Thursday, 29 April 2021
Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I thank the Minister of State for his presence.
Forestry will play a key role in climate change mitigation. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release pure oxygen. Forestry filters and cleans the air we breathe. Young commercial plantations along with sequestering carbon quickly over their lifetime, will, when harvested, lock carbon away in wood products and when replanted will begin another cycle of carbon storage. The end use for the timber will offer alternatives to fossil fuels and a possible replacement for cement and steel in the construction industry. Other countries are already leading the way in replacing steel with cross-laminated timber in high-rise buildings.
Ireland has less than 11% forestry cover, which is way below the European average of 35%. Past Governments have, over 30 years, invested over €3 billion in the industry. Climate action afforestation targets were set each year, but were never achieved. That failure was never questioned. If the current target is 8,000 ha of new woodland each year, why are we planting so little? Only 3,000 ha were planted in 2019. Just over 2,000 ha in 2020 and 2021 will be a repeat of that, with only 900 ha planted this year to date.
We have an abundance of land available. We have a damp climate and the best weather conditions in which to grow trees. There has always been plenty of interest from landowners in Ireland in planting their land, yet the Department is failing to capitalise on this interest and convert it into planted hectares. Why is that happening? It is because we have a licensing system which is simply not fit for purpose and cannot produce enough licences for the sector to operate. Therefore, the current administrative process is completely compromising Government planting targets and the national interest.
While I welcome the recent initiative of Project Woodland, which is examining the licensing process in its entirety - I believe great work has already commenced through the four working groups - the deliverables are for the future and remain to be seen. Climate change will not wait while delays in processing afforestation licences are sorted out. Time will not allow it. Failure by the Department to achieve afforestation targets in recent years already makes for very grim reading on what carbon we have failed to capture due to reduced afforestation. Indeed, my party colleague, Deputy Brendan Howlin, last week requested this information in a parliamentary question and received a reply from the Department, stating that over the last five years there has been a shortfall in meeting targets of 15,365 ha. Was this area to be afforested with 70% conifer and 30% broadleaf, these forests would have the potential to remove 5.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over their lifetime, taking into account the fact forests are felled and replanted.
If we are to take climate action seriously the long-running saga within the Department must be addressed without delay. There is a need to bind afforestation targets into this legislation. That is something Labour will examine on Committee Stage.