Tuesday, 1 June 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.
My Department's 2021 resource efficiency action plan sets out a range of actions to improve the management of energy, water, material and waste resources within the Department and to increase sustainability awareness among staff. It also includes levels of energy and water usage and waste produced by the Department so that improvements can be tracked and measured following implementation of planned actions. The 2021 plan was developed in line with guidance published by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and was published last month on gov.ie.
Implementation of the actions set out in the plan will be overseen by the Department's green team, which comprises staff with responsibility for and-or an interest in driving progress in this area. This will build on progress made to date, including retrofit of lighting to LED bulbs in Government Buildings, sensor lighting installed in bathrooms, increasing staff awareness and promoting positive behaviours, elimination of single use plastics and single use drinking cups, installation of mains drinking water, sensor taps installed in main bathroom areas, and brown waste bins and recycling stations installed.
My Department also reports annually on energy efficiency initiatives and savings achieved through the SEAI monitoring and reporting portal. These results are published annually.
Deputy O'Callaghan is not here so I am taking his position.
Has each Department produced its resource-efficiency action plan for this year? When does each one intend to publish its plan?
Much of the heavy lifting associated with biodiversity and climate action is being done by local authorities. They are doing a fantastic job in many instances but they claim they are not being funded. Can we fund them to appoint more biodiversity officers, in particular, to take the pressure off all the staff who are carrying the weight in this regard? When does the Taoiseach intend to extend the process to the State Departments?
All Departments are required to prepare resource-efficiency action plans. In the area of waste, these plans reflect wider changes implemented by previous Governments in terms of how businesses and households manage their waste. Departments must increase the number of facilities for recycling and composting and discontinue the use of single-use plastics throughout the organisation.
Households have been separating out their recyclables and compostable waste for some time but the reality is that there is no clarity on where this waste goes exactly. We are aware that some local authorities across the country still operate an any-bag, any-bin policy and that some private operators incinerate all waste collected from the black bin, the blue bin, or even the brown bin. Practices across the public and private sectors are in direct conflict with the Government's current roadmap for waste planning and management, limited as that plan is. There are firm commitments to the circular economy, yet the mass production of unnecessary plastics by very profitable companies continues. There is no coherent and measured strategy to deal with planned obsolescence. Does the Taoiseach know where his Department's compostable waste goes? If not, he is not alone because Ireland simply does not have the industrial composting facilities needed to meet waste-separation needs.
What accountability mechanism has the Taoiseach put in place to ensure the programme for Government commitment to a new national waste action plan comprehensively addresses the existing shortfalls in the existing strategies?
Covid, probably more than anything else, has shown us how people, particularly workers, are our best resource. Workers, not only those on the front line but also others of all hues, beaver away doing essential tasks and allowing society to tick over. While we sit here debating the greater things in life, we rarely think of the centrality of workers in our society. We rarely think of them as a resource that could make our society much more efficient. In this regard, what does the Taoiseach think of the Fórsa campaign for a four-day week, Fórsa being the trade union leading the campaign? How might Ireland use a four-day week, as Spain is doing, to become one of the first countries in the world to lead a trial that would show how the associated work practice changes could have a double-whammy impact in that they would improve both the environment and levels of equality? The four-day week would improve the environment because, as studies have shown, changing to a four-day week can help to reduce emissions. It would improve our equality agenda because studies have shown that where a four-day week is implemented, fathers and partners, particularly men in relationships, can play a more caring role, a role that women are normally forced to play. There is a double benefit. Could the Taoiseach consider and comment on the dividends in terms of the green agenda and the equality agenda, in addition to the human improvement that a four-day week would afford?
I also want to follow up on the question of the four-day week. The Four Day Week Ireland coalition has highlighted how moving to a four-day week could reduce carbon emissions by up to 16% while also improving people's work-life balance and mental health. It is an important demand raised by the trade unions and the environmental movement and it constitutes an important part of the eco-socialist green new deal that we advocate. Earlier this month the Tánaiste said the four-day week was not something his Department was even considering. Are the Taoiseach and his Department considering it? If not, will they? Too often, tackling climate change is presented as being a matter of eco-austerity, greenwashing, new taxes on workers and cutting back on people's living standards but it does not have to be, and must not be, that way. Instead, an eco-socialist approach is about raising the quality of people's lives and tackling climate change together, transforming people's lives for the better and avoiding the climate catastrophe that is on the way. The demand for a four-day week without loss of pay is a perfect example of the approach. The approach allows the workers' movement and the environmental movement to come together to fight for this objective.
When it comes to managing waste, I do not want to let this opportunity go without talking about the scenes of litter and waste in Dublin city, as have been profiled in recent days, particularly online. Some of the reasons for consternation and blaming young people are outrageous and wrong. Young people have suffered so much over the past 18 months. We have a genuine issue in that we are telling everyone to enjoy an outdoor summer but we need to prepare for it, not just in Dublin. Luckily enough, I come from near Lough Derg on the River Shannon. Ms Maura Boyle of Larkin's in Garrykennedy was on to me about the volume of people down enjoying the area at the weekend. It is fantastic. It is a question of the level of waste left behind by some people. It is very difficult at times for some people because bins may be full and children and everything else may need to be managed. Across the country, in both urban and rural areas, as we face another bank holiday weekend, we do not need to close streets or anything like that. That just pushes people in other directions. We need to ensure, as my colleague Senator Bacik said eloquently earlier, we need more bins, more benches and more bogs for people. We need them pretty rapidly for an outdoor summer. We can all be safer and it can be enjoyed more. Local authorities need to provide them.
Local authorities need to respond. I agree with Deputy Kelly on that. We are successfully reopening society and the economy. The vaccination programme is making that possible, as is the adherence of the vast majority of people to guidelines for a prolonged period of time, which has had the desired impact of suppressing the virus or keeping it at reasonable levels. The vaccination programme, in particular, has reduced ill health and mortality and kept hospitalisations at a reasonable level. The number of intensive care unit admissions is down.
Regarding the preparation for outdoor activity, particularly for young people, outdoor facilities must be provided proactively by local authorities. Some local authorities have been very proactive regarding the pedestrianisation of streets. They have accelerated their pedestrianisation programmes. The Ministers responsible for tourism and housing, Deputy Catherine Martin and Deputy Darragh O'Brien, respectively, have provided funding for outdoor facilities so both establishments and councils can enhance the public space for people. That is the way to go.
I agree with Deputy Gannon's point that local authorities have been particularly effective. They have to make a decision based on the allocation and resources they get. With regard to biodiversity officers, I encourage their appointment. I would have been at the forefront of the appointment of archaeological officers in my time on the council. The appointment of a biodiversity officer is a key appointment. Most local authorities are embracing biodiversity. It is the cumulative impact of all the little things we do regarding biodiversity that will have the biggest impact. The wild garden that is being developed on Leinster House lawn, as opposed to the manicured lawn, is delightful to see. That is the type of initiative we need across the country. I will talk to the relevant Minister about the appointment of biodiversity officers specifically.
On Deputy McDonald's questions, the Cabinet sub-committee on the environment and climate change met yesterday in respect of the circular economy and objectives associated with expanding it. Ireland can do far better than it has been doing in that respect relative to other countries. I outlined earlier the significant progress made in my Department in terms of energy savings, waste disposal and the elimination-----
-----of single-use plastic and a range of other waste.
Deputies Paul Murphy and Bríd Smith raised issues in respect of a four-day week. Again, I would love to see the economic model for this and a presentation on it. There is one major question that the Deputies did not put forward. Who would pay for all of this? How would all of this be facilitated? In politics we will be a long way before we get to a six-day week, never mind a seven-day week. There is a five-day week at the moment. There have been moves to try to improve working hours and so on. The remote working strategy is being promoted by the Government and will be legislated for to facilitate reduction in carbon emissions so workers will not have to go on a five-day basis into the town or city or wherever. Where possible, they can do some of the work at home. There is a great deal of work to be done to flesh out the proposal that has been put forward by the Deputies.