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Seanad Éireann debate -
Friday, 16 Jul 2021

Vol. 278 No. 4

Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021: Motion

I move:

That the Seanad so agree to the amendment made by the Dáil consequential on its agreement to Seanad amendments No. 3 and 6.

I welcome the Minister to the House.

I am very glad we are back in the Seanad for what I hope is the final phase of the passing of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021. The various amendments accepted in the Seanad on the inclusion of just transition in the Long Title of the Bill, the removal of a definition of climate justice, and the clarification that sinks and removals as well as emissions are at the cornerstone of developing climate neutrality as part of the Paris Climate Agreement are critical.

There is one further consequential amendment from the Dáil. For the avoidance of doubt, it seeks to insert a requirement under section 3(3) that the Government and Ministers have to be consistent with the Paris Climate Agreement Articles 2 and 4(1) in any regulation they introduce in respect of how such removals and emissions are accounted for. In my mind, the amendment is for the avoidance of doubt because the Bill is clearly framed and structured around that key consistency. We introduced the amendment in the Dáil to ensure we come back to the central truth, namely, that the Bill is this House's application and adherence to the Paris Climate Agreement is at the centre of the Bill. It will give us the legislative mechanism to back up our signing of the agreement.

I hope the Members can see that as the sense and the outcome of the agreement to the final amendment. Subject to the amendment being agreed and the Bill being approved, we look forward to the legislation being fully enacted with the signature of the President, and the critical work of getting down to the business of delivering the scale of change we need to make.

I remind Senators they can speak only once, expect in the case of the proposer of the motion, who has a right of reply. I call Senator Garvey.

Tá fáilte roimh an Aire. Is lá stairiúil atá ann inniu. Tugann an Bille seo an-bhród dom agus tá mo chroí lán le dóchas ar an lá seo.

It is a historic day. My heart is full of hope for the first time in a long time. A lot of work has been done to get us this far. Input has come from every angle and everybody, from green schools to NGOs. Many people have been involved in many ways. There was a citizens' assembly on climate change. Today represents a win for everyone.

From my own rural perspective, I see farmers with too much fodder one year and not enough the next. We had to import fodder two years in a row. Farmers were cutting hay outside Shannon Airport when there were extreme weather conditions. There are extreme weather patterns. That is what climate change is. It is extreme weather patterns that are changing and unpredictable. We saw the devastation in Germany over recent days. Climate change has come home. It has never been too far away. It is not just about it being something that is an issue elsewhere. It is here and it is going to affect everybody in every way.

This Bill is finally putting in place structures in this country that will have to be followed in every single Department in every way to ensure we do all we can to protect this country of ours. We must protect not just the environment but the people who live here so that they are ready to face the challenges associated with extreme weather conditions. Lots of land near where I live has been flooded repeatedly, which means cattle cannot feed and farmers have to keep their cattle inside for longer. The issues have affected me greatly at a rural level, which is why I got into politics, to be honest. I was always an environmental activist and did a lot of human rights work. Then I realised climate change is also a local issue. Perhaps that is not always understood. This Bill is going to change everything in every way but it is for the greater good. We have seen the destruction of our water, wildlife and farm life. Everything has deteriorated because of climate change and the change in weather patterns. Farmers often contact me to ask if rules can be changed because, previously, you could only do some work during the summer but now that does not work anymore. We have all seen our weather patterns becoming much more erratic.

Actions speak louder than words. This Bill is a huge win for environmental activists who have thrown their hat into the political ring to see if they can make a difference inside as well as outside the system. I have often attended protests outside the gates of Leinster House. I went to a Shut Down Sellafield event. I started the Fracking Free Clare campaign. It has been a risk for me to see if we can affect change on the inside as well. There is still a lot of scepticism about what happens inside these gates. Some of that scepticism is lost when I see this valuable climate Bill being passed. I look forward to seeing the President of Ireland signing this very important Bill into law, not just for nature, but for all the people of this country. I thank the Minister and the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action and all the parties and the Opposition, who put in a lot of work, did late nights and scrutinised the legislation to ensure this is the strongest and most useful Bill with which to serve the people as we face this significant challenge of the climate emergency.

I remind Senators we must finish this item by 4.03 p.m., and that includes the Minister's response.

I welcome the Minister and the message from the Dáil in regard to section 6A. It was an oversight. Albeit some may say it was not strictly needed, I think it ties up the entire Bill really well. It was always the intention of the Government, in drafting this Bill, to ensure that Ireland is obliged not just to meet its international obligations, but to go beyond that in many instances and to be consistent with those international obligations in regard to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, and the Paris Agreement. That is what this amendment is about. It is about ensuring that everything the Minister and the Government do is related back to and consistent with our international obligations. I do not think anybody could have any difficulty with that.

I was very disappointed, to be honest, with some of the commentary, particularly in the Dáil. The amendments that this House put before the Dáil included amendments around just transition and around responding to the Stop Climate Chaos request to remove the definition we had of climate justice, yet most of the Opposition voted against those amendments, as well as the other amendments. I would argue that the amendment we put down in regard to ensuring that the Government had to have regard to EU rules was the correct one because there was nothing to preclude us from having regulations around our accounting, whereas those rules now have to be consistent with the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, thanks to this amendment, and have to have regard to the EU rules.

I thank the Minister for bringing forward all of these things. As Senator Garvey said, this is momentous. The Green party has worked on this for more than 40 years, as have environmentalists. This is one of the most ambitious Bills across the globe; it is objectively seen as such and most environmentalists have also said it is one of the most ambitious. Fundamentally, at its very heart, it is about reaching zero emissions by 2050 and, regardless of any of the amendments, that one thing is going to be challenging for us. What this Bill does is to strengthen an advisory council that will advise us in coming up with carbon budgets and climate action plans, and also, very significantly, strengthen all of the public participation that has to go into coming up with those plans.

As I said, some of the commentary has been very disappointing. A particular party, Sinn Féin, actually put forward a budget last year that did not even mention climate, bar mentioning the name of the Department. Let us recognise the fact and the work that this Government and the Green Party has done for those decades in coming up with this. We would absolutely not be as enthusiastic and excited about this if it was not as ambitious as it is, and if we had not put a year into drafting this, but there are also the decades behind the work we have done, across all of the environmental movements in which we have all been involved and in which our children have been involved. Let us celebrate today because it is a good day. I would question anyone who would say that it is not.

I remind Senators they have three minutes apiece. I call Senator Timmy Dooley.

I join with others in complimenting the Minister, as I have done on a number of occasions, for his tenacity and his ability to chart out a course that needed to be taken. He has been dogged in his approach. He has had electoral success and failure along the way, but it never thwarted his vision or his ambition to achieve it. When he started out on that relatively lonely journey, he and others in his party were considered to be “tree huggers”, and other comments were passed that were less complimentary, perhaps, but he has made it a mainstream issue. Like so many other things in politics, as a citizen, he was ahead of where politics was at the time. To some extent, the citizens have caught up with the Minister and caught up with this agenda so that, now, it is everyone's idea and everybody is an expert on this area but, without a doubt, he has been a pioneer in this House.

What I have found in my interaction with the Minister is that he has never taken a fundamentalist approach. He has been prepared to listen to sectors of society because, from the outset, he understood that climate change had to be for everyone. It was not for the academics, the environmentalists or the lobby. It had to be made mainstream, and he has done that in his own, very professional way. He has engaged with groups with which he might have had disagreements, and he brought a central plank of understanding around what we have to do. By signing up to the Paris Agreement, as we did, and by the continued efforts right across society in continuing to lobby, even when he was outside this House, he has made it possible and real.

It is not going to be easy. Anybody who thinks the passage of the Bill is the job done would be missing the point. It will take continued vigilance around the Cabinet table to ensure that every line Department, notwithstanding the vested interests, meets its challenge head-on. Even in the announcement he was part of yesterday in the midlands, the Minister has shown that for an industry like Bord na Móna, the devastation of the area that was expected from a progressive climate policy does not have to be such. He has always said that we must look to the opportunities, and they are there. They are there in the constituency of Clare, where it was very difficult to get the ESB to move on Moneypoint. With a change of thinking in the Department and a new Minister with a different vision, lo and behold, it was able to pull out plans that I am sure it had been working on for some time in terms of the capture of offshore wind in the Atlantic Ocean, with no impact on homes, which is a difficulty with onshore wind. The real opportunity for Moneypoint now comes out of the opportunity to develop a base level for the creation of green hydrogen and the impact that will have, because it is only in the early stages.

I had the pleasure to participate, with other Members of the House, in a demonstration by Bus Éireann just this week of three hydrogen powered buses that it is testing.

I am conscious of time.

I will wrap up. There will be difficulties. It will be the job of all of us to work with stakeholders. There is difficulty within the farming sector, make no bones about that. The people I talk to are up for the challenge and they are prepared to do the business, but they will need significant financial support. I know the Minister will be there to ensure and to support the just transition that will be required within the farming sector, and to support those who are serious about the preservation and protection of the environment. While I do not want to repeat what Senator Garvey said, she made it very clear that farmers were already under pressure. They were running to stand still by having to produce more and more every year and still not make a living out of it. That has to change.

I call Senator John McGahon.

I will be brief as I do not want to take time from colleagues who want to come in after me.

I thought the speaking order was by indication.

It is a Government motion so I am following a different order.

I will be brief in order to let other Senators come in after me. It is amazing to look at the trajectory of climate action politics over the last ten or 20 years. Ten to 20 years ago, this type of stuff was on the fringe of political debate and it is now mainstream. This is exactly why politicians of all political parties campaign, namely, to get into government, to introduce the ideas they campaign on and to have landmark, lasting legislation that will stand the test of time. I have no doubt this is landmark legislation. The most important thing about it, and I have no doubt about this, is that in 20 or 30 years, when we look at legislation that has been passed by the Oireachtas in those years, this will be right up there with the top legislation that has been passed.

We have now become so ambitious, we are a world leader when it comes to climate action and I think the Government will be absolutely commended on that.

I ended our previous debate on this Bill by saying Ireland is starting late and we should be starting stronger and I begin by saying that again. We are not world leaders on climate action yet; we are laggards still. The test is still to come. We should be starting stronger. Members are right that the work is still ahead of us. I think we could have made that work easier with a stronger Bill. We could have been stronger on the definitions of "climate justice" and "just transition". The test now will be for the Government to prove itself on action in those areas since it did not insert strong definitions into the Bill. The test will be on action and it will be watched carefully. The limited liability clause creates greater vulnerability for all those persons, small businesses and farmers across the country who will be and are being impacted by climate change. The opportunity to limit liability in respect of international investors was not taken. It will be really important that we oppose any extra hostages to fortune in respect of the chilling effect of international investors through the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, or the investment court system, ICS. The language is still not as strong as it could be, and the interpretation of phrases such as "as far as practicable" will be really important. We have heard assurances from the Minister as to how he sees this, but it will be important to see how all the bodies and all the Ministers will use such phrases, and that will require attention.

The opportunity to stop any new petroleum licences or leases was not taken and they are still allowed under this Bill. The opportunity to ban LNG was not seized either.

The final piece we have here, the amendment before us and section 6A, comes following the last-minute amendments last week. When those amendments came through last week, as I looked at them for the very first time the day they were presented to us, I identified a few issues. There were two or three issues with the content of the amendments the Government put forward. I highlighted those issues at that time. Subsequently, it very quickly became clear that there were also problems with where the amendments were to be inserted. Finally, there were problems with what we might call the safety net clause of the Bill, namely section 3(3). Again, it is not as strong a safety net as we would have wished. It did not apply to those provisions. It is not as strong a safety net as it could be. It refers only to some articles of the UNFCC and only some articles of the Paris Agreement. I am glad, however, that the safety net will at least apply to this new Government function. However, the other problems - the ones I identified and the other ones which I did not identify when I saw the amendments first - still apply. There is the concern that the Bill mentions lots of greenhouses gases, determining the greenhouse gas emissions, which does not rule out the idea of the exclusion of certain greenhouse gas emissions. That is still a concern. There is the fact that the Government would only have regard to the European rules rather than being consistent with them. I mentioned in the debate at that time the concern about the UN procedures and rules. The ultimate target compliance is not the same as compliance with best evolving practice. Finally, there is the question of the baseline year. Those were the issues of concern the last time we debated the Bill.

The other issue which is a key concern is the location of the text to be inserted, and that is what gives rise to this amendment. These regulations were not regulations the Government was making for itself in how it approaches things. The amendments relating to removals that I tabled went to the definitions section of the Bill and related to how the Government might approach its removals. They were inserted into the section where the independent advisory council sits. I have raised my concern about a political requirement to reach only 51% less than the annual greenhouse gas emissions reported for the year ending on 31 December 2018 and not more being placed on the advisory council telling it what conclusion to come to for 2030. Now these regulations, by being located in section 6A, also tell the advisory council how to do it, what answer to get to and how to get there. Those are real concerns. I note that these are not ministerial guidelines and I know the Minister will intend to use them with the absolute best intent, but they are Government guidelines and Government regulations. That is a concern. We have now created a new space where we will have to be vigilant and where attention will have to be paid. It creates a tension because the UNFCC already applied to what the climate advisory council was doing under subsection (9), as did best international practice. The concern was always what happens when the ball bounces out of the advisory council's court and into the Government's. The amendments I proposed the last time the Bill was before us, specifically amendment No. 9, would have meant that the Government in its removal would have the same constraint the advisory council has, which was best international practice. As the Bill now stands, the advisory council will be torn between its obligations to best international practice, with which it must be consistent, and its obligation to comply with the Government regulations. We can hope that the Government regulations and best international practice might be the same, but that will be a very serious test now. It is very important that there would be a signal such that where there is any conflict, best international practice will take precedence. The members of the advisory council are there as experts, and that will be crucial and an area for testing.

I am glad section 6A is being inserted into section 3(3). I will support the amendment because it deals with one of the three layers of problems we have, but the other problems remain to be addressed. I wish we had taken the opportunity to strengthen this more, to make it more progressive and to accept progressive amendments rather than seeking to dilute in any sense or to move power away from the advisory council and from the Minister. We could have been stronger going in, and there were progressive proposals that we were told could not be accepted because the Bill was as strong as it could be, but then it got a little weaker. I hope the Minister will engage with progressive proposals. He will note that he did not have to weaken the Bill to get support in the Dáil but that when he weakened the Bill he lost support in the Dáil. I ask him to engage actively with those in the Opposition, not just those who are worried or concerned about climate action but also those who are passionately demanding more ambitious climate action. Let us move forward on this together.

Sinn Féin will not oppose today's amendment by the Minister to the climate Bill as we too welcome the inclusion of 6A into section 3(3). However, its inclusion does not allay all our concerns about the Seanad amendments that were adopted in the Dáil on Wednesday night. I continue to share the concerns of Professor John Sweeney that their inclusion undermines the scientific basis of the Bill and potentially leaves this Government and future governments hostage to lobbyists and interest groups rather than following best international practice. I also share his concerns about the independence of the Climate Change Advisory Council in making its budgets. In the Minister's defence of the amendments in the Dáil debate he referred to Article 5 of the Paris Agreement, but the climate Bill does not refer to Article 5. It refers only to Articles 2 and 4(1), so why did the Minister not include Article 5 in his amendment to give even further reassurance to those of us who want the most progressive, most robust climate Bill?

The climate Bill will pass today and, despite the concerns raised, is at least far superior legislation than the first draft we were presented with in October. That is thanks to the collaborative hard work of the committee and the approach that was taken then, which was really effective. I remind Senator Pauline O'Reilly that Sinn Féin was part of that process and that it was in fact a Green Minister who tried to railroad the Bill through before Christmas and requested that we give it two weeks of pre-legislative scrutiny.

That is on the record. We have the letter from the Minister himself. It is a shame that many progressive amendments-----

That is not on the record. Railroading is not on the record.

Please, Senators.

Okay. I will correct the record.

Senator Boylan, you are in possession.

We were asked to give the Bill two weeks' pre-legislative scrutiny so it would pass before Christmas.

I wish to clarify that if Members want to interrupt, they have to ask permission. The relevant Standing Order is Standing Order 39. It relates to the permission-----

I am used to being interrupted, a Chathaoirligh, whenever Sinn Féin members speak. It is a shame that many progressive amendments-----

Sorry, Senator. I have to take a point of order.

On a point of order, the Government could have put the Bill onto the Order Paper and did not. Therefore, clearly, there was no railroading. We worked collaboratively and I would like to see us continue to do that.

I am not the one who started with the petty political arguments.

As I was saying, it is a shame that many progressive amendments put forward by those of us who want to take good climate action were rejected.

The collaborative approach ceased after the committee's discussions. It stopped there and that is regrettable because the only way to achieve proper climate action is to bring everybody along on the journey and to work collaboratively. Whether one likes it, those are the facts. We are not going to leave the pitch. As is our job, the Opposition will continue to keep an eye on this matter and to hold the Government to account. The battle to ensure that climate justice and a just transition are front and centre in any climate action continues. That means no investor clauses in treaties and that the communities and households that have borne the brunt of the costs of climate action will be protected. The design of the PSO levy is a perfect example of an area in which we could help households. We have energy-guzzling data centres that are not contributing while households carry the bulk of the cost of introducing renewables and grid upgrades. I will work with the Minister and the Government to reform the PSO levy to make it fairer and more just. Today, the EU has said that it is going to exclude private jets from its aviation tax. What is the Minister's position on that? As I said, we will work with the Government when necessary but we ask that the Government also work with those of us who are on its side and who are its allies in opposition to achieve the best climate action possible so that Ireland will no longer be a laggard. That is not too much to ask, is it?

I call Senator Lombard. We are supposed to finish at 4.03 p.m. and it is now 4.01 p.m. I hope his contribution is succinct.

There is nothing like pressure. It is great to have the Minister in the Chamber. I join colleagues in recognising the amount of work he has done over the past 40 years and the work he has done to ensure he got this Bill back to the House before the summer. It is a testament to his political skill and that of his party that the Bill is to get through. We have had our differences over this Bill. I acknowledge the input of the Minister and his officials. It is about working together. That will be key during the next period in society. It will be about taking everyone on the journey. I refer to everyone from the agricultural community all the way through to industry and the people on the ground. That will be a significant challenge. We have a very good climate action plan. It is now about trying to implement it on the ground. We spoke previously about the amendments we brought forward. In many ways, these have helped to bring sections of society on board with regard to the Bill. I have seen that in correspondence coming into my office from all over Ireland. People now feel they are part of the process. That is down to the good work of the Minister and his officials, which I acknowledge.

He and I met many years ago in Courtmacsherry. At the time, there was an issue with waste water in that part of the world. There were high levels of nitrates. A €13 million waste water plant is now up and running. It is not open yet. Perhaps the Minister could call down over the summer and open it for us.

I thank the Senator. I am sure the Minister will take up the invitation.

I am conscious of the Minister's time.

A digester has also been opened. That is the future. There is also a project with regard to carbon capture. If the Minister wants to see how things are done on the ground and how we can be part of the solution, he should come to west Cork over the summer.

The proposer has the right to reply. Does Senator Garvey wish to come back in?

I will give way to the Minister.

I thank Senator Garvey. If I make take a minute or two - that is all it will take - I would like to thank my officials in the Department, who have done their country proud and the public service proud in the work they have done on this Bill and on the wider agenda. I thank all Members of the Oireachtas. We will work together. This is our common goal. It is does not belong to anyone. I heard each Senator say that. We will now work together to implement this. That will be key. The approach will be collaborative. It will not work if everyone is not working together. This is a leap of such scale that it will not work if we do it in a divisive way. We have to work collaboratively as we implement what we are committing to here. What we are committing to is no small change. It is a great challenge.

I am inspired by one small thing. Senator Dooley and I were in Offaly yesterday, visiting a Bord na Móna facility where 850 new jobs are to be created. Before we did that, we went out on the bog in the morning. There was a digger blocking an open drain that had been put in place to extract the peat. The fella operating the digger had previously worked extracting the peat. It was the same really skilful job. He was very happy for his skills to be used in this new way. We then went out on the bog. It was incredible. This bog has been undergoing rehabilitation for 15 or 20 years. It takes time but, as you walk out, you can sense that nature is coming back. Nature is strong if we give it space to restore itself. I felt an incredible sense of hope because of the diversity of wildlife on that bog arising from its restoration. We are going to pay farmers to use their skills to restore bogs. While not every area is bog, we are going pay people well to skilfully manage land and our connection to it to get this right. These are skilled tasks.

From there, we went on to a large wind farm owned by Bord na Móna. It gave me such hope. We have an auction system for renewables and agreement was only reached in respect of this wind farm last October. Some nine months later, €100 million was being spent on the site, where 200 people were working. It is quite big. The local community is right behind it because they know and trust Bord na Móna. They have been working with the company for 80 years. It knows energy. We are switching from chimneys to turbines. We are creating in areas where we have an advantage. We can and will be good at this. It is going to be difficult and will require great skill, imagination and effort but, working collectively, we will do it. I thank Senators of all parties for their help. The Oireachtas committee had a very significant role in shaping this Bill, which I acknowledge. It is strong and it will make us strong as we work together from here.

As I did the last time the Minister was in the House, I commend him. I know this represents a lifetime's work and it is very rare that a politician gets to see his lifetime's work fulfilled. I know this legislation in only part of that but it is a very significant part. It is a proud day for the Minister and his colleagues.

Question put and agreed to.

The Clerk will send a message to the Clerk of the Dáil certifying the determination of the Seanad.

Sitting suspended at 4.08 p.m. and resumed at 4.24 p.m.