Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Questions (8, 9, 10, 11)

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change. [35253/20]

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Alan Kelly

Question:

9. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change. [36604/20]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change. [36677/20]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

11. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee which addresses climate change will next meet. [38833/20]

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Oral answers (20 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 11, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change last met on 9 November 2020 and is scheduled to meet again on 7 December 2020. The members of the committee are the Taoiseach; the Tånaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Employment and Trade; the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications; the Minister for Finance; the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform; the Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht; the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine; the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage; and the Minister for Social Protection, and Community and Rural Development. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Pippa Hackett, is invited to the Cabinet committee and other Ministers or Ministers of State also participate as required. It is chaired by the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, and Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

This Cabinet committee oversees the implementation of the programme for Government commitments in relation to the environment and climate change. These include the climate action (amendment) Bill; just transition; agriculture and land use considerations; access to finance for climate action; the development of a national retrofitting plan; and the progression of matters in furtherance of our move to a higher rate of renewable energy, such as the marine planning and development Bill and the wind energy guidelines. In addition, it considers progress made on the implementation of the current climate action plan, and the planning which is now under way to develop the next iteration of that plan.

We previously discussed the programme for Government commitment to developing and protecting Ireland's biodiversity. An important component of this work is the National Biodiversity Data Centre programme, established by the Heritage Council 14 years ago. This programme collects data on Ireland's biodiversity and, thanks to the ecological commitment of its staff, the all-Ireland pollinator plan has been a tremendous success. As the Government has acknowledged, despite the centrality of the programme's work to Ireland's biodiversity commitment, it is neither a national centre nor a body. It remains privately owned and its responsibilities are delivered contract to contract with its staff also on short-term contracts. The programme's database comprises over 4 million records and is used by a range of agencies, academics and policymakers, yet this organisation and its work are not underpinned in legislation. The programme operates within a very uncertain funding framework. It appears that little value is placed on its work and that of its highly qualified staff, whose employment is precarious. I have raised this matter with the Taoiseach before and I am raising it again.

I will mention funding for Dublin Zoo, which also makes an important contribution to the conservation of biodiversity beyond our small island. The Government has allocated one-off funding of €1.1 million for Dublin Zoo and Fota Wildlife Park. The Taoiseach knows that the zoo's revenue has fallen by 60% this year because of Covid and its fixed operating costs remain very high, so the one-off funding is not sufficient. It will barely cover a single month's cost for Dublin Zoo. Last week, the Taoiseach committed that the Government would do everything possible to keep Dublin Zoo viable and open. I ask him to make good on that commitment, which means providing resources in addition to those that have been announced.

The climate Bill, though considerably delayed, was published on 7 October. Will there be significant further amendments to it? Is that being discussed by the Cabinet committee?

I was stunned by a reply I received last week to a parliamentary question to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on the climate action delivery board. He confirmed to me that it had not met in a year. We are discussing the greatest existential threat facing not just this country, but the planet, yet an important body such as that, which is implementing key climate action plans, has not met. It beggars belief. The mind boggles. We knew that the previous Government's Climate Action Plan was entirely inadequate, but that the body charged with implementing it has not sat at all is extraordinary. It raises questions about the priorities of this Government. I accept that the Government has only been in place since the summer, but it begs the questions of what its priority on climate action is and what the point of the Green Party is.

The landslide in Donegal resulting from the construction of a wind farm was a shocking reminder of the Government's failure to take seriously what happens when the development of renewable energy is in the hands of private developers who only care about profit and do not give a hoot about the environment. It was not the first time we had seen that type of environmental damage resulting from the failure to conduct proper environmental impact assessments on such projects. This year, we were forced to pay €5 million in fines, with €15,000 per day in further penalties, as a result of the Derrybrien landslide in 2003 and the subsequent ruling of the European Court of Justice that the developers, namely, the ESB, which had built a wind farm on a mountain after cutting down the trees that held the mountain together, had ignored this basic knowledge about the role of forestation in holding mountains and soil together, thereby causing a massive landslide. We are paying €15,000 per day in penalties and have still not rectified the matter, and the same situation has occurred in Donegal. This is what happens when something as important as dealing with climate change and the development of renewable energy is put in the hands of private developers or people who are driven by profit. What will the Government do about this? Where are the directly employed ecologists, foresters and all the other people who will do the environmental impact assessment work for the State to ensure that this sort of disastrous situation does not recur?

In response to me, I believe the Taoiseach told me that campaigns did not achieve much. I do not take any personal offence at that.

It was not meant to be personal.

That is no problem. It sums up the Taoiseach's political philosophy. It flies in the face of history. This Parliament would not exist and we would be a part of the British Empire had there not been a campaign, one with a significant military element. We would not have the right to vote, to join trade unions or to have a minimum wage. Every substantial improvement in living standards and democratic rights for ordinary people has come from campaigns. History demonstrates that. The same applies to climate action. The only reason we have a climate action Bill is environmental campaigners such as school students, strikers, Fridays for Future, Ms Greta Thunberg, etc., putting this matter on the agenda.

The Government's climate action Bill has substantial flaws, though. It is a proposal to pursue carbon reductions and to aim for carbon neutrality by 2050, which will be far too late. It will not do what the science demands. In fact, those who are calling for the Bill to do what the science demands are being accused of ecopopulism by some establishment Green Party members. That is why there is a campaign to fix the Bill. There is an online petition asking that, instead of pursuing a 2050 target, the Bill should tie the Government into achieving complete decarbonisation by 2030, which is what is necessary if we are to avoid a climate disaster. There are a series of other demands concerning the just transition and so on.

Just as a point of clarity, I have no issue with campaigning or campaigns, but I am always reminded that, when Deputy Barry was elected in 2016, he made a very clear statement of his philosophy. He said that there was a saying in Paris, namely, that which parliament does, the street undoes. That sums up the difference in our philosophies. I am a committed parliamentarian and I believe in parliamentary democracy. I get the sense that, where any issue emerges, there is an orchestration to use it to build an electoral support base to undermine the Government of the day.

That is not-----

(Interruptions).

That is the way politics works, and that is the way it has worked. That is what the Deputies are at.

Dearie, dearie me. Jesus, that is good.

The Deputy instanced correctly the War of Independence as being a campaign, but what about comparing that to whether we should replace the RTÉ licence fee with another charge? That is the point I am getting at. The Deputies will still believe that it will become a big, unjust tax and they will run a big campaign and big protests around it. The point is: Parliament and decision-makers have to make decisions. On climate change, the Deputies will again oppose everything that we bring about to get our carbon emissions down.

Yes, the Deputies will.

If the Government does what is necessary, we will agree with it.

They will do everything they possibly can to resist what this Government, including the Green Party, has proposed in different iterations. For example, on the Oireachtas committee in the previous Dáil, a majority of parties decided on a course of action to try for a reduction. That involved a carbon tax and to utilise that money to protect against fuel poverty and to deal with retrofitting, but also to deal with alternative farming so that we could increase and enhance our biodiversity on our farms and recalibrate agricultural performance in rural Ireland. However, that all gets opposed and then becomes the subject matter of another campaign.

The bottom line is that we are running out of time. Trying to get to 2050 will be, in itself, an enormous challenge.

That will be far too late.

As we discovered during our programme for Government discussions, trying to bring levels down by an average of 7% over the next ten years will be very challenging, but we are committed to doing it as a Government.

The climate change Bill is a good Bill. It has a whole range of commitments. It establishes a 2050 emissions target. It introduces a system of successive five-year economy-wide carbon budgets, starting in 2021. It will strengthen the role of the Climate Change Advisory Council in proposing carbon budgets. It introduces a requirement to review the Climate Action Plan annually and to prepare a national long-term climate action strategy at least every decade. It introduces a requirement for all local authorities to prepare individual climate action plans, which will include both mitigation and adaptation measures. It gives a stronger oversight role for the Oireachtas through an Oireachtas committee. I invite the Deputies to support that endeavour.

Regarding the points that were raised earlier, I think Deputy Nash asked whether amendments would be forthcoming. It has gone through the pre-legislative phase. On Committee Stage, the Minister will consider any amendment that comes from the House-----

And then dismiss it.

-----and he will do so in a constructive manner. His main aim is to improve the Bill if people come forward with workable improvements. The Bill in itself is a major advance on what we have had and is something that commends itself to the House. He is open to amendments, of course, given the detailed examination that has taken place. In the House, Members may come forward on that.

In relation to the climate data centre, I will have a look at that. I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about that. I accept the extraordinarily valuable work that it does and the large database that it has.

I am very keen to work on similar initiatives to the all-island pollinator plan and a whole range of biodiversity projects on an all-island basis. I have made that clear to our colleagues on the Northern Ireland Executive in respect of developing joint approaches to the environment and the climate. We are looking, as part of the shared island unit, to the creation of a dialogue on an all-island approach to climate change and to the challenges that protecting the environment present to society, particularly in terms of protecting biodiversity on our island.

That is important.

The Government has moved quickly to try to deal with the crisis in organisations such as Dublin Zoo, Fota Wildlife Park and others. My Department has now decided to work with other Departments, the OPW, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Environment, Climate and Communications, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and the Office of the Tánaiste to try to work out a more strategic approach to our zoos and a more sustainable system for them, in particular given the significant impact of Covid-19 on their operations.

Dublin Zoo could have up to 1 million visitors a year. That has not now happened principally because of Covid. Its revenue has been significantly undermined. We are very conscious of that. We wanted to intervene this week to make sure that we could deal with the current crisis. We are very committed to helping out on a medium-term basis.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett's point in respect of Donegal, there will be private development of wind projects. Not everything will be done by the State. The next big wave in respect of wind energy will be offshore wind. The marine development Bill is important because it opens up the opportunity to develop the economic potential of our seas for the betterment of our people. Wind energy is very important in terms of the climate change agenda.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.