Seanad Éireann - Volume 188 - 31 January, 2008
Climate Change and Energy Security: Statements.
Deputy Eamon Ryan Deputy Eamon Ryan
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I welcome this opportunity to make a further statement on recent developments on the climate change issue, which are of crucial significance for this country. The Taoiseach was right last week when he said that the proposed changes present a huge challenge for Irish society and our economy. As the Taoiseach also said, these developments present us with an opportunity to address the necessary changes to create employment, cut back on our fossil fuel bill and protect the environment.
This is a complex subject which has been made more complex by last week’s announcement from the European Commission. We are dealing with a series of policy measures that work in a variety of different markets, often with target figures that make it difficult to assess the precise implications of what is happening. To begin with, I will try to explain some of the issues and implications as I see them. A year ago the European Commission came out with what it called the 20-20-20 target. In effect, it meant that the European Union would act coherently to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020.
The policy also seeks to increase our energy efficiency by 20% in the same timeframe, as well as developing 20% of our energy resources from renewable power supply systems. Some people have criticised that target as being too simplistic. Economists may ask how one can set such a simple target which does not reflect the complexities of the real world. It is a good target, however, because it covers essential developments such as climate change and the key responses to it in renewables and energy efficiency. These 20% targets have been set not as precise limits but as targets that we can then exceed.
As Members of the House will be aware, these strategic targets were approved by heads of government at the European Council in March last year. The Taoiseach and other EU heads of government signed up not only to that 20% reduction but also to a further 10% reduction if we can achieve international agreement — which I believe we must and will achieve — as part of the United Nations process that has led from Kyoto to Bali last November and through to Copenhagen, where we hope there will be an agreement in 2009. Therefore the European Union is committed not just to that 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions but also, subject to international agreement, a further 10% reduction.
The proposals launched last week set out the mechanisms, suggested by the Union, by which each country has to achieve the target. They recognise that in order to reach the 20% target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions we must get a 14% reduction from where we were in 2005. By that year we had already achieved a 6% reduction but we need to achieve a further 14% to reach the 20% target. The EU is also proposing that the further 14% reduction would come from two sectors in the European economy. The first sector comprises large-scale emitters such as big power generators, steel companies and car manufacturers. They are in what is known as the emissions trading system whereby they have an allocation to emit any carbon. If they exceed that they must pay for it. The bulk of the 14% reduction will come from that heavy industrial sector, which will see a 20% reduction in the period 2005-2020.
The non-emissions trading sector, including small businesses, individual residences, transport and agriculture, will have to provide a 10% cut in the 15-year period from 2005 to 2020. Relatively, the agriculture, transport and small business sectors of the economy will take on a smaller share of the reductions that must be made.
The European Union also has a proposal to share the reductions in the non-heavy industrial sector. It proposes a fair and effective system which is close to what we could have expected within our national climate change strategy regarding the dividing of resources. Under the proposal, countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, the economies of which have not developed similarly to ours or those of other wealthier countries, can further increase their emissions by 20%. Member states with a large GDP which have undergone significant economic development and which have that ability to do so, will make significant reductions. For example, Ireland, Denmark and Luxembourg will reduce emissions by 20% in sectors such as agriculture, transport and energy rather than in heavy industrial sectors. These broad targets have been set and frame the various responses to deliver them.
The European Union’s other significant announcement last week related to how member states would meet the targets. The proposed changes concern three main areas, the first of which is the rules and regulations of the emissions trading system for large industrial polluters. By and large, the proposed changes are positive. To date, the system of trading has been based on existing power supply companies or cement factories, for example, having an allocation based on their historical emissions and a right to emit carbon. Many argue that is inefficient and unfair and a much preferable system would be to auction that right. Companies will have to bid for the right to manage this. Rather than each national government issuing the allocations, whether they are auctioned, the Union suggests it should be done on a centralised European basis. The intention is to use the auction system on a stepped up basis in order that it can be gradually introduced. There is a question about whether it should apply to industries which might leave the Union were it applied for other markets, resulting in their products having to be imported. This is known as carbon leakage and it would mean no reduction in carbon, as the industry would only be transferred to another market. The Commission is seeking to be flexible about this and by 2010 or 2011 hopes to introduce a more flexible system to prevent carbon leakage. The movement towards an auction-based ETS to be introduced gradually is a positive and progressive development.
A more significant development concerns renewable energy. The Commission has outlined in more detail how the 20% renewable energy target will be met by 2020 as part of the overall 2020 package. This is complex because it involves many years and figures but the Commission states Ireland is almost halfway there and a further 11% increase in renewable energy supplies is needed to meet the 2020 target. On a rational and fair basis, the Commission will set different percentage targets for each member state in order that the European Union as a whole meets its overall reduction target. In our case, 16% of our energy supply must come from renewable sources by 2020. That is in line with the Government’s policy in this area but we will not stop when we achieve that target. People might ask why Ireland which has significant renewable resources through wind and wave power has only been set a target of 16% and not a higher target. Currently, 5% of our energy supply comes from renewable sources and, in 13 years, Ireland is expected to treble its renewable energy power supply. Energy is used primary in three areas, with one third devoted to power generation which tends to receive all the attention, one third to heating which is not discussed as much because it is not evident to the public and one third to transport. There is huge potential in the electricity area. A recent major all-Ireland study stated we could achieve more than 40% of our renewable energy target by 2020, which would be ahead of the curve in international terms. We could be a world leader in this regard. However, it is more difficult in the other two areas.
With regard to heating, the issues are developing the infrastructure quickly and the supply system and raw materials available. How can our land be used most effectively to provide a wood fired heating supply or waste heating resources? A significant increase is needed in this area to meet the target. Likewise, we have a particular difficulty in the transport sector because our transport use is increasing rapidly every year and the development of bio-fuels will not be easy. Bio-fuels is a difficult environmental issue in the context of developing alternative bio-fuels while protecting the environment and using resources effectively.
One of the significant developments in the Commission’s announcement last week, which is positive, is that for a bio-fuel to qualify as a contributor to the overall target, it will have to demonstrate it is not produced in an unsustainable manner in order that, for example, a rainforest is not being chopped down, or a natural habitat is being destroyed or wetlands or existing forestry which act as a carbon sink are not being used to produce the energy. Key environmental controls will be put in place to ensure bio-fuels that come from those sources cannot be used, which is very positive. The Commission has also stated bio-fuels will have to lead to at least a 35% reduction in carbon emissions compared with petrol or diesel. There is a great deal of evidence to show certain bio-fuels may not result in a significant carbon reduction and the same amount of energy may used in their the production as they produce. The European Union and the Commission held hard fought discussions about what the percentage reduction should be. Some argue that it should have been higher but that is what the Commission has agreed regarding the level the market should ensure.
The third response to the overall targets set out by the Commission relates to carbon capture and storage. This technology is not available commercially and is still at research stage. It relates to taking the carbon emitted by a coal fired plant or a peat or gas plant and storing it during power generation underground rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. This is a difficult technical and economic issue. It will be difficult commercially to generate power effectively using this technology. There are also various environmental and safety issues about how to store the carbon emissions. The European Union committed €20 billion to develop 12 demonstration projects by 2015 to ascertain how the technology might work.  If it can be cracked on an economic basis, there is huge potential for significant reductions and to generate electricity from another diverse source which increases our security of supply.
The Government’s response to the European Union’s proposal has been positive in its communications. We have reiterated that the Government is committed to the 20% reduction target, to which it signed up at the Council of Ministers last June, and the 30% reduction target if there is international agreement. The Taoiseach and the Government have explicitly reaffirmed Ireland’s interest in meeting such targets within the Union. It was correct for us to question the testing and to provide an assessment to make sure the system devised was fair, effective and efficient. Every other country has done so in examining its responses.
I believe every country has expressed agreement with the overall target while raising concerns over certain aspects. The UK may be different from us in saying it has difficulties with regard to renewables because, while that country’s renewables target of 15% is similar to ours, it will be much harder to achieve in countries with a smaller landmass, larger population and fewer natural resources than Ireland. Other countries will raise different concerns but given that the European Union has committed to this in such a vociferous manner in Bali and elsewhere we will see agreement on the measures and, if there is an international agreement, we will seek to go further with a 30% reduction.
The mechanism will be tested and scrutinised. The Commissioner for Energy, Mr. Piebalgs, stated this week there would be flexibility between countries in respect of the renewables target but that we cannot shift the overall target to which we have committed. Thus, if any country seeks changes, another country will have to agree to take more. Such an agreement will be difficult to achieve, so we have to assume the system will be introduced as proposed. In my opinion, the Commission has taken a balanced approach. It is right that certain technical details should be teased out, such as our high population growth rate relative to other European countries and the relationship between GNP and GDP, without questioning the overall direction and intent of the Union.
Those who are scared of the climate change process have in the past cast doubts on the science, claiming for example on the basis of Internet research that sunspots are to blame. That argument is not heard as much now because it simply is not tenable.
Senator Mary M. White Senator Mary M. White
Senator Mary M. White: It is not true.
Deputy Eamon Ryan Deputy Eamon Ryan
Deputy Eamon Ryan: Increasingly, the response focuses on the cost factor and the economic consequences. I acknowledge there will be cost implications. The EU has estimated that the proposed measures could cost up to €90 billion. However, from an energy policy viewpoint the cost of not making these changes is huge. Leaving aside the environmental aspect, the over-reliance by the EU on fossil fuels is the key economic motive for introducing the measures. Based on the price of oil at $60 per barrel, the savings from the changes in terms of cost reductions in our fossil fuel bills are estimated at €50 billion. If oil costs $100 per barrel, we are looking at savings of €90 billion. In other words, the measures are cost neutral. The savings in fuel alone pay for the other costs of developing renewable alternatives. Therefore, those who seem obsessed at the cost to the Irish Government are missing the bigger picture of the geological reality that global oil production has reached the point where it will decrease rather than increase annually. With 90% of Ireland’s energy consisting of imported fossil fuels, we are particularly exposed. We have the potential to cut our dependence by taking on the agenda of developing renewables and saving energy.
Energy efficiency has not received much attention even though it is the third and most important of the 2020 targets. The Government is due to publish an energy efficiency action plan this spring which will represent the start of a comprehensive and dedicated focus on energy efficiency in the public sector, where we want to achieve a one third reduction in energy use through efficiency gains, and the wider economy, where we want to achieve a 20% reduction. We have already engaged in the process by changing building regulations. A 40% improvement has been made to building regulations and we have committed to a 60% reduction within a short timeframe and will then move towards the objective of constructing all buildings to required housing standards within the timeframe of the EU project.
We have led the way in Europe on light bulb regulations. Many people have criticised the proposed changes but we have to take bold steps. When we told the European Union about our plans, it responded that we were right and that it should review its own level of ambition in that area.
I look forward to the publication today of the Finance Bill, which will include measures on tax breaks for businesses that invest in energy efficient equipment. This represents a crucial way of helping companies to make economies, reduce fossil fuel bills and cut emissions. The change we made to the motor tax system is a crucial first step in transport, which presents the biggest difficulties. While reductions are already being made in agriculture and power generation, they are being lost by the increases in the transport sector. The changes to motor taxation will affect the price of vehicles that are high in energy use but they are a crucial first step in a journey we will have to make in this area.
We have to reduce our emissions from the current 70 million tonnes to 63 million tonnes by the end of the Kyoto period in 2012. The new binding target, if it is agreed next year in Europe, will require further cuts to 56 million tonnes and if an international agreement is reached from Copenhagen we will be aiming for a target of 48 million tonnes. To make these reductions, we will have to go beyond what anyone has yet contemplated. We have no choice other than to start preparing and, rather than be dragged kicking and screaming into the process, we should embrace it as an opportunity to create jobs, become a technology leader and cut our fossil fuel bill.
The Government has established a Cabinet subcommittee and an Oireachtas joint committee on climate change and energy security, recognising this is a long-term project and sending the message that regardless of the results of the next election, an investment decision on energy efficiency will bring returns in the next ten to 20 years. These committees will have a crucial role in terms of exploring the options and opportunities of the new energy future. The Government has also established a technical analysis group which will bring the best brains in the State system together to report to the Cabinet subcommittee on technical and economic modelling for each sector. That analysis will feed into Government decision making on the project, which the Taoiseach correctly noted will present a significant challenge. It will have to be at the centre of every aspect of our economic, social and environmental thinking.
I welcome today’s debate as part of the first stage in getting to grips with this complex emissions trading system. It is not easy to comprehend the various targets and their different base years but a debate which allows us to develop a better understanding is important.
Senator Joe O’Reilly Senator Joe O’Reilly
Senator Joe O’Reilly: I welcome the Minister and appreciate the way he has engaged with the House and the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on the issue. Such an engagement is important in terms of reaching consensus.
A high level of awareness now exists on the issue. Our recent weather patterns have persuaded most people of the indisputable evidence on climate change. The science is no longer in doubt and, with the exception of the columnist, Mr. Kevin Myers, there is now virtual unanimity on the issue.
A few days ago, the European Commission published highly ambitious and controversial climate change and renewable energy policies. It has put forward a set of legislative proposals that are designed to cut aggregate EU emissions by 20% by 2020. In effect, it is proposed to remove 600 million tonnes to 900 million tonnes of carbon emissions. While Ireland must create 16% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, the comparable figure is 3.1% at present. Such targets are ambitious but the Commission was correct to set the bar high. While Ireland should embrace them and make a serious attempt to reach them, I also agree with the Minister that we must negotiate, consider their implementation from our perspective and enter discussions with the Commission. Naturally each member state will so do and different interests will arise. However, we should accept the targets and make an ambitious effort to achieve them.
The report by Sir Nicholas Stern on the economics of climate change should be borne in mind. It stated the cost of inaction would be equivalent to the cost to the world economy of the great depression of the 1930s, that is, as much as 10% of gross domestic product, GDP. The cost of action over the period in question, however, is estimated to be approximately 1% of GDP.
As for renewable energy, we must continue to encourage the development of wind energy in the form of wind farms. Priority must be given to ensuring such wind farms will gain access to the grid. In addition, it is important that the energy they create flows into the national grid.
It is also important to consider the question of domestic wind turbines, which has been raised in the House by the Leas-Chathaoirleach a number of times. I understand that one difficulty associated with domestic wind turbines is that their initial costs only can be recouped in the long term. Given the long-term nature of our targets and ambitions, however, the Minister should closely consider the encouragement of domestic wind turbines and the degree to which, as the Leas-Chathaoirleach has often requested, grant aid or incentivisation could be employed to make them more widely used. I await the Minister’s response to this issue with interest because I am unsure of the costing involved. However, I understand it may take 15 years before viability is achieved or returns are generated.
Although wave energy research already is in place, it must be continued and accelerated with a greater degree of investment to achieve an effective return. This form of energy may have great potential from a domestic perspective. As for bio-fuels, it is important to preserve a balance and avoid doing anything that would increase the price of food excessively. Therein lies a difficulty as one should not tolerate increases in direct consumer food prices or the linked issue of animal feed, etc. that arise from an over-reliance on bio-fuels. Moreover, the Minister made the point earlier that complete consensus does not yet exist on whether bio-fuels always save on emissions and this issue must be examined.
I believe a reconstruction of the railway system constitutes an opportunity that has not been grasped properly in Ireland. The Minister referred previously to the important point that carbon emissions from our cars, lorries and transport system as a whole are highly significant contributors to Ireland’s overall carbon emissions levels. Transport is at the centre of our difficulties and tackling this sector will be central to efforts to reduce our emissions and reach the target reductions of 20% by 2020. In that context, the Government must consider the return of the railways. At a minimum, a White Paper on the reintroduction of the railway system should be produced as it requires serious analysis. I believe the physical presence of railways would encourage their use.
While I will not digress, I recall the construction of a swimming pool in my home locality. When seeking funding for the pool, I argued that although the population base was not very large, individuals would swim more frequently and cultural changes would increase use, etc. Thankfully, this has proven to be the case. The same principle applies to railways. The presence of a railway would generate greatly increased usage of it and we can save on emissions in this manner.
The use of railways would result also in the emergence of a culture of public transport usage and a consequential reduction in car usage. We must try to encourage car sharing. A culture has arisen in which no one any longer contemplates drinking and then driving home. This now is an accepted norm. Similarly, Members should encourage the development of a culture in which people share cars while going to work or use public transport. A critical factor, however, is that public transport infrastructure must be in place first. It is regrettable that this issue was not included in the Minister’s statement because I believe it to be critical. The renewal and recreation of Ireland’s railway system will be highly important.
The European Commission has stated that fossil fuel consumption must be reduced by as much as 200 million tonnes to 300 million tonnes per year. Clearly this is important given the present price of oil and the question of energy security. The increase in wind energy development, the exploration and development of wave energy, the creation of and experimentation with new energy forms, the introduction of railways and so on should be considered in the context of tackling climate change, which in itself would be a worthy objective. They also should be considered as ways to ensure the security of our energy supply in future and to reduce our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. This will be important given the existing and projected cost of oil.
The conservation of energy also is of major importance. While we must create sources of renewable or alternative energy, the conservation of existing energy is of great importance. In that context, I support the initiatives in the area of motor taxation. However, the issue of insulation of Ireland’s housing stock also is critical. Much of the housing stock that was built some time ago is in need of insulation. This is true of both local authority and private houses and the Minister should examine this issue. The Government has failed to date to grapple with the issue by producing a national grants scheme to provide insulation. Much can be done in this regard to conserve energy and energy conservation must constitute a twin strand of our strategy. Further development of renewable energy resources should be encouraged through a combination of methods. The conservation of energy, in so far as it is possible, should run parallel with the expansion of the development of renewable energy. The insulation of houses is critical in this regard.
Senator Martin Brady is present and will be very aware that water-powered flax and corn mills were once in operation in the Cavan-Monaghan region. The mills harnessed the power of rivers. A gentleman took me around to look at the many extant mills in the Monaghan area. Water power could again be harnessed for the creation of electricity at local level and should be considered. We must think outside the box. If a resource exists in nature and is cheap and practical, why not use it? In the same vein, we should consider wind turbines, insulation and every possible option. To reach the ambitious targets we have set without dislocating national industries, it is critical that we consider the alternatives. Renewable energy development will lead to job creation, particularly in high-tech industry, and to new economic opportunities.
While I acknowledge that awareness of climate change is heightening, it is important that we continue to generate awareness. In addition to the actions we take, we must run an education and awareness programme, especially in respect of cars. A cultural sea change is required. Perhaps we all have contributed to generating the perception that one needs to drive vehicles the size of a Land Rover. Doing so is perfectly understandable if one is engaged in agriculture or construction, for example, but it is incomprehensible why other individuals need such machines just to go to the local shop. It defies analysis and is quite sad. An education campaign should be launched and the reintroduction of a good public transport system would assist in this regard.
We have lost the run of ourselves in this area. Our dependence on cars should not be half as great as it is and there is no need for the large cars, jeeps and Land Rovers that we possess. Our parents and grandparents progressed very well in society without having half of what we have. While I am not being flat-earthist about the matter or advocating going back in time, I believe some of the trappings of modernity could well be cast aside.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney Senator Cecilia Keaveney
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I am wondering about the future role of the pony and trap; perhaps it will feature again. It is popular at weddings instead of the big car.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach An Leas-Chathaoirleach
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Up in Donegal.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney Senator Cecilia Keaveney
 Senator Cecilia Keaveney: Up around Donegal they say that if one’s mode of transport has a nice cover, one has some chance of getting to and from one’s destination dry. Donegal is not the worst county for precipitation.
I was quite interested to hear the Minister say people now accept global warming is an issue and that there is no debate about it. However, I have heard that certain governments are theorising that the concept of global warming is being advocated so their countries will be prevented from developing. I am not an expert on the matter but see enough to realise global warming is occurring and that it can only be ignored at our peril. This has been brought home to me recently.
The issue of global warming looms over every aspect of my political life at present. While I was a Deputy, I was involved with a sub-committee of British-Irish Interparliamentary Body that took on the issues of energy generation and sustainable development. The committee visited a farm owned by Mr. Gilliland on the outskirts of Derry, which farm I pass three times a week if not more frequently. He has been growing willow for a considerable period and his farm is one of the main sources of the product. The willow is fertilised with human effluent, which can either be injected into the soil or used in compost form. The willow absorbs it and emits much friendlier gases into the atmosphere than would otherwise be emitted. Within two to four years of being planted, the willow is harvested and converted into wood shavings or pellets and therefore its cultivation presents a win-win situation.
In my area, dealing with sewage presents a considerable problem. It is similar to the issue that arises in respect of chicken waste in Cavan. People can complain that Big Brother Europe will very soon rap us on the knuckles if we do not deal with such issues. I do not agree with being told what to do but believe that, where it is proper and when we should have acted faster, the European Union is correct to force us to be called to account. Willow does not present the solution for processing all human waste but is an alternative to some of the more expensive options being used to deal with relatively small amounts of waste.
The British-Irish Interparliamentary Body also visited wind farms just outside Donegal town. Turbines are fascinating to see from afar but they are much more fascinating when studied closely. This allows one to appreciate their scale and understand a little about how they generate energy.
The British-Irish Interparliamentary Body is only one body with which I have been involved with a view to addressing environmental matters. This day last week I was at the plenary session of the Council of Europe which was addressing a sub-committee on sustainable development report on global warming and ecological disasters. I joined the sub-committee in December. The report was one of two discussed during the plenary session. The second concerned the destruction of the polar regions. Most of us who do not have first-hand expertise in environmental issues gain a more thorough understanding when we see polar bears unable to climb up on the icecap because it is melting as quickly as they try to do so.
The sub-committee’s report on global warming and ecological disasters is available on the Council of Europe’s website. It offers far more information than I have time to extrapolate. As a member of the sub-committee, I took part in a fascinating meeting in Paris where we had discussions with a delegation from China. It is easier to point the finger at China for the problems it is causing and will cause in the future than to accept that, despite these difficulties, that country is making significant effort in some areas. One of the Chinese delegates told us that some 500 billion hectares of forest have been planted in China. Five members from five different countries asked the delegate’s interpreter to confirm that figure. The French member observed that the area forested represented a multiple of the size of France.
It was startling to see that figure again in the report we produced. Our recommendation No. 18 noted that the loss of natural forest around the world represents a threat to biodiversity and does more to increase the greenhouse effect each year than the transport sector. I do not wish to contradict the Minister, Deputy Ryan, who observed that the transport sector is the greatest threat in terms of global warming. However, I ask Members to note that the loss of natural forestry, according to our report, does more to increase the greenhouse effect on a yearly basis.
There was a time when much of this State was forested. Significant deforestation has occurred, however, to make way, in many cases, for housing development. I acknowledge the work done by the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Wallace, to encourage forestry. Some people are happy to be surrounded by trees while others feel inhibited by that. It is important that we encourage the development of forestry in the context of climate change.
It is important to bear in mind that we, as more developed nations, are often satisfied to wave the finger at developing states and put all the emphasis on what they must do, at the expense of accepting that we too have a vital role to play in arresting climate change. We are often blind to our own faults as we concentrate vigorously on the shortcomings of others. It is undoubtedly the case that various large developing countries face great challenges. However, the already developed nations were central to creating the problems we all now face. We must not abdicate our responsibility to ensure the resolution or minimisation of damage into the future.
Debate about climate change is beginning to take place among ordinary citizens. Where two or three are gathered, the issue tends to arise at a level not seen before. If we are blunt about it, those who professed concerns about the environment were very much a small minority at one point. One need go back less than a decade to recall that people interested in the environment were categorised in a certain way. Such categorisation is no longer relevant because the level of debate and interest has increased so much.
It is interesting to observe the evolving debate on the potentially negative effects of bio-fuels, with the suggestion that not all corn ethanol or rapeseed biodiesel is necessarily produced in an environmentally friendly manner. It seemed at one point that the future of farming would involve a diversification into everything bio. This appeared to offer a great solution for anybody struggling in agriculture. Unfortunately, no sooner does the solution emerge than the problems associated with that solution arise.
It is important that we protect our food supply. Nobody should become involved in the production of something merely because it is trendy or attracts significant supports. We must avoid a situation where there is a rush to the energy sector at the complete expense of the food industry. In that context, I welcome the EU ban on Brazilian beef. Apart form other considerations, one wonders what its carbon footprint, or hoofprint, is by the time it gets to Ireland.
The latest craze in adventure sports is quad biking. A more environmentally friendly alternative may be available via our rivers and coasts. The EU’s quotas have made it less attractive for people to make their living on the water. In my local community school, students in transition year are encouraged to take up a module on the marine. The school management is aware that the children of former fishermen are unlikely to make their living on the sea and that their parents’ maritime skills may therefore be lost. A community endeavour to establish a rowing club means that the local boat-building plant, McDonald’s, has begun to produce rowing boats. The River Foyle punts are back in the water. “Nationwide” and “Seascapes” both broadcast reports on this recently.
Quad biking is about the thrill of fast driving. There is as much fun, albeit involving far more water, to be had with rowing and canoeing. Water sports should be encouraged as an environmentally friendly sporting endeavour. They have been neglected thus far because of confusion as to the respective remits of the Department of Transport and the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, with each contending they are a matter for the other Department. The development of marine recreation has fallen between the two stools and this must be addressed.
Ireland led the way in introducing the plastic bag levy. At the plenary session of the Council of Europe last week, delegates from many countries asked us how we managed to introduce the plastic bag tax, the smoking ban and now the stipulations regarding long-life light bulbs. These are regarded as great initiatives in other jurisdictions. That it was little Ireland which showed the way is significant from their perspective. The levy consumers must pay to ensure washing machines, radios, televisions and so on are recycled by the shop is also important. We should share our experience with others just as we look to other jurisdictions to see how matters operate there.
I am disappointed at the apparent lapse of the scheme operated by some garages whereby older cars were scrapped and their owners given a cash payment. That scheme should be reintroduced. A great conversation point is the new environmental provision regarding vehicle taxation. Many of those in the Visitors Gallery today may not yet have a car but they will be interested to know that, from now on, consumers will have to be far more environmentally aware when purchasing motor vehicles. Likewise, the energy rating for houses will ensure that developers must be careful to build houses that are more environmentally friendly.
We must examine the potential for the development of wind, wave and solar power. Attempts are currently being made to lay a gas pipeline from Russia into Europe. However, some of the countries involved in burying chemical weapons after the Second World War will not reveal the locations of those weapons. Therefore, laying a gas pipeline may threaten the stability of several countries. If we believe that natural gas is a better option than other fuels, then we should be imploring Britain, America and Germany to come clean on where those munitions are buried.
We must make new public buildings eco-friendly. We must use as many environmentally friendly options as we can, because we are supposed to be leading the way. We cannot point our finger at other countries, because we must look at ourselves. As parliamentarians, we cannot look to other people and tell them what to do. We must act. Minister Timmerman said last week that what we say at the Council of Europe, we must say in our own countries. To paraphrase an American saying, “Do not ask what your world can do for you, but what you can do for your world”.
Senator Joe O’Toole Senator Joe O’Toole
Senator Joe O’Toole: I appreciate the opportunity to speak and I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I have much respect for the Senator, but when I hear her praise the Chinese for anything I want to spend at least 40 minutes explaining why we should ignore them, no matter how many trees they are planting. Ireland and the rest of western Europe is sending shiploads of waste to China every day. There are cities in China of which we have never heard, such as the city of Dongyang, where that waste is being burned. We are asphyxiating, suffocating and killing ordinary Chinese people against their will, and the Chinese Government does not allow people to give information about it on the Internet.
Channel 4 recently broadcast a programme on the huge dam being built by the Chinese Government on the Yangtze River, the Three Gorges Dam. People were literally shoved out of their houses and told if they did not move, they would be flooded. I will use every opportunity I can this year, during the celebration of the Olympic Games, to point out the repressive Government that exists in China. The western world should be ashamed of what is being done there. One new coal station is being opened every six days in China.
I appeal to the advisers to bring some of the points I am making to the attention of the Minister. I believe there is an agenda running on the EirGrid issue. The Minister of State comes from the west of Ireland. A famous writer from the west of Ireland, John Healy, published a book entitled Nobody Cried Stop. I believe we are walking head first into major difficulties with electricity and electricity security.
There are three aspects to electricity in the country. Everybody has been talking about electricity generation since we set up the facility at Ardnacrusha near the Minister of State’s constituency in 1929. The national grid brings electricity from there to local transformers around the country. The electricity network brings it from the transformers into houses. According to the programme for Government, we are now about to package up the national grid into one neat company and run it separately from the rest. That is the biggest mistake. Of all the people who could come in here, nobody knows more about packaging parts of a public utility than the Minister of State. He even had to walk away from his party Whip on a similar issue on one occasion.
The only parts of the whole system that we need to examine are the grid and the network. It does not matter where the generation comes from. Once we put down international interconnectors, we can buy and sell the stuff from Europe. The most powerful electricity company in Europe is probably Electricité de France. That company has built the two main power lines connecting eastern Europe with France. It is buying and selling electricity every day of the weak. It is also the greatest generator of electricity given that 80% of French electricity is based on nuclear power. Electricité de France is also buying up every single utility company that comes on the market in the UK or anywhere in Europe. It is growing every day and its strength is based on the following simple fact. It is a vertically integrated utility company. It runs everything, from generation to grid to network.
When debating the issue of Internet access ten years ago, I said that I did not believe that any private company would ever be interested in bringing a copper wire to Belmullet. Time has shown that to be true. I believe this is exactly the same. I want to give an example of where I have seen this working, although I know the Minister, Deputy Ryan, does not accept my point. I do not for one moment query his commitment on these issues and I welcome the boldness of the initiatives he has taken, especially the initiatives on light bulbs and so on. It is not a Minister’s job to worry about the problems of implementation. Donagh O’Malley taught us 40 years ago that a Minister says what he wants and lets the officials deliver. The biggest mistake a Minister can make is to share the problems of the officials. Officials are there to deal with the problems and Ministers are there to have the policy implemented.
A grid is being set up which is now being packaged. I want to put on the record that I believe the national grid will be privatised in five years’ time. Therefore, we might own the generation capacity and the network which brings it to Mrs. Murphy’s door, but we will not own the national grid which brings it as far as the local network. This happened before in New Zealand, a country with exactly the same population as Ireland, with the same rural background and the same history as a former British colony. The Government there broke up the utility company into several different companies and it broke up the network. As soon as the grid was sold off in New Zealand, there were immediate problems. Who was going to pay to connect the grid to the network? The first place in which they encountered difficulty was in Wellington, the capital city, which was left without power for three full weeks while the company which owned the grid held the Government to ransom to pay for the connection from the grid to the local network. That is already happening in this country. Private providers charge exorbitant rates at peak usage times to the Government in order to provide the surplus we need. A few years ago we had to buy in portable generators and that is what happened.
I believe we are doing now with EirGrid what we did with airports and with Aer Lingus. We are packaging it all up. We have seen that this has gone wrong everywhere. It happened in the UK when water provision was sold off. The Government realised it then had to spend €1 billion on pipes. It happened again in the UK when the railways were sold and investment in tracks was forgotten. It is the same here now as we are selling off the national grid. The national grid needs about €2 billion in investment. Either the Government pays the money and it will be a prosperous company later sold off to the greedy private sector, or the Government could do what it did with Aer Lingus. It could state that it has not got the €2 billion to invest in the company, will blame Europe for not being able to invest in it and state that it must get the private sector in to do it. I believe that will happen. While I do not believe that is on the agenda of the current Government, and certainly not on the agenda of the Green Party, it will happen.
We need to keep a vertically integrated utility where the State owns the generation capacity, the national grid and the network. If we do not control all three, we are dead. If we want to sell off one of those, the generation capacity is the least important. We might have a lot of trouble convincing people of that, but it is the reality. We had to reopen the turf burning station in Cahirciveen two years ago and another station near Belmullet, simply in order to raise capacity. We could not cope without it. This is what will happen if we do not own it anymore.
What is happening with Electricité de France? It is investigating nuclear fusion. It has also won the global pitching initiative. It is the only concern investigating nuclear fusion. There has been no debate in this country. The Minister is quite right in saying that we need a debate on nuclear energy. I am opposed to nuclear based electricity, but there should be a debate on it. In such a debate the distinction must be made between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion has certain attractions and at least is controllable. It has between one tenth and half of the risks associated with nuclear energy, but it is not happening. The other issue, in terms of energy security, is the amount being spent on research. In the UK at present major research is taking place into hydrogen based power, but that is not happening here. Our brains can match those of any nation state in the world. This is a knowledge society and that is what is needed to move on this.
To have energy security we need to have storage capacity. How do we store electricity? If we create 100% electricity at six o’clock in the morning when people are getting up and it is needed at six in the evening when people are cooking, how do we get the balance right, and where do we hold the electricity? The only place I know where it is done at the moment is at Turlough Hill, where we pump it up and let it come down. However, we can only store a tiny percentage of what we need.
I have put this question previously to the Department and was told the interconnector would do it. In other words, it is sold into the grid. The grid we are selling it back to is in the UK, which has precisely the same type of peaks and troughs as Ireland. That is not the answer, but there are ways for storing electricity, although I am not an expert in this area. If we take hydrogen based electricity, the substance in most supply on this earth is water, H 2 O, hydrogen and oxygen. One of the difficulties is that it is not effective and efficient to remove hydrogen from water and then use it for power. It takes almost as much energy to subtract the hydrogen as one will get from burning it. That is precisely why it appears an extraordinarily good way to have storage. If we use our spare capacity to extract hydrogen from water and then use this for power when it is needed, it is the cleanest energy on earth. The waste produced by the burning or usage of hydrogen is clean drinkable potable water. There is no better way of approaching it and we should do it.
The Minister suggested recently that perhaps the energy might be stored in batteries. Battery technology is nowhere near as efficient. I told him at the time that a battery the size of Mount Leinster would be needed to look after Dublin alone. It cannot be done. There are enormous issues here on which there has been no debate and we do not know where we are going. Within a couple of years, not only will the grid be sold off — although that is not intended at the moment — it will probably be owned by Electricité de France, or whatever. This means that in five or six years time the switch will be in Paris to control our lights, electricity and energy. I have nothing against the French, but in terms of energy security, that is precisely where we are going. Energy security is not just about creating sufficient power and holding enough of it on the island or within the State, but about controlling it and using it precisely as we need it. That is the difficulty we face and there is no sign of a solution to the problem.
Fair play to the Green Party, which has pushed the Government via VRT and in the new Finance Bill today, apparently, into giving tax breaks for energy efficient projects. In simple terms, however, what Ireland is doing with waste is in breach of European regulations. Waste is supposed to be disposed of as closely as possible to the point at which it has been created. We are disposing of enormous amounts of waste in China. That cannot be right. It is not right. I do not know whether any colleague here has ever tried to track a piece of waste. I tried to do it two years ago, and again last year, to see where it gets to from the doorstep, into various distribution channels, and how it is checked as regards where it ends up. The figures are all over the place. If they were to be audited, half the people involved would be sacked because it is not possible to track them. They are mixed and matched in three or four different places among various companies throughout Ireland. They are then sent for redistribution to another place. Nobody knows what percentage finishes up in China.
Another issue raised by the two previous speakers was the question of chicken waste and human waste. Both of these produce methane, which is between 20 and 25 times more damaging than carbon. In other words, a tonne of methane equates to 25 tonnes of carbon. The great thing about methane, however, is that it is a power source. Effectively, we should put a tent over every landfill and chicken farm in Ireland. That would save the atmosphere from emissions and also harness a power source. These are issues we need to look at with some degree of enthusiasm and energy. The way we are moving at the moment, in creating a separate company, EirGrid, in the midst of an electricity utility is inexplicable. I do not know why we are doing this. I have asked questions and got all types of answers to the effect that “we must ensure they buy from the right people”. We do that all over the place. People are forced to buy, either by proper tender or by regulation etc. I see nothing wrong with the ESB continuing to own the grid system and running it properly in its own interest. Neither will I condone Europe taking the blame for this, by the way. All I suggest may be done well within the parameters laid down by Europe.
I have just touched on some of the issues I wanted to raise. On a final point, over the past 18 to 20 years we have made the ESB leaner and leaner. The Minister of State, Deputy Tony Killeen, will have seen that as regards Moneypoint in his constituency. From having had about 14,000 employees, the ESB now has approximately 7,000 on its payroll. We have closed between 13 and 15 power stations and made the company a superb example of national industry. This was achieved on the basis that it would be a vertically integrated national utility. I want us to maintain and control that and be in charge of our future and security.
Senator Dan Boyle Senator Dan Boyle
Senator Dan Boyle: It is opportune to have this debate so soon after the Seanad addressed the issue. In the interim there have been several important international events that require comment to put in context the international debate on climate change. The first was the United Nations conference in Bali, which excited a good deal of media attention, not all favourable. The Irish contribution to that was quite forthright and positive, in a conference that ultimately generated more hope than success. Even that is removed from what, today, we must accept as the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, which has turned out to be an exercise of running to just stand still. Much of that was because the governments of certain nation states operated to ignore and frustrate the will of the rest of the international community, as regards identifying the scale of the problem of climate change and then refusing to make a proportional contribution towards alleviating its consequences. The chief government involved was that of the United States, a country with 5% of the world’s population, 5% of the earth’s landmass, which consumes 25% of all energy resources. That may alter because of political changes occurring in the United States in an election year, but at least Bali brought about some type of admission from the American delegation. It means that we will be adhering to a roadmap that, hopefully, will allow for decisions in Copenhagen about a more successful replacement for Kyoto. That is the best we can hope for in the immediate international political climate.
The United States was not operating on its own, however. A number of countries, while not being as belligerent as America in denying climate change, nonetheless were on a par in ensuring that international action did not occur. It is interesting to see what has happened in many of those countries. Australia was the US’s largest ally in much of this debate. It has now had a change of government, where the policy has been altered. There is now a Labour Government in Australia, which has gained office through the help of a significant increase in the Green Party vote there. The Green Party presence in the Australian Senate is now two and a half times what it was. Countries such as Japan have finally committed to targets, as the European Commission has suggested for 2020.
We are coming to the end of the process and internationally, the Administration in power in the United States is becoming isolated. It is also fair to state the debate within the United States has challenged the orthodoxy of the US Government’s position. At state and municipal levels action is being taken on climate change policies in defiance of the policy advocated by the US Government. I am optimistic that when a change of administration occurs, even if another Republican president takes office, the process will continue and increase in speed.
The second international change which occurred in the interim is that the European Commission has made proposals on how the European Union collectively, and individual European Union member states can address the idea of carbon reductions in the period up to 2020. This was the focus of the Minister’s speech today. Within the EU, Ireland was treated very generously under the Kyoto Protocol. We were allocated a 13% increase above 1990 levels, which we have exceeded by almost twice the amount. In view of this and the economic wealth we attained we will now be asked by the European Commission to initiate large cuts in carbon usage. This will have an economic effect. Fortunately, it seems to be in line with the commitment which exists in the programme for Government that a 3% cut will be achieved on average in the lifetime of the Government. It is hoped succeeding Governments will continue this.
In previous debates in this Chamber we recognised that this should be not a Government versus Opposition issue but one on which all political parties sing from the same hymn sheet. We will have a period of adjustment prior to achieving this stage of political maturity. This Government, which has Green Party participation, has only been in office since June of last year. Several small-scale initiatives have been put in place with regard to tackling the overall problems in this area. However, the reaction these small and modest measures have provoked has not reflected well on the nature of politics or the practice of opposition as usual politics.
This is the case in particular with regard to the replacement of incandescent light bulbs with CFL and LED lighting by 1 January 2009. This proposal was made in the first instance to allow a lead-in period to establish whether it could be done directly and whether problems had to be overcome in terms of consumers and the industry. However, the reaction we saw in certain political circles involved spurious arguments about the health and safety aspects of goods which were already checked and approved for use in households.
Other arguments about losing heat through the replacement of incandescent light bulbs take the nature of the debate we need to have into the realm of the surreal. It does not reflect well on the people making these arguments, and they will face political consequences. I hope now that they have been made the debate can move on to another context. The arguments heard in political circles have been reported in certain media organs.
The interpretation of particular reports or the publication of reports themselves have not been helpful in allowing us to understand the scale of the problem we must face. In its most recent quarterly economic commentary, the ESRI had as an addendum a small report on the possible economic effects of climate change and the policies put in place. It was a dishonest document because its basic thrust was what the cost would be if only one particular action were taken. We saw it repeated on the front pages of certain newspapers, which printed that if we put all the cost onto an electricity bill it would cost households €440. No one is making the argument that we should only do one thing. Government policy is a mixum-gatherum of a range of policy approaches.
As the Minister stated in his speech, these involve defining whether energy use is necessary in all circumstances and seeing where it can be made more efficient. It involves examining whether the buildings we operate can be brought up to speed to achieve maximum efficiency and not only with regard to the production of energy and its ultimate use. It also involves an entire series of measures to reduce dependence on fossil fuel energy by promoting renewable energy sources.
During recent months, a number of measures have been introduced which reflect all of these policy areas, including incentives, carrots and small sticks. Part of this process will see the publication today of a Finance Bill, the second part of a budget package which will contain additional measures. These will show not only the impact of the Green Party in Government but also the need for many of these incentives to be put in place as quickly as possible.
The other aspect of media coverage I wish to discuss is with regard to one media organ. I am slow to refer to it because as a publication it is very much a comic and should not be referred to as a national newspaper. It is the Irish Daily Mail. Recently, it published the story about €440 being added to the cost of an electricity bill. The same newspaper is not averse to taking on the fashionable aspects of environmentalism. Two days after publishing that front-page story, a banner was on the front page advertising a give-away. Normally, such giveaways involve a film DVD or a music CD. However, on this occasion readers of the Irish Daily Mail were offered two free CFL light bulbs, which the newspaper had regularly castigated during the previous month as being unsafe, unsound and a contributor to the ruination of humanity.
It is important that not only this debate but the ongoing debate we have in the country is properly informed. Mischievousness and politics for the sake of politics is not the order of the day. It is too important an issue to be debated in this manner.
Senator Dominic Hannigan Senator Dominic Hannigan
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I welcome the Minister back to the House, fresh from providing the Taoiseach with a dig-out from his recent trials and tribulations.
A number of people in the country probably still believe that climate change is one of these passing fads. The rest of us know the earth is not flat and that the impact of climate change is upon us. Summers are getting hotter and the past decade has seen some extremely hot summers. The summer of 2003 was reputed to be the hottest summer in 500 years during which 13,000 people died in France.
I am particularly concerned about our coasts, along which one quarter of our population lives and a major amount of infrastructure is located. With the impact of climate change we can expect to see increased sea levels and I am concerned about the coastal erosion which will be a consequence of this. I live on the Louth-Meath coast which is referred to as the “gold coast”. I regularly receive phone calls from people who are concerned about the impact of the latest sea storm on the coast. I wrote to several Ministers about this and it is clear that we do not have a strategy to deal with coastal erosion or rising sea levels. Bearing in mind many of our major towns and cities, such as Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick, are either on the coast or close to the coast, it is about time the Government put in place a strategy for dealing with rising sea levels and coastal erosion. I add my voice to those of the Senators who called for greater reliance on renewable energy sources. While I do not propose to regurgitate the arguments in favour of renewable energy, I note that a recent study showed that by 2020, Ireland could produce 42% of its energy requirements by investing in these energies. We must invest in new technologies such as wave, tidal and hydroelectric energies and generate the maximum possible proportion of electricity needs through renewable sources. With investment, Ireland could become a flagship for Europe in this area.
It is in the national interest that we wake up to the impact of climate change on energy and food security. Many Senators will recall the fuel shortages caused by the oil crises in the early 1970s as queues of motorists lined up outside filling stations to obtain petrol. I refer those who do not remember those times to the electricity cuts being imposed in South Africa as a result of the failure of the authorities to act when economists predicted a decade ago that economic and population growth would necessitate the construction of new power stations. As a result, the country is experiencing energy shortages which are impacting on the economy and the health of the nation.
We must be clear about the link between energy and food security. Much of our food production relies on fossil fuels. Whether through tractors harvesting crops or in terms of the electricity required in the production and delivery stages, energy security is vital for food production. If Senators cast their minds back to the early 1990s, they will recall the impact on Cuba of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, one of the country’s main suppliers of fuel. Overnight, the USSR switched off its energy supplies to the island with disastrous consequences for the economy, including food production. Without the spirit of solidarity and community in Cuba, the consequences could have been much worse. Within a few years of the Soviet decision, 1 million small family allotments in the Havana region and many parts of school playgrounds were being used for the production of vegetables. As a result the Cuban people overcame the problem and, thankfully, tremendous hardship did not ensue.
What would we do if energy insecurity impacted on our food production? Senators may have heard the president of the Irish Farmers Association, Padraig Walshe, state on “Morning Ireland” today that food security is a growing issue. Given that we have reached peak oil production, it is vital that the Government implements a strategy for dealing with energy and food security.
Climate change clearly is upon us and, where possible, the Government must take immediate steps to mitigate its impact. It must implement a strategy for the protection of our coast, focus on renewable energy supplies and design a strategy to ensure the security of our energy and food supplies.
Senator Fiona O’Malley Senator Fiona O’Malley
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I apologise to the Minister for my absence during his contribution. I heard the IFA president’s remarks on radio this morning. The problem of food security, to which he referred, gives pause for thought. As Senators will agree, energy security and climate change are the major political issues of our times. Having attended the negotiations on climate change in Bali, I have come to realise that climate change is a cross-sectoral issue. I study how it is being addressed in an international context and appreciate the breadth of its scope.
I was glad to see such a strong Irish contingent from the non-governmental and governmental sector travel to the Bali conference to listen, learn from, partake in and inform the debate because climate change is a considerable challenge.  Through the conference I have come to appreciate the international context within which these issues are being addressed. We must learn from international developments. Ireland and many other parts of the world are only beginning to wake up to the critical importance of climate change.
We must climate proof all policies, particularly in local government and planning. I heard it argued that the decision by Dublin City Council to institute a high-rise policy would destroy the city. The question we must ask is whether the approach to development in Dublin in recent years was appropriate. It has created an urban core surrounded by a greater metropolitan area which adds significantly to our transport emissions. The development of areas such as Clondalkin, Lucan and many towns on the periphery of the city extending into counties Kildare, Louth and Meath has created an urban sprawl.
While everybody wants to live in a house with a front and back garden, forward planning dictates that we reconsider the low-rise approach to development in all our cities and urban areas. Given the figures on CO 2 emissions for Ireland, specifically the increase of 160% in emissions in the transport sector since 1990, and the trajectory remains upwards, it is clear that reversing current trends presents a major challenge. Rather than tinkering at the edges and focusing on bio-fuels, vehicle registration tax and other issues, important as they are, we must concentrate on fundamental questions. Development must not take place in a manner which forces people to use cars to travel to work. We need a complete change in attitude in this respect.
The substantial decrease in CO 2 emissions required of us will demand changes in our lifestyles and it will be difficult for people to come to terms with the changes required. Cities in other countries have already taken action. Given that few residents of cities such as Paris and London have cars, why should people living in Dublin have cars? It may be understandable to have a car given the sprawl around the city, the absence of a good, integrated transport system and the flexibility offered by a car but why on earth do households have two or even three vehicles? This trend is utter madness and it is not sustainable, as is clear when one tries to park outside one’s home or in the city centre.
Parking is restricted in Sandycove where I live on the periphery of Dublin. While residents objected at the time the restrictions were introduced, this policy is an example of proper planning. We must regulate the way people use their cars. With the support of the local authority, a new car rental scheme has been introduced in the council area of Islington in London. As there is no parking space for people who own private cars the council has responded to the problem where cars are needed to move people or furniture.  Given the way we live it is not plausible to have a no-car city. The council has responded to the need by supplementing car rental. It is a good scheme that is worth looking at. I am not sure if the Minister is familiar with it. The cost is not prohibitive. One can pick up and return the car easily. It is all about stopping people feeling they need to own a car. That is what we need to do. How many of us have cars that often sit idle for ten days at a time or are used infrequently? We need to think about such issues and such responses.
I am adamant that public transport does not need to be delivered by the public transport bodies. We need to have an open attitude to licensing. It is all about the use of buses and bringing additional services to the public. One hears all too often that it is Dublin Bus that should get the buses. I do not necessarily agree with that sentiment. We need to licence people to provide services. Some private operators provide a terrific service to the airport. Every time one is out and about on the roads one sees it. Recently I saw the Swords Express which takes people very quickly from Swords to Dublin. It is wonderful to see all these private operators and I would like to see more of them. We do not need to be dependent on one company.
The Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security heard an excellent contribution from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and, in particular, on the agriculture sector. It is a big problem and one we have not touched. We heard of research that is being done, and we are going to find out more about it, into grasses and encouraging farmers to move from cattle into the growing of grasses that will reduce emissions in the agriculture sector where rates of emission are at an alarming level. It is the one area where Ireland can make a huge impact fairly quickly.
Farmers are reluctant, as are most people, to change practices in the absence of security and knowing this will be maintained. Apparently the rural environment protection, REP, scheme has been reviewed but it has not taken account of climate change. As the Minister will have heard at a meeting we attended during the week about hedgerows and such issues, it strikes me that the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has not been central to our planning and thinking about how we can, in an inclusive and joined-up way, tackle climate change and reduce our CO 2 emissions. I would like to see that being brought in.
If the REP scheme has been reviewed and climate change has not been part of its criteria we need to open it again if that is possible because everything needs to be climate change proofed if we are serious about the issue. In regard to our target of 3%, we are proceeding in the right way and I am confident the Minister will bring us along the path easily.
Senator Paul Coghlan Senator Paul Coghlan
Senator Paul Coghlan: I understand Senators Bradford and Donohoe are sharing time.
Senator Paul Bradford Senator Paul Bradford
Senator Paul Bradford: I welcome the Minister to the House. This is an interesting debate. The whole concept of climate change and the broader debate on energy security has taken off over the past 12 months to two years. Virtually every citizen in the country has some knowledge of the climate change issue and everybody expresses great concern and hope that the Government at domestic level and internationally and the UN and other groups can make progress. However, that is easier said than done. From an international perspective, if one looks at what is happening in the US with the presidential election campaign, which is very engaging, climate change or energy security is not high on the agenda.
Deputy Eamon Ryan Deputy Eamon Ryan
Deputy Eamon Ryan: No, it is right on top.
Senator Paul Bradford Senator Paul Bradford
Senator Paul Bradford: With all due respect to the Minister that is not the case if one looks at the recent primary elections and studies the post voting reasons as to why people voted for particular candidates. I wish they had indicated that environment issues were higher up on the agenda. As they have not done so I can only go on the data that is available. I concede that in the Australian election some weeks ago it did appear that the offer of the Australian Labor Party to make progress in environmental issues did make a difference. I welcome that.
If one looks at great world problems such as poverty and, indeed, peace and war and nuclear deterrents over the years, there has always been great commitments of the apple pie and motherhood variety but the progress afterwards has not been as much as we would expect. A great deal of pressure will need to be applied by governments such as the Irish Government to ensure the international community can respond. We have to be realistic and acknowledge that in the broader sense our efforts domestically will be a drop in the ocean but we must still try to do the best we can. The problem is global, it is international and the solution will have to come from there. I welcome the Government’s initiative on what is being done locally.
Senator Keaveney said earlier that today’s solution suddenly becomes tomorrow’s problem. We were all enthusiastic some time ago in regard to the issue of bio-fuel, yet when one looks at the other side of that equation one sees the threat caused to world food supplies by a sudden overnight conversion of food crops to energy. Senator O’Malley referred Irish agriculture from a broader perspective. A fact we have to be deeply concerned about is that during the past five years the world has consumed significantly more food than it has produced. It is not rocket science to know that equation cannot continue. There will not be a sudden move away from meat protein and meat production to an entirely vegetarian diet. The issue of food security, whether we like it, has to be part of the solution.
There is a crisis in world food production at present and there is no point in denying it. That causes its own problem when trying to deal with climate change and energy security. There is no point in having a perfect environment and a perfect world in which people can live if we cannot produce enough food to feed the world’s population. There will always be the question of balance.
At home we have to look to the local authorities to become part of the solution. I am not sure how many local authorities have energy departments and energy officers. We have a fine energy office in Cork County Council, particularly in north Cork, with a dedicated energy department. Many people seeking planning permission go into the energy office and assess the various energy saving schemes and devices and can purchase them through the county council. That is helpful. It should be mandatory that every local authority would have an energy department or an energy officer who would liaise with people at an industrial and domestic level and help make the small changes that can help make the big difference.
The light bulb issue has been mentioned by a few speakers. It is a budget initiative and a good one in many ways. I am advised by some of my colleagues, including Senator John Paul Phelan who does not have the opportunity to speak, that from the point of view of certain uses of lighting the Minister’s proposals would not save energy but may well be negative in its impact. In rooms where lights are lit infrequently, such as bathroom and toilet, the low energy bulbs, apparently, are not helpful and would use more energy than the normal bulb. All of these things have positives and negatives that we will have to examine. I look forward to the publication of the Finance Bill this afternoon to see if it provides for further incentives. We have made very disappointing progress with regard to wave power, wind farms and so on. Much greater tax reliefs and incentives will be necessary.
This debate must continue in the House and elsewhere. We must be realistic because while what we in Ireland can do is not huge in the global scheme, we must make a start. I wish the Minister well and hope we progress this very important issue as best we can.
Senator Paschal Donohoe Senator Paschal Donohoe
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I welcome the Minister to the House. In my contribution, I want to focus on the role of carbon tax and outline a personal view on its use in Ireland. I am strongly of the view that if one wishes to intervene on an issue such as this, there are two different ways to do it. One is through direct involvement in the different sectors that will be affected and the other is through assessing what we can do with regard to taxation. If we are as serious as we claim about tackling this issue, we will have to find some way to introduce a carbon tax to deal with the behaviour of individuals in regard to it. From my preparation for this contribution, I know a number of other countries in Europe, such as Sweden, Norway and Finland, already have introduced a carbon tax. They have done this in such a way that it does not undermine their competitiveness but makes a difference to their carbon emissions.
To move on to the question of what kind of carbon tax we might have in Ireland and how it would work, the greatest arguments against a carbon tax are that it will undermine the competitiveness of the economy and increase the tax burden on individuals, which for many reasons we are reluctant to consider. The point in the terms of reference of the proposed tax commission is important in this regard, namely, that any carbon tax must be revenue neutral. If we are looking to introduce such a tax, we should also ascertain what change we can make to employer’s PRSI to offset any impact on business competitiveness, and to VAT to offset the effect of such a tax on citizens, particularly low income earners.
The only way we will influence the behaviour of individuals is if we engage at the price at which these different forms of energy are available. If particular fossil fuels are priced low in comparison with the alternatives, people will use more of them while they remain cheap. As this use continues, carbon emissions will increase, creating more difficulty with regard to climate change. Carbon taxing will play a role in ensuring we introduce a solution to the issues we face that not only will work but will be permanent and will have an impact on the individual behaviour of our citizens.
I will conclude by considering the role of politics in all this. We must do two things. First, we must provide certainty and clarity in terms of how businesses, organisations and individuals plan their behaviour. If we are telling them what the taxation system will be like in the future and that it will include a degree of carbon taxing, this will allow businesses and individuals to change their behaviour in the way needed. Second, if politics is about anything, it is about having a duty of care and ensuring we leave what we have and what we are responsible for in a better condition than when we inherited it. As such, I believe a measure must be introduced to price carbon in a way that ensures people adjust their behaviour, but this must be done in a way that does not increase the tax burden or undermine our business competitiveness. Revenue raised from carbon taxing should go towards reductions in VAT and employer’s PRSI, which is the way we should move forward on this issue.
Deputy Eamon Ryan Deputy Eamon Ryan
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I am pleased to conclude this very useful debate. At a debate some days ago I made the point that there had hardly been a frost all year, but my wife pointed out that night that it was freezing. Looking out the windows of the House during this debate, I saw a few flakes of snow falling, so one must be careful when speaking on this issue.
I want to return to one other point I made in that recent debate, namely, that we as a country have performed well when we responded to strategic threats or problems. When we achieve political consensus around the direction we want to take, we work well. I cited the example of the 1950s when we moved from being a closed economy to an open economy. A person e-mailed me later to agree with that point and to state we made a similar strategic change in the late 1980s when we moved from being a basket-case economy to the Celtic tiger economy. The person made the point that while this was true, the circumstances were different from today because there was a clear social and economic catastrophe which compelled us to action in each instance. Climate change is a difficult issue because while the consequences are potentially much more catastrophic, they are not with us today. It is snowing today while we are talking about climate change.
As Senator Donohoe noted, how we represent the public good and respond to the threat before that threat is widely known are crucial questions. Senator O’Malley pointed out that this will affect the policy decisions we must make in the next year to two years because of European Union proposals which I cited earlier. Those policy decisions will primarily be around the issues of energy use, food production, transport, planning and the taxation measures to which Senator Donohoe referred.
Although there are myriad different areas where the Government is taking action, I will refer first to the area of electricity generation, in particular with regard to Senator O’Toole’s concerns on the possibility of the privatisation of the transmission grid, an issue we raised in committee today. I do not know of any party in the Houses which is in favour of the privatisation of the transmission grid and do not believe any individual Senator or Deputy is in favour. If so, I would love to hear them say it. In fact, not a single economic commentator I know is calling for this. I do not see it as an issue because no-one is considering privatising transmission assets.
The grid is a difficult and sensitive issue in certain parts of the country. To achieve our renewable electricity targets and bring in low carbon technology, we will need to develop a grid that supplies and supports this, which will be difficult and will require us to see the benefits down the line when there will be different consequences.
Members referred to food security and the agricultural implications. There is a connection between food security and energy security. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Trevor Sargent, informed me recently of the fascinating statistic that it takes 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food. Our food is dependent on the availability of cheap oil for fertilisers, pesticides and the transport systems engaged in production. Reducing our use of oil is as important for our food industry as for our climate change interests.
Transport is also a key issue. I echo Senator O’Malley’s comments and ask whether what we are doing is working and whether even it is attractive to us. To my mind, it is not. There is the potential for a much better system using different planning and following a different model. This requires change but it will not be easy because some will say they do not like the change required. It is a question of whether as politicians we have the ability to show a lead to our people by providing that change.
I commend Senator Donohoe on his comments on the area of taxation, which is one aspect of the issue, although not the only one, as noted by Senator Boyle. I listened with interest to Senator Donohoe’s arguments, as a Fine Gael Senator, about the possibility of the introduction of a carbon tax. These issues will be centre-stage during the next year. We have a year within which to translate the proposals — for a general 20% European target, which is a 16% target here, to reduce climate change emissions — into real change in each of the crucial areas of transport, agriculture, planning and energy generation. It will not be easy to do so but it is in our interests to take on the proposals in a bold and ambitious manner.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach An Leas-Chathaoirleach
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: When is it proposed to sit again?
Senator Diarmuid Wilson Senator Diarmuid Wilson
Senator Diarmuid Wilson: At 2.30 p.m. next Wednesday.
Seanad Éireann 188 Climate Change and Energy Security: Statements.