Wednesday, 10 June 2020
Climate Action and Low Carbon Development: Statements (Resumed)
I am very pleased to be before the House to present the annual transition statement for the agriculture sector. The long-term challenge for the sector, as outlined in the climate action plan, is to meet the national policy objective of an approach to carbon neutrality which does not compromise our capacity for sustainable food production. That plan goes on to set out sectoral greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets for the first time. The target for agriculture is to reduce its emissions by between 10% and 15% by 2030. Uniquely, agriculture and land use can also remove CO2 emissions from the atmosphere. Our plan also requires agriculture to ensure that land use and land use change remove at least 26.8 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere and contribute to the development of sustainable decarbonised energy systems.
In the longer term, at EU level the drive is towards zero net emissions by 2050. However, in getting to this position it is acknowledged that it is not possible to eliminate all emissions, such as those that arise from food production. The aim is for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system.
The recently published farm to fork and biodiversity strategies as part of the European Green Deal are at the heart of this transition and propose ambitious actions to halt biodiversity loss and transform our food system. At this stage, these strategies articulate a vision for the agrifood sector. There are no legislative proposals to give effect to this vision, but these will follow and will be preceded by impact assessments that will allow us to properly evaluate the detail.
However, it is not only policy that is driving change. Society too is demanding a step-up in national climate and environmental commitment. As policymakers, we will have to work with stakeholders to seek the opportunity in this vision for sustainable food production. We will need to align our policy for the development of the agrifood sector with public and market sentiment and our national and international obligations to the environment, while protecting farm incomes.
The agriculture and land use sector is playing its part in the national climate effort by reducing emissions where possible, sequestering carbon and managing our carbon pools, and
contributing to the development of sustainable decarbonised energy systems. I will provide some specific examples of the actions that my Department has been engaging in. It is progressing a national climate and air roadmap for the agriculture sector to 2030 and beyond and has engaged in significant public consultation in this regard. This has involved a series of stakeholder engagements, including a one-day workshop which brought together a wide range of stakeholders to share information and discuss how to deliver on the sector’s climate commitments. The agriculture and food sector is one of the first sectors to take such a step. To my mind, this demonstrates the level of commitment across the sector to tackling climate change.
The roadmap will translate the overall sectoral ambition into more detailed actions and targets for delivery over the coming years. It is informed by the Teagasc marginal abatement cost curve, MACC, which identifies and costs various actions that will deliver emissions reductions and removals.
My Department continues to invest in mitigation measures. For example, almost 24,000 farmers are participating in the beef data and genomics programme, BDGP, which has seen more than 1 million animals genotyped to date. Approximately 49,000 farmers are active in the green, low-carbon agricultural scheme, GLAS.
On the forestry front, Ireland has its highest level of forest cover in more than 350 years, at 11% of total land area. Under the current National Forestry Programme 2014-2020, afforestation rates have been, on average, 5,343 ha per annum and the latest wood-flow analysis indicates that in 2018, 40% of the roundwood timber used in the Republic of Ireland was used for energy generation, with consequential savings of 880,000 tonnes in emissions.
On the energy efficiency side, our farmers are availing of investment options such as biomass boilers and air-source heat pumps under the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, II pig and poultry, and the young farmers' capital investment scheme. My Department also announced a €10 million fund in April last year to support the installation of solar photovoltaic, PV, across all farms and the use of LED lighting.
We continue to engage in collaborate initiatives such as the agricultural sustainability support and advisory programme, ASSAP, with Government and industry representatives working together with farmers to improve water quality, as well as working closely with Bord Bia and Teagasc to effect positive change at farm level through research, advisory services and carbon audits.
My Department has also published a Code of Good Practice for Reducing Ammonia Emissions from Agriculture following a public consultation. This code will go hand in hand with our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While I have thus far focussed on mitigation, there are two important elements to climate action, with adaptation planning being the other part of the story. We know our climate is changing and this is evident again this year with the driest spring in Dublin since records began in 1837. The agriculture and land sector is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and, therefore, needs to be prepared and resilient so that it can face whatever challenges the weather might throw our way. The first statutory agriculture, forest and seafood climate change sectoral adaptation plan was published last year. The plan sets out the projected changes in climate and focuses on those identified as most likely to impact the sector. Raising awareness and embedding climate adaptation across all our policies is central to how successful we are at adaptation planning, with buy-in and behavioural change being key. With that objective in mind, my Department adopted a case study approach in the plan, setting out a range of examples of how the sector has been impacted by changes in our weather and identifying steps towards building resilience. Our climate is changing and sustainable adaptation is going to be necessary. By taking steps to reduce the exposure of agriculture to present climate variability we can inform future climate adaptation requirements and increase resilience. I think at this stage we are all agreed on the need to act, and I hope the brief outline I have provided assures the House of both my commitment and that of those working in the sector to addressing the climate challenge.
As part of the annual transition statements on climate change and low-carbon development, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the role of agriculture in meeting and playing its part in the transition. It is important to note the starting point of agriculture in the transition. We are efficient in how we produce food and, globally, our food is recognised to be of a very high quality. It is one of the key drivers of exports, with the agrifood sector employing 250,000 people. As a nation, we are an outlier in terms of the contribution of agriculture to emissions compared to other countries. Given the fact that agriculture is such a big part of the economy, it contributes 30% of our overall emissions versus 20% for transport and energy.
The farming community is aware that agriculture needs to contribute to meeting the transition targets and is very much up for doing so. As the Minister outlined, many schemes have been promoted in recent years, notably under the rural development programme, with the objective of contributing to reducing our carbon footprint, meeting climate change objectives and improving biodiversity. It will be critical in the years ahead that we hold our starting position as a green producer of food, that we continue to be a world leader in food production and that we contribute through agriculture to meeting climate change objectives and arresting the decline in biodiversity that we have seen in recent decades. The next Common Agricultural Policy will be particularly important in that regard. The Minister referred to the recent publication by the EU of the biodiversity and farm-to-fork strategies, which are pointing the way. While we must ensure impact assessments are done on how the strategies will impact on farming, they set the direction of European policy, of which Ireland will be part.
While farmers are up for increasing sustainability from both an environmental and a biodiversity point of view, we must also ensure that our approach is sustainable from an income and employment point of view. Farmers will be expected to do more and they are up for doing more. However, we must ensure they are rewarded for the extra effort they will make in the years ahead.
Fianna Fáil will play its part, working with the Oireachtas and the farming community, in leading the way in terms of the sustainability of agriculture from an environmental and income point of view.
It is the responsibility of every industry and sector to play its part in meeting the climate change targets in the coming years. We are setting ourselves ambitious targets, which is the right thing to do. However, it is vital that each sector bear a fair share of the burden. That is true of agriculture but the burden must be economically sustainable.
We have the bioeconomy and ongoing research in UCD under Professor Kevin O'Connor. In my constituency, we have the Lisheen site which is producing research and technology that will be a great help in sustainable food production.
To meet our targets, it is essential that we have an environmental scheme, similar to the previous rural environment protection scheme, REPS, which farmers will buy into and which will have 50,000 to 60,000 participants.
The Minister mentioned the part that forestry has to play. We are meeting less than 50% of our planting targets in forestry. Unfortunately, that will have an impact on reaching our targets on emissions reductions.
In the short time available to me, I will raise the issue of designated land. Brussels has made proposals to increase the amount of designated land in this country. Whether it is land in the Shannon Callows, hen harrier land or designated land under another banner, farmers are not being properly compensated for the restrictions being placed on them. This land has a very significant role to play in reducing emissions and producing a carbon sink. I have never seen restrictions imposed on farmers which have reduced the capital value of their land by up to 80%. It is imperative, given the challenge of climate change we face, that farmers who have had designation imposed on them be properly compensated.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter because it is so important to our economy and my constituency. Coming from a neighbouring constituency, the Minister will know the importance of farming in Limerick, where approximately 6,000 farms support 6,000 farm families. We have the full range of farming mix, from dairy and beef to poultry farming. There is very high-quality land across the Golden Vale and marginal land of a lesser quality in other parts of my constituency, which poses challenges. Farming is a major employer, employing almost 10,000 people. The value of agricultural output and exports from my constituency alone is of the order of €1 billion per year, so it is a very important sector.
Farmers in Limerick, similarly to those up and down the country, face great uncertainty because farmers are primarily price takers, as we see in the case of milk and beef. The uncertainty is compounded by the Government formation talks. We hear about an agenda to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 7% year on year, to reduce the national herd or to end the export of live exports, which would narrow the competition available to farmers and producers. All of that is worrying people and it is against the backdrop of the Mercosur deal with the imminent import of cheap beef from countries where the climate change agenda we are discussing simply does not exist, such as Brazil and other parts of South America.
As the Minister knows, we need to support our farmers in Limerick and throughout the country. We need more diversification and we need to scale up the support schemes, particularly to keep the jobs. Some 280,000 people are employed nationwide in food production. That is against the backdrop of a recent UN report that tells us that despite all the scaling up, food production in Ireland will have to increase by about 50% by 2050. We are recognised as a premium-food-producing nation, but we have to build on the scaling up while recognising our climate change agenda.
I thank the Irish Farmers Association, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, the Beef Plan Movement and Macra na Feirme, which are continually in touch with me and my colleagues in Limerick and which impress on us the challenges they endure day after day.
The Minister might reply in writing to the following question in his own time. Will additional funding be made available? Will he scale up the schemes to deal with the challenges of the climate change agenda? Will he outline in his reply what he will do for young farmers? Macra na Feirme has raised with me the issue of the intergenerational transfer of holdings and the challenges that presents.
Finally, broadband is a considerable issue for farming and rural County Limerick, and I echo the comments of other speakers in respect of designated land, which is another significant issue in the county.
The Minister or the Department might respond to us on any questions we ask. In the discussion about climate change and agriculture, we have, collectively, to be very strong in respect of our support for the agriculture industry. From the consumer's point of view, we produce the finest product in the world. We produce an expert product that, for those who consume it, whether in the home or the restaurant, is top quality. We have to be very strongly supportive in that regard and make no apologies for the product being made. We then have to go back to the primary producer, who has in recent decades conformed to all the regulations, going back to those that were nearly impossible to envisage. Farmers comply with them daily. As the Minister will know through the Department, they comply with the regulations almost 100%, in terms of ensuring there is traceability and accountability for the product that has been produced. We must acknowledge the farmers who do that and farm families the length and breadth of the country, as well as the product we have.
We then have to tie that in to the challenges that exist, not only in Ireland but also throughout the rest of the world. We can stand over the product we export, however. I am aware that the Minister has been at many trade talks right across the world and can stand over the product. Any Minister, Department or official can stand over the product our sector is trying to sell.
We must ensure farmers continue to produce. Many parishes and communities will say there are no young farmers taking over or that, having moved on to other jobs, they are simply not going back to farming because they do not see a future in agriculture. We will have to make sure the agriculture industry is attractive to young people and that it is an attractive one in which to have a livelihood and to comply with the regulations.
As we renegotiate the CAP, we must ensure the family farm is protected. As we go forward, we must have a new agri-environmental scheme that is genuinely an environmental scheme. The one that existed 25 years ago made a huge difference to rural Ireland in a raft of areas. I could go on at length as a practising farmer but those are the few words I have on agriculture.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the annual transition statements on climate action today. Since I represent the maritime county of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, it is an issue close to my heart. The marine sector is a vital part of Ireland's economy and of our culture as an island nation. Protecting and maintaining the quality of our oceans is a pressing concern for the long-term health of this State.
Harvested from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, Irish seafood products are some of the most outstanding in the world but if we are to maintain this distinction, we must do more to protect our seas. In my constituency, Dún Laoghaire, community activists such as Margaret Brown and young environmentalist Flossie Donnelly have done tremendous work leading volunteers and cleaning regularly the coastline in the area. I hope the Minister will join me in commending those individuals on the work they have done. The council equally supports their role, as is evident from its having secured recently blue flag status for Seapoint. Seapoint is a special protected area, by EU designation, for biodiversity purposes. It is disappointing, however, that Killiney remains without a blue flag. Just recently, we heard that Merrion Strand in Dublin failed to meet EU standards for the fifth year in a row. It is simply not good enough.
Nationally, we need greater emphasis on protecting our marine biosphere. We have a moral and economic obligation to protect and enhance the immense natural resources of our waters for future generations. Ireland has specific legally binding EU obligations in regard to achieving good environmental standards in our seas. I note the Minister did not mention this in his remarks. The international targets set for Ireland are to have 10% of our waters protected by the end of this year and 30% by the end of 2030. Currently, just 2% of Irish waters are protected. This is the second lowest percentage in the European Union. The next Government must remedy this.
I support the actions to strengthen Ireland's role in protecting natural oceanic resources for future generations. Would the Minister agree that a first step in protecting the ecosystems would be to introduce an oceans Act to safeguard Ireland's seas and oceans with a protected marine area?
I thank the Acting Chairman.
I thank the Deputies for their contributions. Deputy McConalogue's remarks were interesting in the context of placing the Irish agri-food and marine sectors in an international context and of recognising that we are, by any international comparison, efficient from a climate perspective. That is not to say we are deaf to what is happening in the international marketplace. I know from my own trade missions that we are being asked increasingly about the sustainability------
I am really sorry, Minister, but the Deputies did not leave enough time. I will be intervening all the time because this is a two-hour session and I wish to make sure every speaker gets time to contribute. I apologise. Táimid ag bogadh ar aghaidh go dtí Sinn Féin.
I am sharing time with Deputies Stanley and Ruairí Ó Murchú.
There are fundamental problems that affect the narrative on agriculture, climate change and the transition we all know needs to happen. The fundamental problems lie in the analysis to the effect that, first, farmers are considered enemies of the process of delivering on our climate change obligations and, second, all farmers are essentially the same.
When we speak of beef, for example, the suckler herd is discussed in the same context as factory feedlots. There is no comparison between the two, as suckler farmers can play a very important and positive role, whereas factory feedlots play an almost entirely negative role in an environmental context.
We are told that over the course of the next few days we will face a possible, if not probable, deal between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party that will be put to their memberships. This will be a pivotal test as to whether the voices of family farmers have been heard. We know many of them were part of the vote for change and the parties to the deal - or at least some of them - have been doing their utmost to deny that mandate for change that was clearly given. It is interesting to hear many conversations emanating from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael representatives to reassure their members that the Green Party will not be disastrous for rural Ireland or Irish family farming. I have my views on whether it will or will not have such an effect but the inference behind this is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have had a positive influence or been good for rural communities and Irish family farms. I argue that this is entirely a false premise and the parties that have been in government over successive decades have overseen the diminution of the Irish family farm network, which in turn has had a negative impact on rural communities.
One of the big tests we will see coming from a programme for Government, if one is agreed, is the position of the Mercosur trade deal. The Cathaoirleach will recall this Chamber voted by a large majority to reject the Mercosur trade deal but the outgoing Government refused to respect that mandate given in this House by the representatives of the people in this State. Nothing encapsulates the double standards around the discussions on climate change more than the Mercosur trade deal. The conversation almost instructs the suckler farmers with perhaps ten or 12 cattle to reduce their output while at the same time there is implicit support of a European Union trade deal that will see hundreds of thousands of tonnes of additional beef coming into Europe. That is not only hypocritical but downright crazy from an environmental perspective. We know countries like Brazil are not any way close to matching the type of standards our farmers adhere to and that country, conversely, is tearing down rainforests in order to produce beef.
We also know forestry is important. I support the notion of a sustainable forestry policy that can play an important role in our climate action obligations. A good forestry policy should be good for communities and people should want to live beside a forest. It should be good for farmers and forests should present opportunities for diversification. A good forestry policy should be good for the local economy and people should be able to find work locally that would in turn be a driver of local domestic economies. A good forestry policy should of course be good for the environment. Only the geniuses that have run this State for so long could come up with a forestry policy that manages to do none of this.
The test will come before us when we see how these parties answer such questions. The test will come if we see a programme for Government that does not reject the Mercosur agreement, that does not support family suckler farms instead of factory feedlots and that does not support people who wish to move to organic farming. If we do not see a payment scheme for those involved in the process of carbon sequestration, I fear many of our local rural communities and farming families will feel the mandate for change was not heeded on this occasion.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this annual debate on climate action. Farmers need a long-term strategy for Irish agriculture. Many farmers are worried that the next Government will continue to demonstrate a complete lack of vision when it comes to the future of the family farm. Farmers want to see that there is a long-term future for them that is sustainable and compatible with climate action. Unfortunately, what we have seen from successive Governments is a lack of clarity and ambition when it comes to agriculture and climate action.
There is a need for big ideas and large projects that provide farmers with positive alternatives to which they can transition. For instance, where is the Government strategy to develop biomass and biogas production, two sources of renewable energy that would provide farmers with new income streams? Despite our large agricultural sector, we are miles behind countries such as Germany and other EU states when it comes to the production of renewables such as biogas and biomass.
An answer to a parliamentary question in the past two weeks showed that €861 million in carbon tax was collected in the past two years. The midlands, and farmers, must get their fair share of that. How much of that money was spent on replacement jobs, diversification for farmers and Bord na Móna workers? I refer to measures that would allow farmers in the midlands, for example, to diversify and transition to growing renewable energy crops such as biomass? The three midlands power stations could be used for biogas energy production. Those plants could create an income for farmers, energy for the country and, importantly, jobs for the region. Surplus heat can be used for horticulture, which Bord na Móna has started to look at. Despite all that, there is still a concerted effort to decommission two of those three power plants.
Where is the Government strategy to develop long-term on-farm afforestation? Currently, large corporations are coming into rural areas, buying up farms and planting spruce. That is replacement farming. That is not agroforestry; it is replacement agriculture. We need a long-term strategy that gives local farmers the opportunity to plant trees as part of on-farm forestry. That will give them new income and would also enhance biodiversity and improve carbon sequestration.
Those are just two of the positive ideas on which farmers can and want to contribute to climate action but, long term, there is no major Government planning. Instead, we have seen a great deal of focus on carbon tax and reducing the national herd, two policies that alone will not solve the climate crisis until affordable alternatives are available. We should reward farmers for protecting hedgerows and other sources of carbon sequestration. The issue at the moment is that farmers are being financially incentivised under the current CAP to cut back on hedgerows. That has to change under the new CAP.
The Minister mentioned TAMS. The scheme had a pilot renewable energy aspect, which was welcome. He has seen for himself the potential in that. We need that reopened and expanded. We also need the Bill I introduced in 2019, the Solar Panel (Climate Action) Bill, progressed through the Dáil to make it easier for farmers and small businesses to put solar panels on the roofs of buildings from which to generate electricity.
Instead of supporting negative measures such as increasing the current carbon tax, Sinn Féin wants to see a continued campaign to work for positive alternatives such as renewable energy and improvement of on-farm forestry, which will give farmers a real opportunity to diversify and create new sources of income.
Conservation and biodiversity are rightly core tenets of any State response to the major challenge of climate change but what we are looking for is an overall Government plan on forestry that is multi-departmental to do all that is necessary, including planting trees on State land. That is an improved scheme, as has been mentioned, in respect of farmlands, which would take into account the time it would take to grow particular trees, and also the type of trees, while ensuring the growth of a steady supply of native trees. However, as we have seen in the past in County Louth and across the State, we have had a large number of forests with which there have been an increasing number of issues. That is likely to continue into the future.
Last week, large tracts of cultural land were destroyed on the Cooley Peninsula, with the fire spreading onto local authority lands. I commend the fire services from Louth County Council for the incredible work they did while at the same time also battling malicious fires in Dundalk. I want to mention a particularly malicious arson attack on the house of a garda in Dundalk at the weekend and commend the vigilance of neighbours and the fire services for the quick response.
Without them, we could have been dealing with a far more tragic situation. Data show that forest fires will increasingly feature in the future as we deal with the issue of climate change. We need to take steps to ensure a better, co-ordinated response to such fires. The fire service did incredible work in Cooley but it needed the help of the Air Corps. We had to wait our turn as it was dealing with other fires in other areas of the State and also encountered technical difficulties. We need a plan for responding to large-scale fires. We need to determine what is best practice. This might involve fire breaks or managing gorse on mountains. We need to ensure the Government plays its part in this regard. We need a co-ordinated response from Government which involves the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the fire services, Coillte, the local authorities and any other necessary bodies. We will be looking at such a plan at a local level within County Louth. Some discussions in this regard have already started.
We are a very small island and in responding to fires, as in responding to climate change, we need to view the situation in an all-island context. The areas about which I am talking are around the Border. Louth has led the way in such co-operation in the past. Under a memorandum of understanding between them, Louth County Council and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council have dealt with issues regarding dumping and so on. This issue should also feature in such co-operation. Will the Minister provide an answer with regard to his overall plans for forestry?
I thank Deputy Ó Murchú for his contribution and for his questions, particularly those relating to the area of forestry. I sometimes despair about the general narrative around forestry because it seems to suggest that forestry policy is monolithic and insists on a particular species and a particular way of planting. The issues that, understandably, excite people in the context of forestry policy relate to the type of policy which is, fortunately, no longer with us. This policy involved planting right up to the side of the road and right up to the back of people's gardens. This left many communities and individuals to live in shadow and increased their sense of isolation. That type of forestry policy has, fortunately, largely been consigned to the past.
There is now much more regulation in the area and a greater diversity of species involved. For example, almost 40% - something like 38% - of afforestation approved to date in 2020 consists of broadleaf species. Anyone listening to the narrative on public airwaves and on social media would believe we are planting nothing but Sitka spruce. Almost 40% of afforestation now consists of broadleaf species. With regard to our forestry targets, the number of applications in 2020 has increased 20% on this time last year. That reflects well on the mid-term review of the forestry programme which was carried out recently. This saw significant changes to the premiums paid. Greater premiums are now paid for planting broadleaves.
There is also support for different types of forestry. There are still traditional commercial afforestation plans but there is also continuous use forestry and agroforestry. This involves afforestation at a much lower density and is compatible with continuing to farm while growing trees. That is really important from a social point of view because many farmers do not want to throw in the towel on their traditional methods of farming but still want to see if they can carry on some forestry, with significant financial support from the State including tax-free premiums. That mix of new afforestation types is resulting in a significant level of new interest in afforestation.
I really appreciate the Minister's response. Will he provide me with a very quick answer with regard to the necessity for a multi-agency approach to fire response or an updating of plans for dealing with forest fires?
I welcome this opportunity to say a few words on this very important subject. There are, of course, two subjects involved. First, there is the issue of retaining a viable agricultural sector and then, at the same time, there is the issue of meeting international norms in respect of carbon reduction. It is entirely possible for the two to run alongside each other without either being excluded or sacrificed.
The single biggest step we can take on carbon reduction is on generation of electricity from non-fossil fuels. That is as simple as it gets. Other countries have proven that long ago and they have advanced the degree to which they are going down that road rapidly.
The other thing to remember is the fundamental nature of the agri-food business in this country. We do not produce food just for our own population. We produce food for approximately nine times our population. That is very sizeable and will have to be replaced by other food production methods in the event of their being a major reduction in food production in the agri-food sector. There is also an economic issue. The two can be complimentary and can proceed alongside each other and we can achieve the targets we need to achieve.
Reference was made earlier to native deciduous species. I am all in favour of that, but I have to keep in mind that some species have a greater capacity than others to sequester carbon - the sitka spruce and the western red cedar have that capacity. You would need 4,000 acres of native deciduous species for 1,000 acres of spruce to achieve the same results. This is considerable. We also need to be mindful that there will be an impact in this country from Brexit, which will not be positive, and we need to be geared for that and ready to take whatever action is necessary. We must also regard our agri-food sector as the manufacturing sector; it is the engine of our industry and the equivalent of the major heavy industries in other countries throughout Europe and across the globe. We do not have car manufacturing plants or heavy engineering plants or the heavy emissions which come from those plants, but we have the agri-food sector which is deemed to produce a high level of carbon emissions. This can be controlled and modified considerably by dietary change and by various farming methods, and that is being done. We need to get credit for the degree to which we have been able to adopt measures which are conductive to carbon reduction and at the same time allow the industry to continue.
Reference has been made by many people as to the degree to which compensation will compensate for reductions. Beware of that. The beet growing industry should provide a sufficient lesson to remind us that compensation is only for the time being, it does not go on forever. Any resolution we achieve should be more long term.
Deputy Durkan made an interesting point in the context of us being a food island that exports to over 180 countries and with a domestic market of approximately 5 million people. We have a capacity to feed almost 50 million people. That is important to emphasise because who should feed the world is part of a global debate. It is those who have a capacity to do it in the most sustainable manner and our sustainability credentials, while not saying we do not have room for improvement, are amongst the most sustainable. We can argue about who is first or second, but broadly speaking we are amongst the most sustainable and we have a grass-based production system. It is important we underpin our offering on the global marketplace in the context of that sustainability. Consumers are very focused on that anyway. We have a natural advantage that we should not willingly hamper in any way. It is worth remembering that, particularly in the context of a growing global population. Someone opposite made the point that up to 2050 there will be a requirement to increase global food production by 50% because of a growing global population.
That is a challenge for us as well. We must ensure that we are the most carbon efficient per kilo of output. We start from a good position, but we have more to do. We have a critical role to play from a global point of view in feeding the world.
On forestry, we are at our highest level of afforestation in nearly 350 years at 11%, with 50% in public ownership and 50% in private ownership. As I said in reply to Deputy Ó Murchú, we must encourage more landowners to participate in that afforestation endeavour because it is not only a legitimate land use and crop but it is also significant in terms of sequestration potential. I note the point the Deputy made about the sequestration of different tree types. What he said about the sequestration of Sitka spruce, in particular, is true.
My Department has been active in the area of renewable energy in terms of LED lighting, solar panel grant aid and other initiatives such as renewable heat pumps and so forth that are supported under the TAMS grant scheme. I accept that we can do more in the bioeconomy area. That is an important opportunity. We come to this debate in a European context late in the day. The industry is very much in its nascent stage in this economy, but that brings its own advantages insofar as we can learn from others. Our agriculture model for anaerobic digestion, for example, is different in the context of feedstocks from those of many of our European counterparts with whom we are sometimes compared because we have an outdoor livestock production system. We do not generally have the feedstock from animal slurries. If one is looking at alternatives for feedstock, including food waste or grass, we must ensure that it is grown in a sustainable way. There is a great deal of research ongoing in this area and my Department is certainly playing its part in that. I see that as an important activity from a climate point of view and also as an economic activity for farmers from which they can benefit in the years ahead.
On Deputy Ó Murchú's point, I am not familiar with this issue of inter-agency co-operation, but it makes absolute sense. I am sure it happens on a practical level. If there are forestry fires, road accidents or whatever, there is a level of co-operation, obviously underpinned by memoranda of understanding, MOUs, and so forth, that would see the efficient deployment of emergency services in any circumstance. That makes sense on an all-island basis.
I wish to make a final point. The other issue that comes to mind is the need for a balanced diet throughout the world for the future. Sometimes this is forgotten. Sometimes we hear statements to the effect that we need low-protein diets. Not everybody needs a low-protein diet. Sometimes it is necessary to have a high-protein diet. There are millions of people throughout the world in need of a decent diet and that will continue for the foreseeable future. We need to concentrate on that. At the same time, we must make our contribution to the reduction of carbons and I believe we can do that effectively, and proportionately better than anywhere else in the globe. I agree entirely that importation from Latin America does not make sense in respect of the reduction of carbon because the big steamers emit carbons just the same as everything else.
It is critical if we are to win this battle against climate change that we have, as I heard a Deputy say yesterday, the people with us. This will not work on a punitive, wagging the finger and telling people what to do basis. It will only work if it is a better country everywhere. That applies particularly for rural Ireland, farming, forestry and land use. We can do this. We can deliver a low carbon society that is good for our people, good for nature and provides food security, healthier food and a long-term future that is stable.
I was lucky to meet one of the great pioneers of renewable energy, the German politician, Hermann Scheer. He was a social democrat, not a Green, and one of the great leaders of the solar revolution whom I had the pleasure of meeting. I always remember the closing paragraphs of his book, The Solar Economy, with its one main message, namely, farmers are critical. He argued they will be the heroes and will be key with their ingenuity and their knowledge of the land. He also said working out how we manage our land in the best way is going to be central to meeting the climate change challenge we face. He was right.
We need a national land use plan to help our farmers. It is not about telling the farmer how to use the land because they have the best knowledge of what they do on their land. Such a plan, however, has to set a framework where we plan our land, firstly, for thriving rural communities. We work out the people at the centre of this environmental transition we are about to take. It has to work out how we produce the best food related to the land and also how we store carbon, particularly in our peaty soils. At the same time, such a plan has to work out how we restore biodiversity and nature, particularly in our woodlands. It must work out, with all this coming together, how we improve the quality of our water and protect against floods. A knock-on consequence is that we start to tackle some of the local pollution problems we have with ammonia, nitrogen and other materials.
That land use plan will be critical to meeting our climate change targets. We are fortunate setting out on this because European Union policy states we have to head in this direction. Those nine principles behind the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which is coming, are all about supporting this environmental and social agenda. It is about critically changing the power imbalances in the food system where the large processors - the people processing protein - make all the money while the primary producers are left with nothing. That has to change.
The European Union set out last week its Green New Deal strategy which is behind the €1.8 trillion stimulus package to get us out of the Covid economic crisis. Central to this is the farm-to-fork strategy which, again, is all about going green. It states we are going to reduce nitrogen fertilisers which makes sense economically, socially and environmentally. We are going to switch to organic. Europe is aiming to have 25% of land organic. Only 2.5% of land in Ireland is organic and that share needs to multiply in the next four to five years. We must reduce the amount of antibiotics used, along with reducing food waste while improving food security, by changing from these long supply chain systems where we import grain from South America to convert to protein here to then ship to China, all in packaging which China then sends back the other way. This whole system is going to change for the better.
People are worried because they have been presented with all sorts of scare stories that the Green Party will be bad for rural Ireland, farming, beef and dairy. I fundamentally disagree. Recently, I spoke to someone involved with the UCD Lyons research farm. It is working on the future of farming along with Moorepark and other places and how we grow grass. Our climate and land give us a significant advantage in grass growing. They now say, however, we need to switch from pumping fertilisers and slurries on to land to promote Italian ryegrass to grow as fast as possible. This is very vulnerable in either high-rain conditions, with wet fields, or in the very dry conditions we are seeing at the moment. Those shallow-rooted, nitrogen-pumped grass systems are not safe or secure and do not work in a climate-changing world. They say if we actually switch to mixed grass with natural flowers, weeds, herbs and other grasses mixed in, along with clover bringing in the nitrogen naturally, the farmer will get a far better return. The amount of nitrogen the farmer might have to spread might go from 250 kg per hectare down to 90 kg. That would be a dramatic reduction with savings to a farmer's fertiliser bill. Animal health is dramatically improved as a result too.
We can get a better price because we can go to the market and say that this is genuinely origin green because it is from a much more diverse, secure system.
In our upland areas, where we have really peaty soil, if we allow that peat to restore the carbon rather than letting it all evaporate by draining all that land, we can bring a cow or a sheep onto that and graze it in the summer period when the land naturally dries, and that helps us in our climate objectives because it stops the growth of birch or other native trees which would drain the land. I am convinced that we can go to our international markets and say that this meat, dairy or other product is playing its part in the climate solutions that we need to deliver, and get a better price for it, while being genuinely origin green in everything we do. That is the future that I see for Irish farming.
We also have to change forestry, not just farming. The Minister, Deputy Creed, is right that there is a change towards broadleaves and that Sitka spruce absorbs carbon too. We must, however, get away from the monocultural clearfell rotation forestry that we have at present because it does not promote biodiversity. We have to restore nature as well as storing carbon. We can do that in a variety of ways. I had the pleasure of sitting beside Deputy Fitzmaurice in recent years, up in the back bench where Deputy Sherlock is sitting, and he was forever nudging me and saying that we should use the idea of taking a hectare for every farm for what Deputy Michael Moynihan said earlier about schemes such as the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, where we get the farmer to help plant some native forestry that is genuinely mixed. We could perhaps let some land rewild, in some corner areas of the field that would not take from the productive capability of the farm. Farmers' knowledge of their land would allow nature to come back, store carbon, restore biodiversity and improve the water course. If one managed it in conjunction with one's neighbours, we could improve our rivers and the whole system. This is doable and we should support it to encourage a new generation of young people into family farming in our country. It delivers all the benefits.
At the same time, we should roll out agroforestry. Those grasslands also store carbon and provide that capability, which we know works. Smart young farmers throughout the country are doing this already. We just need to do more of what is working and what is right, which will give us this origin green in everything we do. Continuous cover forestry should not be clearfelled in order that in the long term, we get a continuous supply of high-quality timber which helps our local industries and helps us to keep population in rural Ireland. This is all possible. At the same time we should manage our peatlands, concentrating first and foremost on the cutaway large bogs, where by re-covering them with water, we will store millions of tonnes of carbon, which will allow us to meet our objectives. We should get the skilled people of Bord na Móna to do that because they are knowledgeable about how that can be done best. This is not a hardship posting; this is not a negative story. This will be good for rural Ireland. We can meet our targets and our obligations. I do not believe we have a choice. If we were to go the other way and said to count us out because we do not really want to be origin green and just want to go half way with our measures, at some point the rest of the world will rightly say that Ireland is not actually origin green in what it does.
Let us make this change and let us change the whole distribution system in order that we have a better connection to the Irish consumer and the Irish farmer, so that they get a better price. Let us be more diverse so that we start to develop horticulture and a range of other tillage crops, as well as meat and dairy, so that we are not reliant on just that small number of producers and processors on the international markets. Let us promote ourselves as the absolute best in class in protecting nature, in high quality, tasty food and storing carbon as we go. Being a green seller to the rest of the world would see Irish farming thrive.
It is very interesting to hear Deputy Eamon Ryan, who may be a prospective Tánaiste, giving us a sense of his vision. The potentially continuing or next Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is also here to listen to that view. I am in no way being facetious about this. The view espoused by Deputy Ryan, possibly soon to be a Minister, is a vision that broadly we would all like to buy into.
It is a picture of an Ireland that existed in the not-too-distant past, when one looks at grassland management, forestry management, land use and all that they entail. We are, however, in a scenario where agriculture is a key component of our economy. We have a particular type of production based on grassland and it has a massive benefit to the economy.
I would like to ask the Minister about the national herd. In the context of climate action the debate around agriculture has been narrowed into the funnel of reducing the national herd. There has been an oversimplification of that argument and it has become the narrative. Some of us want to see a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions but do not want to see the fabric of the rural economy being taken out and ripped to shreds in one fell swoop. I am sure the Minister can understand, as can Deputy Ryan, that there are farm families who rely on beef production. This is because most people are now farming to schemes. An unfortunate outcome of the way we have managed agriculture over the decades is that people farm to schemes and are incentivised to go into a particular scheme because that is from where they derive their income. Somewhere within that discourse there has to be a discussion about how we incentivise those farmers who are, with some degree of justification, suspicious or sceptical about the direction of travel to move towards schemes such as agri-environment schemes and TAMS that will ensure they can continue to manage and produce livestock in a way that is sustainable but does not compromise their membership of a community. In rural communities, on a Friday night, one could have three generations of a farm holding or household sitting in a pub talking to their neighbours about what happened at the mart. We cannot tell them they must stop beef production in one fell swoop. We have to manage a transition towards a future that they are a part of and have ownership of and which does not compromise their ability to produce livestock. There is a happy medium.
I am not a scientist so when I look at Teagasc research I have to interpret what the organisation is trying to say. There seems to be something in its research which, through a pathway of proper land use, schemes and buy-in, allows us to get to the 2030 target. However, certain things have to happen. Farmers need to be part of a discussion and to have ownership of what needs to happen if we are to reach the 2030 target. There is a disparity between the 3.5% climate action plan target and the 6.5% or 7% target that has been bandied around as part of discussions on a programme for Government. This is causing a great deal of confusion and is wrapped up in the narrative that the 7% figure equates to a reduction in the national herd. I do not think that will happen but there needs to be clarity regardless of who is in government. Will our annual emissions reduction target in the climate action plan be 3.5% or will it ramp up to 7%? I am seeking the Minister's perspective on this and to have him enlighten us. If the annual target goes up to 7%, what will be the knock-on effect for farmers, the rural economy and people living in rural Ireland? Will it entail, as it must in my view, the setting in place of schemes that will ensure there is no drastic loss of income and give the individual landowner and farmer a stake in what that future looks like?
Broadly, the question I have for the Minister is whether we will see an increase. All parties here, ironically enough, have bought into the 7% target, because the Joint Committee on Climate Action agreed to that. It is interesting to hear from our friends in Fianna Fáil, who are in opposition now but might soon be sitting at the other side of the House, using opposition rhetoric. I do not speak in a pejorative way about targets and about the reduction of the national herd but they need to be honest about the fact they signed up for these very targets. We need to have honesty in this debate around climate action, because it is a non-partisan and apolitical space and we need to work together on it. I will be interested in hearing the Minister's perspective on how we get from a target of 3.5% to 6.5%, as Deputy Eamon Ryan indicated - or is it 7% or 6% or whatever you are having yourself - because that will have a knock-on effect for agriculture
The direction of travel for Irish agriculture has been abundant for many years now. There has been a lot of commentary in recent times about a REPS-style support in the environmental scheme. That, in itself, tells a story. Long before the current debate around targets began, farmers were acutely aware of their role in landscape management and sustainable agricultural product and in many ways were indicative of what was needed in the international marketplace. That was long before the debate we are now having was under way.
We have had REPS, the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, and we now have the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS. Under GLAS, for example, we have what farmers sometimes bristle at, which is the lack of recognition that they have been working at this long before it became politically popular to talk about. Some 260,000 ha are under low-input permanent pasture. That is a low-intensity management system compatible with best environmental practice. Traditional hay meadow comprises almost 60,000 ha. There are hundreds and thousands of bird and bat boxes and such in terms of biodiversity. This is what farmers have been doing. The world did not begin on 9 February or any time recently on this issue, it is a journey farmers have been on for many years.
With due respect to Deputy Eamon Ryan, this term that he uses regularly, "genuinely origin green", is a disservice to the enormous efforts in which farmers are involved on that journey. To give an example, 250,000-plus carbon audits have been conducted on over 50,000 farmers' holdings to ensure they are not just genuinely origin green, they are origin green. If one has a product that is labelled "origin green", it is because it has met the audit requirements. It is a buy-in from farmers and from more than 260 food processors to the whole concept of putting our best foot forward on the international stage. That is not to say for a moment there are not other things we need to do. We need to make sure we bring people along who have been with us on a journey through REPS, AEOS, GLAS, organic schemes, the beef data and genomics programme, BDGP, which is lightening the carbon footprint on our beef sector to which Deputy Sherlock alluded.
This is a journey that continues. It is accelerating at a pace now because the backdrop is the biodiversity strategy, the Green New Deal and the farm to fork strategy. While they do not have a legal instrument at the moment, they will migrate across into Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, strategy. That is undoubtedly the case but we need to make sure we do that in the context of a growing global population that has to be fed and in a sustainable way that does not compromise sustainable food production.
I have a statement and three questions for the Minister.
Thus far, not only has the State’s response to the climate crisis been wholly inadequate, the manner in which it has been carried out has created fear. It has made farming and fishing communities fearful of climate action. I often end up asking the question as to whether farmers should be more worried about climate action or climate change.
I am interested to know what the Minister thinks.
We need action and it will require determination, vision and leadership. A business-as-usual approach simply is not working. Ireland is failing to meet its emissions targets and the annual transition statement is a clear signal that the Department is not about to change its approach. I have learned that when it comes to climate action and the Minister's Department, there are three important points to highlight. First, the Government and vested interests portray climate action as a cliff edge for farmers and fishing communities. Ministers stating that a reduction in emissions will "decimate" Irish farms adds to the false narrative that change will have a negative impact on our livelihoods. As a farmer and a scientist, this is incredibly disappointing. Farmers and fishing communities need to be treated with respect, not fed platitudes. Changes in the sector are inevitable. The first step in solving any problem is recognising there is one. Climate action has to be understood and pursued as a necessity and an opportunity. A just transition can and should be at the centre of all climate policy and farmers need that reassurance. Second, it is necessary to highlight that emission efficiency is not the same as reducing emissions. The emphasis on efficiency instead of overall reduction of emissions is failing, and failing fast. Ireland's 2020 emissions target was a 20% reduction. The Minister's statement tells us it is going to be 6% at best. Efficiencies will not help farms about to face another drought. Third, I have learned that when the Government refers to things like ambitious targets for all-of-government climate action and does not follow it up with specific ambitious actions, that is just paying lip service and is another slap in the face for the next generation of farmers.
I have three examples which illustrate issues with the current approach. The first concerns valuing sustainability. Last Monday was World Oceans Day, an opportunity to celebrate the role that oceans play in our lives and to recognise the damage global economic systems are doing to them. As a coastal constituency, in west Cork we know the sea is an amazing natural resource that supports our tourism and fishing sectors. It is essential that we ensure the sea is respected. Unfortunately, we need only look at all the litter and pollution on our beaches and overfishing by supertrawlers to realise this is not the case.
We need to support sustainable, small-scale fishing. To do that we need to immediately address the lack of basic infrastructure for such fishing. Too many small piers dotted around our coastline and islands are falling into disrepair and lack basic amenities like slipways. They urgently need investment to preserve the livelihood of local families and the practice of truly sustainable fishing, the kind of fishing that has existed in rural and coastal Ireland for generations. That type of fishing is more environmentally friendly and will keep families living on islands and in other coastal areas.
Funding for this comes in limited forms from the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Housing, Planning and Local Government to local authorities. Having been a member of the coastal management committee on Cork County Council, I can tell the Minister how apparent underinvestment in small piers was. At the very first meeting, I had to point out that everyone fighting for the same minuscule amount of funding was counterproductive and that we should instead make the focus how can we get more much-needed funding for piers. I was advised to ask the Minister. Can the Minister ensure that small piers are made a priority in the funding streams for marine infrastructure to support sustainable fishing and coastal and island communities?
My next example highlights the need for participatory decision making between farmers, fishing communities, their representatives and Government. The sustainable development goals recognise partnerships as an essential part of the solution. The Covid-19 tie-up scheme demonstrates the urgent need for greater engagement. Once it was announced, fishermen and their organisations contacted me expressing dismay. Not only was it insufficient to cover standing costs, it was ill-suited in assisting an industry on the verge of collapse. The Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation called the scheme"botched" and more than 98% of respondents to a survey for The Irish Skippersaid it will not cover fixed costs. The Minister met fishing representatives in March and April but in May, this unpopular and unsuitable scheme was launched. That is the result of a failed engagement process. This is why farmers and fishing communities are so often negative about policies; their concerns and suggested solutions are disregarded.
Not only do we need immediate adjustments to the scheme, we also need to be assured that the flawed systems which created the scheme are reformed.
Will the Minister commit to engaging actively with fishing communities and representative organisations to make adjustments to the scheme? More broadly, will he commit to a partnership-based model in developing climate action policies for emissions reduction?
Third, there is the matter of priorities. There is a limited budget but within that, there are always choices. Small farmers and coastal and island communities are screaming out for funding, yet again this year, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is giving almost €17 million to the greyhound racing industry. This controversial, loss-making industry is funded with public money. Last year’s "RTÉ Investigates" programme found that the industry is "breeding animals to kill them". Now greyhound racing is set to commence ahead of vital services like breast and cervical cancer screening. Why is this deeply problematic industry held in such high esteem by the Government?
Funding sustainable agriculture and fishing needs to be prioritised. The annual transition statement and its catalogue of our current policy inadequacies has to be a wake-up call. Action is required immediately. Real changes are needed that will help save and enhance Irish farming. The past five years, since the signing of the Paris Agreement, have been squandered on shallow gestures and a focus on efficiencies over achievements. Even worse than wasting time we do not have is wasting time that our grandchildren and their children will not have. We need action not only because of the inevitable fines, but because of the moral obligation to the next generation of farmers and fishing communities. What is the Minister going to do to ensure farmers and fishermen can start to welcome and seek climate action?
I thank the Deputy for her contribution and her questions. Her contribution seems to be based on a misconception that one can produce food without producing greenhouse gases. That is a biological impossibility.
What we need to do is maximise our efficiency and sequestration opportunities and look at ways we can displace non-renewable energy sources in the agrifood sector. That is where our focus has been, if the Deputy looks at any of the initiatives under the Department's aegis. Deputy Eamon Ryan referred to the Lyons Estate and a research project there. Who funded the research project? It was the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. That is indicative of the direction of travel the Department is taking. Sustainability is not a destination in itself. It is an onward journey of continuous improvement.
What I am saying is that it is not possible to produce food without producing greenhouse gases. We need to make sure that everything we do is geared towards greater efficiency and sustainability. We cannot, and will not, give up our natural advantages in food production but we will do it as efficiently as possible. Many of the initiatives, therefore, that we have under way, for example in lower emission slurry spreading or using protected ureas and calcium ammonium nitrate are all steps that improve the efficiency. The BDGP improves the genetic efficiency of our herd while the EBI improves the genetic efficiency of our dairy herd. There are sequestration opportunities in terms of lower intensity management under GLAS, for example 260,000 ha of low-input permanent pasture or traditional hay meadows. These are all of the steps we are taking. This is not something that the Department has begun to embrace in recent days; it is something that has been under way for years and years. Sustainability is not a destination; it is a continuous journey and we are on it. On the issue of the tie-up scheme-----
I want to speak on two issues which may seem unconnected but I believe they are absolutely connected and, indeed, go to the core of the issues we face around agriculture and climate targets.
First, I wish to highlight what has been happening in our meat plants during the Covid crisis and recap on what has happened in them. Despite the Minister's bluster at the start of the crisis and the utter failure of the regulatory regime in the form of the Health and Safety Authority, it is clear that workers in meat plants were effectively sacrificed, bullied and intimidated into working in unsafe conditions throughout the crisis. It was not until the clusters and the numbers affected became too big to hide that belated action was taken. Even now, I am not content or confident that enough actions or safeguards are being taken to protect these workers. Why did the State and its agencies fail workers in meat plants so badly? The answer seems to be the same as to the answer to the question as to why we are failing in measures to tackle climate emissions in agriculture. It is not because the agricultural sector is so vital to our economy, which it is, nor is it because we support family farms and want to see a thriving rural community and sustainable farming, as most of us do, and it is not out of concern for farmers and their families. The workers in the meat plants, just like the beef farmers and others in this agriculture sector, are being failed because current policy has nothing to do with supporting farmers or the rural community. It is about supporting a corporate agrifood industry which benefits only a tiny few and generates massive profits for those at the top of the chain, their shareholders and CEOs. It does not support ordinary farmers and their families and it is certainly not supporting workers on the killing floors of the meat factories and abattoirs.
That brings us to the issues of climate and our policy on agricultural emissions. A false dichotomy or choice has been put out by people who claim to be the defenders of rural Ireland and loudly attack the Green Party on the basis that it is trying to destroy rural Ireland with proposals to cut the herd or nitrogen fertiliser use. Sometimes the descriptions used would have us believe this is the greatest threat since the Famine or Cromwell. We have greatly expanded the herd in recent years, with 20,000 cattle added to the dairy herd this spring. Under the current business as usual plans, cattle numbers and fertiliser use are expected to continue to increase over the next decade, with the former set to increase by 11% and the latter by 6%. This is driven by a policy of exporting to Asia and the Middle East. My question to those who raise outraged voices and claim to represent rural Ireland and farming interests is how this policy is going for people in rural Ireland, farmers and their families. How will the trend that is being defended improve matters for those families and farmers? Are standards of living and the building of sustainable farming communities improving? No, they are not.
Last year, I stood outside Leinster House in solidarity with farmers who were being crushed by the corporate bosses and the policies of this Government, farmers who had been screwed by the beef processors which were posting record profits as they cut the prices they gave to the farmers. How can anyone stand over a policy that is driving farmers to the wall and driving them out of the sector? The Minister cannot pretend he is a friend of the farmer when all he has to offer is more of the same, which will ensure that Larry Goodman and other corporate interests record yet another year of profits in the tens of millions of euro, which are funnelled in to offshore accounts where they avoid tax. The Minister cannot tell me this is a sustainable policy for farmers in Ireland.
Current farming and agricultural policy is not working for ordinary farmers and it is certainly not working for the environment or climate. This Government has given us more rhetorical commitments to reducing emissions and accepting the science of what actions we need to take. However, that policy is governed by the corporate interests I mentioned and not the interests of the farmers or climate.
Once again, we see bizarre and unscientific efforts to explain away methane emissions and confuse the effect methane has on climate by pretending that if we account for it differently, it will go away or the problem may not look as serious as it is. Science is screaming at us about this problem.
We can fool ourselves if we want. We can add up the emissions in various ways and we can pretend that offsets, sinks or taxes will allow us to continue polluting, but we cannot fool nature and we cannot fool the science of physics. My concern about the Green Party and its members in the Government talks that are currently under way is that they may be fooled into thinking that a coalition of the Minister's party with Fianna Fáil can deliver any of the measures required. If they believe that a 7% reduction will be achieved under a party merged with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, they are fooling themselves. They may think it may not happen in four years but it could happen in ten. I can guarantee them that with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael driving the policy, it will not happen in 100 years, and the seas will be washing over us.
The main danger in the narrative of these talks is that those of us who want action on climate change and on agricultural emissions are painted as the enemies of the farming community when nothing could be further from the truth. We support a reduction in herd sizes, a reduction in the use of nitrogen fertiliser and a programme of massive reforestation with non-commercial species for carbon storage, but we are also for breaking the cartel of meat processors and the large agrifood corporations that stand at the top of this pyramid. We support better prices for beef farmers and a basic income that supports them and their families so they can grow the food that we need to give us real food security in the decades ahead. We support sustainable farming and rural communities, not the vision that we are being given at the moment, which is about the interests of the corporations. Just as the measures that we need to take in our towns and cities to combat climate change can lead to a better and more sustainable life for ordinary people, so too can the steps that need to be taken in agriculture lead to better lives for farmers and the communities in rural Ireland.
Warmer homes, better public transport, and sustainable well-planned towns, villages and cities are not a threat to ordinary people, but if the vision of climate action is offered solely in a moralistic attack on people's personal behaviour while landing more and more taxes on them when they can barely get by, we will feed the climate sceptics and leave untouched the systemic causes of climate change and the vested interests that are driving them. In agriculture, if all we offer farmers are reduced herd numbers and restrictions on fertiliser use we leave them prey to the climate sceptics and the climate deniers whose agenda is to maintain the status quoand to hell with the planet and with the environment, but if we demand a real Green New Deal and see farmers as allies in this fight and reward them accordingly, we can build a constituency that can achieve climate targets and do it in a just and sustainable way.
I do not see much point in responding to the opening point the Deputy made regarding Covid-19 in meat plants, as I am on the record of the House on that issue already. Suffice to say, as I said then, that every individual who contracts Covid-19 needs to be treated in the best possible way by the health services and everything needs to be done to try and prevent the spread of the virus. The Deputy will be aware that the last time we were in here discussing this issue there was some clamour due to the fact that the HSA had not been in the meat plants. At that time, these agencies were just coming back to work as, like most others, they had not been at work. I am pleased the HSA has been in many if not all of the plants where the clusters have occurred, and my information is that it has found that most of the meat plants are working as they should in terms of the new norm and taking the appropriate steps to protect workers in the plants. That is not to say that notwithstanding the best endeavours of everybody - the HSA, the HSE, the workers in the plants and management in the plants – one can guarantee that the plants will be kept Covid-19 free. That is obviously not the case, but it is important that every one of these agencies works to ensure that we do everything possible to minimise the risk and that is what has been happening. It would not have been appropriate to come in here on that occasion and say that we were going to blitz these premises, because to be forewarned is to be forearmed, but that has happened and the Deputy will be aware it happened.
Given that time is limited, I wish to point out to the Deputy that biogenic methane is different from methane generally.
It is a specific cohort within the atmosphere and has a shorter life span, and that is why there is an issue between livestock methane production and general methane production.
While agricultural production emits methane into the atmosphere, we also need to acknowledge that food production takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The key issue, therefore, is not methane production but the increase in the overall volume of methane produced from agriculture. We must also note that throughout the EU, between 2005 and 2016 there has been an 9% reduction in overall cattle numbers. Those who focus on farming being the climate problem conveniently ignore this fact.
In Ireland, our climate action plan set a target for reducing agricultural emissions by 10% between 2017 and 2030. Based on suckler cow numbers, emission reductions of close to 10% were achieved in 2018 and 2019 alone. While we have achieved the 13-year target for the suckler sector within 24 months, albeit for the wrong reasons, and while this may help us to meet the national climate target, in a perverse way it will do more to damage the planet in terms of global warming. That is because we count climate emissions based on the country where the food or product is produced, not where it is purchased or consumed. Even though 90% of our beef is exported, Ireland is penalised for being the most carbon efficient beef exporter within the EU because the rules state the responsibility is on the producer rather than the consumer. Relatively carbon-efficient beef production in Ireland can, therefore, be replaced throughout the Union with beef that is 35 times worse for the environment from the Amazon basin. That is okay, according to climate mathematicians but not the atmosphere.
We have a CAP that regulates food production in member states, except when it comes to climate emissions when we have a national cap, not an EU cap. This completely undermines carbon efficient food production in favour of cheap food, regardless of its climate impact and regardless of where it comes from. We need an EU-wide methane cap for agriculture that supports carbon efficient beef production in Ireland, which is good for reducing global climate emissions, and grass-fed beef on low-intensity grassland such as that produced in Ireland that has a lower negative impact on soil erosion, biodiversity and nutrient leaching than other beef production models - another fact that is conveniently ignored by those who focus on farming being the climate problem.
Grass-based systems on disadvantaged land types in much of Ireland remove carbon from the atmosphere and convert it into human protein on land that is not suitable for tillage crops. That does not mean that agriculture and farming should have a free pass. The fact is that managing our land use better can take even more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing its harmful effects on the climate and the oceans far quicker than shutting down farming. For example, those who were so jubilant about the closure of Shannonbridge and Lanesborough power stations ignored the fact that one of the key objectives behind co-firing of the stations was to build up demand rapidly for locally-sourced biomass. The principal reason for the lack of biomass in Ireland has been the absence of any proven demand for energy crops that would attract farmers. If we were to operate our current peat-fired plants with 100% locally-sourced biomass, this would reduce agricultural emissions on local farms by 600,000 tonnes of carbon each year. This would be the equivalent of the removal of 130,000 cars from our roads, generating €372 per ha with the price of carbon at €80 per tonne. This would create 4,000 seasonal jobs in harvesting while guaranteeing the income to farmers right across the midland counties.
Another good example is Gowla Farms outside Ballyforan, County Galway where members of my family worked in the 1970s producing dried grass for animal feeds.
With one of the best grass production systems in the world, we should be focused on the development of new grass-based solutions to meet our current and future food and energy needs, but our research community is behind the curve. Everything seems to be dictated by Food Wise 2025, which is about supporting existing agribusiness rather than the viability of family farms and our environment. The centralised nature of research and development funding in Ireland through Teagasc is creating a knowledge cartel. Research needs to move closer to the farmer and include and reward a wide range of farmers to get involved. That is why, with the support of the Minister and the Cabinet, I established the climate action fund to support new thinking and innovation, with the sole focus of reducing Ireland's emissions. This is the largest per capitasovereign fund of its type globally.
In light of what I have just said about methane, will the Minister commit to immediately reviewing the current scientific basis for enteric methane emissions from our national herd, as well as the impact of grassland, soil and hedgerow management on carbon sequestration in advance of any restructuring of the CAP? The carbon value of soil, hedgerows and other farm stock needs to be measured and monitored and any increase in value returned directly to farmers' pockets.
I welcomed the announcement last October by the Minister for Finance of an allocation of €3 million for piloting new agri-environmental schemes this year. The goal was to reduce emissions from the agriculture sector while improving biodiversity and water quality and supporting farm incomes. Has this money been drawn down and, if so, was it drawn down under existing or new pilot schemes? Would it make sense to consider expanding the current, successful smart farming pilot, led by the EPA, which has seen a 10% reduction in carbon emissions from all farm types, and to support new initiatives such as carbon-neutral beef production? Has consideration been given to designing an agricultural system around nutritional sovereignty? This would mean Ireland would move to being an 80% to 100% food-secure nation. The supply chain should be incentivised to embrace localised food systems and resources should be mobilised to ensure that new horticultural industries are developed to support such a goal.
We need to try to generate, innovate and support new thinking about the climate challenges we have in this country. The difficulty is with those who are promoting the climate agenda to date. They take an initiative that has been developed elsewhere in continental Europe and try to shoehorn it into the model in Ireland, which just will not work because we have a very different model of agriculture. We have a dispersed rural population, which is not the case anywhere else in Europe. We need to engage at EU level with the type of challenges we have here and to try to put forward specific innovative solutions. That will require support from the research community here and answers to the questions I have just asked.
The Minister will argue that the research community is doing its bit for the agricultural sector. His officials will be aware of the collaborative working group on sustainable animal production, established by the EU standing committee on agricultural research. It is collating data that will, ultimately, feed into EU policy development. It has produced a study on the drivers of change and development in the EU livestock sector. That is very important in Ireland because, in terms of agricultural activity, we are more dependent on livestock than any other EU country, at 74%. I read the committee's report. The committee had asked 251 experts from across the EU to complete a questionnaire, based on their expertise as an economist, agricultural scientist or member of a farming association, to consolidate knowledge about EU livestock policy throughout Europe. Of the 251 surveys sent to every EU member state, I was surprised when I saw the number of responses from Ireland considering that it is so dependent on livestock.
Not a single questionnaire was sent back from Ireland. If the Irish research sector cannot advocate for us in Europe among its own agricultural research community, what hope do farmers have of getting a fair deal out of the CAP?
It is very difficult to answer on many of these points when Deputy Naughten has chosen to limit the time in the way he has done.
The research community and the Department work collaboratively with a host of partners. The research community is quite progressive regarding all the issues to do with climate and sustainability. I will give just one example of an initiative in research, carried out in conjunction with Science Foundation Ireland and, if I am not mistaken, Teagasc and some other partners. It concerns green breeds. It is a question of determining the optimum bovine genetic structure to enable us to meet our efficiency and emissions objectives for beef and dairy. We do very well. It is unfair to come into the House and castigate the research community, who, with very limited resources by international comparison, work exceptionally well in a collaborative fashion to serve the industry.
I am really sorry but I must stop the Minister. The way the time was used was Deputy Naughten's choice, and each Member has that choice. I am really sorry but I must move on to the Rural Independent Group.
As the Minister is aware, Irish farms and the Irish agriculture sector more generally have been making major strides in reducing their carbon footprint over recent years. This is not recognised very often. Indeed, the agri-sector has become something of a scapegoat for all the environmental ills that afflict our society. Farmers and their way of life have been demonised for too long. When farmers work to introduce biodiversity initiatives, they are told they have to do more. Rarely is credit given. The fact of the matter, however, is that to qualify for many of the schemes, such as GLAS, they must meet the criteria. They are doing so quite successfully and are doing their bit for the environment. It is high time that this were acknowledged and credited.
Irish farmers are well aware of their obligations and responsibilities but they will not be made the whipping boys of an aggressive and ill-informed environmental lobby for whom no measure is ever good enough. This will do nothing to create the sense of genuine partnership and collaboration that we all need and, indeed, support.
The Minister himself acknowledged in January that the EU's long-term strategy, A Clean Planet for All, accepts that agricultural production will always result in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane and nitrous oxide. Of course, these can be reduced, but not at the expense of the entire sector or of the rural economy and the family farm as we know it.
I am conscious that in recent reply to a parliamentary question from my Rural Independent Group colleague, Deputy Mattie McGrath, the Minister accepted that the very concept of carbon neutrality has yet to be defined. This needs to be addressed urgently. It is fine to have a general sense of what climate neutrality might look like on paper but we need a definite sense of what the real-world implications will be for farming and agriculture more generally.
I acknowledge and welcome that we are increasing carbon sequestration measures. In fact, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, confirmed to me in a recent reply to a parliamentary question that hedgerows, which are not currently accounted for in Ireland's calculation of emissions targets, will be included from 2021. As we know, greenhouse gas emissions and removals associated with the land-use change and forestry are currently reported in Ireland's national inventory report but this is prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency and submitted to the European Union and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change annually. I acknowledge the fantastic research conducted by Teagasc in this area. It has long argued that hedgerows and landscape features within the cropland and grassland categories can form part of the emissions and removal estimates for land-use categories.
Will the Minister provide an update on his Department's engagement with the EPA with respect to the development of a land use map for reporting on land-based activities under land use regulations? Will he accept that farmers do not receive anything like the credit they deserve for introducing and supporting carbon reduction measures?
Information provided by the Revenue Commissioners indicates that since 2010, the State has taken in at least €2.8 billion in carbon taxes. I appreciate the Minister may not have the information to hand but will he please commit to providing the details of how much of that has come from the agriculture sector? I ask because there is an inaccurate perception that farmers are simply takers and not givers when it comes to contributions to climate tax and renewal measures.
I indicate again that I oppose any proposal to reduce the national herd, as this would destroy agriculture as we know it. Have these proposals been accepted or can we consider how other sectors must also play their part in reducing emissions, and that agriculture cannot be the scapegoat, leading to the destruction of the family farm as part of our culture in trying to appease a number of people? These people, in making their demands, do not understand agriculture.
Ireland is lagging behind in any meaningful engagement with farmers and producers in developing biomethane, which could be used for fuel for heavy goods vehicles as an alternative to fossil fuels. There are easy ways to help the process of anaerobic digestion, which is common in Germany, Denmark and the UK. The process mixes slurry with maize and silage, leaving the materials to ferment and form methane gas that can be stored. Sections of the country have finishing units where animals are housed and waste can be acquired easily. There are also clusters of pig farms that could also be used for waste collection. These facilities could also provide a means to produce renewable heat and gas.
In the UK, 15% of gas consumed could be made from sewage, food waste and other organic waste from breweries. The US has claimed that the waste from biomass could provide natural gas for 50% of American homes. There are plenty of opportunities in Ireland for similar processes in Ireland and more must be done to consider such practice in agriculture. How can the Department justify the lack of support in this regard?
The renewable energy feed-in tariff, REFIT, scheme to incentivise microgeneration covers small-scale generators, particularly where domestic customers produce their own electricity and export the surplus to the national grid. With the installation of solar panels and other technology, Ireland has committed to generate at least 16% of energy from renewable sources by 2020. However, we are not on track to meet this deadline. Ireland is the second lowest in the table of countries meeting their renewable energy targets in the EU and it is also second lowest in the table of member states producing renewable heat. A simple solution to this would be to reopen the REFIT scheme by early 2021, thus encouraging homeowners and farmers to install solar panels. The maximum allowed should be 70% rather than 50% of roof size.
In the past the volume of energy generated from home and farm owners was so small that it did not justify the cost of using panels as there was not a high enough return to meet a commitment to the national grid. People found the process of connecting to the grid with microgeneration slow and cumbersome. More needs to be done so targets can be met.
It is not just about blaming the farmers and the farming community. I told the Minister, Deputy Bruton, earlier that farmers are blamed for everything. As I said previously, it usually took one generation of farmers to rebuild to ensure the next generation survived. At the moment, it is going generation, by generation, by generation. Those in the farming sector are doing their bit but all the policies and regulations put in place by the Government make it too difficult for farmers and make sure that they do not make anything from the process. It should simplify it, invest in farmers and incentivise.
I thank the Deputies. If I can paraphrase Deputy Nolan, she said that farmers deserve credit where credit is due. I echo that. I made the point earlier before the Deputy came into the Chamber that long before it became popular to talk about sustainability, farmers were on this journey, referenced by the fact that the much-lauded previous environmental scheme, the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, is back in vogue. That goes back to more than a decade ago so farmers were embracing environmental ambition and sustainability long before the issue had much traction politically, and they deserve credit for that.
There are debates about methane and nitrous oxide, which has been referred to. We have strategies to deal with that now. For example, we grant-aid low emissions slurry spreading equipment. I do not have the figures with me but a substantial number of farmers have availed of that. That reduces the NOx emissions in agriculture. In terms of inorganic fertilizers, we are looking at the use of protected ureas, protected calcium ammonium nitrate, to ensure that NOx emissions are significantly reduced.
I accept the point Deputy O'Donoghue made about anaerobic digestion. It is an industry that is very much in its nascent stage here. It is one on which my Department and that of Deputy Bruton have been working. Slurry, of its own, is not a sufficient feedstock for it but it is certainly one that will have a greater role to play.
Deputy Harkin will also take a minute or two. I will take four or five minutes.
The Minister said earlier that we have the capacity to feed a population of 40 million based on sustainable food production but is our production sustainable? I do not believe he has outlined that it is sustainable. There are considerable differences about whether that is the case. The crux of it is, who do we believe? Reading the annual sectoral mitigation statement on agriculture would not leave one any the wiser. It starts by outlining of plans from the climate action plan, which seem to be ambitious, but they are not referenced anywhere else in the plan so we do not know whether they are realistic, on the way to being achieved or totally unrealistic. It states that emissions from the sector in 2030 are to be between 17.5 MT and 19 MT of CO2 equivalent by achieving between 16.5 MT and 18.5 MT of CO2 equivalent cumulative abatement over the period 2021 to 2030. That sounds great. It seeks to achieve a 26.8 MT of CO2 abatement through the land-use change and forestry, LUCF, actions and sets a target for the level of energy to be supplied by indigenous biomethane injection in 2030. The fact that the plans are not mentioned again tells its own tale. The most telling line in the document is that 40% of the overall budget of the new CAP at EU level will contribute to environmental or climate action. Unfortunately, that is the level of our aspirations and how we will achieve them.
We do not have a voluntary scheme for farmers. That is possibly the only sector where voluntary schemes are set to reduce carbon emissions. It is clear that we do not have buy-in to the voluntary schemes across agriculture and, therefore, we should now make it compulsory to participate in environmental practices. Hopefully, the EU will go down that road because I do not believe we will do so. It will have to be made compulsory to qualify for new payments from the EU because that is the only way we will get buy-in.
All the talk today is about the EU policy of farm to fork and what that will achieve for reduction of emissions. How will that policy benefit the Irish type of production? Much is made in this House of our production methods and how they are grass-based and environmentally friendly, yet all the discussion is about how bad Brazilian beef is for the environment, which I have no doubt is the case.
It seems there is not much recognition of the environmentally sustainable production of Irish agriculture from the so-called markets or from the beef factories, which seem to only be interested in price and in reducing the price paid to farmers.
It is interesting that our own organic farming scheme, over which the Department has control, has been held back and that grant aid has been held back from farmers. This scheme could help to grow our number of organic farmers and to reduce our dependency. Any future EU scheme should ensure that a farmer who wishes to go into organic production will be assisted. Badly managed funding calls should not give farmers false hope either. Who will qualify and why should be clearly laid out. Unfortunately, organic farmers are looked upon by the Department and the farming organisations as an awkward rump that must be dealt with.
Today I again heard the Minister talk about how methane is different. It is different, in that it is far more damaging to the atmosphere. It may be short-lived, but the impact it has over that short period is very significant. The Minister does not do anything for our farmers by continuing to wrongly state that methane does not have an impact. As long as we try to say that farming will not have an impact on the climate and delay recognising that farming, like all activities, impacts on the environment, farming and farmers will lose. The only people will gain are the beef barons who own the slaughterhouses in the State.
I have a few questions. Deputy Eamon Ryan spoke about why people say that the Green Party will be bad for rural Ireland. It would be helpful if that party made a statement on the export of cattle to third countries and on rewetting the likes of peatlands on mountains. People are farming sheep on those lands. It would be helpful if the Green Party could clarify its stance on a few issues like that.
Yesterday, in the Minister's own county, there was good news with regard to methane. A study was carried out on feeding seaweed to cows. This study showed that doing so reduced the methane emitted by a suckler herd by 79%. Is the Minister's Department involved in this research? Has Teagasc been involved? Are we doing anything to work with those carrying out this work? This study took a full year.
On the European farm-to-fork strategy and biodiversity strategy, if one reads the documents, one will see that the EU intends to designate 30% of land around the country. This will be a higher designation than that of a special area of conservation, SAC. One will hardly be able to live in such areas in light of the proposals under the biodiversity plan. The plans also talk about rewetting peatlands. Deputy Ryan mentioned earlier that sheep or cattle could go out on such lands during the summer, but they cannot live on fresh air for the spring, autumn and winter. The sheep farmers on the mountains need their animals out then as well. Will the Minister and the Government oppose the current proposals? They will affect farmers from Donegal to Kerry, including the dairy farmers in Listowel who have reclaimed land. We would say that they drained it and shored it. It is now good productive land for the dairy sector. It is proposed to remove CAP payments from such lands over a number of years. As a Dáil, we need to make sure that is not allowed to happen.
Everyone has been talking about forestry. We have to cut to the chase. Last year, 4,000 ha of the targeted 7,000 ha was not planted because of objections. I believe there are 1,400 or 1,500 files with the Minister's Department with regard to ecology reports. It is at a stalemate. Deputy Eamon Ryan is right that he and I talked about this issue and if he had listened, he would have heard me say that we should plant 0.5 acres on holdings of up to 50 acres. One could have a shelter belt in the corner of a field or down by a ditch so that the farmer could continue to farm. The area planted would increase pro rata. This would lead to 130,000 acres around the country if the money was there for it. As I have said all along, "show me the money". I do not know if we have it. It would be a good thing to include in an environmental scheme.
Where are we going in trying to resolve the forestry issue? I know the Minister is working on it and I am not blaming him but we are at a stalemate even in respect of broadleaves. I got a phone call this morning from a person who put in an application eight months ago. This person wanted to have an ecology report carried out themselves but were told the Department had to do it. The application is being held up with objections and appeals.
Is there fast-tracking of that? Whatever about Government talks, we can dream a dream and we can talk about doing the sun, moon and stars over the next five years. However, if we cannot plant one tree today because of objections, because of EU law and because people see they can go through appeals, how are we going to get through that gap?
To follow on from what Deputy Fitzmaurice said about the biodiversity strategy, as the Minister is aware, the EU wants us to legally protect a minimum of 30% of land across the Union. We already protect about 16% so that would double the amount of land protected. To put a picture on this, that would be the province of Connacht and about half of County Cork. That is the 30%. Within that, the EU wants one third, or 10%, to be strictly protected. Looking at the designations, that means that even human visitation, never mind land use, would be strictly controlled. Some of this works well for the forests in Finland and Sweden, and the mountains in France and Germany, but for rural Ireland it really means that agricultural production will have significant challenges and, in some places, will be impossible. That is the first point.
If we look at GAEC 2, which is required for the single farm payment, farmers are required to have in place appropriate protections for peatlands and wetlands. If that is the case, as 30% of our land is designated, and as most of it will be reclaimed peatland and wetland, farmers will not be able to put that in place and even get 70% of their payments. Will the Minister get GAEC changed from "appropriate protection" of peatlands and wetlands to "maintenance" of peatlands and wetlands? The Minister can answer me in writing.
I appreciate the contributions, which come from Deputies who represent rural constituencies and are aware of the endeavours farmers are making. They are also acutely aware of the fact sustainability is not a destination in itself but a journey. We might have thought we were sustainable ten years ago but we are more sustainable now than we were then, and I have no doubt that by 2030 we will be more sustainable than we are now. It is a question of bringing people with us on the journey. Not acknowledging the endeavours they have made to date is not a good starting point.
I am delighted to be here again this year to address the House during the annual transition statements and to focus on our actions on climate change and what we are doing to deal with decarbonising our economy, our country and our development, as well as setting this country on a strong footing for many years ahead. What the Government and the Dáil are involved in is the sustainable management of our country, economy, society and communities to ensure we are dealing with all the issues before us. One of the most important is climate change, climate action and adapting to that.
I am glad I had the chance today to listen to much of the debate earlier. This is my third or fourth year participating in these statements on behalf of my Department and the debate has changed a great deal over the last couple of years. One can see in the strength of the discussions today the recognition that this issue is important. Deputies on all sides have taken on much greater responsibility in trying to tackle this and to focus on the plans to see what we are doing, whether we are implementing them correctly, whether we are making progress and how can we update and add to the plans. I am glad to have that good policy debate today. As we are in the process of forming a new Government there will be a lot more change in this area with positive developments to come.
There was some criticism of the concept of having plans. To be clear, the idea that one must have climate action plans, housing plans, jobs plans and recovery plans from Covid-19 is that they are the business case to secure taxpayers' investment in strategy and in actions. This morning the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, discussed actions and implementing actions. It is important that we put those plans in place but also that we are prepared to change and add to them and implement new actions in them as we go along. That is number one. Number two, we must be prepared to scrutinise our plans. This is part of what we are doing today. We come here to have our plan scrutinised and to explain to Members, as Ministers in the Departments, what we are doing and what we hope to do. Members can scrutinise that and I am glad there are questions and answers on this today, unlike in other years. It is an important development. It is important that we monitor the plans, follow them and implement them action by action. I have seen the success of that approach with the Action Plan for Jobs a number of years ago, the housing action plan, the rural action plan and now the climate plan. It is important that we do that and follow it page by page, action by action and make the necessary change and adaptation while investing taxpayers' money wisely along the way.
Another part of the conversation is that as we try to tackle climate change and make changes some of the debate today referred to the fears for rural Ireland. I wish to make a point because I have often listened to the debate about planning, rural planning and one-off housing. Everybody here thinks one must have a one-off house to live in rural Ireland, but most people outside the House recognise that this is not the case. Yes, living in rural Ireland means living in a one-off house where it is suitable and right, or in a converted house or in an old cottage brought back into use, but it also means living in a rural village, be it on the edge of the village or on brown field sites in the middle of it or in streets that are left derelict for many years, or living in towns. To drive rural Ireland there must be a purpose or function to live there. One must be able to get a job locally and be able to work in the economy. One must be able to go to school. It involves education, health and so forth. It is not just about housing. Yes, rural housing is a very important part of it and we are focused on that and where appropriate it is fine.
However, when we discuss climate change in rural Ireland, our job is not to scare people. It should not be about that in this House. It should be to represent rural Ireland and to ensure that we protect all that is part of rural Ireland and bring people with us on that journey. As legislators we must ensure that the opportunities with climate change are shared by everybody so people in both rural and urban areas can benefit from them. There are many opportunities, but sometimes the debate in this House tries to scare people. That is unfair. That is not what climate action is about and it certainly is not in our plans. I am anxious to make that point. I listened to it a great deal during the national planning framework discussion and it arose in some of the debate today. That is not what we are trying to achieve here. It is an unfair portrayal of the Government's plans and, in fairness, of most parties' plans. Individuals never leave behind an opportunity to try to scare people, but that is not what we are doing at all.
Again, I am delighted to be here for this process. I re-affirm my Department's commitment to working collaboratively with colleagues across the Government so we can collectively and successfully deliver and implement critical climate mitigation and adaptation actions and measures. We have set ambitious plans for the decarbonisation of our built environment. These form an integral part of the climate action plan and we are driving a range of actions in planning, marine planning, housing and building regulations. Project Ireland 2040, which we launched in February 2018, is the overarching policy and planning framework for the social, economic and cultural development of Ireland. It includes a detailed capital investment plan for the period to 2027 - the €116 billion national development plan for taxpayers' money in support of a long-term transformational spatial strategy, which is the national planning framework. All Members of the House need to buy into that long-term planning and thinking. Most do. During the discussion on the national planning framework in the House the majority bought into it and accepted it. Of course, people want reviews and changes. That is fine. However, we must remember the concept of long-term planning across all Departments.
The lined and shared vision of the national planning framework, in tandem with the national development plan, is a joined-up planning and investment strategy focused on a series of shared national outcomes. Foremost among these is climate action, along with the national objective to transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient society by 2050. A policy which will assist in making that transition and meeting our climate obligations is woven throughout the national planning framework and the national development plan.
Shared outcomes, reflected in both documents, which are fundamentally supportive of climate action include compact growth, sustainable mobility, a sustainable management of water, waste and other environmental resources. These all include significant elements of policy that provide a strong platform for the development of measures and actions in response to climate change. The overall national planning framework strategy seeks to achieve a better balance of development between the regions, a greater focus on cities, supporting the rural fabric and targeting more compact growth in the development of settlements of all sizes, be that a village, a town or a city, from the largest city to the smallest village.
Wind energy guidelines came up in last year's and this year's discussion. The Department is undertaking a review of the 2006 wind energy development guidelines. Thankfully, since the last time we had this debate, we have had a public consultation. The review aims to address several key aspects including sound, noise, visual amenity, set-back distances, shadow flicker, community obligation and dividend, as well as grid connections. We are working through all the submissions to the public consultation process. Hopefully, we will be in a position to finalise those guidelines before the end of the year by making changes to section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000.
Solar guidelines and exemptions are often raised. Draft amendments proposed to the current planning exemptions have been substantially completed. Those changes did not go as quickly as I hoped. We have a number of exemptions ready, however. We have worked in conjunction with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, as well as other relevant stakeholders, to progress and finalise those outstanding matters. Once they are finalised, the Department will engage the legislative process, subject to Oireachtas approval, along with environmental report and considerations. The housing committee did much work when it came to exemptions and helped us fast-track some when they were of benefit to everybody.
Last year, I launched a public consultation on the national marine planning framework, which aims to give priority to key national policies in terms of renewable energy ambitions. The general scheme of the marine planning and development management Bill, which will provide the legal basis for the marine planning system, was published in December. It is currently under review with a view to publication later this year. Some Members wanted it to go to the relevant committee in January or February. Hopefully, we will get that back on track and get it through the Houses whenever we form a Government and get the committee system up and running.
Approximately 40% of total energy produced is used in the building sector. The energy performance of buildings directive sets ambitious goals for energy efficiency and renewables in buildings by requiring nearly zero energy building, NZEB, performance for new buildings from 31 December 2020. In addition, the directive also requires energy performance requirements for major renovations to existing buildings are completed to a cost optimal level, which is a B2 building energy rating or equivalent where feasible.
The implementation of the NZEB is a key action for the built environment and will contribute to Ireland's national low-carbon transition and mitigation plan. The legislation is now in place and will contribute to emissions reductions from new dwellings commencing from 1 November 2019. This legislation also effectively phases out the installation of oil boilers in new dwellings.
A new element of the revised energy performance of buildings directive is the provision of infrastructure for the charging of electric vehicles. Lack of recharging infrastructure is seen as a barrier to the take-up of electric vehicles in the EU. The revised directive has new provisions which aim to accelerate deployment. It is an issue that has been raised with me by many Members over the years. These regulations will require infrastructure to facilitate the future installation of electric vehicle charging points in all new dwellings with a car parking space within the site boundary. A public consultation regarding these draft regulations has taken place and it will be published later this year.
On social housing, local authorities are currently undertaking an ambitious programme of insulation retrofitting, with the support of the Department, on the least energy efficient social housing units. The programme has two phases. Phase 1 focuses on the lower cost improvements such as cavity wall and attic insulation. Phase 2 targets higher cost, deeper retrofit measures such as, for example, fabric upgrades and renewable energy resources including heat pumps etc. Since 2013, funding of €151 million has been provided to improve energy efficiency and comfort levels in over 72,000 local authority homes, benefiting those at risk of fuel poverty and making a significant contribution to Ireland's carbon emissions reduction targets for 2020.
I can discuss the retrofit programme during the question and answer session.
I am sharing time with Deputies Michael Moynihan, Jackie Cahill, Pádraig O'Sullivan and Jennifer Murnane O'Connor. I know these are statements and do not think answers are provided for. It is about six months since the Oireachtas had-----
The sooner we get the Dáil back to working as it should be, the better, because this process does not really work for anyone. That is no reflection on the Minister of State or on any colleagues. It is approximately six months since we previously had statements on transition and the climate action plan. It is fair to say that there has not been much progress in that time. Since then, with the Covid-19 emergency, the acute nature of our housing crisis has been further emphasised. How can we address the fundamentals of that crisis, which are that people do not have homes, be they public or private homes? How can we expedite the building and provision of homes while at the same time ensuring that we reduce the impact it has on our environment, that we do things better and that we use new practices? That is crucially important.
When engaging with stakeholders, we see that there will probably be less than 14,000 housing completions this year, which is well below the target set by the previous Government and what we actually need. We probably need to build between 35,000 and 40,000 private and public homes a year, and we will be more than 25,000 behind that target this year, mainly due to the Covid-19 emergency. We have to ensure that when we ramp up supply, we do it in a way that it is effective and sustainable, and delivers high quality, sustainable homes, both public and private. I believe that we can do that and that the new Government will have to do that. Housing design, modular construction and off-site construction can reduce the impact that the sector has and help us to meet our targets and the international commitments that we have given.
The Minister of State mentioned a couple of issues. We need to make sure that villages and regional towns in rural Ireland are properly serviced with wastewater treatment, schools and public transport, so that we can look at rejuvenating and regenerating them, and reducing the number of one-off houses across the country. Our villages and towns should become places where people want to live and we can bring life back into them. A significant part of that will be social housing provision on the land that the State, local authorities and State agencies own to deliver homes for people in those areas.
We also have to look at our current stock of approximately 130,000 social homes. The Minister of State mentioned the light retrofitting that has been happening, which is important in itself. Approximately 130,000 homes across the country require serious attention to improve their energy efficiency. Those savings and funds will come back to the State. We also have to look at our private housing stock. There are probably 500,000 homes across the country that need to be retrofitted over ten years. That is not an insignificant target and we have to have the resources available to do that. That also means looking at just transition, retraining people, new apprenticeships in this area and being bold about that. When we look at building 40,000 to 50,000 homes a year, and retrofitting 40,000 to 50,000 homes in a year, both public and private, we have to know where the workforce is to do that. That has to be a priority for the next Government if we are to achieve our climate action plan targets. The public is well ahead of the Oireachtas on that and wants to see these changes.
We need to be serious about community energy schemes. We are looking at renewable energy and the state of that has improved over the decade. We need to look at getting community buy-in and best practice across Europe and the world. We need to look at community energy schemes that generate energy within communities, creating lower costs for them, and at biomass, wind energy, solar energy and so on.
There is a lot of work to be done in this area and I hope and am certain that if a new programme for Government is agreed, this would be central to housing policy in that new Government to deliver sustainable homes in sustainable communities that help to meet our climate action targets.
I will be very brief because I want to be sure that my colleagues get time to contribute.
We have to look at what is there in rural communities. We have to look at the existing nucleus of the smaller villages and towns and we must enhance them. If the pandemic has taught us anything over the past three to four months, it is that. People have been working from home. The term "remote working" was used but it is smart working. They have been working from rural communities and the great enabler there is, of course, broadband. We must ensure that we provide for and consider strategically ensuring that people are accommodated and to enhance the communities that are already there. We have seen many people thanking God that they lived in rural communities during this pandemic, that is, they lived in places that are safe. We must take that message from the past number of weeks and agree that we have to look at another way. We have been looking at the national planning framework and all the rest of it. We must have a targeted look at all the villages and town throughout this country, where there are many vacant houses in rural communities that we could enhance and encourage. The policy must be clear and must be that we are about repopulating rural Ireland. It has to be about a social contract to make sure that people have the best quality of life. We have experience of that in our rural villages and towns where we have excellent educational facilities and some fantastic sporting facilities but we have to bend that into our strategic plan going forward. That will enable us in the climate change and all the other current debates but we cannot forget our rural communities.
While the retrofitting of homes has accelerated in recent years, there have been some hiccups along the way. Last year, for instance, hundreds of thousands of homeowners who had entered into contracts to have such work done were left in limbo as funding was withdrawn. Thankfully this was resolved and most of those homes are now completed.
As Deputy Darragh O'Brien has said, we have a very ambitious target set down of 500,000 homes to retrofit. This involves carrying out multiple energy-efficient measures such as wall and attic insulation, replacing windows and doors etc. The framework document published by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which forms the basis of the ongoing Government formation talks, lists it as a priority whereby the proposed Government will "Roll out an ambitious home energy retrofitting programme". It is vital that this commences at the earliest opportunity once the Government takes office. Applications must be open to the public as soon as possible. The providing companies must be made aware of the Government's intention in order that they can prepare and stock up on the materials that are not lost. As for apprenticeships, which were also referred to earlier, how many will be needed to do this work? The national apprenticeship centre is located in Thurles and places need to be provided there immediately in order that we will have the workforce that is needed when this work comes on track. In my constituency of Tipperary, the Energy Communities Tipperary Cooperative was doing excellent work on a shoestring budget. Therefore, achieving ambitious targets in this area will require good planning, speed and extensive funding.
As for planning and how it has an impact on the reduction of carbon emissions, planning guidelines must take into account the huge differences between high-density urban populations and smaller provincial towns. We cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach. For instance, it makes sense to have very high-density housing and apartment buildings in major urban centres but it makes no sense in towns across rural Ireland. Such towns need realistic density levels that match the profile of the town and are attractive for the market to build and affordable for families to buy. We also must have housing provided for those who want to live in the community where they were born and perhaps to commute by public transport to an urban centre for work. This surely makes sense as it would reduce the carbon footprint, would maintain the life of rural towns and would not herd the population into Dublin. There was a specific case this week where Iarnród Éireann took the daily 17:05 service from Heuston Station to Thurles off the timetable. Hundreds of people from mid-Tipperary are commuting daily to Dublin for work or if not daily, then two or three times per week. Their housing needs are provided where they are born in their own town or village.
They are using public transport, reducing their carbon footprint and not clogging the already congested city of Dublin, and then Iarnród Éireann decides to take away one of the daily trains. Surely this does not make sense in the current climate.
I have a number of queries and would appreciate if the Minister could revert to me.
First, I welcome a number of developments in the north side of Cork city in recent weeks. The Lord Mayor of Cork cut the ribbon this week on developments in Knocknaheeny, Blarney Street and Blackpool, and we have the potential development of the St. Kevin's Hospital site on the north side of the city for which the Land Development Agency, LDA, has started plans.
The main issue I want to raise is residential densities. I spent six years on Cork County Council and I never got my head around the fact that An Bord Pleanála can operate on a density of up to 50 units per hectare, whereas the local authority is usually restricted to between 30 and 35 units per hectare. Has a review of that requirement taken place in recent months? Could the next Government examine the matter? Whatever the merits of high or low density, consistency is needed as opposed to having two different approaches for local authority planners or having somebody who appeals a development to the board getting two different answers. I will give the example of one case in Little Island, where I am from. Cork County Council turned down a specific proposal for a housing development because the density was too high. Its decision was appealed to the board, which also refused the proposal on the basis that the density was too low. That disconnect needs to be reviewed.
We have major issues with wastewater in Cork county. Approximately 50% of the land designated and zoned for housing is not serviceable by proper wastewater treatment units. In one sense, we are doing great work in terms of development and local area plans, but that has not translated into funding for Irish Water to carry this development through.
My final point is on broadband, which Deputy Cahill just mentioned. Various villages are getting new developments. Courtbrack in Cork North-Central is one such example. It has a brand new estate of more than 100 houses. It is great that broadband has followed and that the estate is being serviced, but existing residents of the village do not have broadband even though they may live 20 m from a broadband connection point installed to service the new developments. There is a lack of joined-up thinking and a disconnect if broadband is being brought to a village and people who already live in it do not have access. They need to be thought of going forward.
The consequences of the coronavirus have been mixed. It is predicted there will be an 8% drop in global CO2 pollution in 2020, which is welcome, but locking people in their homes and closing down the economy is not an effective strategy to maintain this. I am concerned that the European Court of Auditors flagged that our better energy warmer homes scheme is not delivering significant energy savings for the money we are investing in it. When can we expect a report on the review of the projects for households renovated under this retrofit scheme between 2014 and 2018? Does the court's decision mean the scheme is in trouble? It has been valuable to many people, in particular those on lower incomes.
I was deeply concerned by a statement from the Construction Industry Federation that there may be an increase of between 10% and 15% in the cost of home build projects. We cannot allow affordability to be shelved or projects to be abandoned. While we intend to keep workers safe, are approved housing bodies, AHBs, and local authorities going to lose out because they will be priced out of projects? Are first-time buyers going to suffer? I would like an insight into how much more social housing will cost, both in time and money. Can we also commit to prioritising accessibility for those living with disabilities in our standards for private planning permission on developments and in local authority builds, as well as on local authority housing lists where people with disabilities, including mental health issues, must be given priority?
If we can expect to live with Covid-19 for a long time and face the possibility of further pandemics, should we review standards in homebuilding programmes in areas such as the layout of gardens and outdoor spaces? Can we look at the Danish concept of co-housing, which I have spoken about previously? It is defined as a type of collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their neighbourhoods.
That is very important.
The Minister of State spoke about local development plans. Local authorities are going to experience the largest cuts in revenue they have ever faced. There have been no rates or car parking charges and people cannot pay rents on housing. What are we going to do to ensure that we give local authorities proper capital funding? They cannot have cuts in their services, whether for the elderly or others, nor can they have cuts to staff. We cannot allow that to happen. Can the Minister commit that, in development plans in the future, there will be no cuts to any services?
I am sharing time with Deputies Gould, Ward and Paul Donnelly. I am taking six minutes of that time, three of which I will give to the Minister of State to answer questions, if that is okay with my colleagues. They will look after their own time.
I will ask three brief questions before I ask climate-related questions that are relevant to the Minister of State's Department. I am aware that either this week or next week, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, intends to bring to Cabinet a proposal to extend the ban on rent increases, notices to quit and evictions. Will the Minister of State confirm whether that will happen this week or next week? Renters and landlords are obviously keen to know when that decision will be made
There is also the broader issue of the rent arrears debt burden that is building. I note the Department has asked the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, to produce some research on this issue. Will the Minister of State tell us when that research is expected and, if he is still in government at that time, will he give a commitment to work with those of us in opposition on the crafting of those solutions?
I turn to the issues of mica in County Donegal, pyrite in County Mayo and latent defects more generally. My colleagues, Deputies Mac Lochlainn and Conway-Walsh, and I have twice written to the Minister of State seeking a meeting to discuss some issues related to those matters. Will he give a commitment to meet us?
On issues around energy efficiency, will the Minister of State give us an update on the monitoring of the near zero energy building, NZEB, regulations? The regulations are good but I am not clear as to who is to monitor them to ensure compliance. I would greatly appreciate any information the Minister of State has about that. There are guidelines to ensure the highest levels of energy efficiency in our local authority stock. There are some really good practices in our local authorities but is the Department actively considering going beyond NZEB to have, for example, passive plus or forms of design for social housing that treat embedded carbon as well?
Can the Minister of State give us an update on the regulations for offshore wind energy which the Government was working on before the election?
I thank the Deputy. If I miss some of the questions, I ask him to remind me what they are.
I am not sure if the proposals he mentioned about preventing increases in rent and evictions will go to Cabinet this week or next week but the intention is to go to Cabinet with them. There are protections there which were supported by everyone in the House.
We discussed legislation at the end of March and I committed to the Deputy that when we had the report from the ESRI on rent arrears, we would be involved in consultation. It remains to be seen who is in government or in opposition because we might all be in new positions by the time that report arrives. If I am in this position or the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is still in his position, we will discuss that matter and seek support for any changes that are needed. I have not seen the research yet but we will, of course, act on it when we get it. That is important and we committed to that.
On latent defects, I apologise to the Deputy. He asked twice for a meeting on the issue and there was a mix-up on my side and that of the Minister. I am happy to meet the Deputy. The timing of his request crossed over with guidelines that were about to be published. I felt there was no point in either me or the Minister meeting the Deputy and pretending that something was coming when it was not. It was best to wait until the guidelines were published, which happened seven or eight days ago. I am happy to meet the Deputy and go through those guidelines with him. Over time, we might need to tweak those guidelines because I know there are some issues around planning in Mayo and so on but I am happy to talk to the Deputy about that as well. The Deputy and his colleagues have engaged with me on that matter many times over the years.
I recognise the support of the House for that scheme because it is quite a commitment of taxpayers' money. It was originally to address the problem of pyrite in many houses and that has been successful - nearly 2,000 houses have been fixed over the past seven or eight years. Mica is an issue that is now relevant in Mayo and Donegal. This House supported addressing that through the last budget. We now have a process to address that. It is important that people have confidence in the system and know that if their house is fixed, it is fixed properly and is safe to live in. Naturally, it will take a couple of years to implement. No one is saying that every house will be fixed straight away but the commitment is there and that is the bottom line.
The Deputy also asked about the local authorities and who is monitoring the NZEB regulations. The local authorities and certifiers of sites are doing that through the building control measures. People in this House may disagree but most people internationally accept that the building control measures in this country are quite good.
I am not saying they were good years ago but they have been quite good in the last number of years. There is always room to improve on the number of people involved in that sector. The process is right. We have the shared service model now. There is no harm in adding more people to that as resources permit, to constantly monitor and increase that as well. The independent certifier process is a help also. That is the responsibility. Those regulations will probably have more of an impact for the years ahead because there was a transition period out to October or November this year. It is important that we do that as well.
The Deputy asked about local authorities and if we are going to add to NZEB again. We monitor the costs and benefits of this every couple of years. We believe at this stage that nearly every new house is at an A1 rating and a high standard has been set. Naturally we will review that. We are always looking for high quality design, implementation and construction with all local authority and social housing. I think we have achieved that. More directives are being worked on at European level around decarbonisation and we are part of a working group on that. That is the whole life cycle. We will look at that and it might bring more changes to the products used. On the retrofit programme, I heard commentary on the previous scheme. The new scheme is monitored and we do a BER check at the start and end of the process.
There was one more question so I will come back to the Deputy on that. I do not want to use up his colleagues' time. The marine regulations have to come through the committee.
When I was first elected to Cork City Council in 2009, I outlined in my maiden speech the housing crisis in Cork. During the meeting, I was verbally attacked by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors who said there was no housing crisis and that I was only grandstanding, creating panic and trying to grab headlines. History tells that I knew what I was talking about because Sinn Féin was on the ground talking to people. For 11 years, I have been putting forward proposals and recommendations calling on Cork City Council and the Government to have major housing builds. Back in 2011, I put forward a suggestion to build 800 houses on the Old Whitechurch Road site that Cork City Council owns. That was rejected by the then Minister, Phil Hogan, and the Department. Last October, it got final planning to go ahead, eight years after I and my Sinn Féin colleagues had put it forward.
Yesterday, there was some good news in Cork city with a number of housing developments. There was an announcement by the National Planning Agency to build 274 units on the St. Kevin's site of the old Our Lady's hospital. In 2013, I put that same motion forward and the Government failed to act. Later, the building was destroyed by a fire and may have to be knocked down because of the damage that was done. That was seven years ago. The most frustrating thing for me and my Sinn Féin colleagues in Cork, especially in Cork North-Central, has been that if Sinn Féin policies and proposals had been acted on at the time, the whole of Cork city would have no housing crisis.
I am dealing with families every day who are living in terrible conditions, in overcrowded accommodation, living with their parents and grandparents, three generations. In many cases, the mother is staying with her family with the children in a box room while her partner has to go to his family to live with them. They are asking me what we are going to do to solve the housing crisis. I am not talking about suggestions, plans or frameworks. I am talking about solutions to actually build houses now. There is so much I want to say about the housing crisis about real people who are really suffering day to day. They are asking us if we are going to deliver and help the people. I might be old fashioned but it is a simple solution. We have to build houses and we have to build them now. That is the only way to fix the housing crisis.
During the housing crisis, one of the most tragic sights we see is a vacant home. In my constituency of Dublin Mid-West numerous homes have been vacant for many years and the only reason they remain vacant is the failure of the Government's plan on housing and homelessness.
For example, on Station Road in Clondalkin, there is a ghost estate with six houses that were built in 2006, which have never been occupied. These homes, slap bang in the middle of Clondalkin, have remained vacant for 14 years, in the height of a housing crisis. It is an absolute scandal.
They are private houses. I tried to get South Dublin County Council to compulsorily purchase these houses when I was a member of the council but it did not have the authority to do so. Councils powers in this area need to be strengthened as well.
Across the country the effect vacant homes have on communities is clear. Vacant homes are a disgrace in themselves but they also attract problems, including vandalism, anti-social behaviour, and illegal dumping. I have seen how quiet, settled estates have become targets for activities, which upset the whole community because of the environment that policies have been created to not only allow homes to become vacant but also remain vacant.
Thousands of people are on the housing waiting list in Dublin Mid-West. Couples are trapped in high rents, families are living with parents, stuck in back bedrooms, and children are not living but merely existing in emergency accommodation. Bringing vacant homes into use will increase supply and provide homes for the people and families who are struggling in the current housing crisis.
It would be extremely beneficial from the perspective of climate change as much of the key infrastructure, such as roads, and water and energy utilities, is already in place. According to a response provided to my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, on foot of a parliamentary question, only 1,462 homes have been delivered through the three Government schemes to date. The Government's original target was 5,600. I am not satisfied with those figures, I doubt that the Minister of State is either nor are those adversely affected by the housing crisis. We need a commitment to an immediate time-limited review of the schemes with a view to setting ambitious targets for the return of vacant homes to use.
There has been much talk of massive investment in housing in my constituency of Dublin West. Some projects are proceeding on brownfield sites in Castleknock and Blanchardstown, which had one house on a large tract of land. These have been bought by developers with massive developments with perhaps 300 to 500 apartments being crammed onto the sites as SHDs. These are areas where schools and community facilities are already at capacity. Families moving into these apartments will have to look outside the community, in areas such as Ongar and Tyrrelstown, for school places. They will have to traverse Dublin 15 to get their children to school. This is not something that might happen; it has been happening for years. Greenfield sites in Ongar and Tyrrelstown are being developed on a massive scale. Poor planning and poor public transport means many people must use their cars, particularly around Tyrrelstown. How can we expect to hit climate change targets when we lack the investment in buses, safe cycle lanes, trains, schools, and community facilities where people live? Only two years ago, when I was a member of Fingal County Council along with one of my fellow Deputies, we spent inordinate time on the county development plan. It seems the Government either does not know it exists or has simply ignored the critical elements we put in place for proper planning and sustainable development. One element was that developments in villages would not exceed three storeys, which the Government overturned. SHDs were the other critical element. They have bypassed the local planning process. An example is a co-living development in Blanchardstown where a former pub will be turned into a co-living development for 240 people, with virtually no facilities around it. The facilities that are there are vastly over capacity.
In terms of climate change, it is key that we get the community involved. We need a real community development process that includes departmental co-ordination, co-ordination with the local authorities and with the community in terms of public transport, schools, community facilities, local shops, roads and infrastructure. We need the Minister of State to commit to ensuring that the voice of communities is heard and respected every step of the way. We need community development workers with professional backup to tackle the issue. When a strategic housing development, SHD, or other development comes up, we must ensure that communities are given the space and capacity to be able to deal with them. That is most important. No matter what Government is in place, if we are to tackle climate change it is critical that we bring the community along and the only way we will do that is if people feel they are part of the process.
Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for extending to me an opportunity that we all relish, that is, to speak on this particular issue that has engaged us over the past ten years with increasing frequency and severity in terms of the people who require housing. There is a simple way to deal with the issue. We are thinking of new ways and new descriptions to deal with it, but it is the old-fashioned ways that will solve the problem, that is, we build more houses. We must build houses as a matter of urgency to meet the requirements of the people who are on local authority housing lists or who are likely to become part of the local authority housing list.
Members should not forget that when I was a member of an all-party committee a few years ago I called for a greater emphasis on direct building by local authorities and a move away from the approved housing bodies as a means of solving the problem. That is still the way to solve the problem.
We need to build energy-efficient houses, but we need the houses first. The energy efficiency is important and it is important to incorporate energy efficiency in the building of the houses, but as a matter of urgency we need to change the situation of the person who does not have a home, who perhaps has a family of four or five living in a two-bedroomed apartment, or whatever the case may be, and who has been on a transfer list for four or five, and in some cases, ten years. That can be done by the next Government. It can be done in a number of ways. It can be done by means of the local authority loans system. Such loans are readily available to qualified applicants. We do not have to go around the country trying to find ways and means and loopholes to get through the haze and maze of the system. It can be done by means of private development sites. We had them in Kildare and in all other counties throughout the country and they were very effective and efficient especially in meeting the market of those on the local authority housing list who were in a position to fund their own home by getting a loan to do it. They did it very effectively and efficiently. As you know, a Cheann Comhairle, all over Kildare we had fine examples of that, and in other counties as well.
We can also do it by way of direct build, which is the point on which I started my contribution. We need about 37,000 houses in a year to tackle the market and to break the back of it once and for all. I am not being pejorative when I say it, but the next Government, whoever the Minister is, will have to face that reality. It is a tough one, but it means we will have to bring forward the requirement. Having a five-year plan, whereby at the end of it the people who are already waiting ten years are 15 years on the waiting list, will not work. We must do a simple thing, that is, bring forward the plan and deliver upfront. In the first year and a half or two years we must, in effect, deliver the majority of the requirement in what might become a five-year plan.
Like you, a Cheann Comhairle, I could speak for ages on this subject because it is above and beyond all others; it is the one single subject that takes up most of our time in constituency work. It used to take up approximately a quarter of the time but now it takes up approximately 75% of the time. That is an indication of the urgency and the need of the people who remain on housing lists.
I wish to give the Minister of State an opportunity to reply. There is also a group of people, which fall between those who qualify for a local authority house and those who have sufficient income to get a loan of their own, namely, those who are short of qualifying for a loan.
They have to be considered. The local authority has ways and means of doing that and did in the past by using various methods to ensure that the loan system was brought within their reach. All of these will be the challenge of the incoming Government and the incoming Minister. It will be a great opportunity for a successful breakthrough.
I compliment the work of the current Minister and Minister for State. I compliment them for doing everything that was possible in a very difficult situation. Unfortunately, the challenge is still there. Whoever is the Minister in the incoming Government, I hope that in the first week there will be a realisation that we have an emergency on our hands.
I will finish with one last point. House prices are far too high in this country. One of the things that is assessed in the determination of wealth is property prices. Of course, then we must have higher salaries and wages because half of the salary goes in the payment of the mortgage. Obviously, that will have an impact on the quality of life of those who live in the houses.
I could go on, as the Ceann Comhairle could as well, as I well know.
I thank Deputy Durkan for his positive comments on the progress made by the Government on housing developments and the importance of whoever is in the next Government to continue to build on that success over the past couple of years.
We all say there is no doubt there were not enough houses built in the past couple of years. That is what Deputy Durkan is saying. There are still not enough. There are still problems out there. I am glad the majority in here are committing to adding to the social housing stock. I totally agree with the Deputy that, whoever is in government, central to that delivery of housing are the local authorities. In most cases, they are in charge. They will have the funding to deliver whatever housing they want to. They have targets set for each individual county. Thankfully, Cork, which was referenced earlier on, is one of the leading counties in housing delivery over the past couple of years. There are major improvements there. Likewise, Kildare and many others have a lot of opportunity here. The resources are there for them to bring forward more housing and they are doing that. They will build on that and they are to do more of that.
I do not agree with Deputy Durkan about the housing bodies' role. I think the housing bodies have a very important role to supplement the delivery of local authorities. I understand the experience in Kildare was a lot of housing associations as well as the larger housing bodies over the years and it is a difference of opinion there. The housing bodies in the past couple of years have been doing a very good job bringing a supply of housing. They work with the local authorities. Local authorities are central to this. For years, it has been Deputy Durkan's point that they should be and they are. It should be direct build as much as possible where they can, but when it comes to vacant stock, they should get in there very early.
I do not agree with Deputy Ward that local authorities have not got the powers to compulsorily purchase order, CPO, properties. They might have told the Deputy they could not, they did not want to or whatever at the time. I agree with the Deputy that local authorities should step in if need be and ideally use the carrot. We have had schemes, that have been referenced here and criticised, that have not worked to their full potential but they were good schemes put forward to incentivise the providers to let us use their housing and bring vacant stock into use. They did not avail of them. We need to update the schemes, change the schemes and increase the use of CPO or other powers to bring vacant houses back into stock.
Deputy Durkan made the point about the importance of dealing with the different income levels. The Deputy is absolutely right. Naturally, the majority of phase 1 of Rebuilding Ireland, over the past three or four years, involved social housing. We are now at a stage where we are delivering over 10,000 social houses a year. We are committed as a party - I hope others here are too - to bring that to 12,000 social houses in the years ahead. Not every party is, by the way. On top of that, we need to have thousands of affordable houses which will deal with the next income bracket, which Deputy Durkan consistently raises here. Deputy Durkan is correct. I hope whoever is in government next will deal with that affordable housing and the different income levels which are not being addressed and at present are shut out of the market.
I agree with the Deputy that in some areas house prices are too dear. We would all like cheaper housing but there is a cost to building a house. What we need to achieve is to get the market price closer to the cost of building a house whatever part of the country it is and that is the point the Deputy is making. That gap in between in some places is too high. Certainly we know with all the quality of houses that are built now under the regulations we have and the NZEB regulations, there is a cost of a house and it is something more than what it was years ago. However, one is buying a better house in most cases. That is what we should encourage. We try to do that with our social housing stock - high quality design and high quality build. However, it has to be affordable to the market as well and that is what it is trying to do.
I thank Deputy Durkan for his recognition of the work but also his constant championing of the cause, here and everywhere else, to do more.
I challenge every Deputy, as I have on many occasions, to step up on this. Not every party's manifesto reflected the need to put more money into housing, both social and private. I hope we will get a Government of like-minded people that will drive on with new housing delivery.
Local authorities have to have money to build housing. Deputy Gould mentioned his wisdom in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and there is a man on our left with the same wisdom, about the need to build more houses. We all recognise the need to do it but, sadly, at that time there was no money to do it. I am sure that when Deputy Durkan put forward the suggestions to develop sites, he probably had solutions for the money required. I do not know whether he did.
Nevertheless, I do not disagree with the Deputy. We needed to build houses, as was recognised by many. On my first trip to Cork as a Minister of State with responsibility for housing, I looked at the same sites and asked the same question as the Deputy, namely, why not use that site and let us drive on with it? While Cork has made major progress, the money was not there. I wish it had been there in my early years as a Government Deputy and Minister of State in the period 2011 to 2015, inclusive, but it was not. As soon as it became available, in the period 2016 to 2020, inclusive, we put it into housing, with a massive multi-billion euro spend that delivered those houses. It is not enough, however, and we need more. Cork, Kildare, Meath and everywhere else have to step up and do even more. I am hopeful that in the years ahead, we can deal with this housing issue once and for all but it will mean spending money on houses. I fully agree with the Deputy that local authority housing is the key in that regard, as are vacant homes.
We have come very far since the Green Party sustainable energy legislation brought in standards for new builds through the Partel regulation, which has brought more people out of the fuel poverty trap than any other policy. We now have some of the best standards in the world for eliminating fossil fuel use to heat our domestic buildings, but the construction sector is still one of the highest emitters of CO2. While this carbon is embodied in construction materials, it is emitted through excavation, production, manufacture, transport and their end-of-life disposal. In the European context we are well behind the curve, as many countries have mandated their state bodies to procure materials using life-cycle assessment practices, where materials have environmental product declarations, EPDs, or environmental cost indicators, ECIs, which assist designers to procure buildings in a way that reduces embodied carbon. This is separate from NZEB carbon emissions.
This type of procurement practice is enshrined in the EU green public procurement directive, which was published in 2004. Since then, we have gone through two economic cycles, yet 16 years later we have not implemented this policy that is designed to reduce CO2 emissions. I have, gratefully, been briefed by the Department, which appears to be unaware of these sustainable procurement practices that are widespread in the EU and have the intention of reducing embodied carbon.
Will the Minister of State explain why the Department has been unable to implement the green public procurement policy 16 years after its inception, given the positive environmental, social and economic benefits it would bring?
I am glad we have a chance to discuss this matter again. We have had a few briefing sessions with our departmental officials on the matter, and the Deputy has probably had much discussion with Seán Armstrong, who is one of our leading people in this area. There is a commitment within the Department to work in this area. As the Deputy will know, we are involved in an EU working group, which is probably the key one dealing with embodied carbon in construction materials and the whole life-cycle cost of construction. We are not prepared to go ahead of the working group with the issue and we want to work with it on that because it affects construction products, the regulations around them and the availability of products and materials for sale in this country and at European level.
That is where we want to concentrate our work, working at European level and pushing the agenda to go far with it. We will be in a place to make changes to embodied carbon and construction material regulations in line with our European colleagues. While I do not know how long that will take, I believe that the working group is quite busy with the matter and meets regularly, so we should see a harmonised procedure to move on in this space over the next year or two, or perhaps even before that. The Deputy rightly recognised we have made many changes to the building regulations in recent years, as we discussed earlier, but we brought the sector with us on that journey. There has been much consultation to reach where we are today with NZEB, and it did not happen overnight.
It does have an impact on the cost of housing construction and all involved in the sector. We now need to invest a lot of money. A number of contributors referred to training and apprenticeships. There is a lot of potential associated with our new housing and planning regulations, the new NZEB targets and the retrofit program. We need to focus our resources on these to bring with us all those involved in the construction sector overall. It is not just a matter of having regulations but of developing the real culture behind them. The Deputy is coming from a perspective that acknowledges that we must think through the whole process and have everybody included. That comes with good regulations. Three or four Governments have been made many changes over the years at a reasonable pace, and we are prepared to make more in conjunction with our European colleagues when it comes to the products. I believe we are on the path on which the Deputy wants us. I am aware he has been involved in consultation, and I look forward to continuing the conversation with him whether we are in opposition or government, or working together or on opposite sides of the House. Most Deputies accept the changes we have to make when it comes to the built environment. That is what we have made progress on, with the support of all parties in this House, over recent years.
I will comment on the Minister of State's remarks. My understanding is that most countries in Europe are moving ahead while Ireland is for some reason stirring a pot with regard to embodied carbon in materials, particularly construction materials. The Dutch have been working on this since 2012. They have various standards and procurement processes in place that work to take out the embodied carbon. What I am hearing from the Department — I do not like saying this — is kind of spin. It looks like the Scandinavians, French and English are already on board and that there is a misconnect somewhere. When I mentioned environmental product declarations, EPDs, to the departmental officials, they did not know what I was talking about. My fear is that they are not even at this point yet.
I have a second question, on planning and climate action transition. This State has an horrendous legacy when it comes to the planning strategy on public transport and the welfare of commuters. During the 1940s and the 1950s, we virtually removed all rail links and completely removed trams from Dublin. However, one of the many tangible benefits of EU membership for many Irish people has been the EU Structural Fund. Unfortunately, since the 1990s we have continued to spend funding on road-building at the expense of public transport. Portugal has an economic status comparable to ours but it invested heavily in public transport and its network, both inner-city and intercity, is now far ahead of ours and it has underground and fast intercity connections.
Our current model does not serve society. Most people have to purchase cars to move from A to B in Ireland. They are then subject to all the expenses entailed by car ownership, which leads to lower quality of life. Even in our capital, not to mention our commuter counties, the public transport network is not fit for purpose. People face long commutes within the city. It can take an hour and a half, or sometimes two hours, to move within the city. Last year, the members of the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly, of which I was a member, made policy to provide for sustainable public transport. This policy included opening the Navan rail line and extending the airport metro to the south-west quadrant of the city. Unfortunately, unelected decision makers seem to have forced the Minister to repeal this democratic process. Does the Minister of State believe it is appropriate that elected public representatives at regional assembly level should have sustainable planning policies overturned by unelected officials?
Spin Féin. Very often people refer to spin but when one is in government and answering parliamentary questions or other questions here, one cannot engage in spin. The Opposition can get away with it but the Government actually cannot. For Deputy Duffy to say officials are engaged in spin is wrong. He has been at meetings with the officials.
To be clear, at EU level, a framework has been put in place under the construction products regulation to consider the impacts on the wider environment during the whole life cycle of a construction product.
The Deputy wishes to use different terminology but that is what it is about. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is participating in that European Union working group for the development of this framework and the European Union stakeholder consultation is currently taking place. Ireland will be obliged to follow this harmonised procedure regarding technical specifications for construction products when a consensus of approach emerges. We are all at one from a European perspective. In that regard it would be counter to harmonisation to develop national rules for matters covered by the international market regulation. We are involved in trade with all our European partners as well. I am being clear on that. There is no spin.
They understand it and know it very well. In conversations the Deputy might want to speak about something different but these people know what they are talking about. It is not fair to the reputation of those people for the Deputy to have said what he did. I wanted to correct that.
We all recognise the importance of investment in public transport and overall planning. The national planning framework and the ten-year investment going with the first half of that has a 2:1 split in terms of spend on public transport versus roads. Everybody agrees that where it is at all possible, it is better to have public transport and invest in that in order that people can have the choice to use it. In some places it is not a choice just yet, although it will be if we have proper planning and densification models over the country, with future population growth being dispersed in a proper and clever way so as to make it viable to provide more public transport. That is being done and it is in the plan, which I support.
What happened with the Navan rail line is often misrepresented but I work in that Department and it came across my desk, along with that of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. We have not at all prevented the Navan rail line going ahead; it is something I want and I have campaigned about it for the past 20 years. The wording in the regional plan was not right and was out of sync with proper planning and development processes.
I am sorry for taking up time but this is important. The current study did not recommend the rail line going ahead, although I would have liked it to do so. I hope the new one will recommend a Navan rail line and then the wording can be changed in the regional plan. The wording was wrong and members knew that. They were being a little clever.
I could not let the opportunity pass without putting on record my praise for Deputy Durkan and his very impressive contribution. I can only imagine now that he has gone to the Minister to tell him about his Pauline conversion to investment in social housing and all the great things we can expect to see over the next period. I say this with the greatest of respect to Deputy Durkan, as his was a very impressive contribution.
Energy efficiency measures in the built environment are what might be termed low-hanging fruit in reaching our stated European Union emissions targets. The Minister of State knows the built environment accounted for 12.7% of Ireland's greenhouse gases in 2017 and retrofitting our domestic housing stock will be a fundamental part of building a new and sustainable economy. Even if every new building constructed from now was carbon-neutral, Ireland would still fall short of the emission reduction targets unless the existing building stock was upgraded comprehensively. Specifically, it is estimated that 70% of current buildings, many of which were built before the introduction of regulations relating to energy efficiency, will still be in use in 2050.
Currently, the average Irish dwelling emits 104% of the EU 27 averages, mainly as a consequence of reliance on more carbon-intensive fuels. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, such emissions from homes were projected to increase by 14% over the 2018-20 period under the "existing measures scenario". This, however, may increase further due to Covid-19 and the increased number of people staying at home for longer periods. As it stands, over 80% of Irish homes and other buildings have a building energy rating of C or worse, and under the stated transition plan these will need to be brought to a B rating or cost-optimal equivalent. In short, we will need a massive State-led retrofitting programme over the next decade, as the House would acknowledge, to get our emissions from the built environment down to more sustainable levels.
The Government's own climate action plan has set a target of 500,000 retrofits by 2030, which is an average of 50,000 per year, with most backdated to the second half of the decade. However, with all due respect, we know the Minister of State's party has a habit of missing and revising targets, and this target does not go nearly fast or far enough. For example, the cross-party climate action report signed up to by the Minister of State's party suggested increasing retrofitting to 75,000 buildings per annum.
The Climate Change Advisory Council recommends that 100,000 homes per year should be retrofitted, a target that we ensured was contained in my party's recent general election manifesto. Does the Minister of State have plans to revise the current target upwards? Would he expect to see that target being revised upwards in any new programme for Government that may emerge?
The quality of retrofits and the delivery model is just as important as the quantity. In this regard, I ask the Minister for his response to the recent EU Court of Auditors report referred to by Deputy Murnane O'Connor which was highly critical of the Government for failing to target EU funds towards projects that are "most likely to realise energy savings". The report specifically singled out the Better Energy Warmer Homes scheme in the Irish case, as referred to earlier, stating that energy ratings did not improve in more than half of the households renovated by that scheme in 2017. That is a troubling indictment of the Government's capacity to deliver the required retrofitting programme but it is hardly surprising given the track record and the piecemeal approach that puts the reliance almost entirely on the private market which fails to deliver either cost or energy efficiencies. In contrast, in our manifesto, my party committed to rolling out a public retrofitting scheme to all local authority housing as was advised by the chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council. Through this street-by-street approach, homeowners could avail of subsidised home insulation while local building contractors would be able to benefit from the efficiencies of scale in terms of price and delivery. Given the EU Court of Auditors findings, will the Minister reconsider, and does he expect the next Government, to reconsider the current delivery model?
Regarding funding, the transition statement states, "The revenues from the increased carbon price will also be used to help to achieve the aggregation of retrofit works called for in the Climate Action Plan." On that issue, I bring to the Minister of State's attention a public consultation of which he will be aware that carried out last year by the Department of Finance on the issue of how to utilise carbon tax revenues. As he may be aware, the consultation process found that, "The predominant view ... is that the additional carbon tax revenues should be ring-fenced for the purposes of enhancing the current SEAI grant scheme for household energy efficiency improvements ...", while the option of returning the proceeds by way of dividend as initially proposed by Fine Gael, and the Green Party, received a negative response overall. Can the Minister confirm if he expects the next programme for Government to commit to ring-fencing revenues raised from carbon taxation for the retrofitting of homes, as my party has proposed, or will he revert to the dividend model as initially promoted by some parties in this House but on which some of them now appear to be back-tracking?
Finally, as John FitzGerald has stated, there is an urgent need to increase the capacity to deliver the necessary retrofit programme without it impacting on the delivery of increased numbers of houses. As stated earlier, this Government has overseen a national housing crisis and, consequently, building affordable and more public homes has to remain a top priority for the next Government. The elephant in the room, however, is the chronic labour shortages in the construction sector which have driven up costs and delayed the speed of delivery of housing and retrofitting projects. According to the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, and PwC Ireland construction and market monitor for 2019, 80% of survey respondents reported shortages of plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers and surveyors while more than 60% cannot get enough electricians and civil engineers. In 2019 alone, more than 40% of Engineers Ireland's new members came from abroad, something that has been described as unsustainable by the director general of Engineers Ireland, and even more so now in the context of Covid-19 and all that flows from that.
There are also an insufficient number of apprentices coming on-stream. I know that is an area in which the Minister is particularly interested, as I am also. For example, only 30 people registered for apprenticeships as plasterers in 2017, and I do not believe the situation has improved much since then. That is in part due to the uncertain career opportunities provided by our current apprenticeship model as well as the low pay which prevails.
Covid-19 has presented us with an opportunity - to use the unfortunate phrase - to kill two birds with one stone and go some way towards solving our unemployment, housing and climate crises in one strategic swoop. I have repeatedly called for a new deal for a new generation as part of our Covid-19 economic recovery plan. That would, could and should include State-backed training and employment in climate apprenticeships to deliver a just transition to a new sustainable society.
More than 100,000 new, long-term, local jobs could be created as part of a large-scale, State-led retrofitting programme and zero-emissions home building programme. As a State, we should have this kind of ambition. It is the kind of ambition our young people expect to see from this House. Has the Minister of State held any discussions with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection or Minister for Education and Skills with regard to the shortage of construction workers and how Government intends to address this shortage?
There were four main questions. I will give the Deputy a short answer; we can talk about it further afterwards. There is approximately €3 billion set aside to reach the retrofitting targets set out in the national development plan. The climate plan aims to retrofit a minimum of 500,000 houses with that funding. This includes social and private housing. As to whether that will be revisited, I am sure any future Government will revise that target. It certainly should add to it if it possibly can. Again, that was a ten-year target rather than a 20-year target, but there is real money committed to it. It needs to be implemented because if offers a major chance to deliver success in this area.
With regard to the recent report of the European Court of Auditors on the better energy warmer homes scheme, that scheme is not fully under the aegis of my Department. We are involved in it to a degree but we are not in charge of it. With regard to our part, we implemented changes more than a year ago. The report was only published in the last month but a lot of the auditing work was done more than a year ago. We made changes at that point so the scheme already works much better. Naturally, we will make more changes to it if we can but I confirm that the delivery model has already changed.
On the use of carbon taxes, all parties had different view on this in their manifestos. I am sure that whatever programme for Government comes forward will address the issue. I will not speak to the programme for a Government that has not yet been formed. We will see changes in that respect as well.
With regard to the Deputy's last question, he knows that I have been greatly involved in the area of apprenticeships. We should be thankful that we are now seeing a major increase in the number of people taking up apprenticeships. The figure has increased by thousands every year for a number of years so our plans are working but we need to add to that. We are also trying to progress the suggestion the Deputy put forward.
On the Minister of State's comment that houses were not being built because money simply was not there, the biggest financial constraint on government, local government and approved housing bodies was the EU's fiscal rules. These are really a matter of ideology. People have been denied a home so that we can stay in line with those rules. The human and societal costs do not justify compliance with those rules which, after all, have been broken by other European countries. They should be broken to supply people with social and affordable housing.
With regard to the Minister of State's comments on the investment made in fixing problems with pyrite and mica, we should look to the tax write-off available to landlords who repair latent defects and fire safety defects. It is very unfair that individuals who own homes with latent defects or fire safety defects which are not related to pyrite or mica do not receive any assistance. As a matter of justice, that must be addressed.
I have three questions. With regard to retrofitting and the report of the European Court of Auditors, when will the data for the other years be released? It is a very serious matter that the report found that 52% of homes did not achieve a better building energy rating, BER, as a result of participation in the scheme. It is also very serious that it found that money coming from the European Union simply replaced Government expenditure rather than leading to increased expenditure. What are the Minister of State's views on that? Will he indicate the number of retrofits carried out in 2019?
I have a figure for 2019. From memory, I believe it was greater than 4,000 in respect of local authority houses. I do not have the figures for the scheme overall as it is operated by a different Department. From the point of view of social housing, I believe it was greater than 4,000 but I stand to be corrected. I will get the exact figure for the Deputy; I have it somewhere in my notes.
The court's biggest criticism of the scheme is that no BER was calculated before work started. It seems obvious that this should have been done. That was rightly changed more than a year ago. For the past 12 months, we have been able to monitor whether the retrofits under the scheme have been successful. The purpose of the scheme was to make people's homes more comfortable and more affordable to run from an energy point of view, as well as achieving a higher BER for homes and making them healthier places to live. There is more than one way to assess its success. It was also based on low-cost interventions. Phase 2 will involve a much greater spend.
The average cost of the early stage of that scheme from 2013 to 2017 or 2018 was approximately €3,200 per house so it was not going to have a massive impact on anybody's house. It involved small, low-cost improvements. The second phase is a greater investment of over €22,000 or €23,000 in most cases, which should have a much greater impact. There is a guaranteed BER rating taken at the start and at the end to show the progress. In some work there is a difficulty with that, often involving a delay, but we are clear in the voids programme over the last couple of years that a BER rating must be included for before and after to be able to monitor the work, the progress and so forth. We have made the changes that the audit is seeking. They are in place already. However, as I said, improvements can always be made.
The Deputy referred to the EU fiscal rules. There are EU fiscal rules that constrained what the country could spend overall and also our ability to borrow. In fairness, I tried to make a point earlier but I was short of time. When we took office in 2011 we were unable to borrow. Nobody would give us any money. We must remember that. The figures then showed we were over €20 billion overdrawn each year so there had to be major structural reform of our public finances, which was achieved. The benefits of that can be seen now. We are now in a position to borrow a large amount of money to invest in the recovery due to Covid-19 this year, next year and the year after that. The Deputy is saying that we should have had money in the years from 2011 to 2014, but nobody had money and nobody would give us any money. When we could get our hands on it, fiscal rules or not, we spent the money on housing in a sustainable way. Now we must build on that and add more to it.
The investment that has gone into the retrofitting of social housing is very welcome. However, with regard to social housing under construction in building sites at present, how many houses being built are being connected to fossil fuel supplies for home heating? What is the percentage of social housing? What will be the future cost of retrofitting homes under construction now that are being connected to fossil fuels which we will have to replace with heat pumps? Why are there building sites active now where we are connecting to fossil fuel supply for home heating in our social housing stock? Why is that happening now? I have a final question after this.
It is happening in very rare cases, to be honest. The majority of housing we are building now has an A2 rating and it would be hard to achieve the A2 rating with an over-reliance on fossil fuels. The majority are not relying on fossil fuels and we are certainly discouraging it for the future. The statistics show in general that 45% of housing is now using heat pumps compared to 4% a couple of years ago. There has been a major change because of our regulations. Local authority housing is being built. It is funny that Members continue to say we are not building local authority housing, yet they ask questions about how many houses have that. There is proof that they are being built and they have a very high rating, and rightly so. We were committed to that. With the new regulations that came into force in November 2019, which will kick in from this year or next year onwards, one will not see any fossil fuels because it might not be possible to reach that standard with fossil fuels.
I have been talking to builders who are on sites now constructing social housing and it is being connected to gas supply and fossil fuels. I do not see how that makes sense. Ten or 15 years hence, we could be retrofitting social houses that are being built now to install heat pumps. At this stage we should not be building any social housing that is connected to those types of fossil fuel home heating.
My final question relates to the national planning framework which is in the climate action statement. There is a clear need for much more compact growth and using brownfield sites. The target in the national planning framework is for 50% of overall growth in housing by 2040 to be in our five cities. A key lever in dealing with brownfield sites and vacant sites is the vacant sites levy, so my question is about that. Just over half of local authorities have a vacant sites register with valuations. It is 17 out of 31 of the local authorities. That is most unsatisfactory. There is also the fact that only four local authorities have collected vacant sites levies totalling slightly less than €1 million. Is the Minister of State satisfied with the rate of collection of vacant sites levies? Does he agree that we must have much stronger legislation on vacant sites and that we could also provide supports at national level with teeth or legal back-up to support local authorities in their collection? Would the Minister of State like the legislation in that area to be revised and strengthened?
First, I wish to correct the answer I gave earlier about the number of social housing units. It was almost 4,500 in 2018.
It was 4,453 at a cost of €13 million. In 2019, it was 3,763. The 2020 figures are much less as one would expect but hopefully they will get much better before the year is out. The figures for 2017 were 5,400. There has been a fair bit of improvement. The number of units were much higher in the early phase of the scheme back in 2014. It has got better with a greater spend and is more successful.
If we are going to achieve our targets in sustainable development, climate change, provision of public transport and many other services, we need to have compact growth. Our target is to achieve 40% growth in all areas on brownfield sites and 50% in all cities and large towns. It is a good target but it means difficult choices. The Deputy referred to the difficulty with the strategic housing development process. I do not agree with him that it eliminates local planning authorities. The result is a higher density of housing in many areas. If we are going to achieve compact growth, it will involve, regardless of the planning process to get there, a higher density of housing required on brownfield sites. That is very difficult when trying to implement that in existing communities.
I agree there needs to be much more conversations and work with existing communities as to how one matches these two together. The best way is probably through the provision of extra services and benefits. Essentially, with more brownfield sites developed, one will bring forward more benefits such as community services and facilities. That is a conversation we will need to have. If we are to achieve targets, it means different types of developments. It can be difficult on the edge of cities with low density development. This has to be balanced.
I do not believe the vacant site levy is the No. 1 tool to drive compact growth. It was in place. We made changes to it in the planning legislation two years ago which increased the rate of the levy. I would not judge it just on its collection rate. Very often the conversation around a vacant levy about to be imposed generates work on a site and gets things moving. It is meant to be a tool to get people moving on a site, regardless of density or what is built on it, to get activity. In many cases, it has done that. In others, it has not. I agree local authorities need to update the register. However, it is not meant to be the tool to achieve compact growth. It is part of a toolbox. There are other tools which we could use better in terms of working with people who own the land to put it into use, provided we agree with the plans.
While this is primarily about the climate transition we need to make, given that the Minister of State is here, I want to raise one urgent issue. It would be good to get his response to it.
Threshold is the latest group today to appeal to the Government to extend the eviction ban for a number of months. I argue it should be extended for the foreseeable future. Some of us have been saying the eviction ban should remain in place until we address the housing emergency. Will the Minister of State say anything about not allowing that eviction ban to expire at the end of this month? As Threshold pointed out, a point which many of us have made over the past number of weeks, people on reduced incomes or who have lost their jobs have built up rent arrears. Others affected include those on housing assistance payment who might have not been able to manage top-up payments or those who are just being threatened by vulture funds with eviction for spurious reasons because the Government failed to close loopholes which allow them to do this.
For all of those reasons, and after everything people have gone through, we do not need a slew of evictions coming down the track after the eviction ban is lifted at the end of this month. The Government should give that certainty in order that people do not stumble from one extremely difficult situation in terms of a public health emergency into another one, that of facing eviction.
I will mention an example that I have cited here before of how nothing really happens. The Government was accusing other people of spin. I was not joking when I said the party's real title should be "Spin Gael". For the past three years, I have raised the case of one block of apartments in Dún Laoghaire where there have been four successive attempts by vulture funds to evict people on spurious grounds.
Half of that block has been sitting empty for two years because the landlord sees it as more beneficial for its agenda to leave apartments sitting empty while people desperately need them. People are facing eviction if the Minister of State does not extend that no-eviction clause immediately. Their case is with the Residential Tenancies Board. It has happened through no fault of their own and there are many like them. The Minister of State should step in and stop those evictions. In my mind, he should take over that whole block using a compulsory purchase order in order that those people are safe and the ten units that have been sitting there, outrageously empty, for two years could be used by desperate people on the housing list.
As a by-the-way response to the Minister of State's comments about the Government's success with housing, the facts are pretty awful. The latest figures in Rebuilding Ireland about housing directly built by local authorities show that the Government built less in 2019 than in 2018. Local authority housing output is getting worse. The State built 1,238 houses in 2018 and only 1,088 in 2019, but in Dublin the situation is worse. In 2018, the four Dublin counties built 634 council houses, a pathetic number in and of itself. In 2019, that fell to 228. In Dún Laoghaire, the number went from 120 in 2018, for a housing list of 5,000, to 17 in 2019 for that housing list. I will tell the Minister of State a little secret: fewer than 17 will be built next year. It is getting worse, not better. This is relevant to whether we can take seriously the Government talk about doing something about the climate emergency and about a 7% annual emissions reduction target. The Government produces plans and there are many promises and a lot of spin, but we do not see the delivery, as is the case with local authority housing. I do not see how the Green Party can imagine for one second that it will get a 7% annual emissions reduction with the approach the Government has, which is not serious at any level. I will not list everything, although there are such facts as the Government wanting to expand the herd, to continue with the liquefied natural gas plant, to kowtow to the fossil fuel industry about the fossil fuel ban and so on.
In the area of housing, it is blatantly obvious that the market cannot deliver. If there is one thing that the Government should have learned from the pandemic, since it was forced to learn this, it is that when the market has to shut down and the State intervenes, it is capable of doing so. The Government does not pass off responsibility but does it itself. That is what is needed if we are to retrofit the housing stock in this country. The State has to do it by establishing a State construction company, marshalling the resources and having a planned approach to at least 100,000 retrofits a year. Even though the Government says we are only the party of protest, we have, along with the Government in fairness, though ours is much more ambitious, gone to the trouble of having a costed retrofit programme for the next ten years in our manifesto. It is expensive but it will save us significant fines and emissions, and it will improve the quality of housing for hundreds of thousands of our citizens who are, in many cases, in chronically damp, poorly insulated homes where their quality of life suffers as a result. It does not surprise me that we have such high asthma rates in this country when one considers that 86% of people live in houses that have a building energy rating of C or worse. Most are much worse than that.
We are not even touching the problem because we are essentially leaving it to the market, rather than the State doing it. Now is the time to change approach because there are sadly now hundreds of thousands of young people without jobs, possibly for the foreseeable future.
If we really went out to recruit apprentices and tradespeople to a State construction company where they were paid decently and were guaranteed that they would have security of employment, the Government would actually get them into the construction sector to retrofit the houses at the scale we need to do. The State, however, would have to give that certainty to people. Why does the Minister of State think half the people that were in construction ten years ago left? It was because the boom slump caused by the private market dumped them on the scrapheap, and they said "I am never going back to construction". That is what happens in this industry because of the way the Government ran it.
It is. If we had a State company giving guaranteed, quality employment, recruiting apprentices and so on, we could do the scale of retrofit programme that we need to do. The other point is the pay-as-you-save scheme. As the Government has been talking about it for years, why the hell do we not have it? I simply do not understand. We should give people €30,000 or €40,000 in grants, interest free, at no cost in terms of extra payments. We should just make them repay it through the savings they get when their house is insulated.
I will try to answer the Deputy's questions as quickly as I possibly can. On the last point, I totally agree with a pay-as-you-save scheme for the retrofits. That could be run by the State or some energy companies offer the same thing as well. A retrofit target task force has been set up across all the different Departments looking at how best we use the allocation of €3 billion over the next number of years to deal with this. Hopefully they will report quite soon, and the next Government, whoever may be in it, can make the decisions about how best to do that as well.
Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to apprenticeships and changes there. Thankfully, a number of years ago we made major changes around the whole apprenticeship model and the offer of apprenticeships. We have seen a massive uptake of apprenticeships across many different sectors, along with nearly 40 new types of apprenticeships. There is a major opportunity there to convert people over, upskill them, have skills conversion and so on, to be able to tackle housing retrofitting. Regardless of whether it is State or private, it can be done. I totally agree with the Deputy on that as well.
To be honest with the Deputy, I do not do spin here because we cannot. If I sit here, I have to speak on behalf of my Department and it is all on the Official Report of the Dáil, so I do not do spin. I do not like it when Deputy Boyd Barrett constantly says that but he will keep doing it and I will keep defending against it. Factually, however, whether he likes it or not, it is proven that there are over 10,000 new social houses in the system this year. The Deputy is obsessed with one form of delivery, one form of build. My obsession is with getting people family homes. I am not obsessed with who builds them but with getting them. Since we started Rebuilding Ireland over 100,000 families are now in homes that they would not be in if we were doing Deputy Boyd Barrett's schemes because that many would not have been built. The Deputy keeps saying he does not want HAP and the private sector but he has never given me a solution for the more than 40,000 families that are HAP houses today. Where would they go tomorrow under Deputy Boyd Barrett's scheme if those private houses are not used in the short term, while more houses are being built?
The one question that Deputy Boyd-Barrett asked me to agree with related to the extra protections that were given during the Covid-19 emergency under the legislation brought in here in March that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, prepared and brought through the Houses here on evictions, rent increases and so on. The current arrangement can end in June, the Minister will deal with it at Cabinet either this week or next. Under the legislation that was passed here in March, which I think the Deputy opposed, those protections can be extended until the end of November. That decision can be made quite soon and he is right that people want to hear what is happening. In addition to dealing with the potential backlog of arrears, research is being done on that as well and we will react to that when we can.
I have a question for the Minister of State that will require a one-syllable answer. The issue of minimum density at the edge of town and greenfield sites has caused significant problems outside of the M50 concerning the supply of housing. The imposition of such densities necessitates the construction of apartments at locations where they are just not viable. The application of these densities by An Bord Pleanála is unlawful and it undermines the statutory standing of every county development plan, as no specific minimums have been set out in the specific planning policy requirement, SPPR, or in the ministerial guidelines. I tabled a parliamentary question with the Minister of State in early May and the response I received was confusing to say the least. I put it to the Minister of State the SPPR that is relied an by An Bord Pleanála in applying such minimum densities is the SPPR 4 of the building height guidelines. I will quote the relevant extract: "the minimum densities for such locations set out in the Guidelines issued by the Minister under Section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 (as amended), titled 'Residential Development in Urban Areas (2007)' or any amending or replacement Guidelines". I have said guidelines here also.
The section clearly relies on paragraph 5(11) of the Guidelines on Sustainable Residential Development in Urban Areas (2009). The relevant section from those guidelines states:
the general range of 35-50 dwellings per hectare and such densities (involving a variety of housing types where possible) should be encouraged generally. Development at net densities less than 30 dwellings per hectare should generally be discouraged.
It is clear that no specific minimums have been provided in either the specific planning policy requirements, SPPR, or the guidelines of 2009, so the Minister will appreciate how I was totally confused when I received his response to the parliamentary question raised wherein he confirmed that achieving densities of at least 35 dwellings per hectare is essential in catering for the more diverse range of households. It seems that the Minister is inferring in his response that the minimum is 35 dwellings per hectare, but neither the SPPR nor the guidelines make any reference to such a minimum.
Can the Minister confirm to the House that there is no such minimum provided in the guidelines for outer urban green field sites? It is a "Yes" or "No" answer.
I am trying to give the Deputy the answer. She took four minutes to ask the question and now she wants me to answer "Yes" or "No" in ten seconds. She is not going to get that. Planning is about interpretation of the planning laws and making a decision site by site. To achieve-----
I am going to be clear on this. The guidelines that are set often lead people to be concerned about sites. I want to be clear that high density does not mean high-rise, and that is what people keep saying. I am not saying there has to be a high-rise in every set.
I want to address it again, because the Minister may have misunderstood the question. The clarity that is required is that An Bord Pleanála is setting down a minimum that does not exist in the SPPR or the guidelines. Can the Minister tell the House whether or not there is a minimum, and where it is?
The Minister told the House there is no minimum and on foot of that clarification I am asking him to write immediately to An Bord Pleanála and ask it to desist from imposing minimum densities on strategic housing applications, because it is unlawful.
There are plenty of decisions in front of An Bord Pleanála at this moment. Neither I, as Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, nor the Minister, Deputy Murphy, dictate to An Bord Pleanála how to judge every individual site. Likewise, we do not do it to local authorities. There are guidelines set out to achieve the best planning outcomes and that is what their job is to do.
The Minister of State can do that, because it is An Bord Pleanála that is relying on specific planning policy requirements, SPPR. We do not need schizophrenic legislation. The Minister of State has said that there is no minimum density requirement and if that is so, and An Bord Pleanála is applying such a requirement, it is completely usurping the authority of the county development plan. It cannot do that because it is not contained in any part of the documents that were provided to me. Is the Minister of State refusing to direct An Bord Pleanála on the basis that we do not have a minimum requirement?
These are not individual matters. All matters are being decided based on something that is not contained in the regulations. The Minister of State has stated that there is no minimum density. An Bord Pleanála decided as recently as last month to dictate minimum densities pursuant to the Government's SPPR. If the Minister of State is telling the House that there is no such minimum requirement, it is beholden on him to write to An Bord Pleanála and point that out.
I will be clear again. We do not, and cannot by law, dictate to An Bord Pleanála or any local authority, whether in Wexford, Meath, Galway or Cork, what to do on any individual site. I could not have been clearer when I said that a moment ago.
-----that An Bord Pleanála is well versed as to what the guidelines are, as are local authorities. Our national plan has been set out to select targets, aims and aspirations. The Deputy must appreciate that I cannot direct An Bord Pleanála to achieve particular outcome on any site.
The Deputy should let me finish what I am saying. We engage with An Bord Pleanála and all planning authorities around guidelines, aims and aspirations which are in the national planning framework and the various guidelines that are being updated. Those are guidelines. I want to be clear about this. An Bord Pleanála knows what those guidelines are but if the Deputy wants me to write to the board again and go through all the guidelines and targets, I will do that, but I think it knows them quite well. I am happy to do it.
One of the key areas of contention in the move to strike a proportionate balance in the just transition and decarbonisation process relates to planning. As the Minister of State is aware, the High Court action taken by Friends of the Irish Environment and the appalling delays in issuing planning judgments by An Bord Pleanála have contributed to bringing about chronic levels of uncertainty for many workers and contractors involved in peat harvesting. These workers are not just in Bord na Móna and the ESB; they are also in parts of the horticultural sector. The just transition commissioner, Mr. Kieran Mulvey, notes that, in effect, the decision terminated the usage of peat for the generation of electricity and had the domino effect of effectively closing down the harvesting of bogs over a wide area of several midland counties, including parts of Roscommon and east Galway.
I have already called for the next Government to commit to introducing legislation that would exempt peat operators from requiring planning permission when extracting peat from sites in excess of 30 ha. Bord na Móna has also made it very clear that urgent legislative changes are required if we are to avoid an annual repetition of the tiresome and delaying processes of the kind that workers and the company have just been through with An Bord Pleanála, which in my mind is a law unto itself.
The Minister of State is aware that such exemptions in the form of statutory instruments were put in place by him and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment in January 2019, before they were struck down by the courts. I still think that is something that needs to be revisited and reintroduced in much stronger terms. Mr. Mulvey also noted in the first report recently that if the just transition funds or projects for the region are to be used to their maximum value and to achieve the best medium and long-term effects, a whole-of-region approach will be necessary between the local authorities, Departments and State agencies. For this to happen, he says, a greater degree of planning, co-ordination and co-operation is necessary. This will involve key tourism infrastructure, transport, remote working hubs, business and innovation centres and cross-county planning. Perhaps the Minister of State could provide me with an update on how this whole-of-region and cross-county planning is progressing within his Department.
I am deeply concerned by the view put forward by Friends of the Irish Environment when they took the High Court challenge in 2019. They clearly stated that stopping all peat extraction is a no-brainer, with absolutely no thought to communities, livelihoods or anything else. This clearly conveys the worrying mindset that is at play here. Does the Minister of State see this becoming a reality? Every attempt to take even a minimal amount of peat would end up requiring planning permission.
Going back to the planning difficulties, Growing Media Ireland, GMI, has been in contact with me several times on this issue. It has submitted what it sees as a legal and fair resolution to the challenges. According to GMI, almost all agree that planning Acts have never worked well for recurring work like peat harvesting, quarrying or dredging, maintenance of flood relief drains and so on. In fact, there appears to be a legal consensus that licensing is logically a better fit than planning control. Would the Minister of State accept this? Would he also accept that the 18-month exemption proposed in the regulations that were quashed last year should be removed so as to reduce delay in the processing time required to assess licence applications?
Some of the Deputy's questions are subject to an ongoing planning situation so I cannot comment specifically on one case. The Deputy asked about An Bord Pleanála and the length of time it takes to make decisions. In general, a major programme of reform has been implemented in An Bord Pleanála over the last couple of years and it is now reaching much higher targets on turnarounds and making much quicker decisions. This is very positive for anyone involved in planning decisions, regardless of which side of the debate they are on. An Bord Pleanála will continue to reach higher targets with increased levels of staff, computerisation and IT equipment.
The other issues the Deputy mentioned cross over two Departments. On the whole issue of peat extraction, there are various requirements depending on the size of the holding and the number of hectares. There was an attempt to make changes in 2018 and 2019. They are back for judging again and our two Departments are working to see how we can respond to that. I would be happy to meet the Deputy to discuss the matter with her individually.
I could stay here for an hour with the Minister of State. I have been listening to the whole Chamber and the one thing no one has brought up is infrastructure. The Government has failed rural Ireland with infrastructure. I will start with the area where I was elected first, the Adare-Rathkeale district. On a promise from Government, they are waiting 30 years for a storage plant in Askeaton. No more houses can be built there because there is no infrastructure and no commitment, including from the current Government, has been fulfilled for storage plants. I will move on to Adare and mention Irish Water, a failed identity. Only for the persistence of my colleagues in the Adare-Rathkeale district, they were going to resurface a road and put in footpath in Adare without putting a sewer line down through the middle of the street because Irish Water would not commit.
It delayed the process by eight months. It is only due to the persistence of the Adare Rathkeale councillors that the sewer line was laid and the reconstruction of the road completed. There is tunnel vision and no forward thinking.
The Minister of State spoke of building 800 houses here and 300 there. There is no infrastructure in Limerick. People in Oola are waiting for a sewerage system and the county council is refusing planning permission applications because there is no infrastructure. People cannot move home.
On conservation in our towns and villages, many voids and vacant buildings in County Limerick could be used to rehouse people if some common sense were shown. However, legislation and regulation are preventing this. A building contractor, of which I am one, who wishes to build a house must pay €17,000 for a site in order to make a profit. A site in rural Ireland will cost a minimum of €50,000. A sewerage system will cost another €15,000. Getting plans from an architect or engineer costs another €3,000. That is only for the plans, not for building a house. Irish Water might charge another €3,000 and county council fees could be another €5,000. The list of council amenities includes libraries and footpaths, but none of these is provided in rural areas because the Government has forgotten rural Ireland. It has not provided any money or infrastructure for rural Ireland and has not kept any commitments to it. I could keep the Minister of State here all night listing the failures of his Government and its predecessors to provide infrastructure in rural towns. Building houses in the cities is possible because the Government is providing funding for infrastructure but raw sewage is flowing into the sea because of the lack of infrastructure. The Government has forgotten rural Ireland. It needs to invest in it and relax conservation legislation, so that people can retain facades and roof structures and rebuild streets. I know it can be done because I am a contractor. I do it every single day, as do the people I employ. The Government penalises people in rural Ireland. There is no Internet connectivity. These are the people who kept us going with food when the pandemic hit. The Government must think about infrastructure and let people build at home. Under the 2040 plan, if I live in Kilmallock and work in Shannon, I would lose my planning permission unless I have an emissions impact study. That needs to be revised. The Government must invest in rural Ireland and must be constructive so that people who wish to do so can come home to their families.
Limerick county and city are major beneficiaries. The Deputy should read the plan in detail because he quoted only one line from it. Limerick is a major beneficiary. If the county follows the plan, it will be a great county to live in for many generations to come. The Deputy should look at the plan.
I am not sure where his 10,000 social houses are but there is no substantial number in Galway. The targets for acquisition and social housing have been reached in Galway because they was set so low. At something more than 100 units, one would have to reach it. Meanwhile, the Government is exceeding its targets for the housing assistance payment, HAP. It is putting people into HAP tenancies and rewarding local authorities for exceeding their targets, which is not sustainable. There is a major housing crisis and a task force is in place, but there is no real progress. The only progress we are making is in building private houses alongside public houses on public land. That approach is totally wrong and I will never agree with it.
The Minister of State took exception to Deputy Boyd Barrett's language.
I am in agreement with him regarding cynicism. I welcome the opportunity to talk about transition statements on climate change regarding local authorities, but we will have to put a little perspective on it that might explain my cynicism. We had the Rio de Janeiro conference 28 years ago in 1992, then we had the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, then we had the Paris Agreement, which set binding targets, then we had at least five Bills in Ireland in five years, and I think we are getting another one. I will not read them all out. Our emissions rate has gone up and we have failed to reach our targets. The Minister of State should forgive my cynicism. When I look at local authorities, in particular in Galway, I note there is no biodiversity officer. Could he explain why Galway does not have a biodiversity officer? We finally got a biodiversity action plan. It has the year 2014 in the title but I do not think it was passed in 2014. The plan goes to 2024. There are supposed to be annual reports and a mid-term review but I cannot find any of them. Perhaps I am wrong. I will be the first to come in and say "Sorry" if I am but I cannot see them. We need to make language mean something. We have all these action plans and we are, supposedly, trying to comply with our obligations under various international conventions and national legislation and we are utterly failing.
I repeatedly said to the Minister of State that I did not come in here to be negative. I am a very practical, pragmatic woman. I see a housing crisis and I see a solution, and the State must be an integral part of that, build public housing on public land and send a message to the market that it is serious about sorting out the crisis.
I cannot read any more climate change plans. The latest one was the biodiversity plan from the intergovernmental panel and it was absolutely frightening. I referred to the most recent report in a speech I made in the Dáil a year and a month ago. I stated then:
The most recent report by Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform leaves little room for doubt ... The report finds that approximately 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.
I tried to use my time efficiently. There are so many issues I could refer to, but we know that this is the biggest threat facing us and we need to take positive and serious action. We declared an emergency. Members might recall how we declared it. The debate was on a report from the all-party committee on climate action and the Government motion was to note it. Fianna Fáil and various other parties tabled amendments to the motion and it was on the basis of an amendment that the climate emergency was declared. The Minister who was present and my Galway West constituency colleague, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, were taken completely by surprise that the motion passed. That is how serious the Government was regarding the issue. It took the children on our streets to make us do something.
I can only zone in on one or two things in my remaining time and tonight I have chosen to zone in on biodiversity in Galway, which is a beautiful city. We have the River Corrib and Galway Bay. The area is full of streams and rivers. We have a biodiversity action plan but nobody to implement it. How serious is that? Is the Minister of State or the Department aware of that? What action has it taken? There is an funding emergency for local authorities. All of these plans are worth nothing if they do not have resources and money. What is the Minister of State doing about that in relation to the Covid crisis and what has happened with rates?
I want to ask the Minister of State two questions. The first relates to solar energy. Under the process, first, one has to get planning permission and then has to get a grid connection. That can be cost effective or cost prohibitive depending on the upgrade of lines and other issues. However, before any of that one has to pay €7,500 to the ESB just to make the application and then one has to apply to the renewable electricity support scheme by way of a competitive auction. This system is designed so that only large solar development companies have the resources to do it. Farmers, businesses, householders and communities must get a slice of the solar market.
Have we learned nothing? We made this mistake with wind energy and we have reaped the whirlwind.
The Minister is looking at microgeneration of less than 1 MW. I know many farmers who want to get involved in this. I ask the Minister to do three things, namely, to make the scheme simple, usable and cost-effective. That is the first point.
The second point I want to raise is on the report of the European Court of Auditors on the better energy warmer homes scheme. The report states that, in practice, projects did not define any energy saving objective or report on energy saved and, for more than half of the supported households, the scheme did not improve energy ratings. We have a national retrofit plan, on which I have two short questions. First, what is now in the plan to show we have learned from the mistakes we made with the scheme and we will not make similar mistakes again? Second, according to the report of the European Court of Auditors, only 27% of the funding allocated to the better energy warmer homes scheme had been spent by the end of 2018. We are halfway through 2020 and almost at the end of the scheme. Does the Minister of State know how much or what percentage of the funding has been spent to date?
A number of questions were asked and I will answer them in reverse order. That would be the handiest way to do respond as I can cover both Deputies' questions.
The better energy warmer homes scheme is not operated by my Department and I cannot give the Deputy details on it. I will ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, to contact Deputy Harkin about it. Our Department is involved in the scheme and draws down funding for the social housing aspect of it.
Deputy Harkin asked what changes have been made to the scheme. The report that came out this week has been discussed at length today when it was raised by other Deputies. The study was carried out approximately a year ago but the report was only published in the past month. We made changes on foot of the audit statement issued a year ago because it was common sense to record the building energy rating of a home before starting work. That seems like a simple measure but it was not done. That was changed. The issue with the report was that one could not judge if a retrofit had improved a house because the BER was not recorded before the work started. The BER is now assessed before and after the work, which should solve that problem as we will be able to monitor the benefits of the scheme.
The Department's use of the better energy warmer homes scheme in the early years was for low-cost interventions of approximately €3,000 per house under phase 1. While these did not deliver major changes, they did bring some changes. Phase 2, which has been well funded, provides for increased interventions costing more than €22,000 per house and should deliver much better results. Apart from that, €3 billion has been set aside for retrofitting social and public housing in the coming years. This is an important area.
Deputy Harkin referred to solar energy and the renewable electricity support scheme. My Department does not handle the relationship with the ESB on connections but I will raise the matter with the Minister, Deputy Bruton. The Deputy is correct, however, that the scheme needs to be made easier to work with. Changes have been made over the years but the scheme needs to be constantly adapted.
I am responsible for regulations on micro-energy and exemptions. I gave a commitment a couple of times in the past year to bring forward new exemptions to facilitate microgeneration and solar power infrastructure on farm buildings, houses, etc. Those regulations are being worked on and we are close to being able to bring them before the House for discussion and implementation. They should make things easier. I am committed to microgeneration. I have visited Güssing in Austria, which I believe the Deputy also visited some years ago. This small district shows what can be achieved with microgeneration and how to bring the community along. We should encourage more of that and we will do so.
I will have to believe Deputy Connolly that there is no biodiversity officer in Galway. I do not know whether a person has been appointed but I will check for the Deputy. I want to be clear on this. As a councillor, the Deputy was a director of Galway and her colleagues are also directors of local authorities. Councillors need to ask those questions and do their jobs because they are directors of the company that runs the county and city, as are Deputies in this place. We will disagree on some matters but we will certainly agree that councillors needs to do their job as directors. I cannot answer for every person who is employed by a local authority but what I will say is-----
I do not know. I will check for the Deputy. She asked me a question about one county. I am not responsible for every person county councils employ; the councillors are. However, I will check the position.
The Deputy and I disagree on the accusation that I constantly spin things. I do not spin. That is why I will always fight back. I deal with facts and they are always facts. We might not agree with the delivery or how we get there. Deputy Connolly does not like it, but over 10,000 new houses are in the system that were not there last year. That is not sufficient success but it is a big improvement on the 500 that were built four or five years ago.
What we will agree on is the ambition for Galway. Galway needs more houses, both private and social. We totally agree on that. That is what we have to drive on. Under the Action Plan for Housing, Galway has a greater delivery in the latter two years than it had in the first three because of its difficulties with land management.
Within the framework established by the Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Act, I am addressing the House to make the annual transport climate transition statement for 2019. It is clear that climate change remains one of our greatest challenges, and at 20% of Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions, transport has a significant role to play in our decarbonisation effort. While transport emissions fell by 2.4% in 2017, indicative figures from the EPA show a small increase in emissions in 2018. As in all developed economies, transport is the sector with greatest emissions growth over recent decades, and globally transport emissions are proving the most challenging and costly to address. Deeper action is needed urgently to decarbonise the transport sector.
I welcomed the publication by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment in July 2019 of a climate action plan to tackle climate disruption, which sets out a number of ambitious but necessary actions for my Department and the transport sector. The European Green New Deal also sets its sights on a renewed ambition for transport emissions and signals a strong impetus to achieve the key aim of becoming the world's first climate-neutral continent by 2050.
I will highlight a number of key emissions reduction measures undertaken by the Department. These actions aim to build capacity and enhance services in our public transport systems, foster greater practice of walking and cycling, and promote a transition away from traditional fossil fuels in both the private and public vehicle fleets. We are also providing that our transport infrastructure can adapt to cope with major weather events, which are occurring with more frequency due to climate change.
In promoting the transition away from fossil fuels, the low-emission vehicle task force, co-chaired by my Department and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, continued its work throughout 2018 and 2019. The first phase of work of the task force, which concentrated on electric vehicles, EVs, finished in 2018 and saw the addition of new EV incentives. Two new schemes administered by my Department were included, namely, the electric small public service vehicle grant scheme and the electric vehicle toll incentive scheme.
In response, we saw a marked increase in the number of EVs on Irish roads in 2019, albeit from a low base. By the end of December, more than 15,500 EVs were under taxation in Ireland, more than double the number at December 2018. EV numbers continued to increase in the first few months of 2020, with almost 19,000 on the roads by the end of April. We do not, however, expect the same level of growth this year, due to the closure of car dealerships during the Covid-19 crisis.
Nevertheless, we are acutely aware that this transition needs to be accelerated even more. The climate action plan set ambitious targets for the number of EVs in Ireland this decade, namely, 180,000 by 2025 and 936,000 by 2030. Clearly these targets are challenging, but they are indicative of the scale of transformation needed in all sectors if Ireland is to reach its legally binding emissions ceilings in future years. My Department has established a focused electric vehicle optimum policy pathway working group to consider a roadmap to achieving these EV climate action plan targets. It expects to finish its work in the coming months and will publish its findings and recommendations to the Government shortly thereafter.
The second phase of the low-emissions vehicle task force focused on other alternative fuels, including natural gas and hydrogen, particularly for the heavy-duty vehicle fleet. Findings and recommendations were presented to the Government in October 2019 and are available on the Department's website.
On the recommendations that pertain to my Department, the EV toll incentive scheme, has been extended to cover alternatively fuelled trucks and buses and work is under way to establish a purchase grant for alternatively fuelled trucks and buses to cover some of the purchase cost differential between a lower-energy vehicle and a fossil-fuelled one.
We are pressing ahead with decarbonising the public transport fleet. We committed that from July 2019 no more diesel-only buses would be purchased for the urban public service obligation bus fleets in the national development plan. Work began in 2018 in the form of low-emission bus trials that examined technologies that include diesel, diesel hybrid, gas and electric buses to inform future purchasing decisions. These trials concluded in 2019 and the findings have been published on the website. A framework contract for hybrid buses has been initiated. To date, nine hybrid buses have been delivered and are in service in Dublin. I expect 100 buses to be delivered by the end of the year.
For rail, a ten-year procurement framework for electric and battery-electric train units is being established to greatly expand the fleet and reduce its emissions. In the medium term, the DART expansion programme will see the largest ever investment in the fleet, with prequalifying started and the electrification of the rail network across the greater Dublin area.
While we are working towards making public transport cleaner, we are also working on improving services and infrastructure to encourage people to opt for alternatives that are more sustainable than cars with passengers for their journeys. In 2019, almost €450 million was invested in public and sustainable transport infrastructure, representing an increase of more than €40 million on the 2018 investment. A further €4 million plus was invested in the smarter travel programme. Funding in 2019 for rural transport services operated by Local Link totalled €21 million, comprising rural transport programme funding of €15 million and €6 million PSO funding for Local Link regular services. An additional 24 million public transport passenger journeys were made in 2019 by comparison with 2018 nationally. Numbers of walking and cycling trips increased in Dublin city centre, accordingly to the NTA's canal cordon count.
Looking to the future, €8.6 billion has been earmarked for investment in public and sustainable transport measures to 2027. This funding is to support projects such as MetroLink, BusConnects and the DART expansion programme. Investment on this scale will transform the public transport network and enable more people to choose sustainable options as their preferred modes of transport. In fact, the climate action plan has committed us to achieving an additional 500,000 public transport and active travel journeys daily by 2025.
We must ensure that transport infrastructure can adapt to a changing climate where extreme weather events are becoming the norm. It is clear that extreme weather can damage critical infrastructure, disrupt business-as-usual transport operations and potentially lead to unsafe travel conditions. With this in mind, the publication of the various sectoral adaptation plans in October 2019 was a key milestone. The adaptation plan for transport infrastructure, prepared by my Department, is a further important stage in our adaptation journey. Identifying the vulnerabilities in the transport system is key, particularly where these interact with other critical systems, such as energy and communications, all of which support our society and economy from day to day. Our transport agencies and infrastructure owners are proactively considering how to safeguard our infrastructure and operations, and my Department is closely engaging with them to make progress on the implementation of the actions in our plan.
The next phase of our work is to ensure that resilience building is appropriately considered in new infrastructure investment as we implement Project Ireland 2040. It will be crucial for us to work to promote a cohesive, all-of-government approach to the investment needed to adapt existing infrastructure networks and to retrofit our most critical assets. Paradoxically, while the recent Covid-19 crisis has had a severely detrimental effect on our society, economy and communities, it seems to have had a positive effect on our transport emissions. Early indications show that there was a decrease in transport emissions due to the dramatic fall in road traffic caused by travel limits, the closure of schools and certain businesses, and the move to working from home. As the country starts to reopen, we must take this opportunity to review our transport habits and, where possible, make transitions towards sustainable travel.
Public transport capacity will, admittedly, be limited in the short term as social distancing guidelines remain in place. However, we are already seeing a movement in our cities and towns through the preparation, publication and implementation of Covid-19 mobility programmes to accommodate higher levels of cycling and walking, and to make active travel safer and more convenient. Working from home may also be a policy embraced by more companies in future and it is likely to take more traffic off our roads.
My Department will work with the National Transport Authority to ensure the positive changes in travel habits arising from the Covid-19 crisis will be encouraged and accommodated so more sustainable transport patterns can be maintained as we slowly move back to normal daily life.
I am sharing time. I will take five minutes, leaving two and a half minutes each for Deputies Cathal Crowe, Christopher O'Sullivan, O'Dea and Ó Cuív. I am thankful for the opportunity to say a few words on the matter. Our transitioning, in terms of lowering of transport emissions, has been an abject failure so far with an increase from 2017 to 2018 of 1.7%. Transport accounts for 20% of overall emissions and 39% of energy-related emissions. We are at a crisis stage.
We have been very slow in our procurement of alternative and more sustainable forms of transport. That we have just nine hybrid buses is an indictment of us all and there is no move to the electrification of our railways. My figure for electric cars was a bit lower than that of the Minister but I will assume his figure of 15,500 is correct. In any event, we are dreaming if we think we can get to 1 million such vehicles by 2030, as there are only 100 fast-charging points throughout the entire country. According to the researchers and the marine and renewable energy research centre at University College, Cork, pollution from cars during this period has decreased by 50%. This might buy us a little time but in overall terms it will not make any significant contribution to our targets for 2030 and 2050.
The entire transport budget must be repurposed to focus on bringing down our emissions but to do that we must of course acknowledge that the private car is a fact of life for many people throughout rural Ireland. The public transport options are just not there and we must be conscious of that. Equally, the kind of electric vehicles that are available and their cost are beyond some people, and I have already highlighted how infrastructure is not in place to support that form of transport.
Through the Covid-19 period France promoted a 600 km pop-up greenway and cycle route but we have done nothing to that effect here. There is anecdotal evidence that some shops have struggled to get bicycle stock because people have resorted to cycling. We must press ahead and I hope the new Government, whomsoever it comprises, will refocus and prioritise the major challenges that exist. The Minister has highlighted challenges in which, I am sad to say, we have not really made any gains over the past five years. These include encouraging micro-mobility, facilitating it and incentivising it.
In the immediate term, we will have major issues arising from Covid-19. What plans are in place to use the private sector in this regard? The Minister is aware of lobbying from the coach operators throughout the country, many of which are facing bankruptcy. The double-decker buses in Dublin are usually able to take up to 67 people but they can now only take 17. A four-carriage train can typically take 600 people but it can now take 75 people. Could we use a little imagination and throw a bone to the private sector to help us in this regard to meet the challenges that social distancing demands?
Before finishing and handing over to my colleagues, I will raise a matter I appreciate is not related to climate change. In the past couple of days the Minister established a task force on aviation and its members were named today. The Irish Aviation Authority is absent from the group, which seems most strange, and groups like IBEC, ISME, Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland are also absent.
It would not reflect aviation in Ireland if those organisations did not have a voice on it.
We need a pathway for opening aviation. While no one is suggesting in any way that we should undermine the fragile gains we have earned in the fight against Covid-19, it is an issue that the Minister is expecting a pathway working group to report back on 10 July in terms of laying out a strategy for reopening aviation in Ireland. I am at pains to point out that nobody wants to put at risk the gains we have made. We want to ensure that testing, contract tracing and so on is in place but while the rest of Europe will reopen on 8 June, many more on 18 June with Spain, as an outlier, reopening on 1 July, it will be 10 July before the Minister, if he is still in situ, or his successor, will be in a position to act on that. I ask that he would the reopening a little quicker than he is doing and give this group of professionals who know their business a matter of days to report rather than the many weeks he outlined.
I hold in my hand a model of Bunratty Castle, a 600 year old building. We used it as a teaching aid. I was a teacher up to a few weeks ago when I was elected to this House. That 600 year old building has withstood sieges, famines, two or three burnouts and many battles but it is now facing its greatest challenge, namely, solvency and financial survival. The Minister made a whistle-stop visit last year, which was so quick I did not get to meet him. I was mayor of the county but he was gone in a flash. We desperately needed to meet him then and we really need his intervention now. Along with Craggaunowen, Knappogue and King John's Castle, Bunratty Castle is one of four Shannon Heritage sites in the mid-west. Bunratty Castle and King John's Castle will open on 29 June but the other sites will remain closed for the rest of the year. The crucial point for Bunratty Castle and King John's Castle is that they will close again on 31 August. Senior management in the Shannon Group say they cannot afford to keep the sites open throughout the autumn and winter and the domestic tourism market alone will not be enough to keep them afloat and financially buoyant. That is extremely worrying for the mid-west. At a time we need to attract people to our region and delve into that domestic tourism market we are closing down our jewel in the crown - strategic sites. How can we entice people to the mid-west on the one hand but on the other tell them that our key sites are closed and they should look elsewhere? There will be a domino effect also from these looming closures on the many hotels, bed and breakfast premises and litany of bars and restaurants that depend on the 400,000 annual visitors to Bunratty Castle.
In its end days the aviation task force set up by the Minister has to throw a ball of money at the aviation sector but also at Shannon Heritage as a subsidiary of the Shannon Group. I was very disappointed when two nominees I proposed the Minister include, Gerry Clarke of the Shannon cabin crew and Allen Flynn, a prominent hotelier in Clare, were excluded from the task force.
The Minister also needs to urgently examine addressing the imbalance in aviation. Flights continue to leave from and land in Cork and Dublin airports but nothing is happening in Shannon Airport. We need to return to 24-7 operations to keep the airport afloat, solvent and trading into the new year. Deputy Willie O'Dea and I met staff in the airport the other day. It is crucial that whatever trickle of air travel comes in and out of Ireland is shared equally throughout the country. We cannot have workers laid off in Shannon while people who are far more junior in the hierarchy of staff are kept on elsewhere.
The last point I want to briefly make is on bed and breakfast premises. Under the business restart rules, they cannot avail of any supports because they are not rated premises. The Minister will have to look at that. They are losing out. They are the poor relations in the equation.
Like my colleague, Deputy Crowe, I want to use my 150 seconds to make a special plea to the Minister, the Government and the incoming Government to intercede with Aer Lingus to persuade it to reverse the unfair, discriminatory and possibly illegal way it has treated its staff in Shannon Airport for the reasons outlined by my colleague. The Minister may well say that Aer Lingus is a private company and beyond the remit of the Government but we all know there is significant interdependence between Aer Lingus, as the national carrier, and the Government. As we speak, the Government is helping Aer Lingus by paying most of its staff wages, under the wage subsidy scheme, and that interdependence will continue. The Government is not just a disinterested, hapless bystander. The Government can and should intercede because the treatment of those workers in Shannon Airport has been nothing short of a disgrace. They are looking to be allowed to return to work. Shannon Airport, technically, is still in operation. We saw that today with the emergency landing of a plane bringing in protective equipment. Shannon Airport was the only airport in the country in which it could land. The workers are there.
They should be allowed to work part-time from 22 June to supplement their Covid payments. That is their demand. It is quite reasonable and should be acceded to. I also want to criticise in the strongest possible terms the farcical and myopic decision of the board of Shannon Heritage to close some of the most iconic sites in the west of Ireland for all but six weeks of the foreseeable future. Tourism in the region will be terminally damaged by this decision if it is allowed to stand. The decision takes no account of the disastrous multiplier effect on the economy. As the Minister will know, it is incumbent on the country to reboot the economy quickly in the wake of the Covid crisis. Tourism is one of our most labour-intensive sectors. It is probably the largest indigenous employer in the country. I am sure that the incoming Government will, as part of rebooting the economy, try to promote tourism to the absolute best of its ability. We do not want the mid-west to be excluded from that process. I appeal to the Government to intervene in this matter, as it can well do.
As tourism and transport are intrinsically linked and are both part of the Minister's portfolio, I will touch on both. The Minister referred to public transport and electric buses in his statement. Improved public transport will obviously lead to reduced emissions but it could also potentially open up the regions to sustainable tourism. Such tourism does not exist at the moment. I will take west Cork, where I am from, as an example. It is a tourism hotspot but the only way a tourist can get there is by car. That is not sustainable. We need an improved public transport network in order that tourists can get there using public transport, thereby leading to a real reduction in emissions.
The ironic thing is that, when one does get there, there are incredible options for low-emission, low-carbon activities. Kayaking, hill walking and surfing all are zero-carbon activities. Whale watching is another example. The coast of west Cork is teeming with humpback whales at the moment. It is another low-carbon activity but one cannot get to the coast by public transport. That needs to change. We need proper investment in public transport.
I will move on to another form of green public transport, namely, greenway trails, to which Deputy MacSharry referred. There has been a chronic lack of investment in greenway trails in my home county of Cork and particularly in west Cork. West Cork is absolutely ripe for investment in greenway trails. They are more than just a tourism attraction; they are actually a valid form of sustainable public transport. The route from Bandon to Innishannon, along the beautiful banks of the River Bandon, would be perfect for a greenway trail, as would the route from Clonakilty to Inchydoney. Inchydoney has one of the most iconic beaches in Europe and yet the only safe way to get there is by car. That needs to change. We need greenway trails. The same could be said for the route from Baltimore, Skibbereen and Clonakilty to Courtmacsherry.
I will finish on one very important point. If we do not look after our tourism industry, there will not be a tourism industry post pandemic. We need supports. I recently held Zoom calls with the chambers of commerce and chambers of tourism in Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Bandon and Kinsale. They are looking for clarity and for support. I spoke to one hotelier who expects the extra costs for staffing, PPE and sanitiser to total approximately €12,500 per month. We need a proper system to support these business people in order that they can survive this pandemic and get up and running again. More than anything else, they need clarity.
I will try to get in as much as I can in the two minutes and seven seconds remaining. Last Friday, the Government made a big announcement about opening up. It was bringing things forward. Amazingly, there was no mention of travel to the islands. Singularly, it is still scheduled for 8 August. Families have members living on the mainland want to go home but who do not have permission to do so. Will the Minister tell us when the islands will be open to people to go back to their families, to those who own holiday homes on the islands to go to them and to tourists to visit? The islanders want to find out. It is terribly remiss of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport not to tell us.
I join in the call with regard to tourist attractions. We are told that people will be taking staycations. There is a big danger that it will not be economic for Kylemore Abbey, for example, to open this year.
The Minister was there recently. It is a big opening. There are massive overheads in running the place. Due to the visitor numbers it will not get this year, it will be very uneconomic to open for small numbers.
I wish to discuss the transition. People often talk about electricity when talking about transition. Electricity is fine but the problem is that it requires massive infrastructure. There is a simpler answer. It is indirect electricity using surplus energy - surplus renewable energy where, with electricity, one is using whatever is on the grid at the time, and that is hydrogen. I understand that a company on this island, in Ballymena, is examining producing hydrogen buses. Another company in the same part of the world is examining producing the hydrogen. Have there been talks about considering an all-Ireland approach to replacing all public bus vehicles on the island with hydrogen buses produced from renewable electricity? As the Minister knows, one takes the H2, adds the O and one gets H2O, which is water, therefore one does not get any carbon emissions. It is a huge opportunity for this island to act together. That issue must be examined.
Unfortunately, I have gone 12 seconds over my time.
I am sharing time with Deputies Wynne and Ó Broin.
I welcome the opportunity to address this important issue. Transport will be central to our moving towards a low-carbon economy. Over the past 30 years, the transport sector showed the greatest overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions at 137%, with road transport increasing by 143%. In 2018, transport was responsible for 20% of Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions. Those figures give a sense of the challenge. They are also, in large part, an indictment of the failure of successive Governments to address this challenge properly. It is clear that we cannot afford to continue down the path of emissions increasing year on year. We must take people out of cars by providing alternatives that make sense. The Minister's annual transition document highlights this on page 33, which states that the provision of meaningful alternatives to the private car is central to decarbonising the transport sector. This is true, but it does not mirror the actions of this Government. We must invest in public and active transport.
We have a problem with car dependency across the board. It is compounded by uneven regional development. People who live on the east coast, in Dublin and in the commuter belt areas are acutely aware of the increase in road transport. People in my constituency of Meath East most certainly are. This is due to chronic underfunding of public transport, resulting in it being undesirable. It takes too long. One is sitting in traffic at Blanchardstown, The Halfway House or Glasnevin and it costs too much. We need high speed, high volume bus routes running on quality bus corridors.
We must also invest in rail. Despite being ideally located next to the capital, County Meath does not have a rail line serving the vast majority of the county. Navan is the highest populated town in Ireland that is not served by train. Large urban centres such as Ashbourne, Ratoath and Dunshaughlin would benefit greatly from such a service, as would towns such as Kells and Trim. Without it, thousands of commuters are forced to spend hours in traffic getting to and from work. They prefer the car because it is more bearable. Sinn Féin has consistently highlighted the urgent need for a rail line from Dublin to Navan, which would take thousands of cars off the road each day and bring massive benefits to commuters who could spend less time in traffic and more time with family and friends. Will the Minister give an update on the Navan rail line and its potential to contribute to a low-carbon economy? When will the review of this project be completed and when will the project be funded? This must be part of an ambitious and transformative plan for public transport that serves to reorientate the transport system on the island of Ireland.
We must improve electric car infrastructure and supports. We need to have more people out of cars but we also must recognise that for many people a car will remain a necessity. This is particularly true in rural Ireland, but is not unique to it. Electric cars remain prohibitively expensive for most and the necessary infrastructure such as fast charging points is simply not in place.
Has the Government any plans to make electric cars a more affordable and realistic option for people?
On the issue of rural transport, large areas of my constituency currently rely on the Local Link transport scheme. It is known as Flexibus in counties Meath, Louth and Fingal. Flexibus provides a great bus service to people in rural areas who live off the main transport routes, young people who have no access to public transport and people with disabilities who need accessible transport. It is a vital service that provides connectivity for large parts of rural Meath and for some of our most vulnerable citizens, the old, the sick, and people with disabilities. Unfortunately, despite increasing demand and huge unmet need, its budget has remained static. It is now faced with a funding shortfall which is putting services in jeopardy. Meath Deputies met the NTA on this issue last Friday. Will the Minister engage with the authority on this to ensure funding is made available to secure the future of this environmentally friendly public transport option?
On the issue of private bus operators and taking people out of their cars, the Minister will be aware of the challenges now facing private bus operators who also provide crucial transport connectivity for citizens, including many school transport services. Many of those bus operators have been left to fend for themselves with the Government gambling on whether they can make it through the current crisis. If these services are not protected, it will leave a significant gap in our transport services, forcing people into cars. This is another example of how Government policy states one aim but actually does the opposite. Will the Minister intervene personally on the issue of private bus operators to ensure we have a healthy bus and coach sector post Covid?
The Deputy is quite right about transport being a great challenge and the need to get people out of their cars. That is our objective. The Deputy will have seen the numbers for public transport. The numbers using rail and bus have increased immensely in recent years. The problem until recently was capacity. There has been an immense increase, however. That has been actually a success of the Government's policies in moving people out of cars. There is a great deal more still to be done, however. There is terrible congestion but to say we failed completely is somewhat unfair.
The Deputy has seen the targets for EVs. This is an anti-pollution driven initiative and the targets are very ambitious. Our intention is to hit them. We have clearly stated we want to have 936,000 EVs on the road by 2030. This is particularly to help the environment. The Deputy claims an electric vehicle is out of the reach of some people's costs. He is correct and it is difficult. We have given out grants of €5,000 and introduced other generous incentives for EVs, of which the Deputy should be aware, which include grants for chargers at home and lower motor tax. To say we have underfunded EVs is probably a little unfair because the grants are generous.
Those who need access to flights have to drive by Shannon Airport and embark on a more than three-hour journey to Dublin Airport or Cork Airport. This surely is a contradiction in terms of the need for renewed focus on balanced regional development and, more specifically, the importance of reducing carbon emissions. Having this inconvenient journey added to the travel plans of people from the mid-west is absurd and flies in the face of climate action. It also cannot be in the interest of health and safety that, as we navigate through the Covid-19 health pandemic, nine out of ten people leave the State through Dublin Airport.
Having some flights leave from Shannon makes sense. It allows for social distancing guidelines to be adhered to, which must continue to be our priority at this time, all while complementing measures to reduce carbon emissions and not increase them. It is crucial that we get flights back in Shannon. The Minister stated that the task force will aim to report back in four weeks. That is far too long and it does little for the staff at the airport who are due to be laid off on Sunday week, or for the future of flights in Shannon. Saving Shannon Airport will require rapid action.
The staff at the airport, whom I had the pleasure of meeting with my Sinn Féin colleagues and other representatives, and the people of the mid-west want a guarantee from the Minister that, in his role as caretaker, he will take care of their future. I have spoken on this issue twice and cannot stress enough the importance of Shannon Airport and its connectivity for County Clare and the entire mid-west.
Will the Minister revise the timeline and bring it forward immediately? Will he ensure that priority is given to the crisis in Shannon Airport? Will he commit to intervening for the workers of Shannon Airport? He might answer after my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, has spoken.
I have three specific questions, two of which relate to the topic in question, while one is more general. With respect to the response of the Minister's Department and the taxi regulator to the taxi industry, most Deputies hear much concern expressed by taxi drivers about the lack of any active support, especially for those who may be able to return to work at a later stage in the Government's exit strategy but will not be able to work full time because of a lack of available opportunities. Will the Minister outline what additional support he is considering to provide to taxi drivers to ensure the sustainability of their industry?
A small but significant question that has arisen in recent days is the issue of protective screens separating taxi drivers from their passengers, and a requirement that they have such screens installed. The NTA and the taxi regulator are considering that these screens have to be installed by certified installers. Will the Minister confirm if that is the case and, if so, how will such a system operate?
All previous speakers have spoken about the importance of public transport. One of the most important reforms in the city of Dublin is BusConnects. Will the Minister give us an assurance that, notwithstanding the impact of Covid-19, the final plan will be published later this year and that its full implementation will not be delayed as a consequence of the funding difficulties that Dublin Bus now finds itself in?
With respect to rail, I want to support and give the Minister an opportunity to partially answer my colleague's question about the rail line to Navan. There is a much more ambitious project, which would take a rail line not only through Navan but on to Derry city, opening the entire north west, that may be more financially viable under the metrics the Government operates, and be of significant service to the people in that region. Will the Minister update us on the electrification of additional rail lines, particularly, for example, through my own constituency, in Clondalkin and Lucan, and on to Hazelhatch and Kildare? Is his Department considering the bigger project of having a rail line not only through Navan but up to one of the largest cities in the country, Derry?
I will start with the Shannon issue. Deputy Wynne said that four weeks is too long. Most task forces set up by my predecessors have taken approximately four years. This one is urgent. We have a group of 14 people who are the main stakeholders and we will always get people complaining, as Deputy MacSharry did, about being left out. That always happens but we have people representing almost every stakeholder on the task force. I appointed this task force. It has recommended that it takes four weeks and we think that is a quick turnover for a conclusive and extremely in-depth plan. It is completely up to the task force if it wants to publish an early report at two weeks. That is fine by me. It might even be two weeks. One never knows. It can report to my successor in two weeks.
That is up to them. It is independent, it is up to them to set their own agenda as they know what the terms of reference are. That will be something they can do.
The second point the Deputy made related to Shannon. She wanted some assurances about the airport. These statements are not meant to be about these subjects but I am quite happy to respond on them. Last week I was in here and everybody from the Deputy's region asked whether I would put a representative of Shannon on the task force. I have done that. I put the chief executive, Mary Considine, on the task force specifically to enable her to voice those difficulties, which I fully acknowledge are there for Shannon. That is why she is there, and she is going to do that on the Deputy behalf and on behalf of everybody else as well. There is also an ICTU representative, Patricia King, on that task force, which was announced earlier. She will undoubtedly represent the airport's workforce as well. That is quite a representation that they will have. That is a good start. Shannon will be represented, and will have its voice heard.
It is good to have an opportunity to contribute on this subject as well. I recall seven or eight years ago at a public meeting, confiding in the public that within ten years we would be looking seriously at electric cars for the future. I was greeted with howls of derision, as well as scepticism of an incisive order and I am glad that we have at least progressed in that area. While the targets are, I agree, ambitious, they are attainable. All that is needed is a commitment and that has been made. It will be realised and it will make a tangible, visible contribution to emissions reduction, to which everyone can make a contribution. The public wants to be able to contribute in making that reduction themselves, and I think they will do it.
The secret, as I stated during this morning's debate, is of where the electricity comes from and how it is generated. As we move toward renewable energies. that is going to become obvious. It is not going to be as easy to depend on mid-Atlantic generated wind energy because the structures are not there at the present time, and they certainly will not be within the next five year, to deliver on that particular project. It would be a serious error on our part if we were to presume that in five years, we could rely on electricity coming from there. The Arklow Bank is different.
I am of the generation that started out walking to school and walking longer distances as well. It was not such great fun at all, especially in inclement weather. I have my doubts about how popular it is likely to become in the future either. In addition, there are dangers to children walking to school in winter or summer, which I do not propose to got into now, that we have to bear them in mind. There will be a need for transport, of one kind or another. As we develop the technology, regarding the motor industry in particular, the biggest contribution we can make in respect of domestic travel is the electric car. That is on our doorstep and we should avail of it and support it.
The electrification of the rail system is something we all look forward to. Naturally, in my own constituency there is the Maynooth line, which extends to Kilcock and beyond and electrification will be hugely important. That is again dependent on emissions-free electricity. It has a major role to play that everybody can contribute to and can point out themselves. They do not have to be told about it. I know the Minister is committed to the electrification of that system. Deputy Ó Broin mentioned the Hazelhatch-Sallins route. That could extend as far as Newbridge.
It is a matter of thinking big and covering the territory.
The next area of transport to progress, and it has been mentioned by several speakers in the House, is that of air transport. It is going to be a challenge, there is no doubt about that, but there is going to be another challenge. State aid could well become an issue as the Covid-19 crisis bites, and the people and the Governments with the deepest pockets, all over Europe and all over the world, for that matter, are the ones from whom we have most to fear. The entire concept of the European Union that has developed over the years has been the extent to which state aid was reduced and dependency created, not on state aid, but on the community spirit of the European Union and the means of doing the same job by a different method. That is still something we need to be careful of. We have some good airlines in this country, some of which started of as a public ones. They still have a major role to play, and are important in terms of our tourism. It is worth remembering we are on an island, and there are only two ways we can get off it. We cannot walk, run or cycle off it, so we have to get off it by air or by boat.
My final point is on the greenways. Both the Minister and his predecessors have done reasonably well in this regard in my constituency. I would like to think I had some influence in that, however, we will leave that to those who are better placed to judge. There is still more to come. It has been a worthwhile development that has been hugely popular and is well supported by the local population.
From here, the challenges are many, but there is a great sign of hope. We used to be told with regard to alternative energy that it is not feasible and it cannot be done; one cannot drive cars that have batteries, and so forth. Of course one can, and with every day that passes the technology advances further still, to such an extent that it is bringing it within the reach of the domestic driver. That is going to be the single biggest contribution we can make in terms of satisfaction, as far as the driver is concerned, and beating the emissions.
The Deputy made certain statements, most of which I agree with. If one said some years ago electric vehicles, EVs, were the business, one was probably a lone voice. Those of us who are saying it now are probably also lone voices, to some extent. There is a large number of non-believers out there. I was one myself for a short period, even when I was in this job, because we were set some extraordinary targets by the climate action group. It looked as if they were ambitious and difficult to achieve, particularly the target of 936,000 electric vehicles by 2030. I bought one and I am finding it works extraordinarily well. It is effective and cheap once one has it. It is very expensive to buy, I agree, although there are grants available. That future is here, and this Government is committed to that target. I imagine that whatever the complexion on the next Government it will keep that commitment and target. It is ambitious but it is back loaded - in other words, most of it will probably be achieved towards the end of the period 2025 to 2030. We must aim high. The other target, which is going to be difficult to achieve because high targets often are, is to have 500,000 additional public transport journeys every day - in other words, people walking or cycling. They are environmentally-friendly ambitions we intend to set as targets for our successors in order to do some real good and show some real progress about reforms in respect of which we have failed. One of the Deputies said that he thinks we have not succeeded in meeting our targets and have not succeeded in climate change.
The Deputy is right - we have not succeeded in fighting climate change. We have to set such ambitious targets now because we are playing catch-up on some of these areas. We are going to do it by the use of the electrification to which Deputy Durkan referred and to which we are committed.
On air transport, it is sometimes a little alarming to see what has happened in Europe in recent times. Many countries have taken a different route on state aid by doing things that certainly would not have been allowed a little time ago. The airlines should be helped but it would be far better if that were led by similar, if not identical, standards defined by the EU so that all countries would be on the same, level playing field. That does not seem to be the case now on the issue of air transport during the Covid-19 crisis.
As Deputy Durkan will know, we are helping the airlines through the wage subsidy scheme. Airports and most of the airlines are availing of that. They are also taking the pandemic unemployment payment so, in that sense, we are helping them in different ways. Many other countries are helping their national carriers in that way.
The last question was about greenways. I had the pleasure of opening a greenway in the Deputy's area not too long ago; Deputy Catherine Murphy was also there. It was tremendous to see that. Of course, we are not spending enough on greenways but there will never be enough. The demand for greenways is insatiable because the initiative has been such an extraordinary success. I hope the commitment that this Government has given to greenways will continue because it has been a tremendously successful project throughout Ireland.
The fact is that the climate action plan got it wrong in a variety of ways. Seeing as we are on the topic right now, one of the main ways the climate action plan got it wrong related to modal shift. It is well and good having ambition for electric vehicles because ambition is good. I was home-schooling my nine year old today. I think that if I showed her the figures for electric vehicles that the Minister outlined - 15,000 today; 180,000 in five years' time; and a million in 2030 - she would say that does not really add up. That said, ambition is good. The problem is why there has not been ambition in other areas. The key area is modal shift. It is totally viable, despite what Deputy Durkan might be afraid of when it comes to children walking to school, that the majority of school trips across the country would be done via active travel. Roads are dangerous in some places but it is absolutely possible to build infrastructure with a quick return that allows children to walk and cycle to school. It is not rocket science and countries all over Europe are doing it. It costs money and I contend that a lot of the money in the Department over the past few years has been ill directed.
We would have had better returns if there had been more focus on modal shift and building the infrastructure to facilitate it. It is a tragedy, in a way, because there were some actions in the climate action plan that were put down the priority scale which would have us in a different position now during the Covid-19 crisis. Our cities would have been better equipped to facilitate cycling and walking. There is an appetite for those things and there has been a response from the ground up as some local authorities are progressing initiatives off their own bats, but it really needs also to come from the top down as well. That has not been heard over the past few years. That said, I acknowledge that the Minister wrote to the local authorities, at my request, some weeks back to encourage them to start reallocating space. I acknowledge that and thank him for doing so.
I have some quick questions which I might ask in two or three tranches.
How many local authorities have responded to what I believe was an offer from the NTA of some technical and financial assistance to reallocate that road space? Can the Minister give me an update on one of the targets from the climate action plan in respect of transport and emissions? I refer to the proposal to establish a park-and-ride development office in the NTA which, if it had been up and running on time, would also have made a difference.
I do not know the number but I will respond to the Deputy in writing. It is somewhat unfair to criticise us for the modal shift. We were very slow on the electric vehicles, EVs. The current number of only 19,000 is too few. I would be the first to admit that. It is a very low base from which to be going. However, when one sees the numbers we intend to have, the measures and the commitment, the significant grants being given and the other very attractive reasons to take up an EV, it is very difficult to see why there is so much resistance beyond the initial price. If the Deputy wants to suggest that we give further grants, that is fair enough. That would be one way of doing it. What we could do is simply add another 10,000 and bring the price automatically below it. We could include in that little package disincentives as well to dissuade people from buying diesel or petrol cars. We can certainly do that. However, all those measures cost a lot of money and it is going to be very difficult for anybody in the next year or so to come in with a budget and argue that we really need to hit these targets and need to incentivise people further and give further grants as well as disincentivising people from buying diesel cars. In a perfect world, we would do that. The Deputy will know as well as I do that the next two budgets here are going to be extraordinarily difficult. The Government is going to be looking for revenue, probably in very novel places. The capacity for increasing public expenditure is going to be very limited indeed because of what has happened to the economy in the last three months.
I share the Deputy's ambitions and agree with what he says about modal shifts and the dangers of the roads. God almighty, the road death figures this year are just about the same as last year. That is very disappointing as the roads have been pretty well empty for several of the last few weeks. Certainly when the Deputy talks about schools and the need to keep them safe, that is absolutely correct. I will note what he says and see if I can make inquiries as to whether there is any way we can do it. In the present circumstances, it is difficult to be spending money on projects like increased grants for EVs or modal shift, which is very expensive. As I pointed out earlier to another Deputy, we have committed ourselves very strongly and increased the funding to cycling and walking. We have massively increased the budget for public transport. Those things should help to promote the climate change agenda enormously. The fact that we have committed and started spending money on BusConnects, Luas and MetroLink, is a real commitment to clean public service travel.
I am not proposing we further subvent electric vehicles, just to be clear. Could the Minister give me an update on progress for BusConnects projects outside Dublin?
I understand that there is a delay in Dublin, I think due to the inability to perform site visits. Will the Minister provide an update on the other projects? What cities are being considered? On the climate action plan, why are emissions from aviation or shipping not considered?
We are very committed to the aviation aspect of the climate action plan but in a global sense. It is only a small proportion of Ireland's emissions, approximately 6%. It must be approached in an international fashion. For Ireland to take unilateral action, and act when other nations were not taking similar actions, would be just foolish and would discourage people from coming here. The aviation industry needs help not hindrance. To stand in its way at this time would be very wrong. Of course we want to bring down aviation emissions and if there are successful global initiatives in the area - targets are set for 2050 - we will be very much a part of that but we do not intend to take unilateral action in taxation, the environment or climate change.
Last week, we had a very robust debate around aviation. I do not wish to have that debate again but I will make two points. First, my concerns about how the companies are treating workers have not gone away. I am more concerned about Aer Lingus this week because it is sidelining the unions and workers representatives. I again ask the Minister to intercede in so far as he can on that issue. Second, I wish the task force well in its work. Had it not been established we would be kicking and screaming but it has been set up and it has a four week turnaround. I needs to deliver and it has a big job ahead of it.
I also commend the good work that has been done in respect of providing segregated cycle lanes in Dublin city and elsewhere during the pandemic. One of the positives of the pandemic is that where they can, councils have used the opportunity of less traffic on the roads to make some much needed and long overdue improvements. I welcome the work of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the NTA and Fingal County Council on the Broadmeadow greenway, a project that has been approved by An Bord Pleanála. It is an exciting project that will link north County Dublin with the city via a greenway at the estuary between Donabate and Malahide. The greenways have been a great success and I commend the work of the Minister and his Department in this area in recent years. I hope that his successor continues and improves on that work.
I saw a tweet this morning, the third day of the unwinding of the restrictions, which noted it had not taken long for traffic to reclaim Dublin. It had a photograph of a long line of traffic, with a couple of buses but mainly cars. It brought back into sharp focus how bad the traffic is in our major cities. The AA Roadwatch reports have started to sound very familiar very quickly.
I will get a bit parochial in terms of the MetroLink project. I would love to hear the Minister's thoughts on that and how it may be impacted upon following the pandemic and the potential economic hit our country will take. We need this project, not only for north County Dublin but for the country. We need it to assist in the drive to get our economy back up and running. It is a source of national shame that our capital city's airport is not linked by light rail to the city centre. MetroLink is something that really needs to remain on the agenda. As has been stated previously, in recent years the people of the north county did not believe the project would go ahead but in the past few months it gave them confidence that it would proceed when they saw ground testing works take place and the barriers with the MetroLink insignia on the side go up in Seatown Villas in Swords and in other locations all the way into the city. Our concern is that the project may be shelved again with the economic hit we will take on foot of the pandemic. That cannot happen. The project must remain a priority and it must be delivered.
I understand that the authorities at Dublin Airport will continue to build the new runway. The aviation and tourism sectors will recover at some stage. We all share the massive concern as to what the cost of the recovery will be to workers. We will get to a stage at some point where we are back up and running so we do need MetroLink. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is.
I apologise to the Minister. I missed his opening statement due to the fact that I was unavoidably in transit. We saw three of the new electric and hybrid Dublin buses unveiled at Grangegorman last year, followed by an announcement of the plan to expand the number of such buses to 70% of the fleet. I would like to hear the timeline for when that will be delivered. A cynic might suggest that it was a photo opportunity and that there will be no real progress, but it would be much appreciated if the Minister could provide further detail on this matter. In Belfast, there has been significant investment in moving the public bus fleet to electric and hybrid buses and there are now plans to introduce hydrogen buses. This is the kind of investment we want to see reflected in Dublin and in the cities and towns of Ireland.
Some Deputies believe that we should not take seriously our responsibilities on climate action given the size of the country, and that it is the larger countries and the larger polluters that need to take a lead. I thoroughly disagree with that. In its short but distinguished history, Ireland has taken the lead on global issues. I am always minded to point out our lead on nuclear disarmament in the 1950s and 1960s that ultimately led to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. People might say we had no right getting involved in the geopolitics of nuclear weapons proliferation but we did and we made a real difference and we could be the same leaders on climate change. There is a real hunger and appetite from people for this country to be that leader.
As already stated, our aviation industry will rebound. As an island nation, we will always require air travel. However, we can work to reduce our emissions in this sector too and we must have a national strategy in which we can monitor and reduce the emissions we produce in air travel. It is not good enough to just say that Ireland is an island and that we need aeroplanes; we need to make a sincere effort to reduce those emissions as much as we can.
I will return to MetroLink and the connectivity of suburban areas in places such as Fingal. Many people in Fingal, Kildare and Wicklow would love to be able to cycle into Dublin city centre. If they are given the infrastructure they could cover large distances on their bike in a normal everyday commute. When we are looking at big infrastructural projects such as MetroLink we need to see them as an opportunity to provide segregated cycle lanes for commuters who will come from Balbriggan and Skerries to Dublin city centre if the routes are safe. It would be greatly appreciated if we could think big on that.
In the short time remaining, I wish to ask a couple of questions. Home working has become de rigueurnow due to the pandemic. There is a sense that it will continue for a lot of people. Has any thought been given to the provision of shared work spaces in towns that would allow people to walk to work locally and get out of the house? Some people are not able to work from home but if they could go somewhere centrally in their local town to access a shared workspace or work hub, it would mean that they would not have to get into their cars to drive long distances or get on overcrowded trains. This is something that is worth exploring and we support it.
Carbon taxes on aviation fuel are likely to come in either from the EU or on our own initiative. What work is being done to ensure the viability of the Dublin Airport Authority and other State-owned airports?
Where stands the proposal to cut airport charges at Dublin Airport which we are concerned may undercut the airport's viability to self-fund and may make it ripe for privatisation?
If Deputy Duncan Smith had been here in the previous Dáil he would have heard them screaming at me about privatisation every week from the benches over there and me trying to assure them that there was no privatisation agenda of any sort whatsoever. There is no agenda to privatise that I know of. Still, it does not stop people saying that it is a possibility. That is not the objective, and certainly in this particular time. It is just to keep the supplies going, keep the air routes open and ensure that our connectivity is kept going.
On MetroLink, as the Deputy will be aware, there are things going on elsewhere which are possibly more important and significant down the road than what is happening in this House this evening and I have not heard of any artificial delays or plans to delay it in any way at all. In all of these projects, there will be a natural delay now because of Covid but it will be made up quickly. It might be made up totally. I cannot in any way tie my successor onto what is happening with MetroLink but I certainly have had no proposals or suggestions of that happening. It is vital that the major public transport initiatives, which include MetroLink and BusConnects, go ahead. Please God, the situation where we are trying to keep people out of public transport will end and we will get back to these projects which we hope will be very successful. I can assure the Deputy that if there are plans to do that, I know nothing of them.
The Deputy was also looking at the timelines in Dublin Bus for the electric or hybrid buses. There are approximately nine in operation at present. There are 100 due by the end of this year, 500 by 2025 and the ambition is to have a full fleet of low-emission buses by the end of the decade.
I will share two minutes with Deputy Cairns.
According to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, transport is the sector with the largest energy demand and it is the most sensitive to the economy. It tends to grow or reduce sharply in response to economic growth or contraction. It could not be more evident with the economy now in hibernation with Covid-19 that such is the case. Transport is also by far the largest source of final energy demand, at 42% in 2018. According to the EPA, 19.5% of Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions are from the transport sector. The national climate policy goal is to reduce the overall emissions of carbon dioxide by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. We know what the problems are. It is the solutions that we really need to focus on.
First, we have to change the mindset. We have got to stop thinking about moving cars and moving vans and vehicles. We have got to start thinking about moving people. The dramatic increase in the number of people who are cycling is very evident. I expect it is because people feel safe, not least because of Covid-19 but also because the roads have less traffic on them, although that is growing again. We have underdeveloped cycle networks. Our concern is that the policy response will be to clutter our towns and cities with electric cars. This will result in cleaner traffic jams where a mix of public transport, cycling and walking is what is needed.
Due to the dispersed nature of the population in many parts of the country, there is no doubt that vehicles fuelled by electricity are a good fit. However, in large population centres we need decent networks of fast, efficient, reliable and cost-effective public transport. Between the cities, we need high-speed rail transport.
Many of our railway systems date from the 19th century. In the capital, for example, the northern line terminated at Connolly Station, the great southern and western line at Heuston Station, and the great western line at Broadstone Station. What did not occur was the networking of the three lines. The missing piece is a 3.2 mile-long tunnel called DART underground, which has been talked about for decades and has been at an advanced planning stage for a considerable period. Those 3.2 miles are the final piece of what is known as the game changer. If provided, it would quadruple the number of passenger journeys per year on public transport, free up the surface space and allow for the development of a cycle network. It would also make it highly attractive to use public transport from areas within the Dublin suburbs, the outer counties of Meath, Kildare and Wicklow and further afield. Owing to the pattern of settlement that has occurred, more people live in the combined counties of Kildare, Meath and Wicklow than in the Dublin city area. That is hard to believe but it is the case. I refer to the city area rather than the whole county of Dublin.
It is essential that we deal with traffic congestion at origin, provide good park-and-ride facilities in the suburbs outside the city core and offer the type of public transport that makes it a no-brainer to switch modes. It is expensive infrastructure but it is the kind of investment that pays for itself over time. Low interest rates at the moment make it an even more attractive proposition, not least because it would help to deal with our emission targets, reduce congestion, have a consequence for our accident rates, free up our road surface space and improve air quality. It would improve journey times for everyone and make the city a nicer place to live in. It is only when one goes to other European cities and sees a cohesive network across a range of modes that one can see the level of catching up that is required to be done here.
The Minister might answer the following questions after Deputy Cairns's contribution. Additional funds have been made available for developing cycling networks in 2020. Is there an impediment at individual local authority level to deliver them? Would the Minister agree that projects such as DART underground, where considerable planning has been done, would provide a stimulus and deliver a long-term return on many levels?
I am disappointed by the absence of tourism in the annual transition statement. An ambitious domestic tourism strategy could be environmentally and economically sustainable and has become urgent in light of the effects of Covid-19 on the industry. We need to enhance and incentivise domestic tourism for the next few years; it is the only way the industry will survive.
Greenways, blueways, walking trails and other eco-tourism initiatives that promote our natural and cultural heritage should be prominent in our climate and tourism strategies. For this to work, our hotels, which play a central role in facilitating tourism, many of which are on the brink of closure, will need more support. Without hotels in areas such as west Cork, we will not have tourism, and with that, we will not have so much more. In my constituency, hotels are often the single largest employer in an area, as well as a huge part of the community. We saw this throughout the pandemic, as they were providing meals on wheels for those cocooning, and they have always been the host of community events and fundraisers. They are absolutely integral. Many are still recovering from the last recession and simply cannot afford another one. We need to look at the VAT rate, local authority rates, the restart grant and so much more.
What measures is the Minister taking to enable significant growth in domestic tourism? As part of these measures, will he establish a specific task force for hotels to provide targeted support to these essential community and tourism facilities? Given the time constraints, a written reply from the Department would be greatly appreciated.
I will certainly get the Deputy a written reply, which is not a problem. She is probably aware that many of the restrictions for hotels, restaurants and others in the tourism industry have been moved from one phase to the next, and that was a direct response to the sort of comment she made. It is also a direct response to some intensive and effective representations made by the hotel industry and restaurateurs, and to us realising that the tourism industry employs so many people that we have to acknowledge the difficulties it is in.
There will be problems and they are not going to be sorted overnight.
We talked about the aviation task force today, to an unwarranted extent because it is not actually relevant to the subject we are talking about. The task force on tourism, which we set up a couple of weeks ago, reacted promptly and enthusiastically to its mandate and with regard to its demands. It reported within a week stating what it wanted. It had a fairly decisive effect and certainly influenced what was happening last week when the phases were changed. The Deputy should not think we are not conscious of that. The tourism industry, as with the aviation industry, is so important. They are equally important in keeping the country going. The industry was paralysed a few weeks ago and there was an assumption that there would be no tourism here this year at all. That is what everybody, including tourism groups and some of the agencies, was saying. Now, at least, they are talking more optimistically about opening up and about staycations. The problem has moved to the questions of why people cannot come from abroad and when we will be able to go abroad. This involves a different focus on the problems people have. We have been and will be absolutely determined to ensure the hotels and restaurants, and any other outlets in the industry, will not be closed for any longer than they should be. We have acknowledged the difficulty and responded. The tourism industry has responded quite well also. I take the Deputy’s point that it is not going to be perfect, but we are on the way.
Deputy Catherine Murphy asked whether there is something obstructing local authorities from delivering from the funds. There is no obstruction that I know of but I will certainly inquire to see if there is one.
I would like the Minister to explain a reply my party member Deputy Bríd Smith got on the proposed liquefied natural gas, LNG, terminal at the Port of Cork. With regard to climate action, this represents a quite substantial shift. Many in this Chamber believed that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were moving away from the concept of LNG terminals. Let me quote material from the talks going on not far from this place: "Both of our parties accept that as we move towards carbon neutrality, it does not make sense to build new large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure such as liquid natural gas import terminals [at this moment]." According to the reply Deputy Bríd Smith received, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which I acknowledge is not the Department of Mr. Ross, and Gas Networks Ireland are supportive of the project. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport should correct me if I am wrong in believing this represents a major policy shift by the Government. How can we take this Government or the next one seriously on the importation of fracked gas into Ireland? Could the Minister comment on that?
I can certainly comment but it is a matter for another Department. I will ask it to respond to the Deputy and try to find the information for him. The response he has got is from another Department and I cannot respond on that.
It essentially indicates that the memorandum of understanding from the Port of Cork states that it still wants to import the fracked LNG. Is the Government against this or is it the Government's policy to have such a facility not only in Shannon but also the Port of Cork? This is from the Minister's Department.
I am pleased to take part in today's debate and I acknowledge the comments made by the contributors so far. I take this opportunity to pass on my condolences to family and friends of those who died as a result of Covid-19 in the past week. I also want to pass on my sincere thanks to all those front-line workers who continue to perform heroically in the fight against this disease. As can be seen from the daily figures, the Irish people are winning the battle against Covid-19, which is a great testament to their determination and willpower.
There is no doubt that carbon emissions form part of one of the greatest challenges we face not only now but into the future. We have agreed targeted reductions over the coming decades but we have not put in place a realistic plan to reach these targets. There will be a balancing act to keep many industries sustainable while at the same time reducing our carbon emissions.
Much focus is regularly and unfairly put on the agricultural sector as a major contributor to our greenhouse emissions. There is no point in speaking about a particular section while at the same time failing to offer any solutions. It is very easy to continuously point out a problem but never offer any viable solutions.
The Minister mentioned electric vehicles earlier and this is one area that we must consider seriously. According to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, an electric vehicle produces approximately 60 g of CO2 for every kilometre driven while a petrol car produces an average of 130 g of CO2 for every kilometre. In other words, an electric vehicle produces 54% less carbon than its petrol counterparts. It is a no-brainer that people should be switching to electric vehicles.
The Minister knows the switch to electric vehicles is not happening in any great numbers. We hear that may people are concerned by the range of vehicles, the lack of charging points and so on. The main reason people are not moving to electric vehicles is a fear about the lifespan of the battery in the vehicle and the potential cost of replacement. It could potentially cost between €5,000 and €9,000 to replace a full battery system, which is a major reason for people not to move to electric vehicles. The driving range of a vehicle and the number of charging points are continuously improving but the battery issue has not been addressed.
One solution is to grant-aid the cost of a replacement battery to the end user. This grant could be based on the number of kilometres done or some other scheme that promotes the use of electric vehicles. If we are serious about moving to electric vehicles, we must address this matter. The benefit of electric cars is a reduction of at least 54% in carbon emissions and this is an opportunity we must take. Will the Minister consider the introduction of subsidy scheme for replacing batteries in electric motor vehicles? At the very least I suggest we look into the option and get expert opinion.
I will also comment on the cycle-to-work scheme. I am fully supportive of this scheme and the fact that it allows people to cycle to work, as opposed to driving, is to be commended. It will also contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions. To make the scheme more attractive to people, we must look at how cycling lanes are currently being used and their effectiveness. In Dundalk, cycling lanes were introduced in certain areas that by all accounts are absolutely useless. The lanes are rarely used and are extremely dangerous in parts, as well as being an eyesore. The people living beside the lanes are seeing a severe impact and, in general, those lanes are a failure. Driving through the Seatown area of Dundalk one is likely to see cyclists on the road instead of cycling lanes, which tells its own story.
I am 100% in favour of using bicycles instead of driving to work. We must encourage and support their use.
However, we must introduce cycle lanes that will enhance an area and make cycling not only safer but also more enjoyable. If we did a calculation on the savings that would be made from encouraging people to cycle to work as opposed to driving, we would see an advantage. The cycle to work scheme gives those who avail of it a tax break but why not look into a scheme where we could give those people more incentives, perhaps including the use of energy credits to move to cycling to work? I would be interested in hearing the Minister's views on that.
During the past three or four months we have seen major change in the country. The Covid-19 pandemic will change forever many aspects of daily life to which we had become used. One area I believe we will benefit from is the fact that businesses and their workers are now considering working from home as an alternative. I have spoken to many business owners in the Louth area who are putting plans in place to have their workforce operate from home on a full-time basis. From a carbon reduction point of view, there are many advantages. If people work from home it means that they are not travelling to work, whether in a car or on public transport. That alone will greatly reduce our carbon emissions. There is a great opportunity here but to get the most out of this transition we must support not only the business but also the employees. We need to put measures in place that will support employees to convert space in their homes for work purposes. It is all very well to speak about working from home but people do not want to work at their kitchen table. They need a dedicated workspace. We need to support them in creating that workspace in the home. The benefit of that far outweighs any negative aspects. It has been shown that people are more productive working from home, have a better quality of life and overall are better off.
We are here today discussing climate action and low carbon development. What better way to address that than by taking people off the roads and out of the cities and towns for work purposes? We should think about the many thousands of workers who could work from home and therefore not clog up the roads and public transport systems. We need to have expert opinion on that, and the Minister might support me on it. Imagine if we could reduce traffic going into our major cities and towns by even 30%. The carbon saving on that would be enormous. We would then not need as much office space, which in turn could be used for housing. Not only could we reduce our carbon footprint but we could also be helping the housing crisis. Will the Minister support me today in looking at ways businesses and employees could be supported in transitioning to working from home? The support could be in the form of a home grant to convert a part of the home to a workspace or office.
As the Minister knows, I fully support all reasonable efforts to move to a position where carbon emissions are reduced greatly but that must not be done at a cost to certain sectors. We must support all sectors as we try to move to a carbon-neutral society. We must be clever in our approach, get the right advice from experts and put in place a realistic plan to reduce our carbon emissions.
Will the Minister support the introduction of a subsidy scheme for electric vehicle owners to replace batteries that have reached the end of life, examine the possibility of introducing a type of energy credit scheme for people using their bicycles to cycle to work and introduce a scheme that will subsidise homeowners to convert part of their home to work use? If he does not have enough time to answer all of my questions, I would appreciate it if he would do so in writing.
I thank the Deputy for his comprehensive contribution. I do not think I will have time to answer all of his questions. The schemes he mentioned seem on the surface to have merit, particularly the ones about working from home. I ask him to send me a request in writing and I will have them examined. The more detail he has on them, the better. One of the refreshing outcomes of what has happened in a tragic few weeks is that there have been one or two areas from which we have got to learn lessons. The fact that people are working very successfully from home - it is working out far better than people expected - may have dramatic implications for our lifestyles and even for public transport if people are not going to use it as much.
I believe the environmental benefit is probably one of mitigation rather than anything dramatic. An Irish study by O'Keeffe in 2016 estimated carbon reductions of almost 60 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide if 20% of the population of the greater Dublin area telecommuted one day a week for a year.
This represents approximately 0.5% of transport emissions for 2018. While it is not a massive saving of emissions it is, as I have said, a mitigation measure that requires further consideration, especially in light of how well people and businesses have adapted to remote working throughout the Covid crisis. Any future policy decisions in this regard will need to consider that the potential benefits with regard to emissions saved may be offset by rebound effects such as telecommunications generating dispersed patterns of land use, which could lead to longer non-commute trips. It should also be borne in mind that only 30% of journeys are work-related, as per the national travel survey.
At the investment strategy level, the review of the transport strategy for the greater Dublin area is due to commence later this year while public consultations for the Limerick, Shannon and Waterford strategies are scheduled to commence this year. Evolving circumstances post Covid will undoubtedly inform their development.
I was interested in what the Deputy said about cycling and about cycling lanes in Dundalk in particular. We are making a modal shift. One figure which would indicate this and act as evidence of it is that we have increased funding for active travel from €39 million in 2018 to €107 million this year. It is expected that €160 million will be invested in active travel next year. That is a fourfold increase in only three years. It is a fairly large commitment.
Táim ag roinnt ama leis an Teachta O'Donoghue. Tá áthas orm deis a fháil anocht chun labhairt ar an topaic fhíorthábhachtach seo agus na fadhbanna a mbaineann léi. I am very happy to speak briefly on this important issue this evening. Addressing how all sectors, including transport, can reduce emissions is vitally important, not least because it reminds us that there are obligations on areas other than that of agriculture.
In the short time I have, I will raise a matter that has been brought to my attention by members of the Irish Car Carbon Reduction Alliance, ICCRA. This group brings together the majority of new car dealers in Ireland, representing almost every car brand. According to the ICCRA, the Government's stated objective to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and to have 1 million electric cars on Irish roads is unachievable, counterproductive and not in line with what is happening at EU level. It is only leading to increased carbon emissions as Irish motorists delay switching their older cars to newer models which offer significantly reduced carbon dioxide emissions and almost zero nitrogen oxide emissions due to new manufacturing innovations. The ICCRA says that it has seen at first hand widespread consumer confusion over this proposed ban leading to inertia in purchasing and a year-on-year decrease in sales of new cars, which are cleaner for the environment and produce less emissions. In short, as sales of new cars fall, emissions will rise.
The ICCRA believes that Ireland's car-related carbon emissions can be reduced provided a number of key challenges are addressed. The first relates to the timeframe for electric vehicles. The EU and European car manufacturers signed the Paris Agreement, which commits to reduce emissions from transport by 90% by 2050. European car manufacturers have pledged that they will not produce internal combustion engines after 2040. The focus in the interim is on reducing carbon emissions, with a commitment to reduce these by 15% by 2025, 30% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. Irish national policy needs to adopt this focus and this effective approach because there will not be enough electric vehicles available in Ireland to achieve anything like 1 million electric vehicles by 2030. Manufacturers have already clearly stated that the innovations and scale required for electric vehicle production will not deliver on these volumes and that the 2040 timeframe towards which they are working is the most realistic.
Ireland must work to this timeframe too. Is this something the Minister will commit to revising? Will he work with the ICCRA and others so the views from these stakeholders can be heard and, indeed, dealt with in a collaborative and constructive manner?
I thank Deputy Nolan. She asked if I would consider banning conventionally fuelled new cars. The EU internal Single Market rules do not currently permit legislative bans on vehicle types from other member states. Roadworthiness testing - the NCT - is a harmonised EU wide system. Member states must mutually recognise certificates of roadworthiness issued by other member states, including for conventionally fuelled vehicles. That said, there is strong system-wide support for accelerating the decarbonisation of the national car fleet and reducing poor air quality arising from the operation of fossil-fuelled vehicles in Irish cities.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, and I, along with six other EU Ministers, wrote to the EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans calling for stronger Union-led action in support of the transition to zero emission passenger cars, including a call for legal clarity on banning higher emitting vehicles. If, in time, we adopt any regulatory ban that requires Irish car buyers to purchase only certain technologies, we must remain mindful that these vehicles continue to suit their requirements. I have worked at EU level to pressurise for revising the targets upwards, but at present we can only reiterate that it is necessary to meet our EU targets, and we are committed to trying to achieve that.
A survey undertaken by NUI Galway regarding Covid-19 found that 83% of people want to work remotely. One in five identified connectivity as an issue. The previous Government had nine Ministers in Dublin. How does it expect the rest of the country to deal with emissions when it has not dealt with them in Dublin? Dublin commuters spend 246 hours in traffic each year. That is higher than is the case in Paris, Rome and London. The Government has not started at home, but it will start it. It blames the farmers for emissions. It is farmers, farmers, farmers for everything, yet nine Ministers have done nothing about correcting the issue in Dublin, where they started.
On the first day I was travelling to Leinster House, I said I would travel on the green bus. I had to travel 20 miles to that bus, and because there was no adequate parking, my wife had to drive me. That was 40 miles. I returned on the green bus and my wife had to collect me and bring me home. That was 80 miles. If there were parking facilities where the green buses depart from Limerick to Dublin - adequate safe parking or any parking - I would have saved 40 miles of travel. Multiply that by 10,000 and 40,000 miles would be saved in one day. Why has the Government not looked at the simpler solutions? It goes everywhere else aside from starting from home, where it must start. Park-and-ride is a brilliant idea, but again there is no parking and no room on the bus when one gets there because any parking facilities that are there are full. If people want to make a difference, they should go to every sector. Too many plans have been made but none has been followed through.
What about electrifying the rail system? What about reducing the number of times a Minister or Members of the European Parliament go to Europe, whereby they can only travel a certain number of times and not travel over and back all the time? Why do we not try simple things like saying that if somebody has to go to Europe, he or she must stay there for two weeks or a month, so the person is not travelling over and back every week? Why do we not start at home and work out from there?
As I said, Dublin commuters spend more hours in traffic than commuters in Paris, Rome or London. The Government has the infrastructure but it has not got it right.
I thank the Deputy for his contribution. We are getting it right in Dublin. Not being from Dublin but because it is such a high-profile project, the Deputy will be aware of the discussions we have had about the MetroLink. He will also be aware of the discussions we have had about BusConnects and DART expansion.
These are designed absolutely to target the difficulties which we have and which are clean. There is the Luas as well. They are all clean and solidly anti-pollution projects which will help, first of all, on modal shift but will also help to produce extra capacity and be clean. We are not going to solve this problem overnight. However, 70% of commutes to Dublin city centre are actually now on sustainable modes. We may not have got the other 30% right and they may be clogging up the roads with traffic jams, which I regret. However, we have made a lot of progress. It would be appropriate if the Deputy acknowledged that particular progress.
The Deputy had a good point about the park-and-ride strategy. However, that strategy is being drawn up by the National Transport Authority, NTA. The Deputy may be working in parallel with the NTA and I am glad to see that they are both in agreement. I do not know who was enlightened first, whether it was the Deputy or the NTA. They are both on the right track, however.
Just to take the Minister up on that last point that the NTA is now working on park-and-ride, I had the privilege of being mayor of Galway for 2004 to 2005. Then we fought a determined battle against management to include park-and-ride in our city development plan. However, city management did not think it was appropriate. We put it in and it remained as an objective. Fifteen years later, we still have no park-and-ride in Galway. I am not sure where the NTA is at with regard to that. Park-and-ride has simply never been rolled out in Galway. I have watched my beautiful city choke with traffic congestion. We have got a break from that over the past few months but in a most tragic way. There was absolutely no need for the build-up of traffic congestion in Galway. While I blame some councillors and local authority management, I also blame the Department and the Government which fostered a programme of more roads and more traffic.
I welcome the Minister’s speech and thank him for it. I wish him the best in whatever he will do next. The details of his speech, however, and the moneys spent always have to be put in context, namely, that of a climate emergency. We have the tiniest window of opportunity to do something and we simply have no choice. The children of this country and the world have forced us to do that and declare a climate emergency, along with six Bills and obligations under international conventions.
In 2018 I stood for nine weeks on the streets of Galway collecting 24,000 signatures requesting the Minister to carry out a feasibility study on light rail in Galway. I am not foolish enough to think that 24,000 people endorsed that. However, what they did endorse was the call for a feasibility study. That never happened. Since then, we have declared a climate emergency, introduced a national plan and a framework, all committed to sustainable development. Within that sustainable development, five cities have been picked out, one of them Galway, and the population is to grow by 50%. Between climate change and the growth planned for the city, the case for at least a feasibility study for light rail is overwhelming.
At some stage tonight the Minister spoke about an insatiable appetite for greenways and how he could not possibly satisfy it. Perhaps it was an unfortunate choice of words and it might be the time of night but I believe we could not possibly have enough greenways.
Galway distinguishes itself by doing everything right on the map and the city development plan but we have no greenway. There is no greenway to Oughterard or to Barna. When I left the council in February 2016, consultants were employed to look at it, and it was not progressed. Covid-19 has shown us the way forward in Galway. We have seen a substantial increase in the number of cyclists and the removal of parking on the Prom. It has shown what is possible. That should become a permanent feature not just of Galway, but of all cities that want to be smart and green and show the way. There is an onus on us to do that. I worry when I hear about the push for electric vehicles. I do not mind looking at electric vehicles but I think that in itself will become unsustainable. Deputy Catherine Murphy made the point that we will have smart traffic jams and I agree with her. We need an integrated public transport system. I am regrettably driving at the moment. I normally take the bus. Sometimes I take the train. I cycle in Galway. I know the transport system from every angle. While on that matter, I want to mention the coach and bus service, which has made representations to all of us. It has been out of action since mid-March. It has made specific requests. If the Minister gets a chance, will he address the bus and coach service?
Tourism has not been mentioned. It is difficult to mention everything. The small to medium enterprises in tourism have suffered, like other small to medium enterprises. We receive representations. Grants do not exist even though the word "grant" has been used. They tell us the terms and conditions surrounding the loans are too onerous. I come from a city, Galway. A question was also asked about when the Aran Islands will open, as well as questions about places such as Kilmaine and Shrule. There is a substantial range and we need properly targeted supports.
Before talking about Shannon, which is the primary issue that I wish to discuss tonight, I join with Deputy Connolly in calling for some clarity about when the islands will open, and whether they will open for family members, which is most important, for people who have a holiday home there, and for tourism. They are all important but to different degrees. Some clarity is required as all the other areas of opening up are being brought forward.
Last week, I addressed this House in the Minister's presence and accused him of a certain Dublin bias, or at least of having concentrated on Dublin during his tenure as Minister. We have talked a lot about contagion in this House in the last couple of weeks and the dangers of contagion. I wonder if that bias is particularly contagious, given the Minister's fleeting visit to Bunratty and the fact that we now have the Shannon Heritage group. It has decided that it will close all of its heritage sites in the mid-west, which it is supposed to serve primarily, from the end of August onwards. It is opening them up at the end of this month. The sites that it runs in Dublin will remain open and be serviced, including the General Post Office, Malahide Castle and gardens, and Newbridge House and Farm. That is of concern to me. If these essential tourist sites in Dublin are important enough to be kept open, why are they not important enough to be kept open in the mid-west? I do not mean to be facetious. There is obviously a difference in ownership structures. I have raised this issue with the Shannon Group and its management has questioned whether it is appropriate for a commercial semi-State body to pump money into something that it knows will lose money, the Shannon Heritage sites. I am not expecting that the Minister will make a decision in the time left to him as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, but maybe he will initiate an examination of it, if it is not appropriate for Shannon Group to maintain these sites.
Deputy Cathal Crowe had a plastic model of Bunratty Castle. Unfortunately, the real castle is made of bricks and stone and is an ancient building which is expensive to maintain. It is a protected structure, as it should be, and any works which were to be carried out would have to be done to a high standard and would be expensive because of the nature of the building and the degree of specialisation required to work on it.
In addition, because it is a building that receives many tourists, it inevitably requires significant upkeep every year. The same is true of Knappogue Castle, Dunguaire Castle, near Kinvara, King John’s Castle and Craggaunowen. These are expensive sites to maintain. While they are important tourist sites, they are also an important part of our heritage. How do we value our heritage? Clearly, the structure that is being put in place for the visitors' centre in the GPO, Malahide Castle and Newbridge House means the heritage of those sites is valued highly because Shannon Heritage will continue to keep them open whereas the heritage of the sites in the mid-west seems to be of lesser value, and I find it difficult to reconcile that. Even if it is the case that somehow one is more important than another because of an ownership structure, with none in private ownership, and if the structure needs to be maintained to ensure investment in them, state aid rules have been relaxed. Fáilte Ireland and the airport group were to invest a sizeable sum in Bunratty Castle. Given that this is an essential heritage site, perhaps the State should consider investing that money instead because the Shannon Group is not in a good place.
Last but by no means least, I would like to mention the Aer Lingus workers. Some have given a lifetime to Shannon Airport and they have been told that from Sunday week, they will not even be on standby in the event that Aer Lingus diverts a plane there or the airport starts opening up. Other companies will be called on to carry out ground crew work or any essential works that are required. I have long held suspicions about Aer Lingus’s attitude to the airport. It informed my attitude to the sale of the 25% shareholding a number of years ago. However, it has been confirmed by Aer Lingus management that the staff who have given a lifetime of work to Shannon Airport will be relegated to a much lesser status than those at Cork and Dublin Airports. It is not fair or right. I appreciate that Aer Lingus is a private company, and I expect that will be the Minister’s response. However, it is somehow the flag carrier for Ireland and if the Government could signal its opposition to that move, it might carry some weight. I urge it to do so.