Seanad debates

Thursday, 24 January 2019

10:30 am

Photo of Alice Mary HigginsAlice Mary Higgins (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for returning to the House. We have been talking about generations, and the Minister mentioned future generations. This generation, the children living now, is seeing the impacts of climate change. In many parts of the world, lives and livelihoods are at risk or are being devastated by it. This generation is on the streets protesting. I have never seen so many children at protests as at the protests concerning climate change and extinction. I see the passion young people are bringing to it. That is because the public is far ahead of the Government on this issue and in their understanding of it. We saw that in the Citizens' Assembly.

I support the idea of a permanent committee on climate action. It is important to remember that the mandate of the current Joint Committee on Climate Action was furnished by the Citizens' Assembly to examine how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change, as well making as a number of key recommendations. We are currently far from implementing those recommendations and far away from a leadership role. Some nine years ago the target that Ireland was given was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020. Ireland has consistently lagged behind in reaching those goals, and is now on target to have reduced its emissions by just 1% by 2020. The fines we may face from Europe are estimated at up to €600 million a year. I know the Government a has different view and there are different opinions on what those fines may be. A Minister has estimated them to be approximately €30 million. These are significant costs, and the cost is far greater than those short-term financial fines.

This year is crucially important. It is deeply disappointing that the conversation is still focused on having clear actions in place by the end of this year . The ambition for 2019 needs to be greater. It was deeply disappointing when Ministers came to the House to speak to us before Christmas. I welcome the Minister's return, but I expect, as I am sure others do, that all of those Ministers will return for a proper debate in respect each of their portfolios. We did not hear about plans for reduction. In light of the fines we will pay next year, it would surely be better to front-load investment this year, before our first year of reckoning in 2020, to ensure that those fines are reduced. That money could be invested in concrete action.

I noticed a pattern among the Ministers who came in. Many of them focused heavily on adaptation rather than mitigation. Regardless of mitigation, the reduction in emissions must be the priority. I am deeply concerned that in some areas the idea seemed to be to plough ahead with business as usual until we find a way to make certain other kinds of business profitable, and to put a few measures in place to deal with bad weather if it comes. When we talk about transition, we must be clear. Are we going to talk about a transition that will protect Ireland in a devastated world, or are we talking about a radical transition in how our society and economy function? If we do not have that kind of radical transition, we will visit devastation on other countries, as well as on the most vulnerable in our own societies. That is why a reduction of 1% by the end of 2019 is inadequate. I urge the Minister to give us an assurance that radical front-loaded action on mitigation will be taken to increase the emissions reduction by the end of this year.

I acknowledge that the Minister is one of the first within the Government to begin the discussion about the concept of the circular economy and different models of development. I commend him on that. I believe that people are beginning to understand that this is not simply about tweaking but about radically different ways of doing development. Socially and environmentally sustainable ways are needed. We also need to realise that there will be losses. Businesses and industries may not continue into the next era and may need to change.

I welcome the Government's signing of the Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP24, in December. That was important, and I hope the Government will also support the just transition legislation put forward by the Green Party.

There have been other positive moments. This is where we have seen a few glimmers of positivity, though they can be increased. We need to embrace legislation wherever it is coming from because this is an issue which affects us all and requires every resource that we can bring collectively as legislators. There are some very good Bills sponsored by various parties, including the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill 2018 and others. They need to be considered and supported whatever their source. It was a positive moment for everyone in Ireland and throughout the Oireachtas when we passed the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act 2018 with Government support. I hope it gave the Government some insight to see how warmly and positively that bold and important step was greeted by the public and internationally.

However, there is also hypocrisy. The Minister referred to the transition and said that things do not happen instantaneously. We cannot take negative steps towards the future at the same time. I refer to the issuance of new drilling or exploration licences and new measures for importing liquified natural gas, LNG, repositories in Shannon, handling gas from other parts of the world which may have been fracked. These are new and negative hostages to fortune. This is not simply about not making the change fast enough; it is about taking steps in the wrong direction. Senator Devine spoken eloquently about green energy and the need for that to be at the centre of what is done. I very much support her concerns on blood coal. We need to examine that on a number of ethical grounds. We should be able to meet our 70% target by 2030 and that investment should be front-loaded.

Globally, the Minister might tell us how Ireland is supporting both adaptation and mitigation in the countries experiencing the worst effects despite having done the least to contribute. What is Ireland's position in the global negotiations on proper support in that area? An area where the European Union, unfortunately, seems to be a laggard is technology transfer. Technology transfer points to one key issue. The solutions we come up with cannot all be located within the market and the area of intellectual property. They cannot be hamstrung by the sensibilities of shareholders and so forth, which is a concern.

I refer to the key issue that I would like the Minister to address. He mentioned market failure but it has many forms. Addressing climate change is primarily a political and social responsibility and accountability must be arranged accordingly. In that regard, I have some questions about green bonds. There has been a lack of information on this issue. Ireland issued €3 billion in green bonds to investors from around the world in the final quarter of 2018. This needs to be discussed. As I understand it, a coupon of 1.35% was attached to them. The Minister may clarify this, but if I am not mistaken, this will generate a return of up to 16% for those investors over the next 12 years. We need a few key pieces of information on that. Where will the €3 billion be invested? Will it be in private or public projects?So far, I have found reference to eligible green projects. What are such projects? Where are the criteria involved? What is the process for deciding how the €3 billion will be invested? I know that it maps onto the national development plan but, again, will the individual projects be required to be profitable or will it be a matter that this gives us money to invest in initiatives that are effective and that the money is returned from general State coffers?

The 12-year period relating to bonds somewhat ironically matches the 12 years remaining to avoid catastrophic climate change. Can we rest assured that the meeting of our emission reduction targets will take top priority? if, for example, there are actions which can be taken and which would more effectively reduce emissions but do not generate profit, will they be prioritised over less effective actions that would give rise to profits? This is extremely important. How does it map onto the fines we are paying? Is it a case that the public will pay the fines but that potential financial benefits will go to investors?

The Minister referred to recovery and recession. Again, will we remain resolute in our commitment to meeting these targets regardless of recovery or recession?

We know that public investment can be the best way to drive innovation. Texts such as The Entrepreneurial Stateshow that public investment in respect of which there is public accountability can be more responsive to innovation, to changes in technology and to changes in understanding and political requirements. We must ensure that we do not tie ourselves into building toll roads again and that we invest in public transport and keep rail and bus networks in public ownership. BusConnects is a positive step and we need bus and rail transport provision to increase. Will that be in the context of public delivery so that we might continue to respond to changing and evolving standards? Will investment in high-quality cycling infrastructure, which provides a direct return of 3:1 or higher on investment, be made? It is not a zero-sum game. If we invest in cycling, greenways, etc., we will not only reap benefits in terms of health, cost and social benefits but also in terms of the environment.

I am coming to my final point.

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