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Speech on Planning and Development (Climate Emergency Measures) (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage

30 September 2021

I am glad to speak on behalf of the Labour Party in support of this Bill. I am conscious that this is the third time in two days that we have had the opportunity to have a substantive debate on climate and climate-related issues. It is a sign of the times and how pressing and urgent this issue is. In today's earlier debate, I spoke, as many did, about the IPCC report and the warning that we are at a code red for humanity. I also spoke about the crisis not only for our climate but for our biodiversity with the announcement yesterday by the US Government that 23 species would be declared extinct. We know that this is as a result of human activity and human behaviour. We know also that there is a need for urgent action and a common purpose internationally to tackle climate change, just as we have seen that international common purpose in tackling the Covid pandemic. It is a matter of harnessing the same commitment and the same solidarity. I hope we can bring a measure of that.

In yesterday's debate on data centres we sought only a pause, as an interim measure, on the development of centres and that the Government conduct of a review of the environmental and economic impact of the data centres and of the context in which they are to be developed. That was a sensible approach to take, which the Labour Party supported. We spoke yesterday of the need for the Government to provide clarity as to the strategy for the development of data centres, in particular the strategy as to how to deal with the increased demand for energy that development of data centres would inevitably bring about. The question is how to power data centres. Can they be powered entirely from renewable sources? If that is the case, that is very welcome. I listened to earlier speakers talk about how technology has moved on. There is no doubt about that. The data centres that are being developed now are more energy efficient than those that were developed in the past. Again, there is no doubt about that. As I said yesterday, and as the proposes of yesterday's motion said, we are not against data centres. We understand and acknowledge their huge importance for our economy, jobs and for all of us. This is how we live now and we cannot roll that back.

In my own constituency in Dublin Bay South, there is a huge amount of tech investment in the community, as well as various employers. We are all very much conscious of that. At the same time, we need to see regulation of data centres. We need to see a coherent plan, in the present as opposed to the future tense, to see what the Government is proposing to do now to regulate data centres. What are we proposing at national level to ensure that they are carbon neutral or, indeed, that the increased demand on energy will come from renewable sources? Moreover, what is being done at EU level? I regret I did not get the chance to make the following point yesterday. Something that has struck me much more on reflection is how absent EU level regulation of data centres is. This is an international issue. If data centres are not built in Ireland, they will be built somewhere else. It is a global climate emergency, not just an emergency that we face here in Ireland. We need to have a transnational, EU-wide strategy and an international strategy on how data centres are to be developed, not just in terms of the huge demands they make on energy - we listed the enormous demand yesterday in terms of the figures we have from EirGrid - but also the demand they make on water supply in Ireland, as elsewhere. These are huge issues that we need addressed. As I said, we need clarity from the Government before we could proceed any further. That was the very sensible rationale behind the call for a temporary pause as an interim measure. The Labour Party supported the motion last night, as we support this Bill.

I am grateful to Friends of the Earth for outlining a number of concerns that I think would be addressed through legislation of this sort and that is why we are supporting it. There has been a good deal of talk about the immediate-term pressures on the electricity system in Ireland, particularly relating to the two gas plants that have been out of action. We have real concerns that comments recently from the Government and the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, CRU, indicate that we still be reliant on gas generation in the longer term, particularly with the increased demand from data centres and that this will, of course, impede our ability to meet our ambitious but necessary climate targets in terms of emissions.

It is questionable whether we can say new carbon budgets and sectoral emissions ceilings will be sufficient to prevent excessive demands for energy that will force us to fall back into fossil fuel reliance again. The crucial question we in opposition are asking is how can we see any roll-out of data centres without falling back into a reliance on fossil fuels. How can we be assured the increased demand will be driven by renewable sources? We must see regulation put in place to ensure that is the case. Again, that is absent both nationally and at EU level.

The final point is, when we talk about investment in renewables, we are all conscious there is a huge amount still to be done here and that we need to see serious investment made in a whole suite of technologies. We see from Wind Energy Ireland an analysis that carbon pricing, storage and green hydrogen can eliminate the need for fossil fuels in electricity. It has some impressive and optimistic modelling about our ability to reach 85% renewable electricity by 2030 and 100% later in that decade, so that is doable. The IPCC report does give hope that with serious, substantive, radical action and intervention, we can reverse the effects of climate change and we can deal with and tackle the climate emergency. We cannot lose sight of that hope and optimism. Modelling from Wind Energy Ireland is indicative of that hope. However, we need to see the Government intervention that will actually give effect to those hopeful projections and optimistic modelling and, currently, that is lacking.

We debated today the forthcoming climate action plan and we are holding these debates in the weeks prior to the holding of COP 26 in Glasgow. We are all hopeful we will see concerted international action, led by strong governmental actions across different countries. I think we are all very hopeful of that, but at the moment many of us feel we are just in a vacuum and what we lack is a coherent policy, a coherent plan and a present-tense statement of intent from the Government as to what will be done to regulate the development of data centres and ensure we meet our climate emissions targets in order that we will be able to move to that very important development of renewable energy sources to replace our over-reliance on fossil fuels.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for letting me in. I know the procedures on a Thursday evening are somewhat different and I am grateful to him for giving me time to speak on this important issue.