I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Government's climate change action Bill. It is an important element of the programme for Government, as well as having been a crucial element of the Government formation talks.
The Bill sets out how the whole of government can, must and will confront climate change, reduce emissions, as well as providing and ensuring real actions and commitments to match Ireland's obligations under the Paris accord. The Bill provides a focused procedure and set of processes which are new to the Government seeking to address climate change. In recent years and decades, we flittered around it and flattered to deceive.
There has been some progress but not nearly enough to match previous commitments and previous signatures to previous accords. One thinks of the social change we have witnessed in this country in the last ten years and how it was slow to materialise. When the various Oireachtas committees, motions and debates were taking place, when there was consideration of the Citizens' Assembly recommendations and when the issue was then put before special Oireachtas hearings and further scrutiny took place, all the while the people of the younger generation were demanding to participate, to force an opportunity for them to dominate that debate. Ultimately, it was them who convinced many in the rest of the population to pass both referendums. Many of us, all of us in fact, revelled in their participation. We welcomed and admired them and thanked them for such participation. We hoped they would involve themselves in future debates and decisions for the country, be they social or indeed economic. It is that generation, and indeed the younger one, which dominates this subject matter and demands action.
The last election was dominated by a number of issues, predominantly housing, health, balanced regional development and climate change. The electorate naturally expects the Government subsequently elected by the Dáil to address and place emphasis on these issues. We provided for the largest ever monetary provision in relation to our efforts to address the social and affordable housing situation. We also have an opportunity, like never before, to finally invest in the sort of funding that is necessary in both acute and community health services, by building on the goodwill, the endeavour and the lifesaving actions of all those who have worked so diligently and with such effort and commitment in the health services during the course of the pandemic. We have also heard in recent weeks how the Government will seek to augment and support remote working to provide e-hubs in many towns and villages across the country which otherwise need and deserve such action and for such an opportunity to be presented. It is obviously one of the good things that has come out of the pandemic.
Now, at this stage, we can build and act on the climate change credentials of this Government with this Bill. It was not just members of the Green Party who spoke of, participated in or commented on their or their party's aspirations on the country's commitments in the Paris Agreement. Last week I noted even Deputy Michael Healy-Rae said he was not a climate denier. However, what many of these people have successfully denied to date is their failure to inform the rest of the electorate and the rest of the House, what specific measures they would make, initiate or participate in, in order to meet our commitments. Would they deny the Paris Agreement? Would they by association deny this country the type of international investment that is there for the taking in relation to measures, methods and initiatives in the provision of alternative energies, for example? In the absence of those specifics, many of them shout loudest, shriek loudest, for extra funding for flood relief schemes to deal with the very issues caused by the very issues we seek to address tonight. They shout and shriek loudest for increased funding towards the rural environmental protections scheme, REPS, in agriculture. Again, that too has become too much of an income support rather than the initiative it was intended to be in the first instance and we hope the new scheme and the opportunities presented by the CAP will afford this Government an opportunity to make real inroads there and offer real opportunities for increased income for farm families. We also hear many shriek and shout loudly for exceptional payments over and above what is there presently with house adaptation grants, for example. Again, this is due to the pressures caused by global warming and climate change.
The Bill places obligations and responsibilities and an onus on each Government Department to specifically commit to and account for and contribute to the whole-of-government targets on reducing emissions. They will be part of carbon budgets with projected actions on a five-year basis and will of course be responsible and accountable to the Dáil. This too will complement and assure our credibility when we are seeking investment into our economy from international sources. Such funding, from pension funds and the like, is now exclusively dependent on sustainable practices and government pathways towards necessary emission reductions. Such ethics are now a reality. Our economy, let alone our environment, cannot ignore that reality. However, that is not to say the road ahead is an easy one. It is not to say change will be seamless. It not to say the entire population, or sectors within it, get it or are on the same page. To make this process easier, achievable, workable and to garner the results craved economically and socially, the Government must show leadership, offer hope, bring people together, offer assistance, help, entice, assure and reward the sort of change that is necessary. We must seek to engender an attitude, a feeling, a belief that we can come out of climate change actions far better off than we went into them.
Many have spoken here, and speak regularly, about the challenges faced by farmers and facing agriculture. However, few acknowledge the advancements, progress and leadership provided to date by that sector. The agricultural industry, the food and drink industry, remains one of our greatest assets and exports. It retains its status as a world leader because of its ability to adapt and to change, to embrace diversity, adapt to consumer sentiments, explore new markets and deliver a quality product. The lazy argument that the industry must simply reduce the national herd to play its role is exactly that: lazy and absurd. The growing world population and growing world markets mean our produce must keep pace. It can do so as other industries can, namely, by adapting and aligning production systems to environmental ambition and by recognising, embracing and employing new sciences and innovation to meet that demand.
When I talk of the Government offering hope, assistance, help, initiatives, incentives and rewards, I consider or would have considered the example that should have been shown with energy transition in County Offaly and the midlands. The accelerated decarbonisation process including cessation of peat extraction meant the Government was under severe pressure to provide and cater for a just transition in the past two years. I envisaged funding addressing the effects of cessation and change with improved educational retraining opportunities and the potential to be derived from alternative energy options, proposals and solutions. I would have expected us to champion innovation among other projects within the counties impacted on. Such a positive experience for us in my county and region could and should be an example to other regions and sectors.
Unfortunately, I am extremely sorry to say this has not been our experience to date. It is therefore essential that parallel to this Bill's journey through the Oireachtas, this Government convene or reconvene Department officials who have responsibility in this area and the just transition commissioner, Mr. Kieran Mulvey, whose reports issued following extensive consultation with relevant stakeholders. His reports are representative of the ambition that exists in our country among its communities and among public representatives, such as myself, too.
I committed to, and sold, just transition to my electorate. It is therefore my duty at this stage to call out the lack of progress and to insist on it being rectified as soon as possible. It was with this mindset that I wrote to the Taoiseach last week on the commencement of this debate. I take this opportunity to read it into the Official Report. It is dated, as I said, Wednesday, 21 April.
With the Climate Change Bill now published I think it an opportune time to voice my disappointment, frustration and no little anger at the ridiculously slow, poorly administered and apparent inept governance/leadership/delivery of just transition to date.
I was at the forefront of our Party's commitment to establish and ensure that revenue raised from carbon taxes would fund just transition in areas/counties/regions most impacted by decarbonisation. Indeed, I championed the increase [in carbon tax] when a Fianna Fáil negotiator agreeing the budget in October 2018. We also insisted on fuel poverty provisions being included [in that package to give it the sort of credibility the project deserved].
The slow snail's pace & lack of progress to date is a far cry from where I'd expected to be today. That's further compounded [for me personally] considering Fianna Fáil being the lead party in government since June last year. It would appear not having a cabinet member for example from Offaly, Longford, Laois, Kildare, Westmeath, Roscommon or [even] East Galway is very evident and telling when it comes to just transition.
In recent weeks I posed a series of written PQ's to Minister Ryan on just transition matters. Unfortunately, the responses (rather than answers) confirmed my fears/concerns [which are included in this letter I refer to]. Those responses included confirmation that:
1) not one job [I am afraid] has yet been created by just transition funding.
2) only €166,000 has been drawn down to date
3) the rules/terms associated with the proposed funding previously announced/lauded [by me too, I might add] do little to ensure such funds will materialise [at all].
4) the county most impacted by [Bord na Móna and] ESB job losses & economic damage (Offaly) is not prioritised or benefitting as proportionately as it should. There also appears to be a suggestion that the midland region be extended even further for the purpose of the EU [just transition fund], further diluting the impact on communities most affected.
5) the midlands regional transition team is merely a sounding board with no real powers (despite recommendations to the contrary by Kieran Mulvey, Just Commissioner and I [and others]). It would appear too that the Dept is actually depriving BNM / ESB staff of upskilling opportunities that match the jobs the [just transition fund] may create, as they won't share any of the details of these employment opportunities [that they have sought to enter into].
6) there's no decision on potential community gain arising from either a) [the Department's] consideration [or] investigation [into the] future use of now [defunct] power plants at Lanesboro & Shannonbridge. [There has been no response to my recommendation, where I asked that the local authorities would act as administrators in seeking an open tender competition to determine the future use of those plants that might yield a community, social and economic gain.] Concurrently ESB are seeking a refund from the energy regulator of the €5m it supposedly "gifted" to just transition upon the announcement of the closures. It is also seeking further millions from the same source to cover costs of its exit!!
Of course, notwithstanding the above there's the ongoing failure of still not having put in place a greatly expanded program of home heating retrofit options thus neglecting the very people impacted greatest by the suddenness of decarbonisation.
Meanwhile in the midst of this lack of progress we see the ongoing and indeed growing "importation" of peat products for horticulture and home heating fuels. That indeed is making a laugh and mockery of just transition process altogether!
I had sought a meeting to discuss just transition some months ago and still await a date for same.
In the meantime, [Taoiseach,] you can see from this short appraisal the obvious social, economic and political ramifications of such poor progress on these matters to date.
That was the end of the letter.
I wish this Bill every success. I wish the process of its passage success and I expect that the interaction and engagement by Members of both Houses will improve the Bill and give it the type of ownership that is required to ensure its then leadership can deliver on its intent. I especially hope that Members will recognise that the update I have given the House on just transition reflects the view emanating from the relevant stakeholders, including ESB and Bord na Móna workers of today and the past; pensioners and their families and communities; the county; and the region. It is also the view of other representatives, of all parties and none, whether they are councillors in the locality or my colleague, Deputy Nolan.
When we are elected to this Dáil, irrespective of one's background, party or affiliation, one's duty is to those who gave one the privilege to be here. This was the major issue in our constituency and we will work together, as it is expected of our electorate, to ensure that this Government responds properly and effectively and based on the commitments it made two years ago. It has an opportunity to recommit to them in the context of this Bill and debate and it has the opportunity to rectify the measures which have not been successful to date and which have been unworkable to date. That is why I said earlier and why I ask again that the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications bring back to the Department the aspiration, wish and demand we are making, namely, for the relevant stakeholders in the Department, the just transition commissioner and the public representatives, who have a duty to respond to the needs and aspirations of those we are given the privilege to represent. We want to be there to ensure the changes that are necessary are made as quickly as is possible.
As I said earlier, there is every potential for that example to be a great one to others and for us to come out of this process and these necessary actions far better than we went into them. I also said that the prospect of international investment, financiers and pension funds investing in this country is dependent on our commitment to what is contained within this Bill and on various sectors living up to expectations in a real and meaningful manner. They should not be browbeaten into it or forced to do this, that or the other. There should be a commitment on the part of everybody who is here to recognise that and to work together to ensure the Bill is real, meaningful and can deliver to all the sectors that fear the impact they may feel because of it.