Our challenge: 60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide
Remarks by Brendan Ryan TD in the Dáil debate on the report of the all-party Climate Action Committee, 9 May 2019
The climate challenge facing Ireland boils down to one simple fact: greenhouse gas emissions.
Our economy is based on burning fossil fuels.
We burn oil, gas and peat for electricity generation, for industrial processes, for home heating and to power almost all of our transport.
Burning fossil fuels releases large quantities of carbon dioxide, which is the main greenhouse gas.
Other economic activity, such as farming, also generates methane, nitrous oxide and f-gases, all of which are greenhouse gases.
The bottom line is that our total greenhouse gas emissions are 60 million tonnes per year.
The Environmental Protection Agency conducts studies to determine where the emissions come from.
We know that a third comes from farming, 19% from transport, 19% from electricity generation, and 10% from home heating. The remainder comes from other sources such as manufacturing, industrial processes and waste.
Our international commitment, under the Paris Agreement, is to get our greenhouse gas emissions down to 33 million tonnes per year by 2030.
This is not a political target. It is based on the best science.
Greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for decades. Our 60 million tonnes of emissions are cumulative.
So it should be no surprise that with nearly eight billion people on Earth, we have reached and far exceeded the ability of natural processes to absorb these emissions.
There is only one possible economy in the future, and that is an economy that operates on a carbon-neutral basis.
We are facing an environment and climate emergency, and Labour believes the Government should elevate its concern with climate to the status of a national emergency until we have taken serious steps towards reducing our carbon emissions.
Carbon emissions and destruction of natural habitats are the root cause of the loss of plant and animal species, which is a problem in Ireland just as much as in other countries.
But declarations are not enough.
We have to have concrete proposals to reduce our emissions, in each and every sector of the economy.
Fine Gael keep saying it will reverse the trajectory of Ireland’s rising emissions, but we have not seen anything like the seriousness of action that is needed.
Ireland’s emissions per person are amongst the highest of any country in the world.
We are behind many other European countries in taking action, and we urgently need to catch up.
Labour’s core concern throughout the discussion on climate is that workers and communities could be made worse off.
Labour has joined with the Congress of Trade Unions and individual trade unions in calling for a Just Transition approach.
That means making sure that workers can move to new, quality, sustainable jobs, if their industries are going to decline due to reduction in our use of fossil fuels.
Bord na Móna workers are one obvious example.
Labour called for a Just Transition Task Force to be set up, along with a Fund, to make sure that we create new, good jobs in the Midlands, to ensure that communities there are not economically destroyed by the loss of hundreds of good jobs in Bord na Móna.
The same Just Transition approach should be taken across the board.
Will the Government establish a National Just Transition Task Force in 2019 with an independent chair and membership drawn from Trade Unions, employers and the community sector, as the report recommends?
Labour believes that we can combine serious action on climate with serious action on poverty and inequality.
There is no doubt that the transition to a carbon-neutral economy will require dramatic changes.
But we can use that as an opportunity to change our economy for the better.
We can eliminate fuel poverty by putting serious investment into home insulation and retrofitting, and by making sure all new housing uses the best possible insulation.
That would reduce carbon emissions and reduce poverty.
If all homes reduced heating emissions to zero and were using electricity from sustainable wind power, then this would meet 9% of the total emissions reductions required.
That is an example of Labour’s approach to real climate action.
We want a ‘Green New Deal’ for Ireland, with ambitious targets for home energy retrofitting that will create many new jobs.
We believe the Climate Change Advisory Council was right to seek 100,000 homes to be retrofitted annually, and Labour shares that level of ambition.
We should start by retrofitting all council housing and publicly-owned buildings.
There is a huge amount in the Climate Action report’s recommendations. Due to time pressure, I will focus my remarks on just a few areas.
The report calls for Carbon Budgets.
At present, responsibility for emissions rests with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, but in reality, all government departments need to be included.
Labour has been fighting for science-based Carbon Budgets that would set out, for every year, the maximum allowable carbon emissions for each Department, and for each sector of the economy.
Brendan Howlin recently proposed a new office of Minister for Public Expenditure and Climate Action, to integrate carbon budgets into the national Budget framework, to give this the seriousness that it deserves.
Will Fine Gael adopt carbon budgets?
Carbon tax is one of the measures that is needed if we are to collectively deliver the scale of change with the urgency dictated by the science of climate change.
Labour has taken the view that we can support carbon tax if all of the proceeds are ring-fenced to address the climate emergency.
The economy is not going to magically transform overnight.
Investment in home insulation, public transport and better recycling needs major investment.
The private sector will address some areas, like electricity generation, because it is clearly profitable to generate electricity from wind.
But the State will need to step in across many other areas of the economy.
Carbon taxes provide a way of funding that investment, while also reducing poverty.
Opponents of raising carbon taxes have to specify where else they would raise taxes to come up with the hundreds of millions of euro annually that are needed to transform our economy to a carbon-neutral economy.
It will be hard for our current agricultural sector to become sustainable and carbon-neutral.
Greenhouse gas emissions from Irish agriculture are rising, when we need to reduce emissions urgently.
There is currently no government policy in place to address the trajectory of agricultural emissions.
We need a Just Transition in farming too, to lower emissions and protect livelihoods.
A free market approach will not deliver sustainable agriculture and decent farm incomes.
Labour has called for measures to help farmers diversity their incomes, as part of the transition.
Ireland’s industrialised peatlands emit about 7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.
It is astonishing that no one has been addressing this yet.
There is nothing in the National Peatlands Strategy to address it.
Peatlands need to be rewetted and rehabilitated to stop carbon emissions from leaking out.
Labour proposed ambitious targets for the restoration and rehabilitation of each major type of peatland in Ireland, but we could not get agreement from other parties.
Rewetted peatlands could open up a new chapter for the rural economy, with Bord na Móna positioned as the custodian of our peatlands, and new jobs created in peatland restoration, nature tourism and recreational activities.
What does the Government intend to do about peatlands?
We need a similar strategy to change the way we do forestry, with a move towards continuous cover of native, broadleaf species.
That would create more jobs, and better jobs, in forestry. But changes our model of forestry will require supports in the early years, as it will take a period of time for the new model to begin paying dividends to investors.
Detailed work is needed to build on all of the recommendations of the climate report.
The climate action committee should be meeting weekly until the summer recess to make progress on this issue.
The climate emergency needs to be taken much more seriously, by all of us, but by the Government in particular.
Is Fine Gael really committed to climate action?
Will the environmental and climate emergency be made into a legally-binding all-of-government priority?
Is Fine Gael committed to reducing our emissions to 33 million tonnes by 2030?
Is Fine Gael committed to a carbon-neutral economy by 2050?