Dáil Diary no 50 – 29 July 2015 – Government's Climate Bill leaves much to be desired...
On the last week of the Dáil sitting, we began to discuss the Amendments to the Climate Change Bill, already 5 years overdue, which will again be discussed in September. The Bill leaves so much to be desired. The truth be told, it has to be one of the most disappointing pieces of legislation in the lifetime of this Dáil, and bears all the hallmarks of Politicians living from one election to the next, with little regard for the long-term good. Here's my opening contribution -
There is no reference in the proposed Bill to any baseline years for any of the greenhouse gases listed on page 4 of the Bill. This amendment will allow us to have a reference point for these greenhouse gases against which the advisory committee, or whoever is involved in the monitoring process and the drawing up of the action plan, can measure our progress and around which it can organise. Without a baseline to work off, the Bill makes little sense and without targets to reach that reference, the Bill as a whole does not amount to anything. Obviously, the years proposed for the baselines in this amendment are highly ambitious, but that is exactly what we should be trying to do with this legislation. Scotland has similar years referenced in its legislation on climate change which is, in stark contrast to the Bill we have before us today, an example of international best practice.
On Committee Stage, the Government ruled out of order any amendment that included a reference to targets on the basis that Opposition Deputies cannot propose amendments to legislation that may have a potential cost to the Exchequer - perhaps the second most undemocratic instrument in Irish politics after the Whip system - and gave no defence of the ruling. By refusing to commit to ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, this Government is incurring a cost to the Exchequer and a global human cost that is only going to get worse. Those who live on or near the Equator line are already faced with daily life or death circumstances as a result of climate change and this Government's lack of action makes Ireland complicit. However, the insular and short-sighted thinking that dominates Irish politics today has no room for this reality nor does it see the lives of people - either those in Ireland or abroad - as having any real value, as evidenced by the decision to rule out any possibility of climate justice or real climate change mitigation because there might be a short-term cost to the Exchequer. If this analysis is too harsh, we can at least say that this Government understands the value of money but not the value of humanity.
Therefore, let us speak its language of quantity above all else. According to the European Commission, "early action on climate change will save lives and money. The EU-wide cost of not adapting to climate change could reach at least €100 billion a year by 2020, rising to €250 billion a year by 2050." Elaborating on the internationally accepted position that climate change poses a threat so serious that it could reverse the past 50 years of progress in global health and development, the European Commission has said that climate action would bring benefits of €38 billion a year in 2050 through reduced mortality caused by air pollution. The World Health Organization has estimated that, considering only a few of the associated health risks and assuming continued progress in economic growth and health protection, climate change would still be likely to cause about 250,000 additional deaths per year by the 2030s. A recent report by researchers at the International Monetary Fund identifies the omission of health damages from polluting fuels as the largest of the subsidies provided to global energy production and use, which will total $5.3 trillion in 2015, which is more than the total health expenditure of all the world's governments.
What is clear is that climate change and its causes are the greatest risks facing human health. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that when making a climate change mitigation plan, the Government has a reference point from which it can make long-term national commitments that are binding and those in power can be held accountable if they fail to protect the Irish people and the wider world. It is obvious that fast and meaningful action on climate change will have economic benefits for Ireland, but more importantly, it will mean the Government cares about the well-being of people. Failure to commit to targets and a fast-track of the mitigation plan will demonstrate that the opposite is the case.
As I have outlined, there is a wealth of peer-reviewed research showing that climate change will result in astronomical costs to governments the world over. There is also a long series of very coherent arguments from scientists, economists and international bodies that highlight the immense savings that will accrue from co-ordinated, effective and sustained commitment to ambitious emissions reductions targets. In light of these facts, a situation where the Minister refuses to entertain amendments that would commit us to national emissions targets on the basis that to do so would incur a potential cost to the Exchequer is Kafkaesque. This stance by the Minister is one of the starkest examples of the Government sticking its head in the sand on an issue. We would like to challenge the Government's use of Standing Orders as an excuse not to have to take seriously our concerns about the lack of any commitment in this Bill to reduce carbon emissions. Our argument is that contrary to the Standing Order ruling, it is the Opposition Deputies who are trying to save money for the Exchequer and it is the Government which wants to burn it and, simultaneously - I am not being over-dramatic here - the world with it.
A closely monitored and targeted emissions reduction strategy is essential for the economic and social well-being of this and every other country on Earth. The end result of refusing to commit to a significant target will be our collusion in the deaths of untold millions of people. he purpose of the amendment is to give some meat to the Bill. As it stands there is no reference to a baseline or an end goal, making the Bill effectively not fit for purpose. The amendment is based upon the text of the Scottish Parliament's Climate Change Act 2009. That Act, in stark contrast to the proposed Bill, clearly outlines the targets to be met, the criteria under which those targets should be assessed in their feasibility by an independent body, an ambitious timeframe for the publication of that advice and the framework around the responsibility of the Minister in regard to that advice.
The proposed Bill has little or no detail surrounding this issue and at worst, it allows an advisory panel that is not genuinely independent to draw up proposals that will not be provided to the public before the drafting of the adaption plan or sectoral adaption plans. Furthermore, as is clear from a reading of the Scottish Act, the aim there is to arrive at the highest target possible and that a full explanation as to why higher than their proposed minimum targets cannot be achieved. The proposed Bill comes nowhere near this level of commitment to tackling climate change.
By failing to act on this issue, this Government is cementing its legacy as a regressive and destructive force wholly bound to free-market ideology, no matter what the cost to the planet or the people on it. This is a crisis that needs governments to lead by example and to rein in the economic system that has brought the human race to the brink of extinction. This would mean an end to privatisation and an end to austerity, an increase in public spending to build up the public services and infrastructure that will be our best protection against climate change. It will mean reining in the behaviour of the biggest polluters, for example our beloved FDI partners, instead of the current practice of corporate welfare that is so widespread today. It will mean fighting for better building regulations rather than the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government effectively banning international best practice for building properly insulated homes, as happened recently.
We should be investing in the public transport sector, especially light rail, instead of concentrating almost exclusively on the roads network and selling off bus routes to the private sector, while we are at it. We need to challenge the ideology that places the endless pursuit of growth above all else. The world is finite, but one would not think so to listen to those on the Government benches. The fact that we gave our oil and gas fields off County Mayo to one of the worlds biggest polluters as a present and then brutalised and imprisoned the local people who objected, is a bad signifier on this front.
A national commitment to a reduction of 80% by 2050 is essential if this Bill is to carry any clout. Anything short of this will be leaving things in the hands of Europe and international agreements which have already been dumbed down. The 2030 targets of 40% recently set by the European Commission are clearly inadequate to meet the EU's own target of limiting global warming to 20 C. We need to give meaning to the words uttered by our leader, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, in New York last September when he said, "Leaders, governments and corporations have a responsibility to define objectives, make policy decisions and take action to preserve our planet and secure a prosperous future for its inhabitants". The Bill, as it stands, has no defined objectives. Was the Taoiseach talking something different because it does not match up with the provisions in the Bill?
As well as health and social issues, a changing climate poses potential risks to global security, in particular, to secure, sustainable and affordable supplies of key natural resources such as food, water and energy, that are essential for economic prosperity and well-being, but the only food security that we seem to be worried about is the security of our beef exports that are having such a detrimental effect on the environment and on climate change. We need to have targets in this Bill and an 80% reduction by 2050 is in line with the EU commitment to stop the rise of 20C degrees rise in the global temperature. Anything short of this and the Government will not only have failed the Irish people but we will continue to play an active part in the devastation affecting billions of people in the most climate change-vulnerable regions of the planet. The situation we are faced with is stark and we need to take the lead in standing up to those who pose the greatest threat. We also need to sort out our own affairs while we are at it.
Naomi Klein summarises the precariousness of the scenario:
- In 2011 the London based Carbon Tracker Initiative conducted a study that added together the reserves claimed by all the fossil fuel companies, private and state-owned. It found that the oil, gas and coal to which these players had already laid claim - deposits they have on their books and which were already making money for shareholders - represented 2,795 gigatons of carbon (a gigaton is 1 billion metric tons). That's a very big problem because we know roughly how much carbon can be burned between now and 2050 and still leave us a solid chance (roughly 80 per cent) of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius. According to one highly credible study, that amount of carbon is 565 gigatons between 2011 and 2049. And as Bill McKibben points out, "The thing to notice is, 2,795 is five times 565. It's not even close." He adds: "What those numbers mean is quite simple. This industry has announced, in filings to the SEC and in promises to shareholders, that they're determined to burn five times more fossil fuel than the planet's atmosphere can begin to absorb."
This Bill needs concrete commitments to national targets for emissions reductions for now and well into the long-term. Anything less is a monumental failure of the political class on this island to do something that will really make a better world, at home and abroad, now and for the remainder of our time on this planet.