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Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1006 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy James O'Connor: Information on James O'Connor Zoom on James O'Connor] The issue that first brought me to Leinster House was to lobby to improve public transport when I was a transition year student. It was a very exciting day. We met the Taoiseach at the time, Enda Kenny, and the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, when he was Minister with responsibility for transport. That very day he was appointed to the Department of Health because it was the day of the Cabinet reshuffle. We were the only ones allowed near Enda Kenny that day.

I have been pushing this for such a long time but the bureaucracy involved in public transport in Ireland is a disgrace. What bothers me about it is that very talented people work in the Departments and at Irish Rail, Bus Éireann and Local Link - I could go on but I will not - and they want to fix this issue. Leadership in Ireland, however, as we know with the Civil Service, must come from the top down. I am a bit worried about the focus in the Department of Transport on cycling, walking and that type of infrastructure. We have to get down to brass tacks in terms of the numbers of people moving. Public transport, particularly in rural Ireland through our rail and bus corridors, needs to be prioritised and examined.

It makes no sense to me that Bus Éireann is a State-owned company divided in two. There is the commercial side, which there is no political oversight of or interference in, and there is the State-controlled entity within Bus Éireann which is responsible for its public service obligation, PSO, services, yet there is no co-ordination between the two. To add a third wheel to the mix, the way in which we co-ordinate our student transport services to secondary schools is also very frustrating. Every year since I have entered politics, and every rural Deputy will probably agree, our ears are chewed off by angry parents, and rightly so. They have every right to be furious over the lack of bus places for students going to and from school.

When I was a student at Trinity College Dublin - I travelled from Youghal to Dublin to attend Trinity - I noticed that when public transport services are run, everybody uses them to get to and from their places of work or education, whether they are in primary, second or third level. We do not do that in rural Ireland. Dedicated bus services serve many secondary schools in major towns, such as Midleton, Carrigtwohill, Youghal and other towns of more than 5,000 people where there are very good public transport links within close proximity of the schools provided by private bus operators. It would make a great deal of sense to have a bit of co-operation to expand the school bus services by working with Bus Éireann to a greater degree. Every year, this crops up as a big issue and it will be very important in order to get cars off the road. There are hundreds of thousands of journeys every day and that is what this is all about.

We can only do what we can. Ireland is a small nation and I fully agree that we have a responsibility to do something about climate change. I object to some of the language I have heard from certain Deputies in recent times about the impact that Ireland has because ours is a small nation and what we do does not matter. That is not true. The world looks at Ireland as an example of how to get things done properly. We are, after all, according to the human development index, in the top four countries in the world in which to live. Ireland is a world leader, regardless whether other Deputies agree or disagree, and we have an opportunity to go and do something with the issue. School transport is a key area and we could take action in respect of it in order to significantly reduce the number of car journeys people take.

On the speed of development of rail projects, three huge towns in my constituency are still awaiting news on the Cork metropolitan transport area strategy. I spoke recently in a one-to-one meeting with the CEO of the National Transport Authority, NTA, Anne Graham, and I am very appreciative to her. The NTA is working very hard but we have not received timelines. We need timelines to push on with the expansion of rail services in Cork. The plan in the Cork metropolitan transport area strategy for people living in Mallow, Cobh, Carrigtwohill and Midleton is to triple rail capacity in the county and the constituency I am very happy to represent. In addition, there are wonderful plans for park-and-ride facilities but we have no timelines for them either. The Minister of State might convey to the Minister and their colleagues who work in climate action that we have to start setting the process in motion. There have been too many plans in Ireland for different initiatives and they never develop into anything. I am very worried about the development of the metropolitan transport area strategies and ensuring they happen.

The issue of rail freight is going to be very important. I would very much appreciate it if the Government could do more to take lorries off the road, particularly at night. There is no reason we cannot use rail freight in Ireland.

Deputy Emer Higgins: Information on Emer Higgins Zoom on Emer Higgins I welcome the Bill and applaud the ambition behind it. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that governments can take extraordinary action to tackle extraordinary issues. The Bill will, I hope, be a significant step towards tackling the climate crisis. It is, without doubt, the most ambitious climate action legislation this country has produced. Its provisions are nationally significant for Ireland's climate policy but they are also internationally significant because they clearly set Ireland's intention to become a global leader in tackling the climate emergency, an ambition I wholeheartedly welcome.

The legal targets contained in the Bill are a positive step. I refer to the 51% reduction in emissions in the next decade and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. These are ambitious goals but they should not be the limit to our ambition. If we can reach these targets before the legal deadline, we should of course do that. The most important thing is that we set these targets and that they are met because we cannot afford to miss targets this late in the game.

We are no longer living through a time of climate change, we are in a climate emergency. We owe it to our younger generations, who have been so vocal about their feelings on the issue, to get this legislation right. Before the pandemic, I was so proud to see young people taking to the streets, using their voices and collective power to call for action on climate change. The youngest members of our society are not just engaged but also enraged by the crimes being committed against our natural world. Last week, many young people celebrated Earth Day. My nephews, Cian and Blaine, planted trees and took a virtual tour through the Amazon rainforest. In Cian's words, they planted trees because they wanted to bring more nature into this world. The Bill can be our message to kids such as Cian and Blaine, and to the generations who will come after them, that their voices will be heard loud and clear by the Government. What a legacy that would be. Protecting the world we live in needs to be a top priority for everyone, everywhere. It is as simple as that.

I was concerned to read recently that leading climate experts from Irish universities have voiced their opposition to what they are concerned may be fundamental flaws in the Bill. They view the emissions targets and the proposed management of greenhouse gas reductions as ambiguous and are worried that could leave us open to legal challenges. I understand that their recommendations have been sent to the Minister as well as the climate action committee and the Climate Change Advisory Council, and I ask that they be taken into consideration.

In order to ensure that targets are no longer missed, we need some clarification on how the limitation of liability will work. After all, targets are only as strong as the actions behind them. Within the Bill, there are no fines for not meeting targets or for Ministers exceeding their carbon budgets, but Departments could instead face budget cuts. I am concerned that any budget penalties could inadvertently hurt essential Government-run programmes and schemes that are so badly needed by the people. The Bill has been widely welcomed by society, but concerns must be listened to as we move to the next phase. The inclusion of local authorities in the plan is really welcome. We need every level of our society and of the Government working towards addressing this problem, and we need to listen to every group.

Let us remember why the Bill is so necessary. For the past year we have been living through a pandemic.

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