Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Monday, 19 November 2012

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht

Environmental Issues and Irish EU Presidency: Discussion with EU Environment Commissioner

2:25 pm

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
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We shall discuss the environmental issues likely to arise during the Irish EU Presidency January-June 2013 with Mr. Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment. I welcome Mr. Janez Potočnik, also Ms Barbara Nolan, head of representation, Mr. William Neale, member of cabinet, and Mr. Joe Hennon, spokesperson.

I draw to the attention of witnesses the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l ) of the Defamation Act 2009 they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if witnesses are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I also wish to advise that the opening statement and any other documents they have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charge against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Before the Commissioner begins I wish to say a few words. We are very much looking forward to our Presidency of the European Union in 2013. It is a great honour for us and a great opportunity for us to take the lead in developing many important policy areas, not least the whole issue of climate change. It is a significant issue and that is the reason I am delighted to have the Commissioner with us. It is an opportunity for members to engage with the Commissioner and identify how we can best approach the first six months of 2013. Climate change is the obvious big issue we face and is one that I hope, as Cathaoirleach of the committee, we can address when we invite the chairpersons of our corresponding committees from across the European Union to Dublin for a conference in May 2013. Thereafter, I am interested in being guided by the Commissioner on how best we can approach this. We look forward to the interaction between members of the committee and the Commissioner on how that will be achieved. I now invite Commissioner Potočnik to address the committee.

Mr. Janez Poto?nik:

The preparatory work for Ireland's forthcoming EU Presidency is advancing well. The Irish Presidency comes at a time when we are still struggling with the consequences of the crisis that has hit our economies in an unprecedented way. In this difficult context, I am even more delighted to see that environmental issues - resource efficiency, water and waste management, air quality, climate change - are high on the agenda.

Today, green growth and resource efficiency are particularly crucial since economic activity - and thus resource-use - increases with the global population growth and rapid industrialisation of emerging economies.

All our economies, Ireland is no exception, depend on resources and these will inevitably become more scarce. It will be those economies that use resources better and more efficiently that will be the most competitive. By resources, I am not just referring to metals and minerals, but also to our natural capital and the ecosystem services it provides to the economy and to our societies. I am convinced that there will be no growth in the future if it is not green growth. We have already started to see evidence on that. A study by McKinsey shows that every percentage point reduction in resource use is worth around €23 billion to business and could create up to 100,000 to 200,000 new jobs in the European Union.

Resource efficiency, doing more with less, can help reduce costs, adjust to rising and less predictable prices of commodities, as well as fierce competition on a global scale. Resource efficiency is key for competitiveness and, for some companies it will be crucial for their survival, in the medium and long-term. Our agriculture business for example, will not continue to be successful without more consideration of its environmental impacts and of its use of resources. We have only to look at the rising prices for animal-feed in recent years to see how that is changing the economies of beef farming. Resource efficiency is one of the flagships in the Europe 2020 Strategy for sustainable, smart and inclusive growth.

The implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy, the main EU strategic document for this decade, is supported by the European semester, the annual economic governance cycle of the strategy. This is where I believe the committee should take a particular interest. It is the semester process which connects what should happen at national and Community levels and the committee should monitor both carefully.

I am trying to use the process effectively to integrate the need for increased resource efficiency into economic policy and to put the greening of our economies high on the political agenda. For instance, applying resource-efficiency thinking to public expenditure can be conducive to substantial savings and budget consolidation.

In the most recent exercises, we suggested to member states that they pay particular attention to measures that can support growth, employment and competitiveness, while bringing environmental benefits, all within short term.

This year, our recommendations to 12 countries focused on the shift from taxing jobs towards environmental taxation. Ireland is already leading the way. It has introduced a tax on CO2emissions and raised taxes on transport fuels. Also opportunities for waste and water taxes were raised for particular member states. Energy efficiency and transport were covered extensively. Furthermore, green growth performance indicators underpinned the recommendations.

Last spring, the European Council asked for rapid progress on the implementation of the resource efficiency roadmap. We hope that the 2013 spring European Council, under the Irish Presidency, will come up with ambitious conclusions on the role of the green economy for a sustainable exit from the crisis. The forthcoming December environmental Council debate on the European semester will provide important input from environment Ministers in the 2013 semester process. Therefore, as can be seen, the semester process is really how we get environment policy onto the desks of the Heads of State and Government.

Although Ireland was not asked to update its national reform programme this year, I appreciate its efforts to continue monitoring and acting on the wider range of Europe 2020 commitments. It is crucial resource efficiency is supported at all levels of government, whether EU, national, regional or local, as well as by business and citizens. The Irish experience with the local authority prevention network and SMILE resource exchange shows the importance of mobilising various actors.

Finally, let me say a few words about the "European Resource Efficiency Platform" chaired by a former Taoiseach, John Bruton. The platform brings together European Commissioners, Members of the European Parliament, environment Ministers, business leaders and members of international organisations and institutions, civil society and academia. The objective of the platform that was launched last June is to provide high-level guidance to the Commission, member states, local and regional authorities, and private actors on the transition towards a more resource-efficient economy. The platform will formulate its first specific policy recommendations on short-term priority measures before summer 2013. The main focus right now is on boosting the circular economy, ensuring sufficient funding for resource efficiency initiatives and on the best way of measuring and supporting progress through suitable indicators and targets.

The involvement of national parliaments in European policy making is essential and I welcome this opportunity to have an exchange of views today. In the preparation of new policy, the comments and views of this committee help make them policy effective and practical to implement. Those views are, thus, very much welcomed. The Lisbon treaty gave Ireland enhanced powers to monitor that the Commission pays due regard to subsidiarity. This will ensure that our proposals take national characteristics into account. It also gives Ireland enough flexibility to put in place national measures that work on the ground and that deliver the environmental and health benefits that we all want, without undue administrative burden. In the current environment we need the most efficient and most effective solutions to environmental challenges and Ireland can help us to deliver them by putting environmental considerations at the centre its decision-making in all policy areas.

Let me come back to the priorities that we would like to pursue together during Ireland's Presidency. I am pretty busy at the moment with the adoption of several major initiatives. Last month, we adopted the proposal for the review of the environmental impact assessment directive; last week it was the communication on safeguarding Europe's water resources. We will soon come forward with the new 7th environment action programme for 2013-2020. This programme is more strategic than previous programmes and is aimed at securing stakeholder engagement on a limited number of priority objectives for policy development up to 2020. Its key themes are: the creation of the right conditions for a single market for sustainable and low-carbon growth; the strengthening of the EU's ecological and climate resilience and the contribution of environment policy to better human health and well-being; and better implementation of legislation and strengthening of the international dimension of environment policy. I know that the Irish Presidency is very keen to work towards a first reading agreement between member states and the European Parliament, and we fully support that.
I would also like to mention some of the major initiatives in our work programme for 2013 and 2014. Early next year, we will come forward with proposals on how the EU will follow-up on the Rio+20 conference, in particular on how to work towards sustainable development goals. Second, we will review our air quality policies. Third, we plan to come forward with a framework for unconventional fossil fuel exploration and exploitation, in particular, shale gas. Fourth, we will work on reviewing our waste policy and legislation in 2014. There is still considerable scope for improving Europe's waste management. Full application of the legislation would save us an estimated €70 billion a year and create over 400,000 jobs by 2020. During Ireland's Presidency, I hope to keep up the momentum and trigger a constructive debate among member states on what further concrete actions need to be set into motion in the field of environment policy.

To summarise, let us look at what happened in the 20th century. In the 20th century, growth in population quadrupled, growth in GDP multiplied by over 20, growth in any resource - water, fish, raw materials, energy etc. - was similar to growth of GDP. Basically, growth in population and growth in use of resources went in different directions. In an article in a science journal published by the Nature Publishing Group this year, scientists conclude that the major challenges in the 21st century will be driven by two factors, the growth of population from 7 billion to 9 billion and by per capitagrowth in consumption. We estimate we will have 3 billion new consumers in the market by 2030 who will move from a low level of consumption to the middle level of consumption.

The world has truly changed and has become a small global village. We are more interconnected and interdependent than ever and the challenges we fact together are huge - climate change, food security, disappearing biodiversity, water quality and quantity, land management, over-fishing and potential pandemics. Many of these issues are related to poverty and education, which cannot be addressed without addressing the issue of resources.

Management of our resources is, therefore, crucial. I do not just refer to energy or raw materials, which are issues sometimes addressed by the business sector directly. We also refer to land, water, oceans and biodiversity. A resource intensive growth model which was, basically, developed in the industrialised part of the world can simply not be replicated on the global scale. Therefore, we must all think carefully how we should redesign our growth and consumption models. Change is, therefore, inevitable. It is even more important in Europe than in the rest of the world, because we in Europe are very much dependent on imported resources. Also, the cost of all resources is increasing. Prices are volatile and that trend is expected to continue. Europe is also very locked into its existing production structures.

This issue is very important for us. It is not just a question of environmental preservation, but a central issue for the competitiveness of Europe in the future. In Rio, we shared our concerns. Those countries on our side there were typically African countries. Why was this? It was because for them, each drop of water counts, each piece of fertile land counts, each fish they catch counts. For different reasons, we see this as an important part of our future development. I believe that in future, global strategical partnerships will basically revolve around resources.

Even if we could settle the financial debt crisis in many European countries, we would still have a competitiveness issue.

On the question of competitiveness, we do not have any easy answers. If we fix the economy, especially the financial elements and then the structural problems, then the answer lies in the knowledge-based economy, an area in which Europe is strong. More resource efficiency is vital and that is a serious obstacle to our competitiveness nowadays. We will have to shift our view from the short to the long term because, due to the aforementioned challenges, the 21st century cannot be managed with a short-term preventative logic.

Ireland and the Irish people are green. The fields and the country as a whole are green. Part of the Irish flag is green and on the football field, Ireland is also green. Combined with white stripes, Ireland can even beat the unbeatable in football. However, it is time to add to the famous 40 shades of green - in which Ireland is expressed in poetry - an additional shade, namely the green economy. In that context, I know that I can count on the support of the Irish.

2:45 pm

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
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I thank the Commissioner and call on Deputy McLellan.

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Commissioner and his staff to our meeting. What role does the Commissioner believe this committee can play in terms of the environment agenda for Ireland's Presidency? How urgent is the issue of climate change and will it get the appropriate attention during the Irish Presidency? I ask the Commissioner to elaborate on the levels of engagement he has had with the Irish Government regarding the issue of turbary rights, the compensation scheme and the potential for relocation or redesignation where relocation or compensation is not an option. Is the Commissioner aware that this is a very important issue for a number of turf cutters in Ireland and that the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association is seeking redesignation as a resolution to the issue for its members?

Mr. Janez Poto?nik:

I may have overstated the committee's role in my introductory statement. The committee can basically shape policy through its engagements, which are connected to the semester process. I know that this process varies country by country but I would encourage the committee to go broadly in that direction. In that way, the committee can shape the Presidency for the first half of the year but also how we run the entire semester process in the future. The committee must be clear on the need for the integration of policies. That, for me, is the most urgent and important issue to understand. We must integrate the policies and more explicitly, integrate environmental concern into other policies because prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes. If we prevent problems then we will not be forced to cure them. We must work to remove the incorrect perception that environmental concerns are an obstacle to the development of business.

While climate change is not technically my area, I consider it part of my area because it is an environmental issue. I believe the committee will have quite a full agenda during the Irish Presidency in terms of climate issues and it is very important that we continue to work with my colleague, the Commissioner for Climate Action, Ms Connie Hedegaard. When I was given my current portfolio, climate change was a dominant story. Through the integration of energy and climate policies and dealing with those issues simultaneously, we have developed some good and necessary solutions. That is how policy should be developed. At the same time, climate change is a stimulus to seek further resource efficiency, particularly energy efficiency. We must determine how we can integrate environmental, industrial, energy, agricultural, transport and fisheries policies with other policies which bring economic benefits in a way that does not negatively impact on the environment. That is the idea of resource efficiency which I am trying to replicate. I have always been a firm believer that we must pursue climate change policies because climate change is a reality and is caused by human activities. We have no alternative but to respond.

Regarding the peat bogs, I will start by explaining the role of the Commission in this area because I can see from the Deputy's question that there are different interpretations of its role. Member states agree legislation together at EU level. The Commission proposes legislation but we cannot accept it because that is not our role. It is accepted by the member states and by the European Parliament. We are then given the role of protecting or upholding the legislation. Sometimes we do not have an easy task in that regard because in many situations, we are dealing with issues that are nationally sensitive. We try to understand those sensitivities but at the same time we must deal with issues from the perspective of all 27 member states. That is our job and what we are paid to do. It is also our obligation under the treaties of the European Union. If some member states are not entirely fulfilling their legal obligations, it is my duty to react and that is also the case with the Irish bogs. These are special areas of conservation which are, according to the habitats directive, protected.

I must be clear, though, that the Commission is not against turf cutting across the entire country. We are talking about 4% of bogs, if I remember correctly, which are in the protected mode, while the rest can be freely worked on. It is also important to understand that according to the scientific analysis undertaken by Irish scientists, approximately 35% of bogs were destroyed in the last ten years. Raised bogs are a major part of Ireland's cultural and environmental heritage and Irish people should be proud of that. At the end of the day, it is absolutely in the interests of Ireland that those bogs are protected for future generations and are kept in a solid state. They are an important carbon sink and contain within them an ecological biodiversity which does not exist elsewhere. It was not the Commission which proposed the definition of the areas in question. It was done on the basis of scientific facts proposed by the member states. The Commission was given the unpleasant task of delivering the law. That is where we stand right now.

I acknowledge the progress that has been made in 2012 in phasing out turf cutting on Irish raised bogs that are protected special areas of conservation. However, there are clearly still incidences of illegal cutting which underline the urgent need to deal with the problem of enforcement. The proposed national raised bog management plan provides a very important framework for action. It will be essential to make progress as soon as possible in developing this plan, especially in advance of the next turf cutting season. In order to help ensure its success, the Commission hopes that it will also be possible to engage as many turf cutters as possible in this process and that a mechanism to achieve this is put in place very soon.

We are very much in favour of an inclusive process and of something that will include the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association in the process as well. Reference was made to the rights, compensation schemes and relocation, but these are not things we decide on. Decisions with regard to how they are managed are made at home. Basically, the Commission must keep an eye on things and ensure that everything according to the habitats directive is done in practice.

First and foremost, the national plan must aim to ensure effective management and restoration of the bogs. The Commission will consider any proposal from Ireland to apply the derogation system set out in Article 6(4) of the habitats directive with regard to raised bogs and special areas of conservation. This should be based on an overall network solution, involve a thorough application of the criteria for the use of the derogation and allow sufficient time for the Commission to evaluate a proposal and deliver its opinion. Therefore, inasmuch as we can see how things stand, it does not appear feasible that such an opinion could be delivered before the 2013 cutting season. This is because with this procedure the focus should be absolutely on the management plan and on building a consensus on how to deal with the problem. I have always underlined that it is important to get long-lasting solutions rather than solutions that will divide people. We want solutions that will basically bring peace on some of these questions.

2:55 pm

Photo of Luke FlanaganLuke Flanagan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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I thank the Commissioner and the Chairman. One of the main reasons I am pleased to see the Commissioner here today is that as well as being a Member of our Parliament I am also the public relations officer of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association. We are keen to see a resolution to this issue. I believe the Commissioner is aware of the proposals we put forward earlier in the year. As far as the turf cutters are concerned these are the only proposals that have been put on the table in the 15 years since 1997, when the habitats directive was transposed into Irish law.

The Commissioner stated that he believed only 4% of our bogs are affected. The reality is that some 43% of privately owned bogs are affected. It is important to point out that the turf cutters have no problem with conservation. The plan we have put together is supported by the Dáil and would create a situation where 98% of the special areas of conservation would never again have turf cut in them. This is being achieved by serious compromise. For example, as part of these proposals I would move from the bog that my family has cut for more than 100 years to a neighbouring bog that our organisation has identified.

The problem is that various Government bodies have been charged with solving this issue. Had it been tackled correctly in the first place, perhaps by dealing with four bogs per year during the past 15 years, we would have a solution by now. I put it to the Commissioner that we have never been closer to a solution but my fear is that because we want a solution immediately, we will end up not finding any solution at all. The proposals we have put forward have also been put into an implementation plan. It would result in a situation whereby all of these bogs would have solutions up to four or five years quicker than the national raised bog special area of conservation management plan. Our proposals would work because turf cutters would be able to continue to cut turf on these bogs while a solution was being found and, bit by bit, turf cutting would be phased out. One of the main things that must be achieved is that certain boundaries need to be changed in the special areas of conservation. In addition a small number of bogs must be designated out of the special area of conservation system. However, this would mean 98% of these bogs would be preserved forever.

We have a double opportunity now because the court cases are in abeyance. I have read several articles and it seems the Commissioner's name is well known throughout rural Ireland, hopefully for positive reasons. I have read that there have been serious threats of court cases but that they are in abeyance for now. This, coupled with the fact that we will have the European Union Council Presidency, presents us with an opportunity. In order to grab this opportunity it is best to tell the Commissioner the truth and the whole truth about what exactly is happening. I understand that court cases have been held off because the Commissioner and the Commission understand that turf cutting has somehow stopped. The reality is that of the 29 bog complexes cut last year, some 26 were cut this year. All 29 would have been cut but for the fact that we had really bad weather conditions and people could not go into the bogs. To find a solution we need to deal with the truth as a starting point. If the Commissioner wishes to find a solution he cannot go along with the idea that only 11 of the bogs were cut when in fact 26 were cut. I have been to almost all of them since they were cut.

We have an opportunity between now and the next turf cutting season in April. No one wants to go through what those involved went through this year. I hope it is not lost on the Commissioner that this took place in the year when the European Union won the Nobel peace prize. Turf cutters have not sought problems; the last thing they want is problems. They are simple people who want a simple life – some of us are more complicated. What happened this year cannot happen again. We won the peace prize but in the same year turf cutters were faced with 24 police vehicles converging on one particular bog with 60 members of the police, 12 of whom were armed. Police forces are armed in other countries but it is most unusual to see armed police anywhere in Ireland. We do not need them because we are peaceful people. In the same year we won the peace prize, turf cutters were confronted with armed police and members of the Air Corps flying over to check out what they were doing. The irony of it all is a bit much for people to take. I appeal to the Commissioner to listen to the proposals of the turf cutters because there is a solution in them.

People may not believe it and I do not care what they say but I am an environmentalist. I come at this problem from the perspective of the son of a turf cutter and someone who had food because of turf. I also come at it from the perspective of someone who realises the environment needs to be protected. I have two children and their future is secure only if the environment is protected. This goes wider than turf cutting. If the Commission wants people to engage on environmentalism then it must discuss the matter with them carefully and explain what it is doing. Otherwise people will be spooked, and this has been the case.

The Commissioner referred to subsidiarity. My understanding of subsidiarity is that one does things from the bottom up. The Turf Cutters and Contractors Association has done this. We followed these principles, although some members of our organisation do not like the European Union. We spoke in 37 villages throughout the country and we listened to people. We heard what they wanted. We explained our position to them but we were not popular when we went to these meetings initially. We explained that best thing people could do was probably to move out of the bog, if that was feasible. Anyone who could do that has been willing to do that. One thing that came across as part of this negotiation and consultation, this purest example of subsidiarity, was that unless everyone was catered for, no one was prepared to move.

We have an opportunity. I hope it can be taken. We are always willing to talk. We always have engaged. We met Mr. Alan Seatter and Mr. Micheál Ó Briain earlier in the year. I think they were impressed with what we said. I do not know. We cannot really make that call, but we left with the impression that they saw a bit of hope. That hope is still there. We are willing to engage and I hope the Commission and the Government can do the same.

It will break my heart if we have to go through what we did this year again next year. We do not want the bad feeling that now exists. We want to solve this problem. After this meeting, I will give the Commissioner a copy of our proposals. They are not perfect but they are as close to perfect as we are going to get.

I am not trying to have a go at the Government when I say the national raised bog special areas of conservation management plan cannot work. It does not allow for the de-designation of national heritage area bogs so that our proposals that relocation take place can actually happen. The plan would mean there would be nowhere to move to. Every road out of the town where I live leads to a bog that is designated, is on the way to being designated or else is of no use to turf cutters.

We are looking for a solution. I hope the presence of the Commissioner will help us achieve that. My organisation would love to have met the Commissioner in person to explain to him what we are at. I have taken this opportunity and I hope I have not hogged too much of the meeting.

3:05 pm

Mr. Janez Poto?nik:

Since I have already explained the most important points I will just add some things to that. In my policy to implement legislation at an EU level, I have a nice saying which I am trying to stick to. I want to be strictly helpful and helpfully strict. That is the policy I am trying to conduct in this case.

Deputy Flanagan is right that subsidiarity is bottom-up. However, if we have European law, and it states that special areas of conservation are protected under the habitats directive, my role is pretty simple. It is not easy but I have to take care that this is fulfilled. How this is done is a subsidiarity issue. This is something that has to be done by intelligent and proactive government policy. Experience from various cases tells me that lasting solutions are achieved when there is an engagement of the parties with different views and where they find a reasonable compromise for the future that takes into account the legality of the question to be answered.

I was happy to hear Deputy Flanagan speak of his willingness to engage. That is the right way. I would also encourage him to continue in that direction. It is important for bringing internal peace to sensitive issues such as this one. Peace in a disputable situation, in whatever member state, cannot be brought from Brussels. We have to take care that things are fulfilled in the way the law requires, and I can guarantee that we will. If we have no other option we will, of course, use the court option but we absolutely prefer that things are done in a way that gets everybody on board and understanding the importance of the problem to be solved. I was also happy to hear that Deputy Flanagan has never been closer to the solution than he is now. That is also important information for me.

With regard to the problem of time, if we were to forget the ten years plus when nothing was done, the time issue would not be important. Unfortunately, we cannot forget the ten years plus when nothing was done. The case is long-lasting. In handling this case, I am under huge scrutiny by all the member states and the European Parliament where a large number of petitions are arriving complaining about how things are handled in Ireland.

This is a moment of opportunity when all should engage together. It is time for that. It is important that this energy is reached in Ireland. Deputy Flanagan has clearly and rightly explained the need to protect some of the bogs for his two sons. I also have two sons.

Photo of Luke FlanaganLuke Flanagan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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I have two daughters.

Mr. Janez Poto?nik:

You have two daughters? Then we have to-----

Photo of Luke FlanaganLuke Flanagan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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They might meet up some time.

Mr. Janez Poto?nik:

Okay, I will not continue. Deputy Flanagan said we should not get personal. I will choose an example from fishing, because it is the same story. In the long term, the interest of a fisherman and of an environmentalist are the same. It is sustainable fishing. In the short term, the interest of the fisherman is to catch as much as he can because the first one who throws the dynamite into the water shapes how everyone will catch. The environmentalist would stop all the fishing. In essence, however, they both want the same thing, which is sustainable fishing. With that logic, I would approach the answering of those questions.

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Tipperary North, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Commissioner and his team and I thank him for paying us the compliment of visiting us and explaining his position to us. He emphasised the importance of being green. In my part of the country one needs to be careful when using that word because for some people being green means to be naive and inexperienced. We could not say that about Deputy Flanagan, for example, and I am sure the Commissioner would not say it about the Irish.

Could Mr. Potocnik explain his role as Commissioner in the special areas of conservation, SACs, as opposed to national heritage areas, NHAs? What is the extent of the Irish Government's powers over them compared with that of the Commission, particularly in designation?

Could the Commissioner expand on his point about the advent of 2020 and the importance of food in the coming decades? He said the population increase from 7 to 9 billion and the increase of 3 billion in the number of consumers was an opportunity for Ireland. This is welcome. Previous EU policies were designed to curtail and limit agricultural production in Ireland. If we align this with climate change, would the Commissioner accept that it is important for Irish farmers that new climate change regulations do not adversely affect production in this country? There must be a breaking point where we decide which is the most important, the production of food or the climate. Most, if not all, farmers are aware of the environment and the effect of climate change and have carried out significant work over the years. Many of the directives issued by the Commissioner's office have been implemented in Ireland. To what extent can more of them be implemented without adversely affecting production? This is of serious concern. I would like to hear assurances from the Commissioner that the changes that are about to be implemented, and which we will debate in the coming months, will not adversely affect agriculture, that the hugely important role of Irish food, which is probably the most naturally produced food in the world, will not be affected, and that we will have an opportunity to expand our production in those areas.

It is ironic that we speak about water and quality of water in Ireland when we are surrounded by the sea, have numerous lakes and probably have an over-abundance of water. Nevertheless, we have a huge problem with the security of water supply, particularly to Dublin, our capital city.

I am sure the Commissioner is aware of the proposal for extracting water from the River Shannon - the part of the river which is in my area of County Tipperary. I extend an invitation to the Commissioner to visit at any time. I do not think he will have lived or have seen Ireland if he does not visit Tipperary. I ask for assurances that Lough Derg and its environs will not be plundered for the extraction of water. I am particularly concerned about the Commissioner's role with regard to climate change and agriculture. Some scientists say the climate argument is overstated, that climate operates in a cyclical pattern and that irrespective of what we do, these problems will arise cyclically. I hope to expand on some of those points later in the discussion, depending on the Commissioner's response. I thank him for his attendance and I wish him continued success.

3:15 pm

Mr. Janez Poto?nik:

I will begin with the final question. I was previously responsible for science. I agree that some scientists hold that view on climate change. However, the prevailing scientific opinion is that there is climate change and that we are in an era of climate change which is caused by human beings. It was never previously caused by human activity but now there is proof that it is caused by human activity. It is in the nature of science to have differing opinions. However, the intergovernmental panel on climate change, IPCC, which is an international scientific body made up of hundreds of scientists, has delivered an opinion on climate change.

Ireland is known as a food-producing country and I am confident it will always be a major food producer. There is a serious problem with food wastage and this is a global problem. Europe throws away approximately 50% of food produced. This is a waste of farmers' energies and also a waste of the water and land used in its production. This is economically bad and it is immoral. There is starvation in many parts of the world and we are throwing good food away.

On the question of whether I would give an assurance to farmers, I have one condition, which is that they assure me they will be prepared to care for water and soil resources and for biodiversity. This care would be in their own interests but in many cases, unfortunately, as a result of short-term and longer-term logic, this is not the case in practice. The same holds true for the fishing, transport and energy sectors. We all need to care for each other. For instance, I am looking out for the jobs of farmers and in my view, farmers should take responsibility for the protection of nature. I look out for the jobs of those working in the transport sector because I know how valid are these jobs. They are important because they are a means by which society can be sustained. On the other hand, it is important to understand that the world in which we live has a population of 7 billion, which presents different problems compared to 40 or 60 years ago. In my view, the way forward is that we must begin to listen to each other's point of view. This is what is called integration of policies. This is the reason for the "greening" part of the Common Agricultural Policy. I firmly believe that the same farmer who in the past was only paid for production should now be paid for doing a job from which we all profit. If farmers do not do that job, then we will have to find others and pay them to protect water resources and biodiversity. This does not make sense. It makes sense to pay farmers not to pollute. Farmers are in receipt of public money - taxpayers' money - because they do a valuable job which is in the interest of the public good. We should acknowledge that role. However, their core production will always be food production and this is their first responsibility. Thinking about each other, working together and avoiding short-term thinking is the way ahead.

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Tipperary North, Fine Gael)
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The Commissioner referred to the role of farmers in protecting water resources. However, some of the major polluters have nothing to do with agriculture. Farmers have taken significant measures to protect resources. For example, the spreading of slurry - farm waste - is done on a calendar basis. This is a crazy system, in my view. A farmer must spread slurry according to a certain date on the calendar even if heavy rain is forecast for the following day and the slurry will be washed away, but he or she is not permitted to spread slurry during fine weather when it would cause the least damage. It is a crazy EU regulation. That is one example. There has to be common sense on both sides and sadly, it seems to be very much lacking on the bureaucratic side.

Mr. Janez Poto?nik:

That is Deputy Coonan's opinion. My opinion is somewhat different. However, that is democracy.

Photo of Marcella Corcoran KennedyMarcella Corcoran Kennedy (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Commissioner to the meeting for an exchange of views and opinions. I hope he will have an opportunity to enjoy his visit to Ireland.

I ask for further information on the detail of the semester process, and examples of how resource efficiency thinking has worked in practice. It seems to make a lot of sense.

Deputy Coonan referred to climate change. Ireland is experiencing the effects of climate change, such as heavier rainfall, which has a significant impact on agriculture. For many farmers, land that would normally be used for grazing cattle is under water. Our cattle are grazed rather than grain-fed. The land is flooded and it is a question of where to put the cattle and how to feed them. I acknowledge this is the effect of human activity leading to climate change.

I ask the Commissioner to give his view on the use of genetically modified crops, which is a controversial issue. I refer to the fossil fuel framework, which is part of the Commissioner's work. Shale gas exploration has hit the headlines in this country. We view this issue with a feeling of disbelief that something that could be so economically valuable to the country could also be devastating in its impact on the environment. What is the timeline for the framework? We need to know whether exploration will be a positive or a negative option for Ireland. I imagine it can be a challenge for the Commissioner to get people to look at the bigger picture, to realise that we are all interdependent as countries and globally. An action in one region can have an impact on the whole world. This is a responsibility we all share.

I sometimes wonder how those of us in Ireland, which is a small country, can encourage our counterparts in larger countries, which use so many resources and which cause so much pollution, to think as we do.

3:25 pm

Mr. Janez Poto?nik:

Thank God I come from an even smaller country. The Deputy asked four basic questions and I will try to deal with them as quickly as possible.

On the semester process, some years ago what the governments were doing in the area of the economy was predominantly linked to budgetary considerations. As the crisis has unfolded, we have learned that we must align our economic policies better and strengthen the governance of such policies at EU level. This is especially important for the countries which are connected by the same currency. Ultimately, what the Government here and my Government do, influences what happens in the other countries that are members of the euro. This is well understood by everybody and that is why the semester process was created. We are no longer looking only at budgetary issues, we also consider those which relate to economic governance.

In the context of economic governance issues, each year we prepare an annual growth survey and the Commission addresses those developments. On the basis of this, we draw up what we term "country-specific" recommendations in respect of individual member states. We identify a few issues with regard to particular countries in respect of which specific challenges must be addressed. In order to make recommendations of this kind, one must carry out a great deal of analytical work. We would not like to base our proposals on something about which we were not sure. What we recommend must be consistent with our overall approach. The recommendations are then referred to the European Council and the member states for discussion and they are then either adopted or not supported. If a recommendation is adopted, we are given a mandate to monitor progress in respect of it. In other words, we must monitor whether recommendations adopted by the Council are delivered upon by the relevant member states.

In this way we have created a more coherent economic policy-making process. This is the semester process. My wish is that we include in this process more of the things that are connected to the sustainable aspect of economic development. I refer, for example, to proposals such as shifting taxes from labour to environmental pollution - this is not a problem for Ireland because it is already taking important steps - or focusing on the potential that exists in the context of waste management. This could give rise to good job creation prospects and Ireland still has huge opportunities in the context of moving away from landfill. In the context of the European Union, Ireland is somewhere in the middle and this means that growth and jobs potential still exist here.

Next year we will try to focus more on removing subsidies that are environmentally harmful. Again, quite a thorough analysis will be required in this regard and we will be obliged to go as far as making recommendations in respect of individual member states. Water management and green public procurement could also form part of this in the future. It is my intention to ensure that in the context of the issues which are connected to growth and jobs, we will focus not only on quantity but also on quality, particularly as this represents a kind of integration of the policies.

The Deputy inquired with regard to the practicality of resource efficiency and what we are doing in this area. One of the very practical steps in this regard is that which I have already explained, namely, the semester process. Through this we are trying not only to deal with environment Ministers but also with Prime Ministers. After all, it is the latter who are leading the way in terms of policies. Such policies should be part of the everlasting triangle of economic, social and environmental sustainability. It is these which hold the entire pillar together.

We have very practical proposals and we will come forward with some which relate to the areas where the resources influence is at its highest. As a result, there will be a very holistic approach to the food cycle and to the area of construction. We are currently working on eco-design and eco-labelling. This involves a product approach, a consumer approach and a producer approach. In other words, designing products to meet certain standards in order that they will use less energy and water and fewer raw materials. They will also be designed in a way which will ensure that they can be reused and recycled. If a product is properly designed, then it is much easier to complete the economic circle.

Labelling is important for consumers and we must ensure that labels are capable of being understood. We are currently working on a green market for green products and services. We are developing methodologies in order that we might have a more unified view on what constitutes a green product or a green company. There has been quite a proliferation of such products and companies. A market analysis that was carried out indicates that 48% of consumers no longer believe the claims made about certain green products. This is a cause of concern. We would like to re-establish people's trust and that is why we are working on our proposal in this regard. I could speak at length about this matter because we are working on many different fronts. Everything to which I have referred is in the pipeline.

I will be brief in my comments on GM crops. Basically, this matter does not relate to my portfolio. Under the previous mandate, it was linked to the environment portfolio but now it comes under health. I would need to consider where matters stand at this stage. Members know exactly what the problem was in this regard, namely, that member states overruled whatever proposals the Commission put forward. These proposals where then put back on the table again and we found ourselves standing still to some degree. We are currently trying to progress matters and to arrive at a solution to this problem. I would be very keen to ensure that the environmental and health protection aspects relating to this issue will be the subject of proper consideration.

On fossil fuels and shale gas, we are behind the United States in the context of exploration. In this instance, that is not so bad because we can learn from the experience and knowledge which the latter is developing step by step. We have not yet had major exploration in respect of shale gas for commercial purposes. We expect that such exploration will occur within two to three years. To be frank, we do not yet have a clear view on what would be the reserves of such gas in various countries. Our work in this regard is ongoing. Economic activity in areas of this nature can only ever be possible if there is public trust. At present, the positions of the various member states in respect of this matter are different. For example, some member states have banned shale gas exploration, some are reconsidering their position in respect of it and some have already granted licences.

It is important that we should seek to establish the public trust to which I refer. Without that trust, everything would be hampered. On one hand, we have the interests of those who want to have a predictable environment in which to work, while, on the other, we must consider the issues of people's health and environmental protection. All of these matters will need to be taken into consideration. We published three studies relating to this matter in September. One of these examines the position from the angle of energy and economic potential.

Another was from the angle of the influence on climate change and the third was from the angle of the environment. One conclusion which I can easily say at this moment is that the studies are showing us that the consequences of unconventional gas exploration are stronger on the environment and health than of conventional gas exploration. What we are now doing is continuing with the impact assessment because we have decided in the Commission that in the course of the next year we will come with a formal proposal on the risk management of unconventional shale gas exploration. That is important because in that way we will try to address both of those specific angles; on the one hand the issues that concern the predictability of future business development and on the other health and environmental considerations and building the trust of society for such potential economic activity in the future.

3:35 pm

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Cork South West, Labour)
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I thank the Commissioner. I welcome Mr. Jonathan Claridge, the Commission representative in this country. I thank him for his help in organising today’s meeting and in previous weeks. I thank the Commissioner and his officials for being present with us this afternoon for a fruitful engagement. We acknowledge the time the Commissioner has given us. We are aware that he has a busy schedule. His exchanges were of enormous benefit to us. We wish him well in the future. He is now free to go.

Mr. Janez Potocnik:

I very much appreciate what the Chairman said.