provides prosperity, security and well-being for our people. The work there must continue, particularly in light of the application of the EU Just Transition Fund and the work of Offaly County Council and the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly with our Department and the just transition commissioner to roll out further funding and achieve further progress in that regard. That is critical.

The Government absolutely recognises that this highly important midlands project is only the first of the projects that will be needed to ensure a just transition in the climate change leap we need to make. In the climate action plan Government launched last October, it committed to the establishment of a statutory office for the just transition commissioner. We are now setting out to deliver on that commitment and to provide for that office. It is envisaged that approval for the remit of the commission will be sought by the middle of this year, as was committed to in that climate action plan. Following that Government approval, my Department and I will develop the general scheme of the legislation that will put the commission on a statutory footing. Preparatory work has already started on that. I will outline one of the aspects that I think is important, which goes back to what I said at the start about consultation and the involvement of a whole range of actors in society in addition to parties and individual Deputies in this House.

By way of the climate action plan, the national development plan and the Housing for All strategy, we have plans in place that have real substance and the right strategic direction and scale of ambition. However, our focus now must be on delivery. To assist that delivery and make sure it is accelerated, particularly in the coming two to three years, the Government is setting up a number of acceleration task forces or leadership groups within different Departments. This will help to ensure we apply some of the same flexibility and urgency we saw in how we managed the Covid crisis and Brexit to how we meet the climate change challenge. The acceleration and leadership groups will work in the areas of offshore wind, sustainable mobility, the heating of residential buildings, how we communicate climate action and how we manage our land use review, which is critical to the future development of forestry, farming, biodiversity protection and the development of carbon storage in our country. It also is my intention to establish an acceleration team to help us with the roll-out of the just transition change we need to make and the development of the legislation on the remit and scope of the just transition commission office.

Officials in my Department and I had a very productive meeting last week with Kieran Mulvey. I am very glad that Mr. Mulvey has agreed to stay on for an additional year to help us in this process and inform the work we are doing. He has the experience of the midlands project and, indeed, experience from his career in mediation, industrial relations and trade union activities in this country. The acceleration teams will need a wider focus. I am looking forward to meeting with the various NGOs and trade unions with an interest in this area, as well as the secretariat of the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, which has done extensive work in looking at best-case international practice as to how just transition commissions can be established and how they can work. We will also be working with other Departments on this. The Department of the Taoiseach will have a key role as a co-ordinating Department that provides oversight and real leadership, which will help the acceleration teams. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, other Departments and outside agencies will also be involved.

Critically, the first meeting of the national climate dialogue forum took place two months ago in Dublin Castle. It is based on a partnership model, with input from representatives of business, trade unions, NGOs, community organisations and the National Youth Council of Ireland regarding the approach we are taking to tackling climate change. Most people involved recognised that it was a very successful and useful meeting. The closing session committed us to come back in the summer months and to provide real progress in terms of how the acceleration teams will work. As part of that, I expect to be able to bring to the national climate dialogue forum and to Government the general scheme of the legislation, which my Department is working on, setting out the mandate, purpose and structure of a statutory just transition commission office. I want to listen to people's views because that is what works well in this country. As a smaller country, we have the ability to listen to different voices, in this House and beyond. I am looking forward to that engagement. The ongoing meetings of the national climate dialogue forum will allow us to provide updates and checks in terms of what is happening and what the just transition commission office is doing.

It is vital that we follow this approach and that there is social justice in the changes we make. That requires clear participation, listening and evidence-based research. As the Minister of State outlined in his opening address, the principles that have been set out for achieving a just transition are valid, well tested and need to be delivered. If there is not a just transition approach, the change that is needed will not happen quickly enough and we will not have public support. It is vital that the leap we make is towards a better system. This is not about technology for its own sake. We will not make it if it is just about emissions targets, critical as it is that we meet all of them. It has to be about moving towards a better system, for example, in transport. As Deputy Bruton said, it is possible to reimagine how we use materials and how we create a circular economy. It is also about reimagining how we see the future of Irish farming. Most of the people I meet in that sector recognise that the future is not clear enough for young people. We do not have a new generation of people going into farming. We are seeing ever greater intensification, larger holdings and a real threat and risk to the Irish family farm. I do not think we want that. As Deputy O'Connor mentioned, part of a just transition must be to look at what the future might be for Irish farming.

When it comes to energy, we know that the only just transition will be a renewable and efficient one. Relying on fossil fuels is at the expense of the people of our country and will lead to a hugely expensive, fraught and at-risk future. The energy transition will be easier than other transitions because we have an alternative in our own natural resources. Deputy Pringle is correct that there will be private sector involvement in that, but it will be State-led. The design and roll-out of the entire system will have to be led by the State because this is a transition that will take place over 30, 40 or 50 years and it will happen at massive scale. Only the State can do that. It can only be done, and it will be done, for the good and benefit of the Irish people. It will require a series of governments to take us in this direction, rather than being a stop-start process. That is why we need dialogue. We must listen to each other and have a sharing of understanding as to why having a just transition as central to this whole process is vital. I again thank the Deputies for their contributions.