Seanad debates

Thursday, 24 January 2019

10:30 am

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

Hopefully, I will not keep the House too long. The first thing to do is to provide some context for my statement. I was fortunate enough to have the chance shortly after I was appointed to attend the UN conference in Katowice in Poland. No one who went there could be other than impressed by the urgency of the need to address the climate disruption agenda. David Attenborough summarised matters very aptly when he referred to the threat to our civilisation and to many of the features of the natural world which we have come to take for granted. Meeting Ministers from places like the Pacific Islands also brought matters home for me. They talk about climate refugees and people being displaced by the climate impacts on their countries. They ask how other states will treat people who have been dislodged by such events given that climate refugees are currently not recognised under international conventions. It also made an impression to hear someone like the director of the World Bank, a person one might not necessarily imagine to be a firebrand in standing up for climate action, say she was deeply concerned about the future for her grandchildren if the globe did not awaken to the challenges that are here.It was very impressive. In addition, there was a clear message that the window of opportunity to act on this is closing fast. The UN report underlines that the trajectory we are on, even if we fulfil many of the objectives that have been set, still puts us on a very dangerous path. There is a need not only to fulfil our commitments but also to increase them.

This country, by any standard, has been privileged to have had the opportunity for very considerable economic and social development. It will be hard for us to tell countries in Africa or other parts of the world which have not had an opportunity for development that they must not take the easy route of a carbon development path but the more challenging one of a carbon neutral development path if we are not taking our responsibility seriously. The challenge for us is absolutely vital. I have a mandate from the Taoiseach and the Cabinet to deliver a plan that gets us back on track to deliver our 2030 targets and looks to a future in which we are leaders, not followers. It is very important that we seize that challenge. It will require almost a conversion in the way we view things. Tradition, the way things have always been done and habit are big obstacles to achieving the type of conversion we must achieve in our lifestyles as individuals, enterprises, farms, communities and public servants. This is truly a conversion of the way we think about carbon and its impact on our lifestyle.

Many people are concerned about the impact this might have and the burdens it might impose on them. There is no way of pretending that it will not impose burdens of change on people but the other way to consider it is that if we fail, the burdens that will be visited on future generations will be enormous. There will not only be burdens visited on people in far off lands for whom we should be properly concerned but there is also the future for ourselves. People speak about agriculture and about being particularly nervous about the path they might have to travel. However, if one projects oneself forward to 2050, when we know that even the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is talking about carbon being valued at €265 per tonne, the type of farming that will be competitive and have bright prospects for its future and for giving people a good livelihood will be dramatically different in that world. If we do not start on a pathway to achieve the expectations of an agriculture that will be competitive in 2040 and 2050 we will have failed those who are entering farming today. The same could be true of any other industry or activity. I understand that people will agree to and like the fluffy bits such as recycling their plastics, but this is about much more than a small add-on to our existing lifestyle. It is a substantial switch in the way we travel, heat our homes and use resources. There must be a very significant change.

If this is to be achieved it will require great leadership. I am very much aware that we are talking at a time when faith in traditional sources of authority, be they political or otherwise, has waned. The authority of leaders generally is under pressure. Equally, social media can spread views that deny even the most obvious evidence and they will get traction and purchase with people. Creating a milieu where the type of conversion required can occur will be difficult in a more sceptical environment. That is the reason I am convinced that we in the public sector must lead by example. We cannot be preaching something and not walking the walk. It is important to demonstrate that the public service is changing, that things are being done differently and that we are acting in a different fashion. I was glad that one of the first things the Government did on 3 January last was to make the decision to ban the use of single-use plastics in Departments and to spread that to public bodies in the first quarter. We will require plans to be developed this year for resource usage, be it energy, waste or water, in all public bodies. We will put in place green procurement with clear principles enunciated by the Office of Government Procurement as to how the public service should prevent locking itself into high carbon ways of behaving. I am conscious that 15 or 18 of us sitting around a table in Merrion Street will not create the change. Every person, starting with the public service, must adopt the change.

The mandate I have is to produce a whole-of-Government plan that will take on the national mitigation plan. That plan, admittedly, was not a detailed roadmap but a set of signposts for the direction of travel. We must now create a detailed roadmap. Furthermore, we must have the policy tools that will deliver progress on that road and verifiably show that we are reducing in the respective sectors. We must have a target for the direction of travel for the sector, monitor it, verifiably examine the impact of policies we are adopting on that direction of travel and take corrective action if we are not achieving it. This requires structural change, and that will be difficult. It is a big structural change. In the residential area, for example, to achieve the type of retrofitting that is necessary, bearing in mind that half our houses are at the low levels of building energy rating, will probably require €40 billion to €50 billion of investment in our housing stock over the coming years. It is way beyond the capacity of the Government to fund that so this is about people deciding themselves that they want a low carbon approach and to be energy efficient and that they are willing to make the changes and investments. Obviously, we can help in terms of information and, in some cases, with subsidies or smart finance measures, but it is still a road that we will have to bring people along and that will require them making big changes in their lives and prioritising this over other things. The same is true for each of the different sectors, ranging from enterprise to transport. Significant changes will have to be made in people's lives.

We are not starting from a great position. That is acknowledged. Looking back over the last number of years, it is clear that in the early years of the target period, which started in 2013, we appeared to be doing well. We were below our 2005 emissions but the reason for that was the scale of the economic crash. Some 20% of private sector employment had been wiped out. As recovery has taken hold, it has become very clear that we have not broken the link between carbon and economic prosperity.We see in all the critical areas of recovery - agriculture, transport, industry - significant growth in the volume of carbon emissions. We must find the restructuring proposals that can arrest this growth.

The challenge, therefore, is substantial, and I acknowledge that much work has been done to start this movement. We are at a time, if we show leadership in this area, where many things could help us, in particular, the national development plan, NDP, with its investment of €116 billion. It sets a new vision of what development should be like in this country. It contains not only conscious decarbonisation investments such as in smart transport and the energy sector itself, which accounts for approximately €30 billion of the investment, but also the concept of smart cities. Furthermore, for the first time ever we are setting up a Land Development Agency run by the State to assemble the land to drive the master plan in order that we do not just have development as we have always had it: developer-led and sprawling farther and farther outside of our towns. The vision that has been set out in the NDP is very different. Equally, the transition statement we are discussing will show that even with that investment, we will only get a third of the way towards our targets. We, therefore, need to do much more thinking about the kind of policy-shifting that needs to occur for us to achieve the rest.

This is where the hard work starts, and this is the work I am undertaking, going through each sector one by one to see what is possible. We have created a framework for the dialogue we are having with other Ministers, Departments and agencies in order that it has a context. The regulatory area, for example, is one area where there is potential. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, for example, has brought in the regulations for near-zero-energy buildings; any adaption over 25% of the structure must equally go for a high energy rating; from 2020, employers with more than 20 car-parking spaces will have to have an electric vehicle, EV, charging network; and so on. There is scope in the regulatory environment going across the sectors. Equally, there is what is called in economics language "market failure", which simply refers to the fact that by generating carbon we create a lot of damage that we do not pay for. The issue of carbon pricing or pricing tools, trying to address the market failure, offers potential. The Oireachtas committee and the Government are working on this, looking at how it can be structured and so on. One can go through the sectors. Many known technologies can be adopted; the question is how we adopt them. There is much potential for renewable energy, and we are not doing badly in this regard. A total of 30% of our electricity is renewable but we need to double that. It is a question of how we achieve that and the pathway involved.

The work now is, therefore, to divine the pathway in each of the key sectors that can deliver to the maximum potential within that sector, while also bearing in mind that we want to take a pathway that minimises the burden on people and maximises opportunity. We must design the interventions carefully. There is no point in having a solely ideological designed intervention, for example, the keep-it-in-the-ground idea. Before the Corrib gas field ever came on stream, we were 95% dependent on imported gas and oil, and gas will remain a part of our transition right up to 2050 and beyond. Denying ourselves the opportunity to ensure security of supply and to have some of these needs that we anticipate over the next 50 years generated from within the country and instead relying on sources in Russia or the Middle East is not consistent with trying to manage people in their daily lives. Whether we like it, 91% of our transport infrastructure is dependent on fossil fuels and 71% of our residences depend on fossil fuels. We must divine a transition that is as effective as possible in getting to that destination and not assume that one solution that sounds good on paper will deliver the results. We must think through the initiatives and ensure they are consistent with helping people to buy into this process and change their lifestyles and to do so in a way that minimises the burden on them but also creates the opportunities in the economic sectors we want to develop. The truth is that if one becomes a leader rather than a follower in this sphere, one creates new sectors of activity that are healthier, better for the environment, more sensitive in resource use, more sustainable in the long term and more competitive in the international environment. There is, then, a lot of positive opportunity in this as well as the fear that people naturally have of the sorts of lifestyle changes that this will demand.

I very much welcome the work of the all-party Oireachtas committee and the Citizens' Assembly before it. I recognise that we in the Oireachtas must step up and find roadways and pathways to policy tools to underpin our ambition. It is not about setting ambitions. We had an ambition to reduce our carbon footprint by 20% by 2020, but where are we on that? We will be 95% off target. Therefore, in stating an ambition or setting out something in the Oireachtas, unless we build the underpinning - the policy tools, the social engagement, the support of communities and the pathways to deliver - we will not achieve those targets. This is a complex issue. Many people talk nowadays about behavioural economics, and that is a very true term because if we cannot get communities and clusters in the different sectors to say they are up for this, to see the opportunity and to say they are going to make it happen, we will fail. This is a challenging area, but the rewards for getting it right are significant in terms of our responsibilities globally, nationally and to the next generation.


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