Dáil debates

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Environmental Policy

5:50 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity to raise this very important matter, which is the balance between achieving our carbon reduction targets on one hand and retaining our agrifood production sector on the other. Both are equally important and need to be achieved, and both can be achieved provided we all go in the same direction and create opportunities to do what must be done in the shortest time possible.

I am strongly of the opinion that there is a need to provide renewable energy that is clean, affordable, available and that will continue to serve the community for many years to come. This is an innovative time, much like it was in the 1920s when the Shannon scheme was introduced, only now there are different demands. It is important we identify the ways to deal with the reduction in carbon that is necessary.

There is a variety of ways to deal with this. One is to say the answer is to bring the agricultural sector to a halt but that is not a real answer. It is anything but an answer and the entire project will fail if we go about it that way. However, if we encourage the agrifood sector to incentivise ways and means to provide for carbon reduction in houses, farms and throughout the country, we can have the best of both worlds. We can ensure an adequate food supply for the future and further the means of carbon sequestration through forestry and the use and growth of hedgerows. In that context, we should remember that no credit seems to be given at all for the existence of hedgerows and trees in the country, or at least to the extent that it should.

We also have much grassland that can be a means towards carbon reduction. On the other hand, it is of vital importance to note that the baseline for our carbon reduction targets was taken as a particular year. That does not necessarily address the issue because the agrifood sector here produces food for almost 50 million people. Ireland is unique in this respect internationally and it is because of the way the agrifood sector here is managed. This can continue and be improved. It can continue to ensure that we have a viable and sustainable agrifood sector well into the future. It must be remembered that when the economic crash came, this was the sector that stood up and delivered. When everybody thought that all was lost and we were going to starve, the agrifood sector rose to the challenge because it was sustainable, it was local, it was indigenous and it was capable of addressing the debt issues we had to address.

The sector is also very anxious to embrace good habits for carbon reduction. We need to engage with the agrifood sector to be able to talk with them to show them how they can improve their situation, improve carbon reduction and how they can set new targets. Every improvement is a step in the right direction. This must be done as a matter of course, but I have no doubt that the Minister of State is committed to this in any event. We need to reiterate this concept regularly and make sure that we do not fall victim to the international race.

6:00 pm

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I welcome the Deputy raising this matter. I agree with his assertion that it is possible to achieve both goals of maintaining a sustainable agrifood sector and achieving very ambitious carbon reductions.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to an annual average 7% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to 2030, representing a 51% reduction over the decade. To meet these ambitions, we must reduce the level of carbon emissions across all sectors of our economy, including in the agrifood sector. Irish agriculture has a positive international reputation in terms of producing high-quality, sustainable produce. We need to maintain that reputation. This will not be possible if emissions from the sector continue to increase. We also know from the Environmental Protection Agency's State of the Environment report that much needs to be done to protect our water, our air and our biodiversity.

The Government is committed to finding the balance between environmental, climate and biodiversity needs, and supports for the farming and agrifood industries. My Department is currently preparing the climate action plan 2021, which will identify the measures necessary to meet the programme for Government commitment in respect of carbon emissions. In the 2021 climate action plan, far-reaching policy changes will be deployed across every sector, which will set us on the path of systemic change that is required for Ireland to become a climateneutral and climate-resilient society and economy by 2050 at the very latest.

In the agrifood sector, we need to focus on a number of key areas. First, we must support and help our farmers to continue to roll out improvements in farming practices, an area in which Ireland is already among the leading countries. This will make sense fromboth a consumer point of view and from a financial perspective, because higher efficiency often means less cost. Second, we need to create a policy framework to enable farmers to make choices to avail of new diversification business opportunities in areas like forestry, the bio-economy and organic farming. In the programme for Government, there is a commitment to allocate €1.5 billion to a REPS 2 programme to encourage and incentivise farmers to farm in a greener and more sustainable way. It will include incentives to plant native forestry, and to enhance and support biodiversity. Third, we need to focus on gathering an evidence basis to support policy design in the area of land use. Ireland is currently a net emitter of emissions from our lands. We need to reverse that trend and reward farmers for doing so.

As well as developing the next climate action plan, my Department and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are evaluating the potential climate contributions from land use improvements, to develop a land-use strategy. Land use offers significant potential to sequester additional carbon and may provide a new source of family farm income and rural economic benefit.

With the correct policy choices in the agrifood sector, we can reward farmers for sequestering carbon, restoring biodiversity, producing clean energy and improving water and air quality while remaining profitable and competitive. This will offer opportunities to innovative enterprises which are sustainable in the long term for Ireland and its workers. It will also cement our position as a producer of sustainable food produce.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply. It illustrates the extent to which co-operation between the two objectives can be so helpful to the economy and to the quality of life, air and water throughout the country.

I thank the Minister of State again, but I would also point out that it might not be a bad idea to engage with the farming community and the agrifood sector on a different basis altogether, to engage with them in order to point out the ways and means by which they can help themselves to achieve the targets required, while at the same time helping the economy and remaining a viable part of that economy, knowing that at some stage in the future they may be called upon again to perform the economic rescue they were able to perform in the past. I believe that much can be achieved by way of co-operation. Much can be achieved in the provision of wind energy. There is nobody who does not accept that wind energy is fairly readily available and ongoing in this country and that it is a clean and viable source of energy. Not to avail of it would be very foolish.

I believe that we can do a great deal in this regard. Many people speculate about the possibility of reducing food production. It would be very dangerous for a country like Ireland, which produces food for almost 50 million people, to reduce food production. Let us not forget that there are millions of people on the brink of starvation all over the world. It is not true to say that we will not need food in the future; we will.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I assure the Deputy that engagement is absolutely key and necessary, and that we cannot achieve what we are trying to do here without the engagement from the farmers. The farmers are the environmental experts. They have been watching climate change happening before their eyes. They know better than anyone else what is happening. They have also seen their incomes under threat. It is so important. We cannot achieve these changes unless we give farmers and people who work in the agrifood industry a way out. They need an alternative and they need new sources of income. As the Deputy stated, there are sources of income other than food production, for example in energy production with wind and solar, in forestry, and in preserving biodiversity. Farmers need those supports. They need the Government and the State to come in behind them to help them. We cannot ask people to change without giving them an alternative and maintaining their incomes.

The Deputy is also absolutely right to point to the agrifood sector as the one pillar of the economy that managed to sustain throughout the last economic crisis, and that food security is vital. There is no alternative to producing our own food. We absolutely must have our own food supply. Farmers play a vital role in society, and this must be respected. Their voices must be listened to in order that we do not produce top-down policies in Dublin and then try to impose them onto farmers. It will involve deep consultation, proper listening, and trying to find ways to create those new income sources to replace the income sources that will change as a result of a major change in the agricultural industry. I am sure that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will step up to the plate and will be deeply involved in this process as the new carbon budget is developed this autumn following the passage of the climate action Bill.