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Dáil Éireann | Statements on Climate Action

30 September 2021

I am glad to contribute to this vitally important debate. The report from the IPCC in August warned us that we are at "code red for humanity". The UN Secretary General recently said that "The alarm bells are deafening [...] Greenhouse gas emissions ... are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk". We face a climate emergency, but we also face a biodiversity emergency. Just yesterday, the Fish and Wildlife Service of the United States Government declared that 23 species are likely extinct, including the ivory-billed woodpecker. The bird had previously been widespread in the south-eastern US. For anyone who is an insomniac like me and was listening to the BBC World Service during the night, a really haunting recording of the song of that woodpecker was played. It is possible now to hear that song only as a recording, because we can no longer hear the bird at first hand. For me, that really struck home. Reports stated, indeed, that the scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service making the declaration became emotional when they described the impact of climate change and human behaviour on other species in our world.

Therefore, there is real urgency regarding this issue. It is the sort of urgency that characterised the responses of governments around the world to the Covid-19 crisis. We do not, however, see that sort of radical response being characteristic of governments around the world when it comes to climate change. Governments must take the lead on this issue. What we learned from the experience of dealing with Covid-19 is that to tackle a crisis like an international pandemic, we must see strong action from states and governments. If any positive can be taken from the pandemic, it is that it has showcased the value of state intervention, collective solidarity and the public good. We are seeing that sense of the importance of the state and of public service reflected in recent election results. The Social Democratic Party, SDP, won in Germany. A similar party won in Norway. Three Scandinavian countries now have social democratic prime ministers for the first time since 2001. The same trend can be seen in the United States under President Joe Biden, where a $1.3 trillion stimulus package is being undertaken.

There is a growing consciousness, therefore, of the need for strong government interventions and co-operation in respect of climate change. We all hope that will be evident in the intergovernmental talks at COP26 at the end of October. We also see a recognition of this new perspective in the recommendations from the Citizens' Assembly. They provide us with a manifesto on how we can tackle climate change nationally. In that assembly, 100% of the citizens recommended that the State should take a leadership role and address climate change through a range of measures, and that this must be at the centre of policymaking in Ireland for all Government Departments. It is crucial that we follow that blueprint and take that approach.

In May 2019, Ireland became the second country to declare a climate emergency. Following that historic development, the now Minister warned then that declaring an emergency meant absolutely nothing unless there was action to back it up and that would mean the Government having to do things it did not want to do. Those were wise words, and such action is now needed. My party and I welcome the recent passage of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021. The legislation built on previous Bills. As a newly elected Senator in 2007, I introduced the first climate action Bill in the Houses, in collaboration with Friends of the Earth. We are all conscious, however, that these pieces of legislation are governance frameworks, but not ends in themselves. We must see a strong and robust climate action plan, coupled with a strong and robust national development plan, to ensure the necessary actions are taken to meet our climate obligations.

Turning to the climate action plan, we are all conscious that the climate action delivery board, which is responsible for delivering the plan, involves all Government Departments. My question is whether it is adequately integrated into the Department of the Taoiseach and whether there is sufficient leadership from the centre of the Government and from the Taoiseach regarding what must be done. I wonder about that because we know from what goes into the climate action plans that a cross-departmental strategy must happen. I will give examples. We are asking the Government to work with the Labour Party on our National Standards Authority of Ireland (Carbon Footprint Labelling) Bill 2021. It is intended to place an obligation on the National Standards Authority of Ireland to define a standard approach to carbon labelling. Similarly, in the other House, Senator Ruane has drafted a companies emission reporting Bill to oblige companies with more than 50 employees to present the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment with an audited statement of their emissions, similar to the obligation in respect of the gender pay gap legislation. These legislative interventions and initiatives do not fall within the scope of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, but they are sorely needed to place additional responsibilities on the private sector. This illustrates the need for a joined-up approach involving all Departments.

The national development plan must see a similar whole-of-government approach, led from the centre. We need an energy plan to ensure we are in a position to avail of our huge national advantages in respect of wind and current power. Offshore wind resources must be developed urgently.

Turning to agriculture, we must ensure that agricultural strategy fits within and aligns with climate strategy. The Government must support sustainable activity in farming. We have strong examples of how that can be done. One project I visited and have long been impressed by is the Burrenbeo project in Clare. The Minister is aware of it. It is led by Brendan Dunford. It is an admirable example of how collaborative work between farmers and environmentalists can lead to strong outcomes for all. It is, therefore, in our national interests to be leaders on climate. Just as we led on progressive change with our marriage equality referendum in 2015 and our vote on the repeal of the eighth amendment in 2018, Ireland can also be seen to lead in taking radical action to tackle the climate emergency.

We must build on the common purpose and solidarity that got us through the last year and a half to enable us to take this drastic and meaningful climate action. There are many concerns regarding our capacity to take this sort of radical action. One of those involves the recently reported delays to the rolling out of public transport infrastructure projects in Dublin. There is no clarity on the future of MetroLink, and yet projects like that are essential for us to ensure a sufficient move away from private car transport and towards greater reliance on public transport. I refer as well to the expansion of the national road network, while parts of the country are underserved by public transport. We also lack an updated national policy on the development of data centres, a topic we debated yesterday.

There is a similar lack of urgency at EU level to pass the necessary regulation, which should come from a transnational perspective in respect of data centres, fracking and other aspects. I also point to the Government being unable to guarantee that there will be no blackouts during the winter and to ensure that there will be a sufficient number of construction workers to carry out an ambitious retrofitting programme alongside the necessary programme of housebuilding that is under way. I was proud to be at St. Andrews Resource Centre on Pearse Street yesterday for the launch of a new employment programme that will include a training course to retrain and reskill local people in retrofitting. That is the sort of local action we must take.

The situation in which we find ourselves is overwhelming, but all is not lost. We should recall the message of hope contained in the IPCC report. It tells us that with meaningful and radical action we can do more than halt the current trajectory; we can also reverse it. Therefore, we need to see meaningful action being taken. We must see such action being taken on the circular economy, which the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, spoke about. We need to see strong measures on the right to repair, similar to the measure that President Biden introduced in the US. We must go beyond current EU directives on the right to repair and extend that right to include smaller household devices and to consumers. Issues also exist locally with cycling and public transport. I have called for the introduction of a bike to school scheme to give incentives for the purchase of bicycles for children to complement the bike to work scheme.

In Leinster House, we have had a conversation about parking and car parking for former and current Members. It is raining outside today and those of us who cycled in still have nowhere sheltered to park our bikes. I have been lobbying for such a shelter, and the Minister has supported me, as have other Ministers, but we still have nowhere to park bikes under shelter on the Leinster House campus. We see cars parked everywhere, but we do not see adequate facilities for the parking of bicycles. While that might sound trivial, it sends out a significant message to everyone regarding how we prioritise transport facilities. As the convenor of the all-party Oireachtas cyclists' group, I call for strong and visible action to support and promote cycling as an alternative means of transport in Leinster House as much as across the country. The Minister spoke about Dún Laoghaire and the strength of the measures taken there to promote cycling. It is welcome, and I hope we will see much more of that type of activity across Dublin and the country to encourage and to promote cycling.

The fact that global warming is the result of human activity implies that a solution is at hand and that the means of addressing the climate emergency can be embraced by all of us. It implies that it can be done. I state that because being too doom-laden can cause people to switch off. It can be counterproductive if people feel there is no hope. Greta Thunberg and many other fantastic activists from younger generations urgently need us to promote a hopeful and can-do message about the types of measures that can be taken locally, nationally and internationally to address the climate crisis.

I know the Minister understands that, as does his party. We in the Labour Party will work constructively with him from the Opposition benches, but we need to see more urgent, radical action on this issue.