I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady.
Climate Change: Statements.
Last week the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, briefed the Dáil on final preparations for the 15th conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the fifth meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol. The meeting has begun since in Copenhagen and will continue until 18 December. The eyes of the world are on Copenhagen and anticipation of a successful outcome will mount next week when Heads of State and Government meet for the final day of the summit. I am pleased to have the opportunity to make this statement in the Seanad today.
As the Minister stated in the Dáil last week, it is important to acknowledge that Ireland has consistently and fully supported EU proactivity and leadership in the international climate change process under the UN convention. That position stands and is underpinned by the strength of the scientific advice on the potential impact of climate change and the urgency of a comprehensive and effective global response. EU policy on what constitutes a comprehensive and effective global response to climate change is reflected in the substantial body of conclusions which the Council has adopted over a number of years, most recently at its meetings last month. They set out a clear and strong EU mandate for the Copenhagen conference, based on the fundamental objective of keeping the increase in average global temperature to within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
The European Union recognises the process established under the UN convention as the appropriate forum through which to develop and implement an effective global response to the threat of climate change. The ultimate objective of the convention is clear — greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere must be stabilised at a safe level. The 2 degrees Celsius goal adopted by the Union responds to that objective.
The scientific advice from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is also clear on the need for early and effective action. A significant milestone towards achieving this objective is the absolute priority for the Copenhagen conference; the case for action is not a option, particularly when we reflect on the plight of people in developing countries who are living on the climate front line.
At the end of the penultimate round of international negotiations in advance of COP 15 the European Union restated its firm commitment to reaching a comprehensive, fair and legally binding treaty in Copenhagen. To be effective, the treaty must cover all countries and reflect a level of ambition consistent with the objective of keeping the increase in global temperature within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels.
More specifically, the successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol must respond to the four key elements of the Bali action plan — mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer and finance. It must also provide a clear and strong context for action in the form of an overarching long-term goal — a shared vision which responds to the 2 degrees Celsius objective by aiming to ensure global emissions peak by 2020 at the latest, reduce by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels and continue on a downward trend thereafter.
In the international negotiations questions have been raised recently about the EU commitment to the Kyoto Protocol — questions suggesting the European Union is somehow trying to walk away from the protocol. Nothing could be further from reality; the Union has always been and remains firmly committed to the Kyoto Protocol, its structure and objectives.
To be absolutely clear on the issue, the EU preference for the post-2012 commitment period is a single, legally binding instrument under the convention that would enhance implementation and ensure consistency in the application of the post-2012 international climate regime, in other words, a new protocol that would build on the Kyoto Protocol and incorporate its fundamental structure, particularly its provisions on key issues such as legally binding quantified emission reduction commitments for all developed countries, robust reporting, monitoring and compliance requirements, flexible mechanisms, and requirements on land use, land use change and forestry. In summary, the EU objective is to broaden the scope and effectiveness of the international response to climate change in the post-2012 period without compromising on the principles or structure of the Kyoto Protocol.
A clear case for broadening the scope and effectiveness of the international climate change regime is made by the need to address ecosystem emissions. While attention to date has focused on fossil fuel emissions, greenhouse gases from ecosystems, including agriculture, natural forests and plantations, and wetlands, are a major contributor to the problem. In addition, the potential for these ecosystems to absorb carbon is an essential element of an integrated response to climate change. The Kyoto Protocol addresses some, but not all, of these carbon emissions and sinks.
The worst potential consequences of a policy framework which addresses fossil fuels but mostly does not address ecosystem emissions are increased pressure on these natural ecosystems. We have seen an example of how this would work in the destruction of peatland rainforests to facilitate the production of palm oil. We must ensure the new agreement does not create any such perverse incentives. The scope of the successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol must cover all aspects of ecosystem emissions, including all forests, and soil carbon associated with forest management, cropland and grazing land management, wetlands and deforestation.
In seeking to influence an ambitious new global agreement the European Union has provided a clear signal on a mid-term goal. It has adopted a 20% greenhouse gas emission reduction target by 2020 compared to 1990 levels and committed to step up to a 30% target, subject to two conditions, that other developed countries commit themselves to comparable reductions and that developing countries contribute adequately according to their responsibilities and respective capabilities. However, that level of global action by 2020 may not be enough. Since publication of the intergovernmental panel's fourth assessment report in 2007, scientific studies have suggested consistently that the warming process is happening more rapidly than anticipated and that, therefore, the emission reductions proposed in the 2007 report may be insufficient. A consensus is emerging among leading climate scientists that we may need to not only reduce our emissions but also have net reductions in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. They are suggesting a target level of 350 ppm, parts per million, while current concentrations are over 380 ppm. The next report from the intergovernmental panel is due in 2014 and a priority in the negotiations is ensuring a new global agreement includes a review of targets and objectives by the end of 2016.
Turning to finance, a new treaty on climate change simply will not happen unless it includes a comprehensive financial package to assist developing countries in key areas such as capacity building, mitigation, adaptation, technology and protection of their forests. Based on figures developed by the European Commission, the European Union has strengthened the focus in the international negotiations on finance by setting out estimates of short and long-term needs. In summary, the cost of mitigation and adaptation action in developing countries could amount to around €100 billion annually by 2020. Of that amount, the international public support element could be in the range of €22 billion to €50 billion annually. That is the longer term position, beginning in 2013. There is also the more immediate need for fast-start international public support for developing countries which the Commission estimates could be in the range of €5 billion to €7 billion per year in the three-year period 2010 to 2013.
The EU is committed to paying its fair share at an international level and Ireland is committed to paying its fair share of the EU contribution. One point to make absolutely clear is that we see the international climate change agenda and the millennium development goals as parallel priorities. They are not competing priorities and any suggestion to that effect is entirely unacceptable.
Before I conclude on finance, I know that there are people who believe that, in view of the economic downturn, action on climate change should be deferred or given a lower priority in the shorter term. Such views are both misguided and damaging. Within the EU, the Council is perfectly clear on this point. The Minister welcomes and fully supports its decision to underline the opportunity and the need to build on the synergies between action on climate change and economic recovery. We agree with its view on the need to seek a long-term financial and economic architecture that will integrate our approach to climate change with our goal of transition to a sustainable economy. Only a sustainable economy is compatible with avoiding dangerous climate change and addressing the inevitable impacts of existing concentrations of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
I refer to the changed outlook for the Copenhagen conference which has become evident and is being widely reported in the media. We now know that a new, fully fledged treaty is most unlikely to be achieved in Copenhagen. In spite of the clear commitment by the parties at their 13th conference in Bali in 2007 to finalise a new treaty in 2009, we have run out of time to complete the task in Copenhagen. At best we are now looking at the possibility of a politically binding agreement rather than a legally binding treaty. That is disappointing. As the Minister said last week, it flies in the face of the fact that we are all too quickly approaching a point where the impact of climate change will become significantly more challenging and more costly to address.
Responding to this setback for the international process, the European Commission has said that the minimum outcome in Copenhagen must be a framework agreement on the essential building blocks of the new treaty and a deadline for completing it. The agreement must include ambitious emissions reduction commitments by developed countries, adequate action to curb emissions growth by developing countries, and a financial deal to assist developing countries both in mitigating their emissions and adapting to climate change.
The Minister's immediate reaction, in addition to his disappointment, is that the framework agreement will have to be convincing on the commitment of all parties and the timeframe for finalising the treaty will have to be short. We welcome the fact that a number of key players in the international negotiations, including Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Indonesia, China and, in recent days, India and South Africa, have announced pledges. This momentum in the process is encouraging. However, as Connie Hedegaard, the Danish environment minister, said at the opening of the meeting this week, "We are not there yet."
As regards the international agenda, it is difficult to predict what the outcome of COP-15 will be. I can say with certainty, however, that the EU's commitment and determination to reaching a new legally binding treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol is undiminished. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, was at the first COP in Berlin 15 years ago, but it is certain that this 15th meeting of the parties in Copenhagen will be the most defining gathering of a generation. The importance of this meeting is recognised globally, with more than 100 world leaders, including the Taoiseach, attending for the final days.
Turning briefly to national policy, tomorrow, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, will publish the country's annual carbon budget which will include details of the Government's proposed climate change legislation. It will enshrine in law the key climate change policies and principles that will be essential if we are to reduce our emissions and move to a sustainable, low-carbon economy and society. We have already made that start through massive investment in renewable energy and new regulations and incentives to encourage low-emission housing and transport. Transition to a low-carbon world economy will happen quickly and we have two choices: to move with it or be left behind. There is quite simply no alternative to transition and we know it can be done. It is both technically feasible, economically affordable and eminently sensible. It will present both challenges and opportunities. Getting our policy right is about minimising the challenges and maximising the opportunities for people and the environment.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady. I listened to her introductory statement with interest. The disastrous flooding that has affected so many parts of the country reminds us of the important consequences of climate change. Scientists tell us that such flooding could occur every two to three years in future. This year has been the warmest on record according to the World Meteorological Organization. Addressing the climate change conference in Copenhagen, the WMO's secretary general, Michel Jarraud, said that China has had the worst drought for years, while Kenya has had food shortages, and there have been heatwaves in India and Australia. Those are just some examples of the international impact of climate change.
As the Minister of State said, it is accepted that a comprehensive and legally binding treaty will not emerge from Copenhagen. That is the expectation as of now and it is disappointing. The Government, however, must push for a resolution that is closest to such a treaty.
President Obama and the Chinese Prime Minister have both made pledges on climate change while the EU has offered to reduce emissions by 20% on 1990 levels. Under certain conditions, the EU will increase that figure to 30%. We in the EU are setting a standard and giving leadership in this area. We need a Kyoto Protocol-style agreement to emerge from Copenhagen which will be legally binding. Meanwhile, it is expected that President Obama will improve the American offer during the Copenhagen negotiations. The American authorities have already offered to cut emissions by 17% by 2020, relative to 2005 figures, which equates to a cut of only 5% on the 1990 levels.
Some 80% of energy consumed in the United States arises from fossil fuels, which makes the American contribution very important. We are all conscious of the radical change that has occurred since the Bush era when it was thought unnecessary to take any action on climate change. The current US position does represent progress and it is to be hoped there will be further progress from the Americans at the Copenhagen conference.
China has the world's second largest emissions of greenhouse gases after the United States. In that context, it is important that China should follow suit in tackling climate change. A comprehensive package, including loans and direct aid, is needed to support China's efforts in this regard. The American negotiators have indicated that they will take that route and the EU is also open to such a proposition. We must hope that China can be urged along in that direction. While Ireland's moral leadership role is crucial, the big two are the US and China. We need to bring them to the level of commitment that is apparent within the EU through an agreement at Copenhagen.
Ireland must play a pivotal role in Copenhagen and, to be fair, there is no indication that the Government will do otherwise. I urge the Minister of State to tell her colleagues that Ireland should not be a supporting actor at Copenhagen and neither should we be daunted by our size. Ireland has the moral authority and capacity to make a strong contribution to the climate change conference rather than being a fringe player there. While we support all the EU commitments and will work within those Ireland should, independently, make its own stance. Our Dáil spokesman, Deputy Simon Coveney, has made reference in the other House to the fact that Ireland could show leadership in pushing for greater financial commitment for the developing countries because of our record on overseas development aid and in so many ways on the international stage. We have bona fides and good credentials with developing countries and as such could give proper moral leadership in that regard.
We should also be pushing the idea of wind as an important alternative form of energy. Ireland should major on that in the Copenhagen context and in the domestic context. I certainly believe we have a pivotal role to play. I am privileged to be a member of the Council of Europe for my party as well as a member of a sub-committee of its Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs, the chairman of which is an Englishman, Mr. Alan Meale MP, who will be representing the committee at Copenhagen. I contributed at a recent meeting where many issues arose. That committee will be making a submission on behalf of the Council of Europe and lobbying at Copenhagen.
I welcome the fact a climate change Bill is pending, something Fine Gael has been urging for some time. The response has been somewhat tardy, but the fact it is coming is good news. Before I deal with the specifics of the Irish situation, it is worthy of repetition that Fine Gael's bona fides as regards climate change are extraordinarily strong. In the NewERA document dealing with the economic recovery agency and job creation which we published recently, there is a particular focus on jobs relating to green energy and posts arising from alternative energy. Our entire job creation policy platform is focused in this area, and we are proud of this. It is part, thankfully, of a developing consensus on this issue and we need to promote that to encourage it to continue.
We must regret the fact that we have not met our Kyoto Protocol targets and our ambition for the future must be to improve in that regard. There is a commitment in the programme for Government for the planting of 10,000 hectares per annum, but with the reduced forestry premiums the industry believes it will not be possible to achieve that target. I ask the Minister of State to address that question and to re-examine the premium and incentive situation in that regard. It would be a pity if it was not achievable, given that we have a considerable amount of land suitable for afforestation. We should deal with this. It is not enough to have a platitudinous commitment in the programme for Government, if this cannot happen. The information we are getting from the industry is to the effect that it cannot.
Teagasc states there are 100,000 hectares suitable for the growing of bio-fuel crops. This is important in the context of the 4% target of bio-fuels within diesel etc. as regards transport and heating fuels. It is important that we are not just importing bio-fuels since that would create a carbon footprint in itself. As the Minister of State indicated, bio-fuels cannot be developed nationally or internationally at the expense of natural habitat such as would happen with the cutting down of rain forests or the removal of land for food. We cannot contribute to food shortages or indirectly increase carbon problems by developing bio-fuel. Bio-fuel can only be developed in a controlled fashion, at home and abroad. It cannot infringe on primary food production and that has to be an article of faith. Given that Ireland is an agricultural country the Government should enjoy good bona fides in this regard and we should be willing to say, in effect, that we cannot displace people or cause starvation under any policy that might emerge as regards greenhouse emissions or arising from Copenhagen.
We have had difficulties in the past with the waste issue and the proliferation of nuclear plants on the west coast of England, the nuclear coast, on the Irish Sea. New technology is emerging, I understand, in the nuclear area and over a number of years there may be safe nuclear power. In the event, it will have to be looked at again.
There should be a special focus in Ireland on wind energy production. There should be micro-generators on all houses, where possible, and businesses, so we may produce enough energy for ourselves and sell surplus to the grid. Hydro power should be harnessed, which has been addressed often in the Seanad. Senator Martin Brady and I have raised this on a number of occasions regarding the potential in County Cavan for hydro energy powered by rivers and streams to create energy locally. Wave energy is important, but we must keep the emphasis on domestic effort to give Ireland the international credentials it needs on this issue at Copenhagen because it is the right thing to do.
I firmly believe that not only can we meet our targets in terms of climate change and as regards the prevention of meteorological disasters, but we can create jobs in Ireland by focusing on green energy. I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence.
I first became an elected public representative in 1991 in the local elections, when I was given the honour of representing people on what was then Cork Corporation, now Cork City Council. It was an interesting time for environmental politics because much of the world's media and international governments were exercised with many of the issues we have continued to talk about in nearly 20 intervening years.
Within a year there was a major international conference at Rio de Janeiro, which was meant to be the starting point for solving much of what was then identified as an impending difficult situation as regards life on this planet. While the conference at Rio de Janeiro was the largest gathering of world leaders and governments since the Second World War, it failed in many respects and no agreement was reached. Much of what could have been done was avoided. It was not until the Kyoto summit, unfortunately, that some form of international agreement was put in place. This introduced measurements on how to deal with the major problem affecting life on this planet, namely, the creation of high levels of carbon, which are affecting climate and questioning the viability of life itself. This should be treated as the most important issue on the planet today. In the difficult economic situation in which we find ourselves nationally and globally it is hard to put forward a political argument in this regard. Economies rise and fall but viability of life on this planet is something we tend to take for granted. The willingness of mankind as a species to believe nature can be disrupted and overcome is something from which we have continued to learn lessons, in particular in the past month.
The Kyoto summit put in place an international agreement and measurements, which while modest, were at least a signpost towards where we should be going. What was unfortunate about the summit was that agreement was not subsequently achieved by those who should have participated and agreed. The largest carbon polluters on this planet in the form of the United States and emerging countries such as China, India and others, including Australia and Japan which are large in their own right in terms of geographical size and often population, did not buy into what was an emerging international consensus.
The European Union prior to and since the Kyoto summit has behaved honourably. As a country, we have had our own responsibilities to live up to in the context of a common European Union approach. It is fair to say that for most of the time since the Kyoto agreement was signed and subsequently ratified by the EU, we have not played our role effectively. We were given a generous allowance for carbon that was over and above 1990 baseline figures but have regularly exceeded it, often by up to two and a half times that allowed. We have in recent years begun to pull this back, in part owing to an economic slowdown and, thankfully, a new Government approach towards dealing with many of these issues. We now have commitments in the programme for Government to try to average reductions during the lifetime of the Government and beyond and to climate change legislation. We have put in place measures across several Departments in terms of energy conservation, better insulation of homes and how we deal with transport that will have a long term effect in terms of how we in this country play our role.
A key measure in this regard was the introduction yesterday in the budget of a carbon levy. Its phased introduction will help it being an effective tax. Not alone does it put a proper price on carbon and how it affects our economy and environment, it also allows us to have a fund to assist us to invest appropriately to ensure we avoid a build up of carbon in our environment in the future. I look forward to it being implemented to a greater extent in the future. The difficulty we have is that nearly 20 years on expectations in terms of the Copenhagen gathering have been raised. The Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, will attend that summit as will many Irish NGOs. It appears political agreement will not be achieved by the time Copenhagen finishes in a number of weeks, which is a serious setback. At best, political agreement might be achieved within the next year. There needs to be political agreement within the next six months because of the two important summits that follow, the Bonn summit and Mexico summit in 2010. The longer we leave these decisions the harder they will be. The EU as an organisation has given a commitment that in the absence of international agreement we, collectively as a grouping of countries, will seek to reduce our carbon levels by 20%. If international agreement is achieved we will seek a reduction of 30% in this regard. The reaching of international agreement places upon us a new onus to consider how we are reducing our carbon load and how this can be done in the quickest possible time to maximum environmental benefit.
An area in which the debate has not really taken off is in the context of the belief during the past number of decades that somehow the notion of environmental politics is esoteric in that it is beyond the people and has little impact on their everyday lives. The reality is different. If we do now what needs to be done a win-win situation for the planet and those people living on it in terms of how we structure local, national and international economies will result. We are looking at a fundamental way of doing things differently. We have lived through 200 years of industrialisation fuelled by a diminishing fuel source in the form of fossil fuels. If we want to continue to live life as we have lived it we must do so fundamentally differently. We must seek a better fuel source, one that is less polluting and more sustainable. We are fast coming to a time whereby the fuels upon which we have relied, oil and gas, are at peak levels. From here on we are on a downward slope in terms of the amount of oil and gas that will be available throughout the world. There will be a rising demand for these products in countries like China, India and Brazil. On those grounds, we should be concerned.
I am optimistic for Ireland and the role it can play. Also of concern in terms of the debate — this could perhaps have been predicted — is the counter arguments in the international press in terms of the validity of climate change and whether individuals are being conspiratorial in even arguing for its existence, which is unfortunate. The reality is that the international panel has verified that climate change is real and is most probably caused by human activity. Facts already mentioned in the debate are that this year has been the warmest on record and this decade has been the warmest on record in the history of this planet. On a local basis, in November we had three times the average rainfall we have ever experienced previously in November. These are extraordinary events and different from the nature of weather and climate we have ever experienced. If we do not recognise them as realities we will suffer the consequences.
In dealing with this problem, it is important we have empirical evidence and that this is taken on board. It was cheap and nasty of the leader of the Opposition in the Lower House to refer to the scant amount of money being spent on ecological measurements in terms of what types of plant and wildlife we have in this country when this is important information in terms of measuring the viability of life. When one considers that similar amounts of money, approximately €100,000, is often spent by town councils sending their entire membership to conferences on coastal erosion——
We are tired of listening to this type of comment. It is unfair.
That is the reality.
The Senator's time has almost expired.
This is the seriousness with which the issue is treated by some people.
Senator Boyle is trivialising it and we are tired of hearing that type of remark.
Very few town councils——
If people are making arguments about the nature of future life on this planet on the basis of whether frogs are counted, they are not grasping the issue. Unless we know how plant, animal and human life is affected, we will not be able to face the future.
The Senator should put humans first for a change.
If the Senator and the Fine Gael Party leader raise this issue they must endure the consequences in terms of how they argue it, often in ignorance.
Put the humans not the frogs first.
It is important that this House has had an opportunity to make statements that will I believe be of assistance to the Minister as he attends——
On a point of order, I point out to Senator Boyle that our county councillors act with great probity in relation to what they do with public moneys. I am sure the Senator will accept that.
That is not a point of order. Senator Boyle's time has expired.
No, I do not.
Senator Boyle's time has expired. I call Senator Quinn.
It is important we have had an opportunity to make statements on climate change. They will assist the Minister as he goes to what will be an important conference. I know the House is at one in ensuring we obtain as positive a response as possible.
I am delighted this debate is taking place and to have the opportunity to contribute to it. Approximately three years ago I was on Ryan Tubridy's television show, "Tubridy Tonight". There was an interesting debate and towards the end of the show he asked me whether I would go back into the supermarket business if I was starting out in business now. I said "No" and that I believed there must be a huge future in renewable energy. I said it off-the-cuff but what surprised and delighted me in the following few weeks was the number of letters and contacts I received from people involved in various efforts to create renewable energy from wind, wave, solar and other sources. They were from all around Ireland. There was clearly an interest in it so I examined the issue of investing in renewable energy.
It is interesting to examine the attitude of the major multinationals who have invested in green energy and how they perceive the future of dealing with climate change. Perhaps the private sector's view of dealing with climate change should be taken account of as an indicator when considering the best ways to deal with the problem. BP's investment in renewable energy will fall from $1.4 billion in 2008 to less than $1 billion this year. It is reducing the amount of its investment. The company is selling some of its renewable energy assets, including three wind farms in India, and has cut its solar cell manufacturing capacity in Spain and America. The one renewable energy source it still appears to be serious about is bio-fuels. Royal Dutch Shell's strategy towards renewable energy has also changed. Earlier this year, the company, rated the largest corporation in the world byFortune magazine in 2009, announced it would no longer invest in renewable energy projects such as wind, solar and hydro power projects because they were not economic.
The bottom line is that many investors seem to be scared off by the so-called "green future" and one must ask why that is so. The recession has had an effect and the start-up costs for such projects are higher than for conventional power projects. However, we must also realise that people are very sceptical about paying higher prices for so-called greener products. In my business I found there was always a core group of people who were willing to pay a higher price for certain products, be they free of genetic modification, organic or just greener.
People in Ireland and throughout the world see governments pushing so-called carbon taxes. They know that for all the guilt pushed on them, they will end up paying higher energy costs. It is the last thing Ireland needs at present. Our electricity and heating costs are among the highest in the EU, although I am aware that Bord Gáis has announced that the price of gas will decrease. However, we must do our utmost to bring these costs down in order that we can become competitive again. The single challenge we face is making ourselves competitive and while people are worried about the environment, they do not wish to be taken for mugs.
There are many questions to be answered, especially with regard to carbon tax. An indication of the customer's sceptical outlook about the environment in the midst of a recession is offered by what happened in British Airways. That airline has offered carbon offsets with its flights for the past four years but has found that only 3% of customers buy them. The Economist has put it bluntly. It commented last week that: “Attempts to get a renewable-energy industry going have flopped.” Mr. Richard Tol, who writes on Ireland for that newspaper, has said that “renewable energy is more expensive than non-renewable energy and stimulating renewable energy therefore reduces competitiveness and slows down economic growth and job creation”.
Instead of following the Green Party mantra of creating jobs through a green revolution, perhaps we should examine more closely current ways of creating jobs, which is what we really need at present. There will be grave difficulties if we attempt to move so quickly in the green area that we become uncompetitive. Perhaps a tax credit should be introduced for those who create jobs in any industry, as the US is now considering. What is certain is that we must examine new ways to get private business to invest in green energy. I am not sure how that will be done. It is not as easy as some people claim, especially in the Green Party. The New Scientist magazine pointed out earlier this year that "the most advanced "renewable" technologies are too often based upon non-renewable resources". In other words, the green lobby could be robbing the planet of irreplaceable natural assets.
However, I am hopeful for the future of renewable energies. When we finalise the amount of emissions our economy will reduce in the coming years, the move to renewable energies will become more incentivised. I hope we can move further in that direction. There is much work to be done because this issue is not nearly as simple as I thought it might be.
With regard to the legitimacy of climate change, it is obvious that the climate is changing but there has been an interesting discussion prior to the Copenhagen summit about the major cause of this change. It is difficult to know. Whether it is mainly man-made or something else is still debated. James Lovelock, in his most recent book published earlier this year,The Vanishing Face of Gaia, says the Earth’s system is so complex and interconnected that “we are like a 19th century physician trying to give a sensible prognosis to a patient with diabetes”.
Anybody who is interested in this topic should look up Easter Island on the Internet. It is fascinating to see what happened there. When the island was discovered 3,000 km to the west of Chile in the 16th century, it was inhabited by approximately 10,000 people. There was a thriving civilisation but by 1900 there were 100 people left. The people kept cutting down the trees and ruined the environment. Whoever chopped down the last tree should have known it would be the end for their civilisation. They did not survive. If one looks up the subject on the Internet, it will take only ten minutes to read about Easter Island. I have never been there. My daughter went to Chile and convinced me of the island's interest when I visited her there but we never managed to visit it. I would love to visit it sometime and see the huge statutes. It was the building of those statues that probably caused the end of the island's civilisation.
Perhaps humans do not react quickly enough or are not clever enough to handle what is approaching in the future. The Kyoto agreement was reached 11 years ago and it is evident that discussions at Copenhagen are experiencing difficulties. They have only started but, at this stage, it does not appear that anything will be achieved. What worries me is that dissenting voices about the cause of climate change are branded deniers, sceptics and so forth. I am glad the scandal at the University of East Anglia's climatic research unit has brought the subject into focus in recent weeks. There were many headlines about that and it is useful to see what happened there. There are many legitimate views which are, to a degree, stifled. We must not suppress scientific debate on this matter.
With regard to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, it could be said that it had already arrived at an opinion before any debate occurred. It is a political rather than a scientific organisation. Many reputations are riding on climate change and the Copenhagen conference, be they academic or political. Nobody really knows how our climate works. Many of the so-called predictions are based on computer simulations. Should we trust these unreservedly? The best theories we have to explain climate change are based on past data, which many experts admit are limited in variance. We should be very wary of not questioning the method. We are never sure what is causing it but there is little doubt that we must take action soon. I recommend to anyone who is interested in the topic, as we all should be, to look up Easter Island on the Internet for ten minutes to discover how what is being discussed in Copenhagen must come about.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. Senator Quinn made relevant points that members of the public also make. I do not like using the term "ordinary people", which is often used. I do not know what ordinary or extraordinary people are like, but people are asking questions about green energy. For example, if they want to get a wind charger or so on, they ask whether buying a charger for €20,000 or €30,000 would be worthwhile in terms of payback, efficiency and whether it will be obsolete within two years. We must give people direction.
We are doing the right things, given the use of electric cars, transport fleets running on natural gas and so on. All of this is well and good, but we need a clearly itemised plan to engage the public. People do not understand exactly what is required of them. There is considerable confusion. Senator O'Reilly referred to the number of unused mills. When I asked an expert about them, he told me that they were beautiful wheels that looked lovely in the countryside but were only 20% efficient. We must consider matters such as efficiency, cost, final benefit and viability. None of the answers has been established, so we cannot tell people what they should be doing. People who are getting their homes tested under the building energy rating system wonder how much a test will cost, how they can go about doing it and what they would need to get done if their homes do not pass. Senator Quinn is right about there being much confusion.
Senator Boyle referred to wildlife, which I like. I do a lot of fishing, which has allowed me to see the effects on wildlife. Animals cannot find food in their natural habitats, so they go around housing estates and so on searching for food at night. In many areas, fish are dead in the water. There is no fight in them at all. We must recognise that something is going wrong because wildlife is important. I usually agree with Senator Coffey, but he stated that we should be considering humans. Humans enter into the discussion on wildlife because the latter is important to our tourism and food industries.
I do not want to be repetitive, but we have lacked proper planning. The recent floods brought this problem to light in no uncertain way. People have asked what caused the floods, as Senator O'Reilly stated. There is much confusion and we do not really know the cause. We are sceptical of scientists and experts, asking how they could know and saying that they are wrong.
We should have an itemised plan to spell out clearly to the members of the public who want to participate how they can do so in a cost-effective way. In today's climate, no one can spend money without knowing the eventual benefit.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I want to speak briefly about the ongoing negotiations in Copenhagen as well as some of the climate change challenges facing Ireland. Observing the global response to climate change has been increasingly depressing. Progress is too slow, opposing interests are too rich and fine words are too often unaccompanied by any real action.
The climate change conference in Copenhagen represents a unique opportunity to change our course. The signs so far are mixed. While action is supported overwhelmingly by the public, the political reality and experience thus far tells us that whatever is achieved will probably not be enough. Efforts to devise a roadmap for tackling climate change after 2012 have been severely hampered by a determined and financially robust campaign against the notion of climate change. InThe Guardian newspaper this week, George Monbiot cited two cases from Climate Cover Up, an excellent book by James Hoggan and Richard Littlemore. They provided a case study that focuses on the efforts of coal companies in the United States of America to create a smog and spread misinformation about climate change. The coalition is targeting different groups with different messages in an attempt to create confusion.
It is clear that many, if not all, of the large energy companies are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand, billions of dollars are being spent convincing us all that these companies have had a Damascene conversion about the benefits of green energy and, on the other hand, they are spending as much on disseminating misinformation, half truths and statistical manipulation. This is especially true of the US where it seems that, even if a deal is produced in Copenhagen, getting such a deal through the Houses of Congress would be difficult.
The battle lines have been drawn and it is our responsibility as legislators to inform people about what climate change will look like in Ireland. The devastation we saw as a result of the recent floods should be framed as a preview to the type of chaos we can expect to become increasingly commonplace on this island. Families will be isolated in their homes, the elderly and infirm will worry about whether they will get food, farmers will be concerned about their livestock and small businesses will worry about their stock.
In Cork, Clonmel and elsewhere, hundreds of communities suffered as a result of what mother nature can do. Senator Brady asked why it occurred, but it is a combination of bad luck, bad weather and bad planning. We can make a difference by being careful about not zoning new residential developments in flood plains and by being aware of the likely impact of climate change on coastal communities in particular.
Events such as the recent floods will become commonplace if change is not introduced. Yesterday's budget proposes some measures, but we need to do much more. We have made remarkably little progress in our efforts to combat climate change. Less than 3% of our energy consumption comes from renewable or sustainable sources. Earlier this year during a similar debate in the House, I mentioned a report from Sustainable Energy Ireland, which stated that the average Irish household uses 31% more than its EU counterpart. The report found that household fuel usage decreased by less than 0.5% between 1995 and 2006, while average electricity usage per person increased by a considerable 62%. We are fourth from bottom in the EU energy league and Dublin is one of the worst performing cities in the European green city index. A report published last year by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, predicted that by 2020, Ireland will have exceeded its greenhouse emissions target by 7 million tonnes. These statistics are not indicative of a society or Government that takes the dangers of climate change seriously.
Last year, I spoke of the urgent need for an aggressive campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of climate change and of the benefits of clean fuel and energy independence. Senator Brady believes we must ensure people are well aware of the dangers we face. We need a campaign to match the emotional impact of anti-smoking and drink driving campaigns. The sense of urgency is absent from public debate. We should be under no illusion about the threat before us if we do not act.
Yesterday, UN experts warned that unless action is taken soon, climate change could lead to another 100 million people facing starvation by the middle of the century owing to the reduction in yields of crops such as maize, rice and wheat. We still have a chance to prevent such a disaster. During this week and next week many people will go to Copenhagen to try to reach an international agreement on the way forward. I shall be in attendance and hope to speak to many people about the measures we can introduce to make a difference. Like everybody in this House, I hope the Copenhagen summit will be a success and that world leaders will agree on how we can collectively fight this grave threat to our future.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. It is my first time to hear him in the Chamber and I wish him the best of luck in his job. He has done a top job so far and should keep it up.
Speaking as a 26 year old, when my age group sees targets and goals for 2020, 2030 and 2050, we think these are long distant and will never impact or come to pass. When I think of 26 years from now I wonder where I will be and what I will be doing.
The Senator will probably be in the Seanad.
That is right. However, as time moves on we see that actions can make a difference. Senator Quinn mentioned Easter Island and the catastrophes that have already occurred on the planet. As national legislators and policymakers, we have a role and responsibility to ensure we make a difference locally. In that way, we might impact upon the big polluters such as the United States, China, India and Australia and make a difference. I wish the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the best of luck in Copenhagen. A point of hope is that President Obama is due to attend towards the end of the conference, on 18 December. I hope that says much about the intent of the United States and how seriously that country will take the conference and what flows from it.
Senator Boyle said climate change is the greatest challenge we all face. The controversy over the research at the East Anglia research institute has done serious harm to the climate change argument and given oxygen to the anti-climate change brigade. I hope the fact that a certain research institute may have manipulated figures does not take away from this key issue which is so important for all of us.
In part, I welcome the announcement of the carbon tax which is, ultimately, a tax on pollution. It attempts to disincentivise people on point of purchase, making them ask what will be the consequent pollutant factor. The challenge then will be for people to make their different choices. As I stated on the Order of Business, those who can use the option of rail should have optimum benefits but since the reopening of the line to Drogheda three weeks ago, there has been a diminution of the service. I hope that situation will be addressed because we must incentivise people to get out of their cars. An increase in cost can achieve that but we must ensure a viable and better alternative is in place for them.
I welcomed the Minister for Finance's declaration that the money to come from the carbon tax will be ring-fenced for energy efficient schemes, retrofitting of insulation and rural transport. As one who represents a rural county, Louth, I can say the rural transport scheme has been an enormous success and has had a positive impact on the quality of life of many elderly people in the community who now have an opportunity to get to towns and villages from their own areas, which may be rural and isolated. I hope the Minister of State will take responsibility for this and ensure it will happen. It will be a key point for all of us in the future.
That issue is tied to the ring-fencing of moneys for retrofitting insulation which will be the future for the construction industry in the short term. Many people have got great benefit from Sustainable Energy Ireland's home energy saving scheme, the warmer homes scheme and others. A total of €130 million in funding has been specifically targeted for this. I also welcome that there will be an opportunity for people in local authority housing to avail of the scheme. Only when one goes into a house before and after such improvements are undertaken does one see the difference made. As Senator Brady noted, people sometimes find it difficult to quantify the benefits of such schemes and ask whether the benefits are financial or heat related. As we go into 2010 many elderly and people with young children do not wish to live in damp houses.
Senator Boyle got some stick from the Opposition regarding the point he made but he hit the nail on the head. We must try to change our mentality. New, younger legislators like me hope we can change the mentality. We must focus on how the green debate and agenda can change our lives and economies and how, at local, national and international levels, people can work hand in hand to improve the quality of life of both humans and the planet. That will be key. Regarding yesterday's budget, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, welcomed the total spend of €2.3 billion for his Department for 2010. That is the second largest capital spend of any Department that year. It is welcome and worthwhile.
I wish the Minister and all the delegates to the conference in Copenhagen the best of luck in finding a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. As Senator Brady mentioned, the four key elements of the Bali action plan must be targeted: mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer and finance. We must produce a clear and strong focus for future action and have a long-term goal.
As I said, when one sees goals for 2050 such as reducing emissions by 50% compared with 1990, levels the worry is this seems so far away. The year 2050 is many moons from now. I hope I shall be at home with my grandchildren sitting on my knee not worrying about such matters because we will have taken the right decisions. Those decisions we must make now are key for the future, not only locally in Ireland or in the short term but internationally. It is the chance of a lifetime for many people at the conference. President Obama has inspired many of us with his message of hope but it must be translated into actions. That is key.
I thank the Seanad for giving me the opportunity to speak on this matter today. I wish the Minister the best of luck in Copenhagen and thank the Minister of State for his attendance.
I thank Senator Carroll for his maiden speech. According to the timetable, I was to call on the Minister of State at 1.50 p.m. The Leader indicated he would consider the order later but I have heard nothing since. I shall call Senator Coffey, who will have only three minutes.
I shall be brief. I welcome the debate because climate change is a very important issue that should continue to be debated in this House on a rolling basis and at many levels throughout the country. People spoke about raising public awareness of the issue. It must be extended into places such as local authorities and even our schools by way of debating competitions. Climate change must be debated at every level possible because it is a challenge that transcends all nations, genders, breeds and species.
Speakers stated that Fine Gael was not worried about frogs and hen harriers. Of course, we are worried about the frogs and the hen harriers. We believe such issues should have a proper structured debate and priorities should be given where needed. Green issues have become mainstream now in politics and all major political parties give a high priority to them and to climate change, which is very welcome.
I agree with Senator Brady that we must stop speaking above the public with regard to climate change. We must give a clearer understanding and awareness to the populace. We can learn from our children in this regard. Marvellous work is being done in schools on green energy, sustainable living and the green schools initiatives. Children know almost as much as their parents or households. There is a great deal to be learned in that area.
There is an opportunity also in regard to housing and the local authorities, which comes within the Minister of State's remit. I am aware of many local authorities which installed oil central heating and so on in their local housing stock in good faith in the past ten years. The inhabitants of those houses now find it is unsustainable to keep paying for the oil at current prices, and we will have a further increase with the carbon tax.
Sustainable Energy Ireland recently engaged in a pilot project where it is installing wood pellet boilers into houses but, unfortunately, only private houses and people on social welfare qualify for that pilot project. I would be hopeful, and the Minister might give Members some information in this regard, that that might be rolled out to people in the local authority housing stock and that in the future they might be able to apply for conversion to more sustainable heating systems for their houses. I am aware moneys have been allocated for retrofitting housing stock, which is welcome. That should be prioritised because insulation, draught proofing and simple measures like that would help convince ordinary people, who are the people we need to get on side, to make those changes. The Copenhagen summit is taking place——
I am sorry, Senator. The Leader has indicated to Senator Carroll that he wishes to extend the debate until 2.15 p.m. That will enable you to speak for seven minutes. I apologise for cutting short your time.
That is okay. I understand.
I propose that the debate be extended until 2.15 p.m.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
It is agreed but it is a pity we had not got more clarity on that because this is an important debate and it is unfair to interrupt speakers. I understand the reason for that. The Cathaoirleach is in the Chair and he must follow the Order of Business as set down but it is disappointing that we do not have more clarity in terms of the order. I ask that there be more clarity in future debates.
The Minister of State will be called to reply at 2.05 p.m. Senator Coffey has three minutes remaining.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I know the Minister of State will take on board my point regarding the housing stock. We can start to convince people on the ground in this regard. I mentioned children coming home from the schools. Senator Carroll is right. Our younger people are probably more aware of this area. We must offer incentives to the older generation such as conversion systems from oil to more sustainable heating levels and insulation in the home. They will then start to see the real benefits in cost savings with regard to energy. They will have warmer houses and start to engage with and understand more the benefits of these measures. Any measure in that regard is to be welcomed.
Global leaders are meeting at the Copenhagen summit and delegations from this country will attend. That is important and I wish them well. I am hopeful there will be positive outcomes and progression following the Copenhagen summit and the meetings that are ongoing. I am sure the roles of the various countries will be examined on a global level at the summit. The larger economies such as the United States of America, China and India will have a major role to play in controlling carbon emissions in the future. We, as members of the European Union, have a major role to play also. Even though Ireland is a small country, there is no doubt we must play our part and we in Fine Gael are supportive of that.
There are certain challenges unique to Ireland that other countries will not have to face. One of the major ones is our high dependence on agriculture. Agriculture is an important sector in the economy. It contributes enormously to exports which attract investment into our country, food production and so on. There should be a weighting system of some sort that allows us to produce our beef and other food for Europe and the wider world even though we are emitting carbon doing that. The alternative is to cut back on that but that would be detrimental to the economy because, as a rural economy, we are dependent on agriculture.
We must consider also the downside of importing beef and the huge number of carbon emissions associated with that. For example, if we import beef from South America, that would involve huge transportation costs and the cost of rearing the beasts from farm to table, all of which must be taken into account. Ireland should have a weighting system that allows the agricultural economy of this country to develop. We will play our part in other areas with regard to reducing carbon emissions. The debate is welcome and it should continue on a rolling basis.
I call Senator O'Sullivan. There are 11 minutes remaining in total.
I will allocate some of my time to Senator de Búrca. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Finneran. He is a regular attender here and always shows great support for the Seanad. I welcome also the statement made by the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, at the outset of the debate in which she reaffirmed the EU commitment to meeting the targets of the Kyoto agreement about which there has been some doubt. Her affirmation was welcome in that regard.
As a member of the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security, I acknowledge the good work that committee has been doing in the past two and a half years under the chairmanship of Deputy Seán Barrett. Deputy Liz McManus produced a document last week on the need for legislation on climate change and, prior to that, Deputy Simon Coveney led the call for greater electrification of cars. That committee has been doing useful work and it is getting good support from the Government. I hope it will bring forward a Bill arising out of its deliberations in due course.
Global warming is a scientific certainty and it is a fact that it is being contributed to greatly by human activity. Only luddites believe the opposite. It is there to be seen. Every summer there is a new record in terms of heat and every winter we seem to have a new record in terms of flooding. In September Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General, said we are like somebody driving a car with the foot stuck on the accelerator as we head towards the abyss. People must take notice of that.
Reading between the lines in terms of what is happening at the Copenhagen summit, sometimes the signs are good and at other times they are not so good. They do not seem to be great at the moment. As Senator Coffey said, it is welcome that President Barack Obama will attend the conference because there is huge expectation of and hope in him. It is a major challenge and it will be a test for him to see if something meaningful like a treaty can come out of the Copenhagen summit rather than pious platitudes. The strides that were made in Bali must be built upon and anything short of success in Copenhagen will be viewed as failure. There is no in between.
In regard to energy security, which is the flip side of climate change, we are all committed to renewable energy whether it is wind, wave or tidal. Entrepreneurs throughout the country are trying their best to get working on that but there appears to be a lack of joined-up thinking and cohesion about the whole area. I hope the Government will try to pull together the many forces involved in that.
People are taking different actions to try to make a contribution. As recently as last week a group in my home town called Energy Master, which is run by well-respected business people with a good track record, folded. Is that because people are not committed enough to this area? Are we talking the talk but not walking the walk in regard to renewable energy and so on? It comes down to our individual attitude. We all have our own individual carbon footprint, to use that cliché, but are we making that contribution? Are we turning off lights at home? Are we overdoing it in terms of heating our homes? I have three sons who think the switch is only for turning on electric appliances. They never turn off the switch and I am sure that is typical of rural Ireland. We leave doors open which causes draughts.
The Government must be commended on the proactive steps it has taken in regard to the retrofitting and insulation grants, as well as those affirmed in last night's budget. That is an important contribution the Government can make.
In fairness to the Green Party it has given a strong lead in the area of conservation. Its Government partners, Fianna Fáil, has always been an environmentally conscious party. There is a new impetus in the country. We are small but our contribution is invaluable.
The local authorities have a major role to play in this area. Some local authorities are responding better than others and without being parochial, in my last term as a councillor in Kerry our management team and councillors contributed to reducing the carbon footprint. I was not happy with what my colleague, Senator Dan Boyle, said about councillors attending conferences because many of the good ideas picked up by management at local authority level were initiated by the elected members——
——who were responding to what people were telling them locally. Many good ideas came out of those conferences. I will conclude with a good news story. The use of nuclear power will have to be reconsidered. That is not what I meant to say, but it will have to be looked at again. There were ructions in Carnsore when Dessie O'Malley tried to locate a nuclear facility there many years ago. Thirty years on, there have been many scientific advances. The UK Government is proposing to develop a host of small nuclear stations across from our coastline. We will have to examine the matter again.
I am not sure the Senator's Green Party colleagues agree with him.
I am not saying whether I am in favour of nuclear power — I am merely saying that the debate on it should be reopened as part of an overall debate on energy security and climate change.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak about this important issue, particularly at a time when an international summit on climate change is taking place in Copenhagen. When I listened to the contributions of Senators, I was encouraged to hear they are convinced about the issue of climate change. I suggest that most of us should take seriously an interesting article by an environmental campaigner, Mr. John Gibbons, in today'sThe Irish Times. Mr. Gibbons, who writes regularly on the issue of climate change, wrote about the “kind of collective psychosis” that affects the Irish people when they know something is going on but continue to be in a state of complete denial about it. Although we are able to talk about, acknowledge and recognise climate change, we often resist the actions that are necessary to respond seriously to it. That will be evident once more when concrete measures like the proposed carbon tax are rolled out. If Ireland, the EU and the world as a whole are to begin to make the transition to a low-carbon economy, it is absolutely essential that we put a price on carbon. Certain fundamental steps have to be taken if we are to change our economy in this manner. Change is never easy. We cannot accept the demands of interest groups which shout loudly that old ways should be allowed to continue.
I have to hand it to the Green Party's Government colleagues, Fianna Fáil, which has supported us in our efforts since we came into government. It agreed to sign up to the Green elements of the programme for Government even though the issues in question did not form a core part of its political agenda. Fianna Fáil is supporting the Green Party and making it possible for these important changes to occur. In the future, people will look back and say that the current Government introduced important changes, some of which I would like to mention. We have committed ourselves to a 3% annual reduction in carbon emissions. We have introduced carbon legislation to enshrine those emission reductions in law soon. A carbon budget is delivered by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government around the same time as the main budget. This shadow budget, in effect, makes clear the impact and implications of the main budget for our carbon performance. The carbon budget will assume greater importance as we tie ourselves into legally binding commitments at national, European and international levels. It will help us to keep track of how we are doing in relation to the targets we have set for ourselves.
The Government has changed the vehicle registration tax system in order that it favours the purchase of environmentally friendly cars. The Minister, Deputy Gormley, has introduced building regulations to ensure new homes and buildings to be constructed in this country are much more energy efficient. That will lead to reductions in carbon emissions. By introducing the insulation grants, greener homes, home energy savings and warmer homes schemes, we have created new jobs at a time when many jobs in the construction sector have been lost. The media teased the Green Party for its focus on energy-efficient light bulbs, which is another example of a policy that will help Ireland to meet the targets to which it has signed up and legislatively tied itself into. Our planning legislation is being improved. The Minister has introduced the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 to ensure there is much more consistency between what we say we are doing at national level and the local planning decisions of local councillors, for example on the rezoning of lands. We are continuing to prioritise public transport. The transport sector contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Public transport is much more energy-efficient and much cleaner. We are prioritising public transport. All of these things are important.
If Ireland wants to enjoy what is known as first mover advantage, it should willingly continue to make the essential and necessary changes to which the international community will sign up over the next decade or so. We need to develop a strong, clean and green economy in this country. We should use our membership of the EU to influence the kind of legislation that is emerging from the Commission. That will put us in a favourable position to benefit from the many economic opportunities that will arise in the years to come and give us a head start on others. Initiatives like the services directive, which will be fully implemented at EU level later this month, will allow Irish companies that are to the fore and have developed their ideas to provide services freely throughout the Union and to enjoy great commercial and business opportunities.
I am very happy we have had a chance to speak about climate change. I hope the commitment of Senators to tackling climate change will be followed through when the time comes to adopt policies. The decisions we will have to make about policy changes may be controversial in the short term, but in the longer term they will position Ireland well in the context of the green economy.
I am pleased to be here. I have been impressed with the level of engagement of Senators on this issue, which is being debated at international level. The Seanad has given great thought and expression to the whole issue of climate change. Before I respond to the comments of various Senators, I would like to compliment the newest Member of the House, Senator Carroll, on his maiden speech. Anyone who listened to him will agree he will have a long life in politics. I hope he will move up through the ranks until his grandchildren are on his knee in 41 years time. I wish him well. We are lucky he is a member of our party, as he will be a great asset to the political machine.
As we speak, the world is watching the events that are unfolding at the Copenhagen conference, which has generated unprecedented media attention. The serious threat posed by climate change respects no borders and is felt across the globe. It is clear that an effective global response to climate change needs to be reached as a matter of urgency. Over 100 world leaders, including the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, will gather in Copenhagen next week for the final days of the conference. It is a demonstration of the world's determination to reach an ambitious agreement to halt global warming. At the opening of the conference last Monday, the Danish Prime Minister said that such an agreement should be acceptable to all parties and be strong, ambitious, just, equitable, effective and operational. It cannot be denied that this is a mammoth task.
Some attempts have been made to undermine the position of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I suggest we should ignore the evidence of the robust science being used by the panel at our peril. It would be wise to listen to and read the words of the committed people from all over the world who are represented on the panel. Their views should be taken on board in every step we take. The Minister will be well armed when he travels to Denmark at the weekend. He can refer to the carbon tax, as introduced in yesterday's budget, and to the carbon budget. He will be able to speak with authority about the attention the Government and the country as a whole are giving to the issue of climate change.
The European Union has played and continues to play a leading role in an international climate change process under the United Nations convention. Ireland has consistently and fully supported the European Union's proactivity and leadership in this regard. This position stands and we will play our part in seeking to influence a positive and effective outcome at Copenhagen. As Members are aware, a fully-fledged and legally binding agreement may not be possible. While it may take a little longer to reach such an agreement, the parties must make significant progress to enable this to happen at the earliest possible stage.
Senator de Búrca mentioned the carbon budget and other matters and was absolutely correct in her summing up of the manner in which people are engaged on the matter of climate change. One of the most frightening things I heard recently was that the area of the northern ice cap may have reduced by 50% within ten years. Were such an extraordinary forecast to be true, it would change the world. If such scientific evidence exists, we must heed it and must act quickly on climate change.
Senator Brady mentioned the phrase "ordinary people" and queried who they were. I believe a former distinguished Member of this House once defined ordinary people as those who ate their dinner in the middle of the day. However, I find that so-called ordinary people, who in the past may not have discussed matters such as climate change, are discussing issues such as fish in rivers, the disappearance of certain species of animals, plants and so on. People are engaged in this regard. Moreover, Senator Carroll noted that young people are highly attuned to the issue of climate change.
Senator Coffey mentioned the issue of housing and retrofitting. Members are aware that in 2009 the Minister and I moved for the first time with regard to retrofitting. A scheme emerged from our Department, through SEI, which eventually was operated through the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Moreover an additional allocation of €20 million was made to the local authorities to restore vacant or unused local authority houses. Out of the budget of €1.61 billion available to me in 2010 for social housing and housing supports, I have allocated €45 million towards the retrofitting of social housing. Moreover, when both the public and private sectors are taken into account, a total of €130 million has been committed by the Government to retrofitting. The Government is committed to retrofitting, rightly so.
It has been interesting to hear today's debate. As I stated, the outcome of the Copenhagen conference will influence and affect what will be done at a national level regarding climate change. This hugely complex, challenging and global problem requires a comprehensive solution at global level, underpinned by commitments and effective action at a national level. A global deal on climate change is of huge importance to Ireland. As I noted, the effects of climate change transcends borders and boundaries. I believe Senator O'Reilly mentioned flooding and its effects have been evident in Ireland in recent weeks in areas including the west, the south, counties Kildare, Galway, Roscommon, Westmeath and Leitrim, as well as the Shannon and Suck basins. Older people in the community inform me, on foot of information garnered from their parents, that such floods have not been witnessed in the last 100 years. There is evidence from the areas south of Athlone of the major flood that took place in 1954 and it is known for certain that the water levels there were one and one half feet higher this time than was the case in 1954. This is frightening and while no one can definitively state this was caused by climate change, it can be stated for sure that climate change is contributing to such events. I believe climate change to be a major contributory factor. People in those areas fear for the future. It was necessary in the aforementioned counties to evacuate more than 100 people from their homes, many of whom will not return before Christmas and some of whom may never return. This is a new phenomenon of which we must take cognisance.
In virtually all the areas that were badly affected, the level of rainfall was considerably higher than previous levels experienced in those areas. In some instances, the rainfall level was dramatically higher, and not always over a wider area. I already have alluded to the available evidence and note that all kinds of challenges arise in this regard. There is almost universal agreement that extraordinarily high levels of rainfall pertain to climate change and I noted it is a contributing factor. This occurred much sooner than might have been anticipated and undoubtedly was much more dramatic than we were prepared for. However, it is important to acknowledge that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has been active in considering the threat posed by climate change and the ways of dealing with such challenges. The strategy put forward by the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, seven or eight years ago still is relevant in respect of what should be done today. The impact of climate change is not simply a matter for the coastal areas, on which there was a previous focus because of the likelihood of rising sea levels as a result of melting ice caps, but also for inland areas, river basins and areas that were not previously prone to flooding. Meeting the challenges posed by climate change is not a matter for central Government alone. It is a challenge for all sectors of Government and society. The national climate change strategy 2007-12 sets out a range of measures to enable Ireland to meet its Kyoto Protocol commitments and to position it for the post-2012 period. Key policy issues in our response to climate change include areas of energy efficiency, sustainable travel and transport, as well as the carbon levy announced yesterday.
Senators Quinn and O'Sullivan raised the subject of renewable energy and more use must be made of renewable energy sources such as wind, wave, hydroelectric, geothermal and bio-fuels, which can supply some of our needs. We also must conserve energy more efficiently by using low-energy products both at home and at work. Our aim is to source 15% and 40% of electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 2020, respectively. Emissions from the transport sector continue to grow and Ireland's travel and transport patterns are not sustainable. On foot of cross-departmental co-operation and working together with the Minister for Transport——
——public transport will be improved, while at the same time supporting climate change objectives. The Government's engagement with Europe is important and I mentioned that the Minister is travelling to the summit. We are fully committed to meeting these challenges and the Government recognises the importance of action.
We have gone over time. Does the Minister of State have much to complete?
A couple of minutes. It is an important issue.
While I understand it is important, my hands are tied when the House orders business for a particular time.
I will conclude as I do not wish to upset the clár of the House. I have taken note of all Members' contributions, for which I thank them. At the Department's offices in the Customs House, the Ministern and I, as well as our officials, will be highly conscious of the points made in this House. I again thank Members for the opportunity to address at least some of the issues raised.