Tuesday, 16 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister of State for agreeing to take this Topical Issue matter tonight. Two weeks ago, I spoke at an aviation conference held in County Clare. On the Wednesday evening we had what is called a fireside chat. An expert panel on the future of aviation, aviation recovery, etc., was assembled. A very interesting discussion evolved with Patrick Blaney, John McMahon and Joe Gill on that panel. Anybody who follows aviation will know that they have been three of the kingpins of Irish aviation over many years in terms of policy, leading the industry and thinking of its future.
We went off on a tangent talking about the vision of sustainable aviation in the future. The current young generation are a mixture of some anomalies and contradictions. They will gladly order four pairs of jeans to be delivered by Next or Amazon via a courier. They will keep one and send back three. Yet many of the same generation believe in flight shaming and that people should not be travelling all around the world because of their carbon footprint. Therein is a contradiction. There is a major move rightly and, in some places, misguided to quickly get to a sustainable form of aviation which we need to embrace, as many European governments are. There is a European-wide multibillion euro stimulus package to get the airlines and all those who work in the aviation sector to a net carbon neutral position, as we and many other countries aspire to, by 2050.
Since we discussed sustainable aviation at that meeting, I have been looking at hydrogen. Hydrogen is now seen as a more sustainable fuel for powering aircraft. At the start of the summer, we saw the first commercial hydrogen-powered flight take off in Britain. It very successfully carried passengers and this is seen as the way forward. Airbus is already developing a number of concept aircraft which it hopes to have in the skies by 2035. While this may seem a little way off, I do not believe we in Ireland have fully grasped the real opportunities that this presents over the next decade or so in terms of testing out, seedbed activity and seeing how all this develops.
Political leadership has been shown in the mid west, Clare and Shannon over many years. Even before Shannon Airport existed, setting up Foynes as an international destination for flying boats coming in was one opportunity. We have had the Shannon stopover. There have been many opportunities successfully seized by those in the mid west.
I have mentioned Airbus and how the European Union is getting involved. The British Government is also throwing significant money behind this, but we in Ireland seem to be lagging behind. That brings me to County Clare. Hydrogen can be produced from water through the process of electrolysis using renewable power. Offshore in county Clare we have major plans to develop 1.4 GW offshore wind farm - the Green Atlantic project. While it creates jobs and will bring €2 billion worth of investment into the county, what happens on shore is most exciting. It will convert much of this electricity generated at these enormous turbines offshore into hydrogen. We have Shannon Airport just up the road and we have this knowledge corridor involving LIT, now a technological university, UL, NUI Galway. We have a motorway and the airport. With so much going on there, it is the ideal part of the country to have a test bed for sustainable aviation and to look at hydrogen fuel, as I have mentioned, and to seize the opportunity that could present. I would like to hear the Minister of State's thoughts.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important and pertinent issue. I am sorry that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, cannot be here to take part in this discussion which I am taking on her behalf. It is a topic that I am very interested in. I am sorry I missed that fireside chat which I am sure was very useful with the three people the Deputy mentioned involved in the conversation. It is important that we have these conversations and that we tease out all these options.
I chair the regional enterprise strategy for Clare, Limerick and Tipperary. We have discussed the potential of the Green Atlantic project. I would be very supportive of that and of assisting with working through the action plan. There is a major opportunity from a green energy production point of view off the west coast and into those counties as well which will have a major benefit for Shannon Airport and all in the area. That is something that will cross many Departments.
As a small open economy on the edge of Europe, the aviation sector is critical for the movement of our goods and people. It has provided a key underpinning to our economic development generally, the expansion of our tourism sector and in particular our success in attracting foreign direct investment.
Nevertheless, as the Deputy recognised, the contribution of aviation to climate change is undeniable and the need to move quickly towards a more sustainable model is now fully accepted across the mainstream of the aviation industry. I believe that everyone is willing to play their part. This is clear in the public statements made by the major industry representative bodies - the International Air Transport Association, representing the airlines worldwide, and the airports body, Airports Council International.
Regarding the development of a hub as referenced by the Deputy, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is aware of recent announcements by an aerospace consultancy company of a study funded by Aviation Skillnet Ireland to develop a roadmap to a green aviation ecosystem.
She has been informed that one of the key pillars of the roadmap includes exploiting the available infrastructure at Shannon Airport to develop a regional airport pilot, Smart Green Aviation Ecosystem.
We look forward to the report being published. We are, of course, in principle, positively disposed towards initiatives that will enable progress towards decarbonisation in aviation.
Shannon Airport has already shown its commitment to playing its part in addressing climate change and decarbonisation and I welcome its endeavours in this regard. This is seen in its recent biodiversity projects, installation of electric vehicle charging points and LED lighting upgrades. Further, an application for the Airport Carbon Accreditation, ACI, programme was recently submitted. The ACI programme is a global carbon management certification programme for airports.
I also understand that Shannon Group intends to carry out a feasibility study of the airport terminal building. The results of this study will inform Shannon Group’s plans to achieve its carbon-reduction goals.
The Government has put in place a range of funding measures to assist our airports with climate resilience. Specifically with Shannon Airport, over €6.3 million was allocated under the Covid-19 regional State airports programme 2021. Many of the projects supported through this funding incorporate measures to support sustainability.
More generally, the Climate Action Fund was established on a statutory basis in 2020. At least €500 million will be available from this fund over the period to 2027 to support projects, initiatives and research across the economy that contribute to the achievement of Ireland’s climate and energy targets and goals. To date, just over €140 million has been committed from the Climate Action Fund for a range of projects. Opportunities to secure support from the Climate Action Fund will also be available during 2022 and beyond, particularly relating to projects and initiatives that are aligned with the recently published Climate Action Plan.
On the question of other possible funding opportunities, the European Union's Connecting Europe Facility, CEF, supports the development of Europe's transport, energy and digital services networks. Funding is awarded on a competitive basis and information on open calls under this programme and others is available on the EU's funding and tenders portal. For the aviation sector the major driving force towards carbon reduction will be the measures that are adopted through the European Union’s Fit for 55 package of proposals. This package consists of a set of interconnected proposals that all drive towards the same goal of ensuring a green transition by 2030 and beyond.
I am delighted to hear of the development of a smart green aviation ecosystem. We must be with the trends and ahead of other countries in trying to capture some of the money that will follow this trail. There have been many new points coming from COP26 but one of the take-home points is that money will follow the greening of industry, aviation and pretty much all sectors in society.
We can consider the carbon dioxide outputs of aviation. Overall, commercial aviation accounts for 2.5% of global carbon outputs. We might think it is a small figure but it is a lot higher than the amount emitted from Germany, Europe's most industrialised country. Covid-19 has probably given aviation a bit of a "get out of jail" card because, unfortunately, the aeroplanes have been largely grounded for the past 18 months, although we all wanted them back in the sky. This sector will very much come into focus again.
County Clare is uniquely positioned to offer sustainable aviation a future and in the curtilage of Shannon Airport we have the amazing Future Mobility hub, which is a testing bed for automated vehicles. Land Rover and Jaguar are there and one can see little vehicles powering around with no driver at the wheel. If we are able to do that and be a leader in Europe in that regard, we could certainly be a leader when it comes to aviation. We have all been on Ryanair and Aer Lingus flights to sun holidays but aviation is changing by the month. In the past month we have seen personalised drones being tested in China and they will go commercial in the next two years in bringing individuals around.
Aviation is changing, including its fuel types, types of aircraft and the efficiency of aircraft engines. We have been able to attract the giants of aviation, such as Lufthansa, into Shannon over the years but we are now entering a new greening era of sustainable aviation. Rather than being outside the tent we must be leading, taking every opportunity, including money available from Europe and the home shores of Ireland. Leadership was demonstrated in developing Foynes, Shannon Airport and Ireland's aviation industry over many decades so we should once again take leadership in developing a sustainable future in aviation.
I thank Deputy Crowe and we are very much committed to leading that sustainable future. It is in the climate plan announced last week and we can see the direction of travel for Ireland. I have been involved with the research agenda for a number of years in this country and I know the potential in our research community to drive successful projects and research while tunnelling into options that can help us create jobs and reduce our carbon emissions.
The Deputy mentioned a fund and I mentioned the regional enterprise plans earlier. The Deputy mentioned the Future Mobility hub, which is a very exciting project. I visited it quite recently, meeting the team involved, and I am glad one of them is a Meath man. He is Mr. Russell Vickers, who was in school with me. I assure the Deputy that even when he was four or five, he was destined to provide solutions on an engineering and science front. It is very exciting work that puts Ireland at the cutting edge of technology. We want to be part of that. I was in the Land Rover and understand what it can do. I saw the technology in the boot and much work went into that. The centre will attract investment, stakeholders and significant players from all over the world to come to Shannon and carry out work and research on that testbed. We are leading that work and I am glad the regional enterprise fund has assisted through the work of Enterprise Ireland. It has assisted many others as well, and it is something we must do.
I mentioned the Fit for 55 package earlier, which consists of a set of interconnected proposals that all drive to the same goal of ensuring a green transition by 2030. The elements of this package that impact aviation are as follows: a tax on aviation kerosene to be implemented incrementally over a ten-year period from 2023 to 2033 to match the equivalent minimum rate for motor fuel; blending mandates for sustainable aviation fuel starting at 2% by volume from 2025, increasing to 20% by 2035 and 63% by 2050, with a sub-mandate for synthetic fuels from 2030; a change to the emission trading scheme to phase out the free allowances afforded to aviation by 2027 and to reduce the overall scheme cap on a linear basis by 4.2% per annum; and targets for supply of fixed electrical ground power at aircraft stands for stationary aircraft.
It is important to emphasise that these are proposed measures and it remains to be seen what political agreement will ultimately emerge. The potential for agreement is there and by working together, all of us can drive forward this change.