Wednesday, 16 June 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Climate Change Policy
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the permission to raise this important issue. If present trends continue, by 2050 it will take three planets for nature to replenish the materials we use each year. The take, make, use and dispose model has got an iron grip on the way we live our lives. That has to change. The care of our planet must be at the heart of Ireland 2040. The food we waste each year in Ireland generates the same emissions as 1 million cars. The plastic that wraps our lives so conveniently is rarely used a second time and generates emissions equivalent to half a million cars. Every night, 2 million bedrooms lie empty, in the midst of a housing crisis. All around us, items are used in a throwaway fashion: non-reparable, rapid obsolescence. Two thirds of what goes into our black bins already have better uses available for those who put them in those bins.
The clue to how we might change this is revealed in the fact that 80% of the environmental damage in the items we use is baked in at design stage, both in the products we use, and the markets in which they trade. If we rethink our choices and our supply chain, we can have different outcomes. For many consumers, the choice to purchase, use and re-use these items in a manner consistent with the principles of circular economy is not being made available to them.
I welcome today’s publication of a waste Bill. However, we need to go a great deal further than what is envisaged in that Bill. I have set out in a report that I have presented to the Committee on Environment and Climate Action an approach to which we can deliver much more ambition. It is built around five pillars for action. The first of those is in the investment world: both the public investment world and the private. We need to follow the EU so-called taxonomy, in other words, building principles of sustainability into the investments we make. The second pillar is among designers and manufacturers. We must make sure that the designs that are made at that early stage include sustainability. The third pillar is around packaging and labelling. At the moment, we have complete ambiguity and confusion in respect of the labels that are presented. That needs to change. The fourth pillar is to offer new options to consumers, through distribution and retail chains. The final is to develop new consumer markets that can ensure access to accurate information and options for more sustainable practice.
The reality is that even with the publication of the waste Bill yesterday, little of this territory has been developed in Ireland. We do not see in either the public sector or the private sector the sort of commitments to those investment and design strategies. I urge the Minister of State to do a number of things. He needs to set targets, he needs to develop concrete actions and he needs to establish indicators that are reported regularly. For example, we have been talking about green procurement for years but we do not have one single consistent indicator of what is progress is being made under green procurement. That is just one example of how we can demonstrate that we are making progress.
I would say to the Minister of State that this cannot be done without a budget. We need to see a substantial budget to ensure that sectoral roadmaps can be opened up in areas like food, construction and retail, where there are huge opportunities to change that pattern, for the benefit of our planet.
I sincerely thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I welcome any Deputy who wants me to go further on my existing policy and who is looking for more ambition. Even better is suggesting ways that I can do that and specific practical means to get there and even better if a Deputy has specific experience in that area and was previously a Minister. The work that the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I are doing is based on the policy and the preparatory work that Deputy Bruton put in when he was in that role. I hope that future Ministers will implement things where I have done preparatory work.
The Government recognises that Ireland needs to establish a circular economy to achieve its climate action ambitions. It is with that in mind that the heads of the new circular economy Bill were agreed by the Cabinet yesterday. In September 2020, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, launched a new action plan for a circular economy. The action plan goes beyond waste management. It looks at resource use more broadly to capture and maximise the ongoing value of materials that in the past have been discarded. The plan confirmed the link between the circular economy and climate action. It established a circular economy division within my Department, with a mandate to ensure a whole-of-government approach. That division has produced a draft whole-of-government circular economy strategy, which has just finished an eight-week public consultation.
I understand that Deputy Bruton is anxious for what he regards as more ambition in the current draft strategy. I can assure him that there is plenty of ambition behind the strategy and the work programme to follow. If we are to achieve the systemic overhaul that is required, then we need to bring a large number of people with us. We need comprehensive buy-in to transition into a circular economy. That means across Government, business, households and communities. Therefore, targets, actions and timelines must be built with the input of those who are expected to make the changes required.
Without collaboration and consensus, the strategy risks becoming a top-down to-do list. We need to first establish an agreed platform for action. With that in mind, I will be visiting the Rediscovery Centre in Ballymun, seeing actual community-led groups trying to implement circular economy ideas rather than lofty abstract ideas that are coming from high up.
In line with the approach set out in the waste action plan, the draft strategy is not a target-driven, technically detailed document. Our primary aim is to set out an overall approach to circular economy policy, identify key objectives and indicate the direction of future policy development. An additional aim has been to provide explanatory information which can demystify the circular economy for non-specialist audiences.
The text also contains an explicit commitment to revise the draft strategy on an ongoing basis. This will include introducing targets as policy develops further. An interdepartmental working group will be convened after publication of the strategy to drive this next phase of development. This joined-up approach will ensure that circular economy practices are embedded across Government.
This first iteration of the strategy aims to provide an overall framework for circular economy policy development. Future versions will include specific actions and targets for all Departments and all sectors of the economy. In parallel, the 2021 climate action plan is currently under preparation and treats circular economy as a cross-cutting issue of significant importance. Circular economy actions and principles will be incorporated across the thematic areas of the document, for example, in construction, agriculture and food loss, and enterprise. We are leveraging the expertise and resources of others to support our ambition for the circular economy.
The Environmental Protection Agency's new programme will be a driving force for Ireland's move to a circular economy through designing out waste, promoting resource recycling and delivering sustainable economic growth. The overall approach is to influence behavioural change, support sustainable choices and inform policy toward the implementation of a circular economy.
I do not doubt the Minister of State's commitment in this area. However, I am not convinced by his statement that this will be an overall approach and principled document. We need to make this a central spine of the climate action plan. We need to have very clear targets, some of which need to be new. The Minister of State has certainly adopted halving of food waste, but what about removing all plastic from incineration or landfill by a certain date? How about doubling the size of the reuse sector? Those sorts of changes will require concrete actions. To say that this will be a high principled document and that concrete actions will come later will sell us short.
We can have very concrete actions, for example, banning the "best before" or "sell buy" labels on food. That would be a very practical change that would suddenly change the extent to which we waste food or people are encouraged to waste food. A requirement that 20% of floor space in larger supermarkets be set aside for people who bring their own containers would be a very concrete change to reduce the amount of plastic that is discarded and used only once.
Those actions are needed and we need a concrete budget. I believe the allocation to the circular economy initiated recently was €250,000. Given that we are looking to every section in the economy to develop a roadmap to change the way it designs and manage markets, that is only a drop in the ocean. Most of all, the Government needs to establish indicators. Successive Governments have talked about green procurement, but without any concrete indicators. We need to recognise that such an approach can be considerably less adversarial than some of the debate we have on emission targets alone. I think people instinctively understand we should be sharing and reusing. I urge the Minister of State to make this an essential spine of the climate strategy.
The circular economy idea reflects a complete change of mindset. I believe the Deputy, as an economist, will recognise we are completely changing the way we think about how our economy works. We started with the idea of taking things out of the ground, constructing things out of them and then throwing them away in a field or alternatively setting them on fire and putting their elements back into the atmosphere. To move away from that idea of take, make and dispose and to move towards this new idea that we can keep resources within the economy, that we can be richer without consumption and that exhausting our finite resources as quickly as possible is not a smart idea or a way to discover prosperity for society represents an enormous change in the way people think about things.
I believe it is right to get people to buy into that change before we move to the metrics. However, the Deputy is right; we cannot manage something unless we measure it. We need key metrics and targets that are very clear and understandable. The Deputy has made a good suggestion to eliminate "best before" and "sell by" dates. That is something that can be considered. We also need to have very clear targets, such as halving something or doubling something. That is absolutely right and we will be moving quickly towards that. The first stage is to convince people that it makes sense to retain resources within society. I think we are winning that argument and getting people on that side. We are also doing that at a European level. We are getting away from the idea that the quicker people ruin something or use something, the richer everybody is. We need to move away from planned obsolescence. It is a design problem and design problems are difficult to cope with. Our pharmaceutical and IT sectors have done very well in design and have very skilled people. We are a knowledge economy and we can conquer this.