Climate Law is anti-democratic, anti-Irish, anti-climate and anti-poor – Naughten

In Blog, Environment by Denis Naughten

Speech by Denis Naughten TD on the Climate Action Bill 2021

Check against delivery

This Bill, as presently drafted is

  • Anti-democratic
  • Anti-Irish
  • Anti-Climate
  • Anti-poor

Don’t get me wrong, climate change must be addressed, and I believe we do need a new climate law to make it happen in Ireland, both urban & rural.

As Ireland’s first Climate Minister, I did not have the legal tools available to me to bring about the type of sustainable change that was needed.

For example, after a long and protracted battle I secured a Cabinate decision in January 2018 not to purchase any new fossil fuel buses for public transport. Disappointingly, the first double-decker electric vehicle will not go onto the streets in Dublin until January 2023 – a full five years after I secured that commitment.

In fact, I envy the way Eamon Ryan can push things along.

But in the rush to get things done our economy and rural economy are being needlessly sacrificed when there are alternative approaches which could be taken to achieve the same end goal.

While we are a small player in terms of overall emissions, we have an opportunity to have a global impact if we focus on

  • what we are good at, for example tacking food waste, the 3rd biggest climate offender after China & the US, and developing a sustainable food production model for others to follow.
  • unique solutions to unique Irish problems that can then be replicated in other parts of the world, for example using broadband to reduce transport emissions in isolated rural communities.

This type of solution approach was to be the primary focus to the Climate Action Fund.

While the Climate Bill provides the framework for delivery it does not provide the mechanism to achieve it. As presently constituted, it will decimate our economy and our rural economy in particular and do little in return to achieve our global goal of reducing emissions.

That is because my big fear is that the primary focus will not change; the focus will remain on upfront cost which is an incentive to do little and leave it all to agriculture, with the easy option being an overall reduction in the National herd.

If this was a genuine attempt to address all of our climate challenges then agriculture should be separated out, a proposal supported by the Climate Change Advisory Council and currently legislated for by New Zealand, a country with very similar climate challenges to Ireland.

 

Anti-democratic, How?

This Bill if enacted will legislate Dáil Éireann out of existence on all climate related matters – this is undemocratic and must be opposed outright.

Section 9 of this Bill states that the Carbon Budget for the following 5 years is laid before the Dáil for approval, but TDs have no ability to amend or alter the proposals and if Dáil Éireann rejects the 5 year carbon budget then the Minister will within 60 days bring in his/her own 5 year Carbon Budget without any need to consult with or seek the approval of the Dáil.

Furthermore Dáil Éireann has absolutely no role or input on the individual 5 year sectoral emissions caps for agriculture, transport, home heating etc.

This is akin to a law being passed that the Minister for Finance can present a full 5 year set of taxation measures to the Dáil without any detail of how the Minister intends to spend the money collected and if Dáil rejects it, the Government can bring in any tax measure it likes within 60 days and the Dáil has no say whatsoever.

And on top of that the Minister for Finance decides how much funding is allocated to each Government Department for the follow 5 years and TDs have no role in considering if it is appropriate or not.

They didn’t even go to that extreme in Stalinist Russia!

 

Why is this Bill anti-Irish?

The climate rule book has been developed by industrialised Countries, so the tools used by our EU colleagues to address the climate problem are based on the bulk of emissions coming from industry, cities and intensive agriculture.  In Ireland 37% of our population live in rural areas, and we have just 2 cities over 100,000 population namely Dublin & Cork.

So whichever way you look at it, our climate challenges in Ireland are all about land use & dispersed land use in particular: extensive agricultural practices; isolated rural communities reliant on cars; a large number of small towns; the disproportionate scale of Dublin to the rest of the country; I could go on……

Therefore land use is far more important in an Irish climate context than anywhere else in Europe and our failure to quantify our carbon sequestration, how our land & what we grow on it can absorb and store carbon, puts us at a distinct disadvantage when trying to achieve climate targets from an Irish perspective.

Our climate challenges are the polar opposites to our European colleagues, yet the EU climate rules are designed to address EU challenges not Irish challenges.

This inbuilt ‘industrialised country’ bias is everywhere from the environmental zealots who shoot down any alternative approach right through to the Climate Change Advisory Council, which will now under this new law set our domestic climate targets.

To give a simple example of this environmental bias: in the 4 annual reviews of the Climate Change Advisory Council there is just a single scant reference in the 2018 review to broadband where it states “potentially the National Broadband Plan will also have an impact on climate objectives”. That’s the Council’s only comment on the impact of broadband since its establishment.

Yet during the period of the four years in question it was one of the most significant long-term steps taken by Government to reduce transport emissions, particularly in rural communities where there is no public transport.

Why would someone commute long distances if they could sit at a hot desk in a local village? Why would someone sit for an hour in traffic if they could sit at their desk at home?  And we all see the impact such measures had on our emissions during the lockdown last year.

There has been a failure by the Climate Advisory Council to acknowledge this fact even though 37% of our population, unlike anywhere else in the EU, live in rural areas and many commuted long distances to a desk job before lockdown. Why?

Because this does not tie in with the continental European definition of climate action.

By that definition it’s far better to slaughter 500,000 cattle – and importantly it’s much better at securing the headlines.

And now this new Climate Bill wants to enshrine this EU bias and Irish climate bias into our laws. That’s why this Bill is anti-Irish.

 

Anti-Climate

The current system of calculating climate emissions also discriminates against a food exporter such as Ireland.

Even though 90% of our beef is exported, Ireland is penalised for being the most carbon efficient beef exporter within the EU because the rules state the responsibility is on the producer rather than the consumer.

So relatively carbon-efficient beef production in Ireland can, therefore, be replaced throughout the Union with beef that is 35 times worse for the environment coming from the Amazon basin. That is okay, according to climate mathematicians but not our atmosphere.

We have a CAP that regulates food production in Member States, except when it comes to climate emissions when we have a national cap, not an EU cap. This completely undermines carbon efficient food production in favour of cheap food, regardless of its climate impact and regardless of where it comes from.

What we need is an EU-wide biogenic (from animals) methane cap for agriculture that supports carbon efficient beef production in Ireland, which is good for reducing global climate emissions, and grass-fed beef on low-intensity grassland such as that produced in Ireland has a lower negative impact on soil erosion, biodiversity and nutrient leaching than other beef production models – a fact that is conveniently ignored by those who focus on farming being the climate problem.

Grass-based systems on disadvantaged land types in much of Ireland remove carbon from the atmosphere and convert it into human protein on land that is not suitable for tillage crops.

Last week at the Agriculture Committee, Prof. Gerry Boyle of Teagasc, and a member of the Climate Change Advisory Council stated that the position of the Advisory Council is that biogenic methane should be treated differently to other sources of methane.

That does not mean that agriculture and farming should have a free pass. The fact is that managing our land use better can take even more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing its harmful effects on the climate and the oceans, far quicker than shutting down farming.

Unless we completely change our approach to calculating agricultural emissions then we will decimate an industry here in Ireland, while also destroying our atmosphere for the generations to come. This is a lose-lose situation unless we look again at the maths behind climate targets.

 

Anti-Poor

As a result of the pandemic, families’ heating bills have gone up dramatically, compounded by increased carbon taxes, but this is not just because they are spending more time at home.

It is because families, struggling to pay electricity bills are subsidising the supply of electricity into data centres operated by multi-national, multi-billion euro companies and the level of subsidy is set to increase dramatically, with our ambitious renewable energy targets.

It is immoral that people who are struggling to pay electricity bills are subsidising the cost of electricity going into data centres, many of which have been constructed on a speculative proposition.

I argued vehemently against this approach at Cabinet and this is reflected in the Government policy statement issued in 2018 on Data Centres. This particular element of the commitment in that policy statement has yet to be implemented.

We need data centres to pay for their own costs in terms of the electricity infrastructure that is being put in place to meet their growing energy demands and in terms of the generation of green electricity.

This cost should never be put on the backs of struggling families across this country.

And while there is reference made in the Bill to protecting “the attractiveness of the State for investment” which is very commendable however there is no mention of fuel poverty anywhere is this Bill. In this Bill, families are forgotten.

But that is not the only area where families struggling with fuel bills are forgotten

Budget 2017, which was my first budget as a Minister, saw a significant increase in investment in energy efficiency to support families struggling with energy bills. That was expanded again in budget 2018, in which we looked at far deeper energy-efficiency upgrades. I was lucky to be able to secure, as part of Project Ireland 2040, a €4 billion budget for carrying out deep retrofits and energy efficiency to take dirty fossil fuels out of our heating systems, including in all homes, by 2035. The climate action plan brought that target back to 2033. However, as I said when Project Ireland 2040 was launched, it was not about the commitment and the targets, but about delivering on the targets, which would be the key challenge. One of the main measures relating to energy efficiency and particularly fuel poverty is the warmer homes scheme. Historically, this scheme was focused on smaller, shallower measures to improve the energy efficiency of homes, but, as Minister, I provided the funding to carry out deep retrofits of homes across the country and dramatically expanded the investment in that programme in 2018. As a result, 5,255 homes had a retrofit carried out in 2018. These homes are occupied by people who are on social welfare and do not have the resources to carry out the type of retrofit that is needed in many homes especially the older housing stock across the country.

In 2019, however, the number of homes retrofitted fell by 40% compared to what was achieved in 2018. Last year, 2020, it collapsed with a 70% reduction in the number of homes retrofitted compared to 2018. Today, there are approximately 7,000 families who are reliant on social welfare waiting for approval to have their homes retrofitted under this scheme.

Disappointingly, current Minister responsible for energy, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has said that there were changes coming to the scheme “to better target those most in need”. In other words, quite a number of those 7,000 people who are in energy poverty and who are reliant on social welfare will now be excluded from his revision of that scheme. This is wrong.

If we were trying to maximise the number of retrofits due to take place in 2021, then this scheme should have been operational in January of this year. This was committed to in the programme for Government. There has been ample time to design this retrofit scheme and it has not happened. The argument will be made that we cannot retrofit homes because of the lockdown. I accept that people cannot go into homes at the moment with the current restrictions, but much of the work that is required is external. That could be prioritised at this time and be carried out over the last number of months.

Need I remind the Dáil that the Government’s own objectives relating to climate emissions, energy efficiency is the first and most significant step on the road to reducing overall emissions and improving air quality throughout this country.

You would not think so with its record over the last 2.5 years.

So while there was a 9% increase in residential carbon emissions during the 2020 lockdown and we have seen a fall-off in the retrofitting of homes, which commenced in 2019 and collapsed in 2020.

We need a step change in retrofitting homes and that needs to be prioritised if we are serious about tacking some of the attainable challenges, we face in the Climate Transition.