22 April, 2024

Climate, justice, democracy

My words at the Green Party pre-election convention at the RDS, 20th April 2024

I want to talk about climate,  I want to talk about justice, and I want to talk about democracy.

We know what we want to achieve on all three of these, but these are challenging times, and there are stormy waters ahead. Five years ago, the wind was behind us. Today, our actions demand competent leadership and well-trained crew for the strong winds and rough seas lie ahead.

The good news on climate is that in Europe we’ve agreed the Fit for 55 Package, we’re on course to reduce emissions in the years ahead. The European Green Deal survived Brexit, Covid and war in Ukraine and the Middle East. It would not have happened without the Greens in Europe, and the Greens in Government here, and in other countries.

The bad news is that we need to do much more in the years ahead, and we don’t have the critical mass of political support to achieve this. We need at least a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Europe over the next fifteen years. We cannot slow down or stall our climate action. The far-right are in denial, and the centre right are unwilling to pick up the tab. Not only that, but the centre also-right produced a kill list of climate laws that they did not want to see passed in the European parliament. This cannot be allowed to happen. There is the danger that the window of opportunity in the 2020s will be lost, and that we will repeat the mistake of fiscal austerity from the financial crisis fifteen years ago. The danger now is that it will be a social and environmental crisis, exposing the least-well off to high energy costs, and weather extremes due to climate change in future years. The time to invest is now, and we must not cripple ourselves with fiscal rules into a failure to act.

Justice is at the heart of climate action. We cannot pass the burden of climate action onto the next generation. We must act now to protect our young people. Just yesterday outside Dáil Éireann I met with young climate activists. They are angry that we are not doing enough to help them. It is no wonder that they are turning to the courts to seek justice. Our climate plans must be fairer and faster if we are to avoid a polarised and prolonged battle in the courts. Of course, the European Court of Human Rights should not decide what we do on climate, but if governments fail to act with the speed and depth of response that is needed then I support them.

Democracy is a core value of the Irish people and the European Union. However, we must ensure that it is delivered at the most effective level. When I cycle down Parliament Street in Dublin I see three flags on top of our City Hall. One is Dublin, one is Ireland, and one is that of the European Union. Democracy must be delivered in all three. Ireland is an outlier when it comes to local democracy. It is outrageous that the plebiscite on whether Dublin should have a directly elected mayor has been postponed from being held on 7th June. If we believe in democracy, we should give local government in Ireland the powers and the leadership it deserves, that are the norm elsewhere in Europe. They should be the norms in Ireland too.

Democracy will be empowered by the green transition. Each additional year of dependency on fossil fuels is strengthening the hands of the oligarchs and dictators who supply us with our oil and gas. Every time we erect a wind turbine, or install a heat pump we reduce the power that these people wield. Throughout my work on the Greening Buildings law in Brussels I have said if we insulate homes we isolate Putin. This has never truer than today.

Democracy is under threat at a deeper level in Hungary, in Slovakia and elsewhere in Europe. We must protect democratic values, and we must defend those who are under attack, in Ukraine and in Gaza. We must provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and we must come to the aid of humanity in Palestine.

I will work for a safer world where developing countries receive the support they need, and migrants no longer drown in the Mediterranean. I will continue to insist on support for Gaza and Ukraine.  I will ensure your voice is heard in Brussels. That is my promise to you, and to the people of Dublin for the next five years.


24 March, 2024

Wind energy and nature protection, a win-win?

Speaking at the Wind Europe conference in Bilbao, Spain

I headed to Spain last Thursday from Brussels.

My trip there was to speak at the Wind Europe conference in Bilbao, a massive event with over 12,000 delegates.  I was asked to reflect on whether there is a conflict between high targets for renewable energy under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED III), and the strong push to protect biodiversity under the Nature Restoration Law and other European measures such as the Biodiversity Strategy.

I said that both policies need not necessarily lead to conflict, and that it isn’t a zero sum game.  As the North Sea Foundation points out here, as well as Laura Gusatu and others, there are both risks and opportunities. Sure, the target under RED III of 42.5% of the EU’s energy coming from renewables by 2030 is high, and the RepowerEU Plan has even higher ambition of 45%, but they can be delivered, and in doing so we mitigate the impacts of global heating.   However EU Member States will have to rapidly ramp up ambition in the coming years if we are to be successful. I pass by the large Gwynt y Môr wind farm off the coast of Wales quite regularly on my Sailrail journeys to Brussels, and noticed recently that there is currently a second wind farm adjacent to it in the pipeline. I understand how communities are concerned at the impact of this infrastructure, not least their visual impact in scenic areas.

Biodiversity Plans need to be written and approved quickly, energy efficiency measures have to be stepped up, and there needs to be more engagement with Civil Society.  In the Irish context that means  responding to the voices of organisations like the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, An Taisce and the Coastal Concern Alliance.  I said that the setting up of MARA -the new Irish Maritime Area Regulatory Authority is a crucial development, but that we also need to step up our efforts to educe for the future skills that are required in the sector.  I also spoke of the potential for ‘Renewable Energy Communities’.  These are legislated for under the Renewables Directives and can allow local communities to buy in to future projects, and become part owners of projects within their region.

At an EU level we must invest in electricity grids to get from where it is produced to where it is needed.  There’s no transition without transmission” said one speaker, was it Olivia Breese from Ørsted? And it is true, the EU’s Action Plan for Grids announced last November will help, but the Trans-European Network Plan for Energy needs to be revised to focus more on this.  The in-box of the next European Commission, to be appointed next Autumn will be full.

Seabed surveys using sonar can affect cetacean behaviour, and the Scottish Government has shown how this can be reduced. Construction noise can impact on cetaceans at sea, and the use of screw piles rather than hammer-driven piles can help.  Air bubble curtains can also help ameliorate noise.  During the operation phase low frequency noise can also be an issue, and needs to be carefully considered.

As wind turbines get larger the turbine blades can be higher.  This reduces conflicts with certain bird species that fly at low altitude.  Black paint on turbine blade tips can render the blades more visible and help birds change their flight paths to avoid the blades.  There’s also untapped potential for bird flock radar monitoring during migration periods which can ensure energy providers power down turbines as birds approach to reduce the risk of collisions.  I've seen this in operation in the Netherlands some years ago. All of these technologies go some way to help reduce the impacts on nature.  From Denmark there’s some evidence that the artificial rock reefs at underwater turbine bases can provide a habitat for marine species, though sediment disturbance during construction is a problem.  Once constructed however , wind farms provide significant areas that are protected from bottom trawling, and this can create de facto maritime parks.  

With Belgian colleague Energy Minister Tinne Van Der Straeten

I met my Belgian colleague Energy Minister Tinne Van Der Straeten, and she said we should make greater use of Regional Plans, and I tend to agree.  Ditte Jul Jorgensen, Director-General of DG ENER (the European Commission’s energy unit) said we need to stay the course, and simplify bureaucracy.  In addition, more work is needed on EU Strategic Autonomy.  This can ensure that we are less reliant on China for key components of the renewable revolution.  The EU’s Net-Zero Industry Act will help to push the ‘Made in Europe’ drive, and will provide a more focused response to US President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

At a separate session, I heard Grzegorz Gorski from Ocean Energy spoke of the supply chain challenges within the industry that have been there since the pandemic.  Separately, Trine Boris Bojsen of Equinor’s North Sea Renewables spoke of the need for standardisation within the industry, so rather than jumping at the prospect of 22 MW turbines, we should stick with 15 MW, which incidentally is enormous compared with what was being rolled out a decade ago. 


Exhibition Hall at the Wind Europe Conference in Bilbao

It was a lively conference, and I haven’t even mentioned the enormous exhibition halls that displayed new technologies and equipment. Renewables have been a success story for Ireland, almost 40% of our electricity now comes from renewables, and both wind and solar are set to ramp up in the years ahead. As the week drew to a close, we heard of a new Taoiseach-apparent in Ireland, Simon Harris, and from Brussels concerns that the draft Nature Restoration Law may be voted down by the Council of Ministers. 

 It seems the fight for nature will be a crunch issue in the European elections on Friday 7th June.


08 January, 2024

Burning of the Shipwright guesthouse in Ringsend

Burning down buildings like the Shipwright pub and guesthouse in Ringsend is an obscene act at a time when thousands of people are in need of accommodation.  Up to 14 homeless families could have been housed here before last week's senseless and dangerous attack. This is a serious crime carrying heavy sentences, and the arsonists can and should be brought to justice.

Immigration to Ireland is a good thing. If it weren’t for those who have come to our shores, Ireland could not provide the doctors, the key workers, the carers that we rely on.  From your Dublin Bus driver to the shop assistant in your local Centra, to the surgeons in Beaumont, immigrants keep this country going. But for me it’s also personal. My mother was an immigrant who found a new life and raised her family in Ireland.

And yes, immigration reforms are needed at EU level, including reshaping Frontex, and faster decisions here at home, and better communication, but pushbacks at sea are wrong, and leaving people to drown in the Mediterranean is immoral, and don’t tell me that those seeking international protection in times of violence and persecution do not deserve our help, and don’t give me this ‘unvetted young men of military age’ small-minded nonsense.  

And of course, we need to ramp up housing construction, just like we did almost a century ago when Herbert Simms designed these homes (pan to buildings behind) for Dublin Corporation back in the 1930s, and remember, back then people objected to  homes for those in need as well.

This is a time for compassion, and supporting people who need and deserve safety and shelter - whether those are homeless families or people fleeing violence and persecution abroad.

14 September, 2023

Low-carbon travel from Dublin to Strasbourg

This week I was in Strasbourg from Dublin for European Parliament debates and votes this week. I traveled by buses, trains and ferry. If you’re curious about ‘low-carbon’ travel you might like this account of my journey. Living in Stoneybatter in Dublin 7 I was able to walk down the road and take the FerryLink shuttle bus that goes from the Ashling Hotel near Heuston Station to the ferry terminals at Dublin Port, stopping en route at Bachelors Walk and Customs House Quay in the city centre. A  trip down the Liffey Quays: ‘Grand yet human in scale, varying, yet orderly” according to the Architectural Review back in 1974‘ brought me to the Irish ferries terminal, dwarfed by the 12 deck high MV Ulysses behind. Once you check in, a shuttlebus brings you a few hundred metres to the front of the High Speed Craft Dublin Swift which gets to Holyhead in just two hours From Dublin Port we head  past the Pigeon House chimneys and out into Dublin Bay past the Poolbeg Lighthouse heading east to Wales. Interestingly the HSC Dublin Swift started life as a United States troop carrier, and was used in rescue operations after the Japanese Tsunami back in 2011. So even though the leg room is good, I’m a bit nostalgic for the old HSC Jonathan Swift which had a more comfortable interior.

On board there’s time for coffee, and decent wi-fi for Zoom calls, though the sky was  looking fairly gray after last week’s mini-heatwave. The SailRail ticket is a wonderfully old-fashioned piece of paper, and their train image looks a bit like an old CIE 001 Class locomotive from 1955, built in the old Metropolitan-Vickers plant in Manchester.  Why Sailrail? Well, it’s better for the planet, about six times better, so as someone who travels a lot for work by planes, trains and ferries, I try where I can to let the train take the strain  Once I arrived in Holyhead after a two hour crossing it was down with the gangplank, and off go the cars. Cue disgruntled mutterings from those of us who have to wait for the bus to the ferry terminal. You then walk through the terminal to the rail station where there’s a welcome stand and the women there gave me a map of Holyhead, and some key Welsh phrases to learn. It was a lovely touch from th Welsh Tourism agency. Then it was time to hop on a train and  head to Chester via the north Wales coastline, with fine views of the Gwynt y Môr wind farm, 15 km. offshore.  

I changed to a faster train at Chester that powered down to London Euston through Stafford and Milton Keynes. When the first phase of High Speed 2 opens in the late 2020s it may shave an hour of the 4 hour Holyhead London trip. On arriving at Euston, after a four hour trip from Holyhead I take a 15 minute walk to St.Pancras International, avoiding the polluted Euston Road by taking the ‘Wellbeing Walk’ through Somers Town. It was my first time using the ‘Smart Check’ app at St. Pancras which allows you to fast-track straight through check-in without a ticket check, and side-skip UK passport checks.There I hopped on a Eurostar headed for Paris. You head across the English Channel through a tunnel that is 50km long, that was opened in 1993.You arrive after two hours in Paris Gare du Nord and the clock has moved forward by an hour so it is early evening.I then took  a short stroll to Gare de l’Est. I had some time to spare in in Paris and was impressed with the number of cyclists. There has been a huge rise in cycling numbers here under Mayor Anne Hidalgo. At 8.30pm I get on to my last train, a two hour hop by TGV across France to Strasbourg on the Franco-German border, and time to prepare for tomorrow’s meetings. It was a full-on day of travel, but a significantly lower environmental footprint then flying, and more leg-room and less airport hassle.

As regards cost: the  Eurostar and continental trains prices rise closer to departure. A Sailrail ticket generally cost €52s to London, the Ferrylink bus costs €4.50. Looking at prices, the London Paris Eurostar costs €86 in a fortnight’s time, and the French train ticket €45 from SNCF, so under €200 for the whole trip. It is true that flights are much cheaper! They often are, as airlines don’t pay tax on their fuel, but the Greens in the European Parliament  are working on ‘fairer fares’ and a level playing field. Carbon? Sure, Ferries use marine diesel oil, a dirty fuel on each trip, but foot passengers are only a small share of that, the bulk is cars and trucks. On balance the SailRail combo is many times cleaner than flying,  Recently Minister Eamon Ryan and his French counter-part announced improvements that are making  Sailrail journeys between Ireland and France easier. Here’s a write-up in @TheJournal about the Sailrail changes that will hopefully make low-carbon travel a more attractive option.

Oh, and if you’re planning a SailRail trip via the UK Mark Smith of Seat61.com is the guru for travel advice. Thanks as always @seatsixtyone.  Also, this week in Strasbourg we adopted a new law known as the ReFuelEU Regulation which will mandate the use of 'Sustainable Aviation Fuels' for aircraft in the years to come. The requirement starts at 2% in 2025, rises to 5% in 2030, and wit will take many years until the figure reaches 50%. In the meantime aviation numbers continue to rise. So, for the moment the greenest option is to avoid flying, or fly less, if you can. 

Do I fly? Sure I do, and my job would be a real challenge if I didn’t. But when and where I can I try and take trains and ferries, and around half of the 200,000 km. I’ve travelled over the last four years as an MEP were ‘low-carbon’.