Séamus Healy (Tipperary South, Independent)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015. It is a very important Bill and is long overdue.
Climate change is a real and distressing phenomenon which disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in our society. We only have to think of a country like the Philippines and, more recently, the Pacific island of Vanuatu, to see the utter devastation that climate change is wreaking on the most vulnerable people in the world who are already living in extreme poverty. Here at home, the Irish climate analysis and research unit has studied key meteorological changes in this country from 1890, when records began, to 2004 and the results do not bode well. The main finding was that Ireland’s climate is warming and this warming is accompanied by greater rainfall events of higher intensity and frequency, and increased flooding. Many communities around Ireland are already at the forefront of this struggle with climate change, including flooding. There has been significant evidence of flooding in the country and particularly in my own constituency of Tipperary South. The Old Bridge area of Clonmel, Ardfinnan, Kilsheelan, Carrick-on-Suir and Knocklofty have all seen devastation caused by flooding.
Robust, meaningful and action-oriented legislation is vitally important to protect the lives and livelihoods of those living in vulnerable areas. Currently, we have no plan for climate change in this country. This Bill is the seventh such Bill to be presented to the Dáil in the past ten years. Passing this Bill, with amendments, would mark the first time that climate legislation has been placed on the Statute Book in this country.
The legislation provides for the preparation of five-yearly national low-carbon transition and mitigation plans. These will set out how Ireland’s national greenhouse gas emissions are to be reduced in line both with existing EU and international commitments. This is intended to be done in a dual manner of mitigation and adaptation.
While the introduction of any climate legislation is an encouraging step, the Bill needs to be amended and strengthened. As we know, sending draft Bills to Oireachtas committees for consideration was one of this Government’s main, and much talked about, reforms in the programme for Government. My colleague, Deputy Catherine Murphy, was a member of the all-party Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, which scrutinised this Bill and made 12 recommendations. It is disappointing, however, that only three of those recommendations have been acted upon. This begs the question as to whether Oireachtas committees are taken seriously by the Government at all.
Effectively, the Bill has changed little from the draft prepared by the former Minister, Commissioner Phil Hogan. The latter’s decision not to include any specific targets for emission reductions was widely criticised by environmental groups and Opposition parties.
I recently attended a briefing given by a group called Stop Climate Chaos, a coalition of some of the most eminent civil society organisations in Ireland, including Trócaire, Comhlámh, Concern and the National Youth Council of Ireland, to name but a few. Together, they constitute the largest network of organisations campaigning for action on climate change in Ireland and have described the Bill as deeply disappointing. They have identified five major weaknesses in the Bill which needs to be strengthened. I concur and ask that the amendments necessary be brought forward during the course of the Bill’s progress through the Houses.
First, the Bill fails to set numeric targets for emissions reductions in the future. This is a fundamental flaw, as it means that there will be little concrete direction in the coming years. Civil society organisations are not alone in calling for clear targets; businesses also point to the need for targets to provide confidence and drive investment. Finland, Denmark and France have recently announced the introduction of climate and energy legislation, each setting clear targets in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In Finland the law sets an 80% target to be reached by 2050, while the law in Denmark sets a 40% target to be reached by 2020, double the target set in EU 2020. In France the energy transition Bill seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 and by 75% by 2050.
Given the resistance of some interest groups to setting a single national target, the compromise proposed by the Oireachtas committee is to define what is meant by “low carbon”, which would at least provide for some clarity on the objectives of the Bill. The former Minister, Mr. Phil Hogan, set out a definition during his appearance before the joint committee in July 2013 and the committee recommended that it be incorporated into the Bill. The Government refined the definition and formally adopted it as national policy in April 2014, but it was not included in the heads of the Bill. As a consequence, while some Departments such as the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have been referring to it, others such as the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport have been ignoring it. Only including the definition in the Bill will ensure all Departments will give it due consideration.
The Bill also proposes the establishment of a national expert advisory council on climate change to be tasked with giving advice to the Government on climate change matters. Again, the joint committee recommended that the climate change advisory council be modelled on the Fiscal Advisory Council in that its independence should be prescribed in the Bill and that its members should be independent of State and stakeholder interests. Instead the Bill provides for a body of no more than 11 members, four of whom will represent state bodies in an ex officiocapacity. It does not specify that the council must be independent in the exercise of its functions, as in the case of the Fiscal Advisory Council. While the Bill provides for the council to publish its reports, the time period is anything from 30 to 90 days, which is too long for the purposes of public debate and transparency.
The Bill does not provide for the inclusion of a reference to climate justice. Ireland has a responsibility to the poorest people in developing countries who are already feeling the impact of climate change, a crisis they played no part in creating. While the Bill is about mapping out a strong and sustainable future for Ireland, it is also about ensuring Ireland will live up to its global responsibilities. The Government has repeatedly stated its commitment to climate justice is a principle guiding its engagement with the issue of climate change. Provision for the principle of climate justice in the legislation would provide an opportunity to realise it.
As regards the timing, Ireland’s last five-year action plan on climate change expired at the end of 2012, just as our EU 2020 targets came into force. The heads of the Bill, published in April 2014, envisaged that the first national mitigation plan would be adopted within 12 months of enactment of the legislation. The Bill provides for a period of up to 24 months for the adoption of the mitigation plan. That means that Ireland’s plan for reducing emissions in the period 2013 to 2020 will not be adopted until 2017, which is patently absurd. Given the fact that the preparation of the national mitigation plan has been progressing in parallel to the development of the legislation, which is long overdue, we recommend that the period allowed be six months and that the plan be finalised and adopted before the UN climate summit in Paris in December 2015. The previous five-year action plan, the national climate change strategy, covered the Kyoto Protocol commitment period, 2008 to 2012, and made it clear that the measures contained in it were designed to meet Ireland’s Kyoto Protocol commitment to limit total emissions in the period covered to 314 million tonnes of CO2equivalent. All future five-year action plans should equally indicate total projected national emissions in the period covered under the plan. Given the significant potential already recognised for mitigation by the management of carbon in Irish soils, particularly in wetlands, the Bill should include soil carbon management in the matters to be taken into account in the national mitigation plan.
One of the purposes of the Bill is to provide a platform for the achievement of as much cross-party and independent support for action as possible, given the scale of the transformation needed in coming decades to contain the effects of climate change. While I welcome the Bill, I strongly urge the Government to amend it during the course of its passage through the Oireachtas, particularly to deal with the points I have mentioned. This would strengthen it and our commitment to climate justice.