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Coillte forestry deal with British fund condemned by TDs from across political spectrum

The debate came as part of discussions on the Climate Action Plan 2023, which received a mixed response in the chamber.

A PLAN FOR land to be sold for forestry in a deal between Coillte and a British investment fund has been roundly condemned by TDs.

The deal between Coillte and asset management company Gresham House involves the purchase of land from private landowners, including both planted and unplanted land, to increase forestry cover.

It garnered cross-party discontent in the Dáil on its first sitting after the Christmas recess, with TDs calling for the Minister for Agriculture to intervene.

The debate came as part of discussions on the Climate Action Plan 2023, which received a mixed response in the chamber.

Sinn Féin TD Matt McCarthy said the Minister for Agriculture should instruct Coillte to halt the plan and state categorically that it would not permit taxpayer money to be used to “facilitate” a “land grab”.

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett called the move a “disgrace”.

In a rare show of unity across the political spectrum, the Rural Independents were in agreement, with TD Carol Nolan saying that “stakeholders need to be listened to” and asking Government to step in.

The comments surfaced in between politicians’ reactions to the Climate Action Plan, which finally discussed in the Dáil on Wednesday.

The plan was released on 21 December at the last Cabinet meeting before Christmas and after the Dáil had already finished its autumn term.

Several TDs raised the timeline of the plan’s publication, asking that it be published further in advance of the Christmas recess in future years and lamenting that the accompanying annex of actions has not yet been released.

The plan outlines measures for electricity, transport, agriculture, land-use, the marine environment and other sectors and the co-benefits of climate action such as improved air quality, public health, resilience against extreme weather events, and new jobs.

It is the first to be published since the approval of legally-binding carbon budgets and sectoral emissions ceilings that set clearer limits on the amount of emissions that the country and individual sectors can afford to emit in the coming years, divided into five-year cycles.

TDs in Government parties largely welcomed the plan – with some pushing back on Green Party Minister Eamon Ryan from the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael contingents – while the Opposition’s reaction ranged from tepid calls for further action to outright condemnation.

People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy said the plan is a “profound” illustration of the Green Party’s “failure” in Government.

He compared the scale of the climate crisis and the plan’s response to telling a patient with a bleeding wound to “use some tea tree oil”.

One theme that emerged among TDs was a fear that current efforts to reduce emissions will not be sufficient to prevent the first carbon budget, which runs until 2025, from being overshot.

Retrofitting, public transport, and the physical threats of climate change were also frequently raised.

Speaking in the Dáil, Sinn Féin climate spokesperson Darren O’Rourke said “we’re going in the wrong direction in Ireland in terms of emissions reductions” and that there is a “real risk” that the country will “exhaust” the first carbon budget “well before 2025”.

He called for accountability across government departments, saying that some departments have been slow to respond to communication from the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action.

Projects to develop onshore and offshore wind, he said, will require community buy-in and better workforce resourcing in An Bord Pleanála to handle planning applications.

Labour leader Ivana Bacik said that efforts to thwart the climate crisis will be “political” but that they “should not be partisan”, calling for parties to work together.

“The real test for you, Minister [Eamon Ryan], and the Government is to deliver outcomes, not just ambitions,” Bacik said, reiterating criticism raised repeatedly by the Climate Change Advisory Council.

Minister of State for Public Works Patrick O’Donovan of Fine Gael described the “huge impact” and “constant threat” felt by people in areas particularly vulnerable to extreme events such as flooding.

He asked TDs to support future planning reforms to support impacted communities, urging them to “think not of the political implications” but of people “that are just waiting for the next amount of sewage… to flow through their doors”.

Social Democrats biodiversity spokesperson Jennifer Whitmore described the Climate Action Plan as “thorough” and “welcome” but said that “we need to see the targets being met and the delivery of these measures”.

She described the absence of a zero-VAT mechanism on solar power equipment as a “missed opportunity” and asked Minister Ryan to look again at investments in solar power for communities, calling for a “large state intervention” on rolling out solar panels that would help households to deal with energy bills and would alleviate demand pressure on the energy grid.

Green Party TD Brian Leddin said that infrastructural announcements in the building and energy sectors must be complemented by a ramp-up of resources in skill-development and the planning system, while Fine Gael TD Richard Bruton raised the circular economy.

Rural Independent TD Mattie McGrath, however, denied the salience of action, calling the plan and events such as COP27 a “con job” and a “sham and a scam”.

The Climate Action Plan forms the basis of Ireland’s efforts to meet national and international climate commitments.

In 2015, the Paris Agreement called for countries to try to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and not to allow it to surpass 2 degrees.

Currently, the world is around 1.1 degrees warmer than pre-industrial times and is already experiencing impacts of the climate crisis such as heatwaves, droughts and melting ice sheets.

The scale of recent changes to the climate are “unprecedented” over hundreds and thousands of years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and it is “unequivocal” that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.

Global surface temperatures are expected to exceed 1.5 and 2 degrees unless “deep reductions” are made to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

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