I wish to share my time with Deputy Paul Murphy. He is not present yet, but if he does not arrive, I will keep talking.
Planning and Development (Climate Emergency Measures) (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Three years ago I introduced the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill to amend the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development Act, that sought to ban oil and gas exploration in the State. We did so because of the simple fact that the science of climate change was screaming at us that the globe could not support more exploration and we were exceeding thresholds and hopes of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°C, and that the vast reserves of our proven oil, coal and gas had to remain in the ground.
At that time there was loud wailing from vested interests, business interests and attempts to mislead and distract from the core facts by the Government of the day. False arguments were raised to counter the proposals. Today, thankfully, that debate is settled for now and we have a State that has banned new exploration licences for oil and gas. Today, I am introducing another climate emergency measure Bill, this time to amend the Planning and Development Act to address the worsening crisis. I have no doubt that it will be treated with many of the same and similar bogus arguments against its aims, but I hope that just as the growing climate movement forced the then Government to act, and three years later it moved to ban the exploration of oil and gas, the same movement will assert itself in the coming weeks and months and force these issues to be addressed. I hope that the movement of Fridays for Future Ireland school strikers, Extinction Rebellion and the plethora of environmental and climate movements out there will remind the Green Party that lofty rhetoric and optimism are no substitute for policy that works and measures that will impact.
The Bill does three things to address some of the most pressing issues we face in dealing with climate, with our commitments to reduce our CO2 obligations under the Paris Agreement and our commitment to the planet and the environment. It will ban any further data centre applications in the State. It will also ban outright liquified natural gas, LNG, terminals and it will stop any new fossil fuel infrastructure.
I have listened all week to waffle and nonsense, to blind optimism, to arguments that we need data centres so desperately, to foolish attempts to say that if I email or tweet then I am being a hypocrite for pointing out the obvious. We cannot have 110 plus data centres in this State and have any hope of reaching our climate goals. We cannot build and operate 110 data centres in the next few years and have any hope of providing the energy needed to make a just transition for all our people and communities. We can have data centres coming out of our ears in every town and village or we can cut emissions to the level that we must reach to limit global warming, but we cannot do both.
I have heard no one from the Government benches criticise MaREI, whose research says that it was wrong or say the IPCC report was mistaken; that the CRU and EirGrid warnings were misplaced or that the evidence from experts that we heard in the committee about data centres is false. However, the fantasy continues. We have 70 operating data centres with eight more being built and 30 with planning approval, and the State sits back and allows more to be built. It is either data centres or climate action and the Green Party in particular must choose.
This Bill will ban any application for an LNG terminal. We seek to do this bluntly to stop New Fortress Energy building the Shannon LNG terminal. This would also apply from the start for others in the north east and in Cork. We do so for the same reason that we moved to ban oil and gas exploration. We must leave it in the ground. We must avoid being locked into fossil fuel use for another 50 years. We must counter the false and self-serving argument that gas is a transitional fuel. It is not. Once again, we can have LNG terminals or we can have action on climate, but we cannot have both. Again, the Green Party must choose. Telling An Bord Pleanála what the Government’s aspirations are will not be enough to prevent the building of LNG terminals and importing gas, but clear and unambiguous legislation will.
The Bill will also stop any new fossil fuel infrastructure and it will do so while there remains a climate emergency. While we correctly moved to ban issuing new licences, we have left vast tracts of the oceans still open to existing licences for exploration and we have the same captains of industry talking up the possibility of reserves that could be used for gas and oil in the near future. Again, the science is simple: we must leave it in the ground. All of these measures are dictated by the simple facts around each issue, both the maths involved in emissions and the effects they have on our climate.
That they remain for the parties opposite so controversial has nothing whatsoever to do with the facts or with the absolute necessity to take these measures. The concerns and arguments marshalled are based not on science but on economic interests and on the impossibility of trying to reconcile the profit needs and business interests of corporations and of the elite with the necessary climate action. We can have business as usual or we can have real climate action, but we cannot have both.
We have seen this summer the weather extremes and the impact they have had across the globe, and we have heard yet more dire and incessant warnings from the science community and the latest IPCC report, yet there remains a massive disconnect between what science is saying and what this State's policy is. We hear warnings, we hear the science, and the response seems to be to nod sagely, thank the scientists, thank the young people for raising the alarm, and then say mañana, tomorrow, maybe 2030, maybe 2050, at some future date, when someone somewhere has invented something to take carbon out of the atmosphere, or some future date when others, perhaps China or another country, reduces its emissions, and then we will be on course.
The question is this: do we act now and, if we do not, when will we act? When will we exceed a 1.5°C, 2°C or 2.5°C temperature rise? How do we explain the continued defence of data centre building with any attempt to reach our Paris targets and reduce our CO2 emissions? How is it possible to understand the continued refusal to stop, ban and legislate for such bans for LNG terminals? Why are our national newspapers and leading politicians continuing to regurgitate the insane and false notion that gas is a transitional green fuel that can play a role in the future, as envisaged by spokespersons and spin merchants of the fossil fuel industry? These arguments are not based on science or fact; they are driven by economic reasons.
The same people who were vociferous in pushing carbon taxes on ordinary citizens are the most enthusiastic about building data centres and retaining the low corporate tax regime rate in this country. They pretend their concern is jobs in construction. I find this particularly galling given we need every construction worker we have to build the homes we need to end the housing crisis or, indeed, to start the retrofit programme we need so badly to reach those emissions targets. Not only is it a false argument, it is practically criminal to say we should proceed with 30 or more building programmes for data centres at a time when we have such a housing crisis and a never-ending problem with energy. This has to be dealt with, and dealt with urgently.
I have no doubt the Green Party are not going to vote for this Bill but I want to send a signal to the climate movement to watch this space and to please keep the pressure on them, because what is the point of a Green Party in government that does not act on strict climate measures?
Over recent weeks, there has been much conjecture about possible blackouts because of energy shortages. Ministers and the Taoiseach have said there may not be a guaranteed supply of electricity in the future. If it was not so serious, this would be very funny, but it is extremely serious. One of the reasons there is going to be a huge demand for electricity is data centres now and into the medium term. Most people will ask what purpose data centres serve because they use so much of the energy and resources we need at the moment. That is the big question most will ask. Data centres represent the hyper-corporate consumerism of "you are the product". That is what social media, Google, Facebook and TikTok are all about - you are the product, at the end of the day.
Clondalkin has now become "Ireland's data centre cluster", and TikTok will build one of the biggest data centres in Europe in Clondalkin. That will consume more energy and electricity in one day than the whole of Clondalkin does in three months. It is an incredible amount of energy that it will consume. However, we must ask the question of how many jobs it will create. Very few.
I say to the Minister and the Green Party that if they were standing here on this side of the House, they would support this Bill. The Bill is a very reasonable demand and a reasonable Bill in its essence. The Green Party has a lot to answer for. It has entered government and has compromised its environmental credentials on this policy on the basis of being in government. If its Members were in opposition, there is no doubt they would fully support this Bill. It says more about the Green Party that it is not supporting this Bill than about us, given this could have a huge impact on elderly people. I say to the Green Party Members that it is not too late. They could break ranks and support this Bill.
"[This] report is a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk." These are the words of United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, at the launch of the IPCC report earlier this year.
Global carbon emissions fell 7% in 2020, the deepest cut since 1945. It was not hard to achieve that when the majority of planes were out of the sky for months on end and billions of cars were off the road. The real trend is shown by a different statistic. In December 2020, as compared with December 2019, to take the two one-month periods, global carbon emissions were up 2%. Instead of building back better, what is happening is the capitalist economies are restarting on the basis of big increases once again in carbon emissions. In fact, it is estimated that 2023 will be the highest year on record ever for carbon emissions.
The target from Paris is to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2030. Under the guidance of the big corporations and the governments they control, is the world heading for a 50% cut? No, it is not heading for a cut at all. In fact, on current projections, if it was to keep on the same track, it is heading for an increase of 16%.
We have had a debate on data centres in the past couple of days. Some 2% of electricity globally is eaten up by data centres, and in this State it is 11% and heading for 30%. The only point I will make about it, as we had the debate, is that the vote last night was very illustrative. It was an 82 to 61 vote, where all 12 Green Party Deputies trooped in to vote with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to shoot down a proposal for a moratorium on data centres. Had they voted the other way, as I suspect everybody in the climate movement in this country would have wanted them to do, it would have been a 73 to 68 vote in favour of a moratorium. It is scandalous from the Green Party.
This Bill would ban new fossil fuel infrastructure. Part of the equation is the LNG project in Shannon and the LNG project at the plant in Inch, County Cork, for a floating storage regasification unit, which does not get much coverage and needs to be put out there. Both of these are being sponsored by big corporations. In Shannon, it is New Fortress Energy. There are legal cases there at the moment, but they are quite determined. They want to bring in fracked gas from Pennsylvania. Fracking releases large quantities of methane into the atmosphere. Experts from Cornell University in the United States reckon the amount of global warming per unit of fracked gas is 20% higher than is the case for coal. One of the activists in the local Safety Before LNG group, John McElligott, is on record as saying, "It seems that the door is constantly being kept open for Shannon LNG in spite of clear government policy to the contrary." This is unacceptable.
In Cork, the company that is trying to pioneer LNG is perhaps aptly named Predator Oil and Gas Holdings plc. It has met the Department and the regulator. It is looking for a non-fracked operation, but fossil fuel all the same. It reckons it can put it together within 18 months, with first deliveries in late 2023. That is its target, using the infrastructure of the Kinsale gas field.
The purpose of this Bill is stop projects like that and knock them on the head. If we do not win support in the House tonight for that, I make no apologies for saying it is my earnest wish and desire that a mass, popular, democratic campaign will stop those projects by means of people power and direct action.
Is the Minister of State sharing time with Deputy Leddin?
Yes. It is important to reiterate that the Government recognises that the use of energy and its security of supply are key issues facing the economy in the coming decades. However, the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, is not the appropriate mechanism to achieve the goals as set out in this Private Members' Bill. Therefore, the Government opposes the Bill.
As Deputies will be aware, the planning process is at its core neutral. It includes public participation and does not predetermine the outcomes of any planning applications, either positively or negatively. It is only once an application is made in accordance with the planning Act that Government policy, including those policies that have regard to fossil fuels and data centres, is considered as part of the decision-making process. To amend the planning Act in the manner proposed would be to undermine the neutrality of the system by deciding the outcome of the planning application prior to the completion of the process. In this regard, the Private Members' Bill is specifically targeted at restricting the development of certain fossil fuels infrastructure developments and data centres as well as removing nearly all forms of energy infrastructure from the strategic infrastructure development list, the result of which would be to remove the existing planning process from these types of development requiring the submission of such planning applications, which are of strategic national, regional and economic importance, to An Bord Pleanála for determination.
A key principle of the planning system is that when making a decision in relation to an application the planning authority shall be restricted to considering the proper planning and sustainable development of the area in which the proposed development is located. As part of this, consideration of Government policy is achieved during the decision-making process where planning authorities and the board must have regard to the policies of the Government, such as the climate action plan, the national planning framework and environmental considerations, when making determinations on the planning applications.
The Government is actively working on policy in the areas of fossil fuels and data centres, as specifically mentioned in this Private Members' Bill. As the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, stated during the week, a review of energy supply is under way and, once completed, the outcome of this review will inform future Government policy in the energy sector to be taken into account in the assessment of planning applications in this area.
With regard to data centres, proposals for such development, like other forms of industrial development, are required to go through a full assessment of their environmental impact as part of the planning process. In addition, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities has statutory responsibility to monitor and take measures necessary to ensure the security of supply in Ireland. The CRU is assisted in undertaking its statutory role by EirGrid.
It is important to note that the role of the CRU is already recognised in planning through the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, as amended, as part of the planning process for high-energy usage developments. The CRU must be consulted and contribute to an application which relates to development of energy infrastructure. Any submission lodged by the CRU to a planning authority or An Bord Pleanála on a planning application is taken into account in the determination of that planning application. In addition, developers are also required to apply for an electricity grid connection so that EirGrid can assess the electricity demand load they may add to the electricity grid and any associated implications. This process is thoroughly robust and independent.
I am satisfied that the existing arrangements in the planning Act for the specific forms of energy infrastructure and data centres, as referenced in the Private Members' Bill, are reasonable and appropriate. Accordingly, the Government opposes the use of the Planning and Development Act and the planning system in the manner proposed as this is not an appropriate mechanism to achieve the objectives of the Bill.
This week, Bord na Móna announced an innovative new project near Rochfortbridge in County Westmeath, namely, a renewable energy park consisting of 200 MW of electricity that will be generated from renewable sources such as wind, solar, energy storage and green hydrogen production. Bord na Móna wants to attract high-demand energy users, such as data centres and distribution centres, to locate on this site to benefit from the on-site renewable energy supply. The effect of this Bill would be to torpedo this development and the jobs that would be created in the construction of this significant project in the midlands by a State-owned company.
The proposed moratorium on data centres is a blunt instrument and betrays an ignorance of power systems. This Bill is a vacuous distraction from the immense decarbonisation task we have ahead of us. It is an example of politicians stepping from policymaking into operations and micro-managing something they know very little about. It is cynicism, populism and playing to the gallery at its worst.
This week, in the media and in this House and its committees, we heard that 70% of Ireland’s energy could be consumed by data centres in 2030, except the number is wrong. It is misleading and makes an incredible assumption. It assumes that if every data centre gets the green light and is built, they would all run all of the time and at full demand, irrespective of the power load. This is nonsense. EirGrid’s worst-case scenario analysis shows that it could be around 30% if all applications are approved but there is no prospect of that. In some cases and in some locations, it does not make sense to build data centres. In other cases and locations, it does make sense. Large energy users, such as data centres, can be located in places where they help with grid stability and can ultimately help with the ramping up of renewable generation.
The truth is we need data centres. They are vital for our modern economy. However, we do not need them in the east, where there is an excess of electricity demand over supply. We need them in places such as Limerick, Clare, Waterford, Galway and Cork where there is significant potential for offshore wind. I have been working with Shannon Foynes Port Company, another State-owned company, to help it make the case for investment in the port to serve the offshore wind industry. Look at the potential of the offshore wind and hydrogen plant at Moneypoint in the Shannon Estuary. Development of this industry will bring high-quality jobs to a region that desperately needs them.
We have immense potential to generate significant amounts of power offshore, served by Foynes port. What we need are users of power because our west-to-east grid connections will be at capacity, and building new ones is very challenging from a planning perspective. This Bill would kill that potential straightaway and reflects a Dublin-centric view of our country. Data centres could be useful in areas where they can be powered by renewable sources and contribute to on-site storage so that they do not negatively impact on our electricity grid.
The appropriate way to regulate the impact of data centres on our electricity system is through the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, as the regulator, and EirGrid, the operator of our national grid, not through populist and ill-informed politics, which is what this Bill represents. The idea of a moratorium or that People Before Profit and other parties, including the Social Democrats which introduced a similar motion about data centres to the House this week, can or should dictate to the best transmission system operator in the world would be laughable if it were not so serious and potentially damaging to this country. This House should reject this Bill outright.
I will speak on behalf of Deputy Whitmore.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill.
Yesterday, the Social Democrats introduced a motion calling for a moratorium on data centre development until a full Government strategy was put in place and all necessary analysis was carried out. This was despite objections from the so-called Green Party. All we asked for yesterday was a moratorium until there was an analysis. The analysis does not exist yet.
There is a de facto moratorium already.
One Deputy, please.
It is ludicrous that a green party would oppose a moratorium when we are facing blackouts in this country. Our request was reasonable and moderate and called for a delay on development until necessary without outwardly banning the development of the sector, as was suggested in that recent contribution. The Government, particularly the Green Party, has not seen fit to support us in our call. In the absence of Government support for our proposal, we will support this well-timed Bill, which has been introduced by People Before Profit.
A moratorium would be good practice until we were clear about the implications of a dramatically expanding sector, the security of our energy supply can be guaranteed and people across Ireland can be certain that they will not pay the economic and environmental costs associated with energy-hungry projects of scale. A moratorium would also provide time to gain perspective on climate action. It is important to understand how prioritising the growth of a particular industry will affect an individual's effort to combat climate change. How can the Government justify asking people to make sacrifices to reduce their carbon footprint while, in the blink of an eye, data centre growth unravels all their hard work? People are doing their best to tackle climate change in their own way. Where they can, they are buying electric vehicles and are encouraged to do so while others are retrofitting their homes or buying more sustainable products. As we ramp up our response to climate change, our choices get even more difficult, but also more impactful. People need to know that the choices they are making amount to some change that will benefit our atmosphere and our global fight against climate change. They need to know that it is a fair and just transition to a zero-carbon economy.
When it comes to liquefied natural gas in Ireland, our message is much stronger - legislate to ban the construction of all LNG infrastructure and the importation of fracked gas. Nearly every environmental NGO, advocacy group and campaign group has been calling for this because we do not trust the Government's approach, which to date has been one of negligence. In the programme for Government, the coalition partners stated that they did not support the importation of fracked gas and they would develop a policy statement on the issue. A year later, we received a weak commitment from the Government. In that announcement, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, stated: "pending the outcome of a review of the security of energy supply of Ireland's electricity and natural gas systems ... it would not be appropriate for the development of any LNG terminals in Ireland to be permitted or proceeded with". He also indicated that the Government would not introduce legislation to that effect, as to do so would require changes to international rules such as European energy laws. However, other tools are available to him and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Under section 29 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, the latter has the power to issue policy directives to planning authorities regarding their functions under that Act and An Bord Pleanála must comply with any policy directive issued. There was an opportunity for him to issue a policy directive once the Government's statement on its current position was made. While that was at the discretion of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications could have sent guidance to him to issue directives to that effect.
When my colleague, Deputy Whitmore, received a response, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said that the policy statement was notified to An Bord Pleanála and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage following its approval by the Government. Under the 2000 Act, An Bord Pleanála is statutorily obliged to have regard to Government policy, including the policy statement on the importation of fracked gas, yet this does not go far enough in addressing the insecurities around LNG construction. Shannon LNG was still able to put in an application. It is not enough that An Bord Pleanála must have regard to Government policy. It must be set out in law.
The Government's approach has done nothing to alleviate concerns about our dependence on gas, the threat of importing fracked gas and its own climate action targets. This all came just weeks after the Government published its revised climate action Bill, which notably left out the then Joint Committee on Climate Action's recommendation on banning LNG. In effect, all the Government has done is ban LNG but it has not approached this sector.
For the information of Members, Thursday evening's Private Members' business is not organised on the basis of the usual rota but on a first come, first served basis. The next Deputy who has offered is Deputy Martin Kenny.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for calling me earlier than expected.
We will support this legislation because it is appropriate that there be legislation to deal with the issue of data centres in particular, to stall the situation and to look hard at where it is going. This week, the Minister with responsibility for energy stated that he could not guarantee that there would not be blackouts this winter. Under those circumstances, it makes no sense to proceed with data centres, which are one of the main consumers of power in our system. No one in the country can understand why we cannot pause and reflect on the situation. If this Bill passes Second Stage, it will go to Committee Stage where we will tease it out and see if there are other issues that need to be addressed. That is how legislation works in the Houses. It is not as if, bang, everything will be over if the Bill is voted through tonight. We all know that it does not work like that and that this will take time and we will need to deal with the Bill in a measured way.
In this country, there is a great deal of politics around energy, so we need to recognise that we must reach a consensus. We have already discovered more oil and gas in the world than would destroy the world if we burned it all. There is no point in looking for more anywhere or taking more out of the ground because doing so would destroy the environment. Instead, we need to come up with solutions. The appropriate solution that we all agree on is that we must do everything we can to move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
I welcome the situation in Rochfortbridge where Bord na Móna is talking about building a unit. We need to see more of that happening, but it will take time and does not mean that we should plough ahead with everything else as if the situation will develop overnight.
Something strikes me whenever we speak about data centres and the like. I believe it was 1991 when I bought a home computer. It was quite a while ago and you would want two tables to put it on. It was huge, but it would not hold a fraction of the data held in a mobile phone now. If technology moves so fast, will data centres need to be this size in another ten years' time, will we even need as many or will they be big white elephants in the countryside? This is a point to which we need to give a little thought. The technology involved moves quite quickly.
Technology is also moving quickly in terms of how we develop renewable energy. Solar, wind and so on have come a long distance in a short number of years. If we focus all of the efforts and energies of our society and world capital over the next number of years on investing in and progressing that sector and close off the option of continuing to use fossil fuels, it will force attention, investment and the expertise of all the scientists in the world into ensuring that we perfect renewable energies. This type of Bill is trying to do just that. It is telling people that we cannot continue down this road and that we need to stop and consider other ways forward.
I understand that there is always pressure from industries. I heard people from IBEC and other bodies on radio in recent days saying that we could not close the country down. No one wants to and we are not talking about closing down the country. Rather, we are saying that we have to proceed with caution because we cannot go on as we have been. We all agree on that. In that context, it is clear that we need to apply a moratorium and stop building data centres. We also need to consider how we use gas and oil, because as long as we have it in the background, the same attention will not be put into renewables.
This country banned fracking. We all recognised that fracking for gas was bad for the environment and that we needed to stop it, but if it should not happen here, then it should not happen anywhere. There is no point in importing fracked gas from other countries when we are saying it is not good for the environment in Ireland. Why should we impose something on Pennsylvania or anywhere else around the globe and say that it is okay to use the gas that comes from there but it is not okay to take it out of our own resources? We know those resources exist, particularly in the shale basins in Lough Allen in my part of the world. There are large quantities of gas there, but one would have to frack to take it out. That would destroy the environment, the River Shannon and half the country, yet are we saying that it is okay to take gas from somewhere else? That does not make sense.
We need to use the legislation that we pass to force industry to consider other ways of doing this, to force the capital and expertise of scientists in that direction, and to remove the option of fossil fuels. That is what this Bill is about.
I commend the proponents of the Bill on bringing it forward. Sinn Féin will be supporting it and we implore the Government to support it and to allow it to proceed to Committee Stage where any issues with it can be teased out. As I said, these things do not happen overnight. We have plenty of time to deal with this issue. The truth is that reality has brought us to a situation where we should not be allowing the development of any more data centres in this country. Whatever about Bills or moratoriums to stop it, common sense would tell us that we cannot do that any longer.
I thank Deputy Bríd Smith for bringing forward this Bill. It gives us an opportunity to debate two really important issues. In terms of data centres, this week we heard from experts at the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action about the impact they are having, we have the EirGrid All-Island Generation Capacity Statement 2019-2028 and we heard the Government outline its totally unsustainable, unrealistic and unbelievable position. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications has stated that keeping oil and coal powered plants in operation for longer than intended will not impede out ability to meet our 2030 targets. Despite being only three months old, it appears those targets are being sidelined. The Government is quick to tell people that hard decisions will need to be taken in the transition to greener alternatives, but it clearly is not willing to practice what is preaches, rolling over immediately when big tech puts the pressure on. Sinn Féin supports a moratorium on the development of new data centres until an economic, environmental and energy security impact risk analysis has been carried out. As stated by Deputy Martin Kenny, we are supporting this Bill as we believe an in-depth debate on Committee Stage, where we can scrutinise stakeholders and look at the risk analyses, is an essential element. This Bill recognises the problem and provides an impetus for solution.
In terms of planning, this Bill also seeks to ensure LNG terminals and other fossil fuel infrastructure are removed from the Seventh Schedule to the Planning and Development Act 2000. Every euro invested in new fossil fuel infrastructure is a euro not spent on sustainable renewable alternatives. We have agreed on a 51% reduction by 2030 and an aim of a carbon neutral society by no later than 2050. New fossil fuel infrastructure simply does not fit into this plan. Sinn Féin is opposed to new infrastructure that will lock us into fossil fuel use for decades to come and will greatly impede the transition to a zero carbon economy. We support an outright ban on fracked gas. We have opposed fracking across this island and we are opposed to importing fracked gas. We were concerned that a commitment in this regard was not included in the recent climate action plan or in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021. We suspect this omission was due to provisions of the investor clause in the Energy Charter Treaty, ECT. We believe the ECT poses a huge threat to climate action here. It protects foreign investors in the energy sector from any changes in Government policies regarding energy that would impact on their profit or expected future profits. Any future Government that would try to phase out LNG terminals would potentially be faced with an investor-state dispute settlement, ISDS, claim in a closed door investor tribunal that has no appeal mechanism. This happened to the Dutch. They had a short-term energy problem as they were over-reliant on gas and prices went through the roof. In 2009, they invited coal fired power plants into the country. These opened in 2015 and 2016. To reach its climate targets, the Dutch now needs to phase out these plants by 2030. In February of this year, they were hit with two claims under the ECT, amounting to a minimum of €2.4 billion. We do not want the same to happen here. Not only could this ISDS mechanism lead to major liability for the State, it could result in regulatory chill, where the Government does not progress climate measures for fear of litigation.
Sinn Féin has called on the Irish Government to join other countries such as France and Spain in the call for the EU to leave the ECT. Failing agreement at an EU level, we believe the Government should set a deadline by which we should leave unilaterally. There is a sunset clause that locks us into liability for 20 years, but the ECT is so bad there is no argument for staying. Italy is already five years into its sunset period. If the Government is serious about climate action, we need to unshackle ourselves from this regressive treaty.
I am glad to speak on behalf of the Labour Party in support of this Bill. I am conscious that this is the third time in two days that we have had the opportunity to have a substantive debate on climate and climate-related issues. It is a sign of the times and how pressing and urgent this issue is. In today's earlier debate, I spoke, as many did, about the IPCC report and the warning that we are at a code red for humanity. I also spoke about the crisis not only for our climate but for our biodiversity with the announcement yesterday by the US Government that 23 species would be declared extinct. We know that this is as a result of human activity and human behaviour. We know also that there is a need for urgent action and a common purpose internationally to tackle climate change, just as we have seen that international common purpose in tackling the Covid pandemic. It is a matter of harnessing the same commitment and the same solidarity. I hope we can bring a measure of that.
In yesterday's debate on data centres we sought only a pause, as an interim measure, on the development of centres and that the Government conduct of a review of the environmental and economic impact of the data centres and of the context in which they are to be developed. That was a sensible approach to take, which the Labour Party supported. We spoke yesterday of the need for the Government to provide clarity as to the strategy for the development of data centres, in particular the strategy as to how to deal with the increased demand for energy that development of data centres would inevitably bring about. The question is how to power data centres. Can they be powered entirely from renewable sources? If that is the case, that is very welcome. I listened to earlier speakers talk about how technology has moved on. There is no doubt about that. The data centres that are being developed now are more energy efficient than those that were developed in the past. Again, there is no doubt about that. As I said yesterday, and as the proposes of yesterday's motion said, we are not against data centres. We understand and acknowledge their huge importance for our economy, jobs and for all of us. This is how we live now and we cannot roll that back.
In my own constituency in Dublin Bay South, there is a huge amount of tech investment in the community, as well as various employers. We are all very much conscious of that. At the same time, we need to see regulation of data centres. We need to see a coherent plan, in the present as opposed to the future tense, to see what the Government is proposing to do now to regulate data centres. What are we proposing at national level to ensure that they are carbon neutral or, indeed, that the increased demand on energy will come from renewable sources? Moreover, what is being done at EU level? I regret I did not get the chance to make the following point yesterday. Something that has struck me much more on reflection is how absent EU level regulation of data centres is. This is an international issue. If data centres are not built in Ireland, they will be built somewhere else. It is a global climate emergency, not just an emergency that we face here in Ireland. We need to have a transnational, EU-wide strategy and an international strategy on how data centres are to be developed, not just in terms of the huge demands they make on energy - we listed the enormous demand yesterday in terms of the figures we have from EirGrid - but also the demand they make on water supply in Ireland, as elsewhere. These are huge issues that we need addressed. As I said, we need clarity from the Government before we could proceed any further. That was the very sensible rationale behind the call for a temporary pause as an interim measure. The Labour Party supported the motion last night, as we support this Bill.
I am grateful to Friends of the Earth for outlining a number of concerns that I think would be addressed through legislation of this sort and that is why we are supporting it. There has been a good deal of talk about the immediate-term pressures on the electricity system in Ireland, particularly relating to the two gas plants that have been out of action. We have real concerns that comments recently from the Government and the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, CRU, indicate that we still be reliant on gas generation in the longer term, particularly with the increased demand from data centres and that this will, of course, impede our ability to meet our ambitious but necessary climate targets in terms of emissions.
It is questionable whether we can say new carbon budgets and sectoral emissions ceilings will be sufficient to prevent excessive demands for energy that will force us to fall back into fossil fuel reliance again. The crucial question we in opposition are asking is how can we see any roll-out of data centres without falling back into a reliance on fossil fuels. How can we be assured the increased demand will be driven by renewable sources? We must see regulation put in place to ensure that is the case. Again, that is absent both nationally and at EU level.
The final point is, when we talk about investment in renewables, we are all conscious there is a huge amount still to be done here and that we need to see serious investment made in a whole suite of technologies. We see from Wind Energy Ireland an analysis that carbon pricing, storage and green hydrogen can eliminate the need for fossil fuels in electricity. It has some impressive and optimistic modelling about our ability to reach 85% renewable electricity by 2030 and 100% later in that decade, so that is doable. The IPCC report does give hope that with serious, substantive, radical action and intervention, we can reverse the effects of climate change and we can deal with and tackle the climate emergency. We cannot lose sight of that hope and optimism. Modelling from Wind Energy Ireland is indicative of that hope. However, we need to see the Government intervention that will actually give effect to those hopeful projections and optimistic modelling and, currently, that is lacking.
We debated today the forthcoming climate action plan and we are holding these debates in the weeks prior to the holding of COP 26 in Glasgow. We are all hopeful we will see concerted international action, led by strong governmental actions across different countries. I think we are all very hopeful of that, but at the moment many of us feel we are just in a vacuum and what we lack is a coherent policy, a coherent plan and a present-tense statement of intent from the Government as to what will be done to regulate the development of data centres and ensure we meet our climate emissions targets in order that we will be able to move to that very important development of renewable energy sources to replace our over-reliance on fossil fuels.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for letting me in. I know the procedures on a Thursday evening are somewhat different and I am grateful to him for giving me time to speak on this important issue.
If Deputy Leddin wants two minutes I can give them to him. I thank Members of the House for all their comments. While the Government opposes this Private Member's Bill, I repeat that the Government recognises the importance of energy security and will continue to develop policy in this area. As I indicated, the matter is under review as we speak. The policy will not be developed by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It is more suited to the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I will ensure planning authorities and the board are made aware of such policies so that they consider them when undertaking their functions under the planning Act.
My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, spoke at length on this matter yesterday and highlighted the need for the approach of Government to be one of working with the relevant State agencies to ensure there is a plan-led approach that is regionally balanced for such large developments. The Minister will shortly bring a revised climate action plan to Government which will set out a suite of actions that will address rising energy demand while facilitating sustainable growth in the digital and ICT sectors. I add we must work with all parties and none on this issue, and consultation with both the public and the political system will be undertaken to develop this new policy.
I trust my colleagues present for the debate tonight will be glad this issue is under active consideration by Government. We agree the wider policy and regulatory context has shifted on this issue and we must now ensure better alignment with the electricity emissions reduction and security of supply challenges. The key points relevant to the discussion must be recognised, maintained with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and across Government, and the planning process must remain neutral. This is to ensure applications for development are not predetermined and circumvent the value of public participation in that process. Our planning process is highly transparent and accessible to all citizens and this must continue to be the case. Planning is required to consider all Government policies, and the policy is external to the planning Act. As members of our Legislature, Deputies will be familiar with these processes. It is not the intention of the planning Act to generate policy, so amending the Act to achieve policy goals is a highly inappropriate action. Developments such as fossil fuel infrastructure and data centres, or any type of development, require an open, transparent and independent planning process. It is through the comprehensive processing of planning applications by planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála that proper planning and sustainable development is maintained. Following engagement through the planning process, where a party feels a decision in planning or an individual case is not the correct one, the options of administrative appeal and judicial review exist to ensure the planning process and the decision made are robust. I am obviously precluded, as the Minister of State with responsibility for planning, from commenting on individual applications which are made.
For the reasons we have set out relating to the planning Act remaining neutral, it is not the appropriate way to deal with these issues. Also, many Members have conflated the energy issues in terms of the two plants that are down for maintenance at the moment with this current issue of data centres.
I understand where Opposition Members are coming from. I understand their concern around climate. They are absolutely correct to be as concerned as they are. We are in an existential crisis; on that we are agreed. It is heartening they are displaying ambition in opposition that perhaps some of them did not display before. It is good they are now on record as displaying such ambition. Sadly, their contributions show how poorly informed they are and that is a real concern. We expect a reasonable level of debate in this House from the Opposition and we are not getting that.
The truth is this Bill would be a blunt instrument. A moratorium on data centres would actually hamper progress and hamper development of renewable energy generation across the country, especially in the midlands and west. I do agree somewhat with the approach and the urge for caution. That is correct. We do not want to be in a situation where there is a serious risk of the lights going out. In that regard I agree with my colleagues across the floor. However, in asking for caution it seems Members do not know there is a review that has already begun this year, conducted by EirGrid. I wonder if Opposition Members and parties have contributed to the review. It is ongoing. As I said earlier, the best transmission system operator in the world bar none is EirGrid and it is conducting that review. The very same concerns Members have outlined here, EirGrid has been dealing with for the past number of months.
I will conclude there. The moratorium proposal is absolutely the wrong approach and I urge Members across the House not to support this motion.
What the public could expect from the Green Party is that it takes the side of the environment rather than of major multinational corporations, but that is not what they are getting. Deputy Leddin was arguably more enthusiastic in his cheerleading for more and more data centres in this country than even the Minister of State. He fits very well the role of outrider for a right-wing, anti-environment Government with the language that anything that goes against the interests of the big corporations can just be dismissed as cynical populism.
I will go into some of the arguments that were used. The most incredible argument made by Deputy Leddin is that we need users of power and that we need to expand the usage of power in this country to attract more renewable energy. It is a bizarre, unscientific argument. At the moment, as Deputy Leddin presumably knows, the significant majority of power generated in this State is generated from fossil fuels, not renewable sources.
If we keep adding to our energy usage at the same time as we add renewable energy to our energy sources, we will never get there in terms of being 100% renewable. It is exactly like trying to walk down an escalator that is going up. We need to reduce our energy usage at the same time as transitioning to renewable energy and electrifying the economy as opposed to expanding energy usage, which is what happens no matter where these data centres are located in the country. When we expand energy usage in this country, we make the goal of achieving 100% renewable energy further and further away. We will never arrive at that point if we continue on that road. It does not make sense.
The second key argument made by the Government, this time elucidated by the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, is the idea, which I do not fully understand, that somehow it is inappropriate for the Dáil to change planning law in the public interest. The suggestion is that the planning law is something separate and independent but that is not the case. It is entirely correct and appropriate for the Dáil to legislate in the public interest for the kind of planning that we want to see. It is entirely appropriate for us to say that we are not going to have more fossil fuel infrastructure in this country, that we are not going to sink more money into something that is a climate problem and that all investment in energy must go into energy solutions as opposed to creating more problems that will be with us for decades. That is entirely appropriate and within the rights of this House and is something we should do and the same applies to data centres
The other argument that was made by a number of Deputies is that data centres are necessary, but how necessary is everything that goes on in data centres? The truth is that we do not know. Commercial secrecy and the fact that these are big, private corporations which are organised on the basis of profit and do not explain exactly what happens in data centres means we do not fully know. We do not know how much of what is happening in data centres is stuff that is genuinely useful and improves people's lives and how much of it is advertising, consciously creating new wants for people to consume more energy. How much of it is algorithms trying to target advertising to create new wants for people? How much of it is surveillance capitalism? How much of it is stuff that is the pursuit of profit by a small number of corporations and does not at all add to quality of life or contribute to a good life for people, which is what people want? The evidence suggests quite a lot of it is thus. It is a major problem that what should be a public space, namely social media, is not a public space at all. We are talking here about privately controlled corporations. These should be public utilities in democratic control and then we can have a discussion as a society about how much data and data infrastructure we really need.
The final point I want to make, which I have not had a chance to raise in all of these debates, is about water. Each data centre uses somewhere between 500,000 and 5 million litres of water per day. The Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, said recently that Ireland should position itself as the place to invest due to its "abundance" of green energy and treated water. Anybody who was watching politics in 2014, 2015 and 2016, when we were told about the water crisis, which is actually real, will be wondering where this abundance of treated water was when it came to hitting ordinary householders with water charges. The Government can find the water and the energy for the big corporations but not for ordinary people and ordinary people could face blackouts as a result.
I want to make three points, the first of which is on the planning process. I was alerted to this line from Fine Gael, as an opponent of this Bill, through a Friends of the Earth email campaign and I thank Friends of the Earth for doing that. Thousands of emails were sent to Deputies and Senators in support of this Bill from the environmental movement. The Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, replied just as the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, did but the planning process has never been neutral. It has always been weighted heavily in favour of those with wealth and power and has always limited the rights of ordinary people to oppose certain developments. If one takes strategic infrastructure developments, they are set up in an Act to allow the Government rather than ordinary citizens to decide what is important. Furthermore, the Planning and Development Act has been amended multiple times and hundreds of statutory instruments have been added to it to allow developers to build and develop in certain ways, including lowering the size specifications for apartments and allowing for the strategic housing developments that are littered all around our cities. The Dáil is absolutely entitled to prohibit, guide and control certain developments, particularly in emergency situations. We had a financial emergency, so declared by the Government, and we still have a hangover from some of the legislation enacted back in 2010 and 2011. We had a health emergency last year and this year and we passed extraordinary legislation. We now have a climate emergency and that is why this Bill has "emergency" in its title. This is a climate emergency measure and we went to great lengths to explain why it is necessary. I am sure the Minister of State's precious understanding of the neutrality of the planning process would be baffling to the communities surrounded by student accommodation, aparthotels and co-living blocks in this city. I cannot take that from Fine Gael.
What I particularly cannot take is the enthusiasm of the Chairman of the Committee on Environment and Climate Action for data centres and his argument that we would not have windmills in Offaly and the midlands without data centres. The Deputy knows that is nonsense. If we have renewable energy, we can use it to power people's homes and to power transport. The Deputy has said that himself multiple times at committee meetings. He has was there when the evidence on data centres was given by experts. It is not that we are starting from the beginning and saying that there should be absolutely no data centres. We already have 70 of them. We are the data hub of Europe and 25% of all data centres are in this small country. It may be argued that we have a cooler climate but that is not the point. Our electricity system cannot withstand it. I wish to quote Mr. Bill Thompson from EirGrid, who very sensibly said the following:
Ireland’s electricity system was surely not planned to be, nor designed to be, a system which seeks to serve the needs of the global citizen for increased data supported by an ever proportionately smaller non-data centre commercial, industrial and domestic load.
We cannot cope. When I say "we", I mean ordinary people. If we have blackouts this winter, it will not be because of developments such as electrifying cars but because the preponderance of data centres is sucking up much-needed energy. Should that happen, I will back to the committee to urge it to reverse its position on carbon taxes. The Government is loading the responsibility onto ordinary people, especially those who can least afford it.
My last point relates to Cloud Infrastructure Ireland. I asked the Taoiseach if he had been lobbied by that organisation and he denied it. I have asked him again in writing and I will be asking every single party in this Dáil if they have been lobbied by Cloud Infrastructure Ireland, which was set up within a week of me introducing the First Stage of this Bill. It was set up deliberately by IBEC, led by a former Labour Party Deputy, Mr. Michael McCarthy, to lobby this House to stop this Bill from progressing. If Members all kowtow to the global corporate giants of the tech industry in this country once again, shame on them. We need a new Green Party. We need to abolish the existing one and get a decent party that represents people, the environment and our planet before the profit of giant corporations.
A vote on the question has been called but will be deferred until our next voting block on Thursday 7, October 2021.