I could not possibly do justice to the debate by responding to each Senator but I hope Senators will not mind if I do not refer back to every contribution. I will share a few thoughts.
I think Senator Horkan is absolutely right that we should listen to everyone. Every place and person matters. We will only make the scale of the leap we need to make if we listen with respect, including to those who do not agree and those who voted against this for whatever concerns or reasons they have. They represent people with concerns. To get as much consensus and political and public support for this as possible, we must do it in a listening and respectful way, particularly for the agricultural sector.
Senators Cummins, Murphy and others have raised concerns about the impact of this on the agricultural sector. It will impact that sector. The agricultural sector is as involved in this as every other sector. First, it is affected by climate change like no other sector. Second, energy will completely transform. It will be a 100% change. Industry will be 50%, 60% or 70% changed in the next decade and the same for transport. Agriculture will have to play its part. If Irish agriculture does not, it will be in deep trouble. It will get the reputation internationally for not being green and that would be a killer at a time when there are challenges from the MERCOSUR deal and the UK–Australian trade deal. We have cheaper products coming in which do not have the same environmental standards. Our opportunity in agriculture is to stand up for environmental standards. It is an exporting sector so if word goes out internationally that Irish agriculture is not playing its part, it is finished.
Therefore, we will work together with the Irish farming, forestry and land use communities to make sure this works for farmers and for the environment. The two can and will work together.
I have listened to a number of Senators make the valid case that we must look at sinks as well as sources. We have to account for that. I believe the Bill does so and it consistently goes back to the international agreements that govern everything here and which recognise sinks, as well as sources, are important. Central to our response will be the land use plan we will need, which looks at all these variables. The first key metric for success or otherwise is getting a whole new generation of young farmers involved and paying them properly. The second is that we store carbon in how we farm, run our forests, manage wetlands and restore nature and biodiversity. These have to be nature-based solutions to tackle climate change, because we have a biodiversity crisis as well as a climate crisis. We also, at that time, must stop the polluting of our waters that has occurred in the past 30 to 50 years, whereby we have gone from 500 pristine river systems down to 20. That has to be reversed or else we cannot go out there and claim we are origin green.
We also have to tackle the ammonia, nitrate and phosphate pollution endemic in our country and must increase incomes for Irish farming as we do so. That can and will be done, including the likes of what Senator Murphy said about horticulture on our peatlands. There is huge controversy in terms of importing peat. We have to stop the industrial extraction of peat. That is an absolute certainty. Legally, we have to do that. However, that does not mean we do not start using our bogs in the way Senator Murphy suggested. They are exactly the sort of opportunities Bord na Móna is starting to see and that will create jobs and opportunities in the midlands in particular.
Numerous Senators mentioned the transport issue. At the same time as we pass this Bill, we also have to carry out a national development plan review and the two go together. We must start to align our capital investment in particular with our climate plans. As for the key changes, in respect of roads we will be switching to large numbers of bypasses, because that helps us on the climate front. The more bypasses of towns we have, the more those towns can revive. We will bring life into the centre. Having people living in the centre of the town is not only good in terms of addressing the housing crisis, it also means we do not have to build ever further out and do not have pour the cement for the new pavements, water management systems, schools and everything which goes out and out and out, while the centres of our towns - including Dublin town - are dying. That does not make sense. The climate-clever way is to bring life back to the centre, whereby one can walk to school, church, the pub and the shops and can use the existing buildings.
We have stunning 19th-century market towns, large numbers of which are being allowed to dilapidate and remain vacant. Senator Cummins mentioned the N24 in recent contributions. Tipperary town is one example of a town on that route. It has 30% vacancy. There are 245,000 vacant houses in the country. In tackling the housing crisis, we can get families back in to buy and refurbish those houses and support them in using those houses and use all the existing infrastructure to have a much more attractive community public realm. This applies to every town. It is Carrick-on-Suir, Clonmel, Bansha, Cahir and Tipperary town. I could keep going right up through the country. We all know the towns throughout this country that could benefit from that kind of approach. Many bypasses are what we should focus on now.
However, the switch is being made. It is agreed in the Government that 20%of funding is going to active travel, with a public transport to roads ratio of 2:1.
As well as the bypasses, we need investment in sustainable active travel and bus and rail, particularly in all five of our cities - Dublin, Cork, Galway, Waterford, Limerick. We need metropolitan rail networks and bus connections for each of those cities, because we need more balanced regional development. We will have a difficult choice to make in that because it will cost a lot of money. The cost of construction, as we all know, is going up. I was just talking about that outside the Chamber with Senators, in terms of the cost of construction going up. We will have to make difficult choices. I understand the case for a station in Cabra. I understand the case in Limerick of possibly using the four existing rail lines. It is not that we need to build a new light-rail line for Limerick, we have a rail infrastructure in Limerick. What we need to do is put electric trains on those lines. We need commuter, metropolitan, battery powered electric trains that can stop and start with the same speed as the Luas, and run on the old heavy-rail lines. That is the direction I think we will go in, particularly in the likes of Cork and Limerick. That is must easier on planning because of the existing lines, and much easier on cost because building new lines is very expensive.
In many cases, taking the example of Moyross, it is relatively cheap to put in the station when the line is already there. The way it works is that we build around the station. County councils throughout the country are doing their development plans now. If we are going to do that and are serious about doing it, we can make the case for investing in, for example, Limerick versus wherever, Cork or Dublin, one could pick any other town or city. Limerick City Council will have to make the decisions whether it will support this sustainable transport future and steer its development plans around these stations. I can think of eight or ten stations in Limerick where we could do this on existing lines. Or the city council will not do this. If it does not, then perhaps Cork will do it, or Dublin is certainly ready and able to do it.
Much of this will be worked on with local government. What is important in the Bill, is the need for local government - this must come from the bottom-up and be at the centre of local government plans - to have a central role in deciding whether they do the town centre first, whether they reuse existing buildings and build hubs in them, and whether they build around their public transport infrastructure and make a 15-minute city or town. Many places have started doing this and they find that this is where the jobs and young families are going. That is what we should do - it is not a negative.
I refer to energy. The Taoiseach has said on numerous occasions that this Government has three key priorities in its legislative programme - the climate Bill, the Land Development Agency Bill, which compliments what I have just said about transport, and the maritime area planning Bill. The maritime area planning Bill is of critical importance because it will help regulate the development of the offshore industry that has the potential to power our future as a country. It is the Ardnacrusha investment of out time to the power of ten, and more. To get it right, we need to get the planning right. Senator Boyhan is familiar with and very experienced in this planning area. He knows how we could completely tar ourselves in glue if we do not get the planning right. In the south side of Dublin city, this will be a very contentious issue as wind farms come into Dublin Bay and all along the east coast. We must, absolutely, make sure that the environmental standards are proper and correct, if we are to get public support. The advantage we have in that is that offshore wind is the cheaper fuel now. I agree, we should look at nuclear options. Senator Mullen referred to this earlier. I would not rule out anything because the climate crisis is so severe. We must look at every option. In truth, I do not see modular small-scale nuclear energy developing in the way solar and wind energy is developing, with the costs coming down. It will never be competitive now - nuclear versus renewable - in our country because we have such a wind resource. At scale, our sea areas are ten times the size of our land area. This is a significant energy store that we have and it makes sense for us to tap into it, use it for our own needs, export it, convert it to hydrogen and ammonia fuel, run other systems, bring industry and jobs here. However, it will not work, if we do not get the planning and the public consultation engagement right, and the environmental aspect to that planning done right
Senator Gavan, and perhaps others, mentioned data centres. Agriculture will have to change, so will transport, energy and industry. I do not see that it would be impossible for us to go to the data centre companies, which are large multinationals, by and large, which know that their customers around the world will insist that they emit zero carbon by the end of the decade. We should go to those companies and say that we want to work with them. We want data centres here for a range of reasons, one being that we have to pay for everything. When we produce the national development plan in the coming months, we will have to balance all the investment requirements, which are massive, in the areas of water, transport infrastructure and housing. We all agree that we have to spend billions on housing but we must also spend billions on transport infrastructure, water and agriculture. I could go on.
We have to have an honest discussion. If we are going to have a real discussion, we have to ask where the money is coming from and how will we pay for it all. That is a real question. Yes, we can borrow, but at some point the borrowing has to be backed up with income. We are a successful country at foreign direct investment and digital industries and those data centres are part of that industry. We cannot have data centres which are burning gas and which makes it impossible for us to meet our climate targets. This Bill is telling all sectors that they have to change their ways so that they fit in within this zero carbon strategy we are going on. I will sit down with the data centre companies and ask them if we can use Ireland as a test location for the use of back-up hydrogen, back-up ammonia - whatever is zero - back-up batteries, back-up balancing or back-up district heating so that data centres will be part of the solution and not part of the problem. I do not think that is impossible. While the companies might not like it because it is a hassle or because they will have to change their ways - just as those in farming will have to change their ways - I think they will understand that we have reason and logic on our side when we ask for this and set out this challenge. It is about learning by doing, and going to Science Foundation Ireland and setting this as one of our challenges. Just as Bandon is the example of going a zero carbon farm, let us have zero carbon data centres. The benefit of that is that it keeps the industry here and from that, with the new corporate tax rules and so on, it means that we have an income to pay for the water services, public transport and housing. We have to pay for it, and I think we can.
I am in danger of using all the time I said I would not use. I apologise for that. I will respond to some of the broader points. Senator Buttimer expressed concern about quangos. I very much understand his point. We live in a democratic constitutional Republic and it is the Oireachtas that should decide. However, the complicated structure we will set up from the Bill is the correct one. We should be honest that it is sometimes difficult for us to think 15, 20 or 30 years out while the likes of the Climate Change Advisory Council can and will bring in the real expertise to do so and to guide us and allow us to frame our debate. We need that independent and far-sighted council to use its expertise and present us with options. I hear the Senator's concerns but I do not share them in this instance.
Senator Mullen asked, as many do, about why we should do this when China is not doing it. In the next breath, he rightly referred to a document which, in my mind, was truly inspirational and informs much of what I think on the whole climate side, Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si.
There is something within that from a secular point view, not only a spiritual one. Going back to what I said about how every place and person matters, it is the understanding of the sense of nature and the importance of place here which inspires us to do this. It is the beauty of the natural world and of creation us that requires us to protect it regardless of what China is doing.
It starts here at home. It is in protecting our own environment, farm, park and river. It is something that enriches us as we protect our home here.
There is a second wider economic reason because, in reality, this is where the new economy is going. If we decided to hold off because others are not doing this we would miss out on the new economic opportunities that will come from those who do it but there is more than that. Coming out of Covid, everyone realises that we are not separate but that man, woman and nature are combined. There is that almost spiritual sense of connection to community and place and the natural world is what should inspire us to connect so I absolutely agree with Senator Mullen on that. That argument overcomes his earlier concern as to why we should do this when it is not being done by someone else.
I hope it is not a problem if I finish by referring to one of my party colleagues, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, who said that mother nature will restore, return and nurture us as we come back. That is absolutely true. All of the evidence that we have seen in the destruction of the natural world that has taken place in the last 50 years is that if we give mother nature any space to come back then she comes back very strong in that nurturing way. We need to work with mother nature to allow her restore our natural world, which restores and protects us.