Dáil debates

Thursday, 1 December 2022

Report on Embodied Carbon in the Built Environment: Motion [Private Members]


6:04 pm

Photo of Francis Noel DuffyFrancis Noel Duffy (Dublin South West, Green Party)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann shall take note of the Report of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, entitled "Embodied Carbon in the Built Environment", copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 14th October, 2022.

I am delighted to be given the opportunity to propose the report, Embodied Carbon in the Built Environment, by the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The report addresses and provides recommendations to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on practical ways of reducing embodied carbon emissions in our built environment.

I want to start by thanking the Chair of the committee, Deputy Steven Matthews, and my fellow colleagues on the committee for their engagement and contributions, which brought about a very rich and valuable discussion and, in turn, a robust set of recommendations. My thanks is extended to Patricia Fitzgerald and her colleagues for their work behind the scenes and for their patience. I am grateful to the experts and officials within the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, the Irish Green Building Council and the Office of Public Works, OPW, who willingly gave the committee their time and expertise for us to better understand embodied carbon, what is currently being done to address it and the practical solutions we, as legislators, need to look at adopting. I would also like to particularly acknowledge my appreciation to Mr. Pat Barry from the Irish Green Building Council for his time and continuous support, advice and willingness to engage on the matter.

Significant progress has been made in accelerating energy efficiency in Ireland through implemented Green Party policies over the last two decades. All homes built to current building standards and regulations are now highly energy efficient and typically reach a minimum building energy rating, BER, of A2. This only tells part of the story as there are CO2emissions associated with all stages of a building's life-cycle, apart from the energy that is used to heat, light and power our buildings’ needs, and these emissions are called embodied carbon.

Currently, approximately 37% of carbon emissions in Ireland stem from the construction sector, which is the same, if not more, than our agricultural sector, with 23% resulting from operational emissions, that is, the heating, lighting and cooling of buildings, and a further 14% resulting from the embodied carbon emissions. This 14% is emitted during the lifespan of a material, from the excavation and harvesting of raw materials to product manufacture, transporting them between all processes, constructing them into our buildings, their maintenance and replacement, and, finally, their removal and disposal at the end of their life. I believe a new paradigm is required within our built environment where materials with low embodied carbon are seen as valued commodities, sourced at home and not imported, and these same materials are harvested at the end of the building’s life and upcycled into new buildings.

The use of low carbon materials in the construction industry is key to transforming the sector and reducing embodied carbon. Therefore, we need to start by mandating the industry to measure the embodied carbon of our buildings, followed by embodied carbon targets. This should begin next year and not in 2027, as the Department has been outlining. The construction of mid-rise timber buildings has been evolving across the planet in the past 20 years. We have not kept in touch with this construction revolution, considering its embodied carbon advantages.

Irish construction timber has an advantageous position in terms of our timber output. Due to many who came before us, our timber industry is the fastest growing in Europe and the roundwood harvest will be doubling over the next 15 years. Timber is a sustainable and low carbon construction material that is a compelling alternative to steel and concrete. Some 11% of Ireland's land is currently under forestry and the vast majority of our construction timber is exported to the UK. The question that arises is why we are exporting low carbon materials that we can use domestically to reduce our embodied carbon and, in turn, CO2emissions. It should also be noted that Irish construction timber offers faster procurement processes, rural employment and a higher level of health and safety due to off-site fabrication, which also produces better fabrication outcomes.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Part B of the technical guidance document which deals with fire. Currently, the regulation guidance is seriously prohibitive, making it very difficult to procure timber structure buildings akin to many other jurisdictions. We must make Part B amenable to timber in order that designers can use the material because, otherwise, we will be failing in our ambition to meet our climate targets.

I hope the Minister sees that it is imperative that both embodied carbon targets and timber-friendly Part B fire regulations are brought forward soon to tackle the 14% CO2emissions currently being emitted.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I thank Deputy Duffy and the committee for bringing forward this very important Private Members’ motion. In particular, Deputy Duffy has a lot of skin in the game as an architect and he has been very vocal on this issue for some time.

I want to begin by acknowledging that this report, Embodied Carbon in the Built Environment, is the result of excellent work by the committee and the many contributors to its content. Embodied carbon in construction materials makes a significant contribution to the lifetime carbon emissions of new buildings. These embodied carbon emissions are being addressed by the climate action plan, the review of the EU construction products regulation and the review of the energy performance of buildings directive. The issue of demolition waste is being addressed through the Circular Economy and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2022.

Green public procurement is being addressed by a range of initiatives spearheaded by the Office of Government Procurement and the Environmental Protection Agency. The delivery of affordable and quality housing and addressing climate action are the two key challenges facing Government at this time. Through Housing for All and the climate action plan, the Government is committed to addressing these challenges.

The climate action plan is currently under review for publication in November 2023. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is working hard to achieve our shared goals of achieving net zero emissions no later than 2050, and a 51% reduction in emissions by the end of this decade. The Government has set sectoral responsibilities for the Ministers responsible for that sector. The plan recognises that climate change is a complex issue that requires transformative responses from every sector in society and that all measures collectively represent a coherent approach to dealing with the significant challenges ahead.

I will now turn to the recommendations contained in this report. The first recommendation addresses the global warming potential calculations and recommends that this measurement is adopted prior to the implementation date set out by the EU. The review of Regulation (EU) 305/2011, known as the construction products regulations, CPR, was confirmed by the European green deal in December 2019 and the circular economy action plan in March 2020. In parallel, the European Commission initiated discussion on an implementation plan for a future environmental life-cycle assessment framework for construction products, looking at the impacts on the wider environment that occur during the whole life cycle of a construction product.

The second recommendation recommends that the Government prioritises the preparatory work for measuring embodied carbon to ensure that once EU proposals are agreed, there will not be delays in transposing or amending the relevant domestic regulations.

My Department is currently attending European Council working party meetings on a revised construction products regulation. The intent of the revised CPR is to strengthen and modernise the rules for placing construction products on the market, reduce market barriers, address the sustainability performances of construction products and embrace the digital transformation. Ireland will be obliged to follow this harmonised procedure via harmonised technical specifications for construction products when a consensus of approach emerges. In that regard, it would be counter to harmonisation to develop national rules for matters covered by the Internal Market regulation.

In parallel, my Department, in partnership with the National Standards Authority of Ireland and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, is also working closely with the European Commission and other member states to plan for and organise future work to adapt the harmonised technical specifications. This process, known as the CPR acquisprocess, will also develop criteria to facilitate a uniform approach to the declaration of the environmental sustainability of construction products.

Under the climate action plan, the Office of Public Works, OPW, is putting in place a roadmap to promote greater use of lower-carbon building material alteratives in construction and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, is carrying out a research and development project to examine life cycle analysis and embedded energy in buildings to compare the use of sustainable materials.

In terms of timber and low-carbon cement, the next group of recommendations in the report, namely, recommendations 3 to 9, are focused on facilitating and encouraging the use of lower carbon materials, particularly timber and low-carbon cement. As regards timber, the Government recently announced its proposed investment of €1.3 billion in Irish forestry. The funding will be for the next forestry programme and represents the largest ever Government investment in tree planting. Coillte recently published a set of recommendations to promote the use of timber in construction. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is co-ordinating the implementation of these recommendations across Departments and my Department is engaging with this. The frameworks for the assessment of embodied carbon of construction materials is being considered by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment under the industry working group in climate action plan 2023.

Housing for All commits to the promotion and development of modern methods of construction, MMC, to deliver housing. Modern methods of construction encompass a broad and diverse range of innovative construction practices with significant potential to boost productivity and increase efficiency, such as avoiding waste in the construction sector. This includes timber frame construction, and my Department is engaging with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research and Science to increase the use of MMC, including timber frame, through the MMC leadership and integration group. The committee has recommended that part B of the building regulations be revised to provide clear guidance on timber frame construction. National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, standard IS 440 is the Irish standard on timber frame construction published by the NSAI. This provides for timber frame construction to be a standardised construction system. Systems constructed to the IS 440 standard will comply with building regulations. Part B of the building regulations for fire safety provides for timber frame dwellings of up to four storeys or 10 m. Any alternative approaches to comply with the requirements of the building regulations must provide an equivalent level of safety which must be demonstrated by comparative analysis. Recent building control management system, BCMS, statistics show that 98% of new buildings are less than 10 m in height.

While the technical guidance document B provides guidance in practical terms for simple non-complex buildings, the route for innovative approaches is supported by the building regulations. As part of the ongoing part B review process, emerging fire safety risks were identified, such as taller buildings, electric vehicle battery technologies and so on. It was agreed that these issues require an evidence-based approach to inform technical advancement of the technical guidance document. To this end, it is proposed to establish a steering group on fire safety research to explore these issues further and to work in collaboration with fire authorities to help to develop appropriate solutions. This initiative has been welcomed by the fire authorities.

As regards cement, the climate action plan sets out the actions being undertaken across Departments with the aim of facilitating and promoting the development and use of alternative construction materials and techniques that reduce embodied carbon, using a performance-based approach. I note that the committee recommended engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Office of Government Procurement, OGP, to prioritise the development of revised public procurement rules that encourage and emphasise the use of low-carbon construction materials. Public procurement rules already provide sufficient flexibility to incorporate sustainable construction materials. The technical specification is the appropriate avenue for ensuring that low-carbon materials are included in the works and these are drafted by the design team for issue with the tender documents. The choice of materials is a matter for the contracting authority, its designers and technical advisers. The public works contract already contains an obligation on the contractor to submit the technical characteristics of the materials it has chosen to ensure they meet those set out in the specification.

The next group of recommendations concern demolition waste and this falls under the policy remit of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan. His Department has addressed some of these recommendations through the Circular Economy and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2022. The Act provides for the introduction of a waste recovery levy on material sent for incineration or backfilling. The majority of construction and demolition waste by tonnage goes for backfilling. The Department intends to introduce the new levy by the end of 2023. The landfill levy already captures construction and demolition waste that is landfilled.

In respect of the reuse of construction by-products, the Act provides for the Minister to make regulations to streamline the Article 27 and Article 28 processes relating to by-products and end of waste, respectively. Work has commenced on the drafting of these regulations with a view to introducing them in the first half of next year. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is separately seeking to establish national end-of-waste or by-product criteria for certain categories of construction and demolition waste, namely, greenfield soil and stone, road planings and recycled aggregates. The establishment of national criteria will mean that operators will no longer need to apply individually to the agency in respect of materials that meet the relevant criteria. Decisions on these national criteria are targeted for 2023 but are subject to the outcome of consultations with industry and the European Commission, as well as any submissions received on foot of engagement with the EU technical regulation information system.

The climate action plans, the programme for Government, the waste action plan for a circular economy and the whole-of-government circular economy strategy all show how public procurement can be used strategically to shift the economy towards more sustainable consumption and production. To support better green public procurement, GPP, the EPA published updated GPP criteria for ten sectors along with GPP guidance for the public sector in September 2021. The online search tool will facilitate the use of these criteria in a user-friendly and efficient way. These initiatives will further support green procurement across the public sector.

As regards the national policy on architecture, achieving built environment sustainability is the overarching objective of the policy, through climate adaptation and mitigation, sustainable spatial planning and enhanced biodiversity, high-quality architectural and built environment research, design that meets sustainability criteria, selection of zero- or low-carbon materials and the maintenance and repurposing of existing structures and building elements for future generations, as a fundamental element of the circular economy.

From a national policy perspective, the national planning framework, NPF, provides an established means to implement and integrate climate change objectives, including adaptation, at local level and the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient society. The NPF further states clearly that "in addition to legally binding targets agreed at EU level, it is a national objective for Ireland to transition to be a competitive low carbon, economy by the year 2050". Specifically, national policy objective 32 of the NPF targets the delivery of 550,000 additional households to 2040. One of the key priorities identified to achieve this includes building resilience, that is, re-use, adaptability and accessibility in our housing stock. In addition, national policy objective 35 also seeks to increase residential density in settlements through a range of measures including reductions in vacancy, reuse of existing buildings and infill development schemes, all of which underpin the role that existing building stock plays in the reduction of carbon emissions.

Legislative provisions are already in force to ensure that where a planning authority is considering a planning application under section 34 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, the planning authority is required under section 34(2) to consider the proper planning and sustainable development of the area, which includes, where relevant, the policy of the Government, the Minister or any other Minister. A similar provision is provided for the board under section 143 of the Act. In addition, there is also provision under section 34(4) to enable a planning authority, where it considers it appropriate, to attach conditions to a planning permission in respect of requirements for construction and demolition waste to be recovered or disposed of in such a manner and to such extent as may be specified by the planning authority. Where planning permission is granted, it is a matter for the planning authority or the board to attach the appropriate conditions on individual developments with regard to construction and demolition waste. A significant majority of local authorities, through their development plan policies, already require the submission of a construction and demolition waste management plan to accompany planning applications for developments of a certain scale and type. In that regard, the EPA has published guidance entitled Best Practice Guidelines on the Preparation of Waste Management Plans for Construction and Demolition Projects.

I look forward to the contributions of Deputies and I again welcome the motion.

6:14 pm

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I acknowledge and thank Deputy Duffy for proposing that the housing committee undertake a series of hearings and prepare this report. It is an extremely important area of work and we have all benefited enormously from the hearings that were held. I also acknowledge all the organisations and the officials from the two Departments who appeared before the committee and assisted us greatly in grappling with this important issue.

It is also important to acknowledge a number of other actors. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's construction sector working group, and its innovation subgroup, have led the way in many of the debates we are now having. Enterprise Ireland has been very positive in respect of some recent research reports and support for businesses. A range of semi-State and private sector companies are emerging, some very successfully, domestically and internationally, and are producing very high-quality products, which we all will be talking about shortly.

I will start, however, by stating there is simply not enough focus on embodied carbon. As Deputy Duffy said and the report makes clear, it accounts for 14% of our current greenhouse gas emissions, which makes it a very significant sector. According to the Irish Green Building Council and UCD research that was presented to our committee in the context of the national development plan and its various components, even if we start to meet our operational carbon reduction targets through greater energy efficiency, embodied carbon will continue to grow significantly. Therefore, there is an urgent need to address this. It also needs to be said that, in some senses, there are quicker and less contentious wins in terms of emission reductions in this sector than some other sectors, especially given some of the very politically contentious debates about transitioning from car use to public transport, or the transition that is required in agriculture. It therefore makes eminent sense that the Government would do more, talk more and plan more for reductions in this area because these are ones where we could get far greater and quicker public support, particularly given that much of the technology is already available. It also has to be said that construction is one of the biggest sectors of our economy. It is way greater in terms of employment and contribution to GDP than, say, agriculture. That is no disrespect to the agriculture sector. The amount of preparation that will be required to ensure our construction sector, whether residential or otherwise, is equipped to make the transition is very significant.

Most importantly, we now have carbon budgets and legally binding sectoral emissions reduction targets. Not only do we need to do this; we have to do this. This is a legal requirement. I will mention one of the rationales for Deputy Duffy's proposal. As a committee, we wanted to try to get our heads around this. We started to equip ourselves with understanding and knowledge by asking what construction and the future of the construction sector will look like in the context of the requirement to meet those ambitious targets up to 2030 and 2050. Nothing will be done tomorrow as it has been done yesterday. Things have to fundamentally change. We have an obligation in our committee, regardless of whether we are in the Opposition or the Government, to ensure we understand the issues, can hold the Government to account, play a collaborative role in trying to ensure the Government moves in the right direction, and give voice to those people in various sectors who are urging us to do the right thing. That was the rationale for the report. It was an exercise in self-education and, through the report and these debates, trying to influence the public debate more generally.

Before I make many positive points, I will make some critical comments. I make these in a genuinely collaborative spirit. In this particular area, the Government is behind the curve. There is no other way of saying that. One of the things that struck me most during some of the committee hearings was a sense that we have to wait for the EU to take a number of actions before we can really grasp the opportunities of moving towards a zero-carbon built environment with both hands. The Minister of State said something similar today about the wait for a harmonised European approach to a range of matters. It does not have to be that way. There are EU member states which are already pressing ahead with many of the things Deputy Duffy mentioned and the Minister of State outlined in this case. In fact, we should be moving faster and we should be moving ahead, always with an eye towards what is being developed at EU level because, ultimately, a level of harmonisation is valuable. While some of those harmonised EU approaches are being developed, a whole swathe of preparation needs to be done in parallel so we are ready to go when it is most timely. For me, the most obvious example relates to measurement. We already have environmental product declaration, EPD, certificates. They are something that are done and independently verified by the Irish Green Building Council, in many cases. That system could be expanded, rolled out and strengthened, not just through the issuing of the EPDs but also through the monitoring and enforcement of them. We do not have to wait for the EU harmonised mechanisms for doing that. We can, should and must proceed now.

I will talk through my own take on some of the key recommendations. With respect to cement, the most obvious thing to say is the technology is there. Lower carbon cement is already in our marketplace and costs pretty much the same to produce. Therefore, we need a plan that should set a deadline of 2030 by which time we need to reduce the usage of high-carbon cement by a figure. I think 80% is probably reasonable but we could look at some others. Industry needs to be given a clear signal that high-carbon, dirty concrete and cement are on their way out. We also need to have incentives - the Minister of State mentioned procurement - particularly around public procurement. There should be incentives that would reward companies and building contractors that seek public sector contracts and are using lower carbon materials. That is just eminently sensible. In other jurisdictions, not only do they have those incentives, but they also have mandates. They have rolling and expanding mandates whereby over a period, first 10% and then 20% and 30% of all state contracts have to use these kinds of materials. That would reward the companies that are innovating and doing the right thing. For the big, dirty players, such as Cement Roadstone, it would send a clear signal that by a certain date, with these incentives, they have to get their house in order. Given the success and longevity of that particular company, it will respond to those signals if it is done on a voluntary basis. If we do not set out a timeline with clear requirements, it will not do it. That is one of the things we could do now.

Timber is another area. We have some very good companies, some of which are partially controlled by Coillte, and others that are in the private sector. They are producing cutting edge, high-grade, fully timber building products that are virtually zero carbon. All they need is support from the Government. What do they want? They want a pipeline of projects in order that they can grow and expand, in addition to changes to public procurement so that they get into the frameworks. In public housing, for example, we should have a separate, stand-alone framework agreement for these new building technologies and have targets. There should be a certain percentage of social and affordable housing each year, incrementally growing year on year, from these types of technologies. A development in Barcelona, La Borda, recently won a very important Mies van der Rohe innovation award. It is a fully timber building. It has a carbon content to die for and was also 35% cheaper to produce than traditional building technologies because when those types of technologies are used at scale, not only are they quicker to deliver and have a lower carbon content, but they can be much more cost-efficient too. The same thing is happening in London and Scandinavia. We have companies here that can do it. We need to support them.

There is no need for a long, complicated review of Part B of the building regulations. We need to get our most expert fire safety and building control officials into the room and ask them, if we are going to go from 10 m to 20 m for timber buildings, what is required to ensure the highest possible fire safety standards. They know the answer. They told many of us when we asked them and the regulations need to be produced very quickly. We are too slow to deal with amendments both to the building regulations and the technical guidance documents. This is a no-brainer, It should be done quickly. That should likewise be the case for public procurement rules and public works, and not just public works for local authorities and the State. We have companies such as Irish Water. There is no evidence that they are using lower carbon products in their buildings. That should be mandated and insisted on from the centre out.

On demolition audits and reuse - Deputy Duffy and the report spoke to those very clearly - there is no point having them in a policy unless they are a requirement under planning law. We have to change our planning rules to make it very clear that if someone proposes to demolish a building, that individual should have to justify it on the planning application. The planning authority should be empowered to make a decision on whether that is an appropriate use of that building. If permission is granted to demolish, there should be a requirement for the applicant to state very clearly what he or she is going to do with those enormously valuable and eminently reusable building materials.

The crucial thing is that we need a plan. The plan needs to be ambitious. We need a set of changes in regulations as outlined in this report and by Deputy Duffy and others. If we do that, we can have a dramatic reduction in the embodied carbon in our new-build environment between now and 2050 to take the heat off some of the other areas. Let us not just sit here and talk about it. Let us not just have a nice debate. There is a body of work for the Minister of State and his officials to do. If they do it, they will have the support not just of their colleagues on the backbenches but of the Opposition as well. We can make a real difference to the quality of our built environment and of people's lives and, ultimately, we can meet our 2030 and 2050 emissions reduction targets.

6:34 pm

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Duffy for introducing this motion. This is a debate I welcome because it forces us to think about design in our lives. Much of the problem we have in emissions is around design. It is commonly stated, and I have no reason to doubt it, that 80% of the environmental damage that is done by products is factored in at the design stage. We have to rethink design in many of the basic activities of our lives if we are going to change that.

While this debate is about embodied carbon in the construction sector, we could equally be debating the issue of embodied carbon in the many foods and services we import. This week the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, showed that if we include imports the embodied carbon is not the 61 million tonnes that is the subject of our inventory but 107 million tonnes because a lot of what we do in our lives involves products that have very high carbon footprints. The debate here tends to focus, quite narrowly, on sectors like agriculture and what households do in heating and transport. Important as those are, if we are talking about the impact on global emissions it is equally important how we treat other aspects of our lives and the way we treat materials.

Some 55% of the carbon in our atmosphere comes from fossil fuels but 45% - almost half - comes from the other materials we use. Construction is a good sector in point. It is the largest user of materials of all sectors. It uses 12 million tonnes of materials, it dumps 9 million tonnes and only 10% of that is recycled. When you consider the standards to which we are aspiring in other sectors, such as the 90% recycling target for plastic containers, here is a huge material user and its standards are way off. The discussion about embodied carbon is important but let us not forget that a lot of the embodied carbon in the construction sector is not on our inventory at all because it is the steel, glass and other products that are imported to go into our buildings. The way we think about tackling this often rules out embodied carbon and that is a blinkered way of looking at this.

I am a ceaseless advocate for looking at our challenges through the lens of what is called circular thinking or the circular economy. I was delighted to see the author William Reville saying in The Irish Timestoday that the circular economy is the key to progress because I absolutely agree with that. The basic tenet of it is to seek to answer the question of how we can enjoy a better quality of life with less of an impact on the world around us. It puts the question in a much more positive way than a lot of the debate we have around environment and emissions. It also identifies the wider responsibility. It is not just on the producers in this world; it is on all of us. It is right through the supply chain that we all have responsibility for choices. Transformational change cannot be just about some sectors, it has to be about all of us and it has to be fundamentally about design.

When you take the construction sector, the truth is the safe design is not to do any of the things the Minister of State articulately explained are possible under the building regulations and various definitions and approaches to waste. These things are not happening because no one feels the obligation to do them. The issue is we are all complacent. It is a complex supply chain. The person commissioning the building may have a fixed view that is not informed by any of these regulations the Minister of State is developing and the funder may be the same. The taxonomy is still a long way from impacting most of our funders and the architects may not be tied in. To be fair about Deputy Ó Broin's comments on the planners, a lot of these provisions are already in the planning law. We can do it but it is not happening.

There is also the issue of the poor occupancy of the buildings we have. Two thirds of us are in buildings that are in excess of our needs compared with other countries where it is half that amount. We are not good users of the buildings we have. On materials, we use one third of the timber that is used by Scottish builders and we are not that dramatically different from Scotland. The Minister of State is probably right that it is not the restriction to 10 m that is stopping it but it is the people who are commissioning and designing the buildings who are not changing it. Recovered material is rarely reused. Part of the problem is the regulatory system and it has been frustrating for people that this material gets designated as waste and then they have to battle long and hard, if they were even bothered or had segregated it on the sites, to get it back and designate it as no longer being waste.

There is an understanding of the pathways but it is scattered so thinly across the sectors that we are not getting the result we need. There are two things I would advise the Minister of State to look hard at. First is public procurement. That has to be a leader of this and it is not a leader in any sense of the word. It is not pioneering new design or seeking to look at the life cycle. It is slow to move and it does not recognise the need for transformational change. That has to change if we are to win this battle. Second, the way in which we move from having all these good intentions to implementing them is to put this strategy under the eye of the Department of the Taoiseach and at the heart of the climate strategy. I would advocate that we start to make the circular economy strategy a pillar of the climate strategy because that is the one that is jointly overseen by the Taoiseach and the responsible Minister and that is the strategy that can call to account local authorities and other agencies as to whether they are delivering. That is where public procurement can be forced to come from being a sleepy attender to these issues to being a pioneer seeking to lead the change.

We need to go to the circular economy and start to debate this and look at it as a challenge for the entire supply chain. We are all in this together. That includes consumers choosing fast fashion as much as farmers deciding how they farm their land. When we feel we are all in that together and the impetus is coming from the Department of the Taoiseach and the core of Government, we can break down a lot of the conflicts that dog the debate about achieving our climate and environmental targets. The Minister of State is a leading advocate for trying to bring sides together to deliver change but those are two things that are within our hands in Government and we could shift the degree of momentum there. It would not be just about embodied carbon in construction but it would be about many of the other dimensions of the global challenge we all face.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I was up in my room listening to the debate and I had not realised this report was being debated. I have come down to make the case for something I have a lot of experience in. Many years ago I was involved in an eco-building cross-Border project in Leitrim, west Cavan and Fermanagh. We went around to see what materials we would use and how we would do it. We went to the Czech Republic and we looked at a product called straw board, which uses compressed straw to make boards with which they build houses. That is an embodied carbon. The carbon is taken in as the product grows and it is used in the walls and it is there forever.

We went away from that and went with something a little bit more Irish.

For almost all the houses we used hemp and lime, or hempcrete. I wish to use this opportunity to make the case for the development of a proper hemp industry in Ireland. It has great potential not just for our farmers but for our built environment as well. Most of the houses we built were small cottages, too small for modern living, so extensions were needed. The extensions were done using a timber-frame construction to take the weight, then we simply used plywood and infilled with hemp and lime. In some cases, a little bit of clay was mixed in, depending on what was in the environment. Hundreds of years ago, people built with what was around them and what was around them worked and was there forever. We still see the strong buildings that have stood for hundreds of years since then.

The point I wish to make is that when we did that, the experience was that the walls, which were probably around 18 in. to 2 ft thick - very thick walls were built - were extremely insulated. There was no need for any other kind of insulation. The exterior of the wall was a lime plaster. It looked like a concrete house from the outside. It looks the same and acts the same, but it is breathable. The moisture can move in and out through the walls while at the same time these buildings are extremely warm and dry. These are healthy houses to live in. The beauty of this type of construction is that people are growing the hemp on the land and absorbing the carbon. More carbon is absorbed in a crop of hemp in one year than in ten years in a forest. It is, therefore, a large absorber of carbon. This is what we need to be using if we are going to be building our houses this way in future.

If we are going to do this, then we will need policy to allow us to undertake it. We will not be able to develop a hemp industry in Ireland unless the Government takes the lead role. This is the point I came here to make. I saw a programme on the television in the last week or two. I think it was one of those shows on ten things in science and was about hemp. I saw Professor Tom Woolley on that programme. He is a great advocate for this industry, but there are many others around the country as well. The expertise in this regard exists. The problem, though, is that farmers will not grow hemp unless there is a market for it. There will not be a market for it unless somebody is going to set up the processing plants required. Nobody is going to take these risks. When we developed industries in Ireland in the past, whether that was Bord na Móna, our forestry service or whatever else, the State set them up, perfected them and got them going right. It worked, and when it was seen to work and the concept was proven, it became commercialised. We must do the same with this industry.

There is an opportunity now. In the past, we have been critical of public private partnerships, PPPs, but I am referring to a kind of community public private partnership where the Government and the community, including the farmers who would grow the product, could work together to develop the industry. The opportunity to do this will only come about if the Government puts a fund together to do this and invests in it. Teagasc has much of the expertise. It exists already. The land must be reasonably good. There is certainly better land in County Kildare than there is in County Leitrim to grow hemp. At the same time, though, it is a good break crop, particularly for farmers who grow cereals. The point is that for farmers to do this, they will need a market. The market will only exist if the structure is put in place.

This can only happen if it is promoted. We must have engineers and architects specifying that this is what they want to see done. We must have people in our planning offices saying these are the types of houses we need to see built in our regions. We do not have that now. A man in County Leitrim called Padraig Corby has done a great deal of work on hemp and has grown several crops. He has a site ready to build a house on but he will not get planning permission to build a hemp house because it does not meet with the building regulations. There are building issues around agrément certification and all those things. If the will was there, all this stuff could be sorted out in 12 months. If we have a climate emergency, then this is what we should be doing. We should be sorting this out in 12 months or less, if we really believe we have a climate emergency. If we do not really believe we have a climate emergency, if we think it would be nice to look at this and if we want to see how it goes along, then it will drag along and officials will scratch their heads and walk around in circles for years before it is done. This is the problem.

I do not doubt anyone on the committee, the Minister of State present or the Government's commitment to doing things. Unfortunately, however, we seem to continuously run into the obstacle of officialdom that prevents things from happening. Although some countries have used hempcrete for high-rise buildings, it is certainly suitable for houses in our housing estates, for single houses and for schools. For buildings like this, hempcrete is an answer that exists now. We do not need to develop anything new. It exists, and has done so for thousands of years, and it works. It builds an excellent, well insulated and safe house. There is no problem with vermin or with fire protection. It is impossible to set this stuff on fire once it sets. It will not go on fire. All these issues have been dealt with, yet we have not got the certification for it. We must get the will to make this happen.

That was why I said I would come in for a couple of minutes. I was not aware of this debate. I was just waiting for the "Late Debate" on radio later. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak, but I appeal to the Government to put the infrastructure and funding in place to develop this industry, for the agriculture sector and especially for our built environment. There is a way of having a home-grown solution for the walls in our houses, which will be well insulated, and also for insulation, roofs, etc. When we undertook the project I referred to, we used roofing tiles that had to come from America. I am sure they could be manufactured here as well. Those were recycled car waste. As we know, a lot of a car is made up of plastic and rubber. There is the dashboard and the bumpers. This is what the slates were made from. You would think they were blue Bangor slates on the roof to look at them. It is a light roof, very durable and there forever. We need to be going in this direction to ensure we have embodied carbon in our built environment.

6:44 pm

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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It was a very interesting debate. Before Deputy Martin Kenny leaves the Chamber, I want to say I am a huge supporter of hemp as a material. Certainly, if we look back at some of the points raised by Deputies on public procurement and it being a constraint or that we have not advanced enough, there is sufficient flexibility to incorporate sustainable materials in public procurement guidelines in terms of technical specifications. I will give an example. In the past decade, there has been a refurbishment of St. Mary's Cathedral in Kilkenny. The lead architect company was McCullough Mulvin. Neil McCullough, who is deceased unfortunately, was a wonderful and visionary architect. He specified hempcrete as insulation material. If the Deputy ever gets to Kilkenny, he should look at the interior of St. Mary's. He specified the use of hempcrete in that building. Public procurement is not constrained, therefore. If an architect specifies a certain type of material and that material is accepted in the tendering process, there is no problem. It is important to put out this message with regard to the choice of materials for contracting authorities, designers and technical advisers. All of that is there if it is designed into the building.

I agree with Deputy Kenny wholeheartedly. It ties into what Deputy Bruton raised with regard to recovered materials. We absolutely should find a mechanism to do this. I will certainly take back the points he has made on developing a hemp industry. I believe it to be an invaluable material. It is possible to grow it on poorer soils. I will not say where, but-----

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister of State was not in Leitrim recently.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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It is important to have a strategy on the use of such materials. It is a very sustainable material. I thank all the Deputies and I commend the Oireachtas joint committee. It is a fantastic committee which has done invaluable work, including this report. I thank Deputy Duffy for proposing the report this evening. Some very interesting points have been raised around operational versus embodied carbon. I will come back to the point on technical specifications.

The issue of wood was also raised. Coillte recently published a set of recommendations that promote the use of timber in construction and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is co-ordinating the implementation of these recommendations across Departments. While criticism has been levelled at us being behind the curve, a lot is going on in this space. I remember bringing forward motions on GGBS low-carbon cement to my local authority in 2007. Officials were scratching their heads as to what it was. We are moving in the right direction now.

We are working very hard to meet housing demand with regard to new building and the private rental sector. We have ambitious targets concerning the quantity, type and location of homes being delivered. We are also ambitious for climate action, including energy efficiency in housing. Through our building regulations, we are ensuring that the quality of homes we are building for future generations continues to achieve the high standards we are setting to decarbonise our built environment.

Regarding the global warming potential for buildings, we are working to implement this through the progression of the EU regulations and the climate action plan.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is currently participating in the European Council working party meetings on a revised construction products regulation. In parallel, the Department, in partnership with the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, and Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, is also working closely with the European Commission and other member states to plan for and organise future work to adapt the harmonised technical specifications. Further measures to develop necessary tools and regulatory framework in the area will be proposed in the forthcoming climate action plan.

I already outlined the issue in relation to the use of timber in construction and around the modern methods of construction. Public procurement rules already provide sufficient flexibility to incorporate sustainable construction materials and we urge that that be done.

In relation to demolition waste, I outlined the actions being undertaken under the Circular Economy and Miscellaneous Provisions Act 2022. In addition, I make the point that a significant majority of local authorities through their development plan policies already require the submission of a construction and demolition waste management plan to accompany planning applications for developments of a certain scale and type. I note the points being made by Deputies in terms of reuse of materials. In that regard, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has published guidance entitled, Best Practice Guidelines for the Preparation of Resource and Waste Management Plans for Construction and Demolition Projects.

Through out planning policies, we are encouraging the reuse of stock. This is set out in Housing for All, specifically addressing vacancy in housing including the Croí Cónaithe fund, Town Centre First, and the refurbishment grants in regional towns and villages. Housing for All also aims to make more efficient use of our existing housing stock, for example, in relation to further guidance relating to protected structures and encouraging the use of such properties for re-purposing and refurbishing.

I thank all the Deputies for their contributions on this important report. I look forward to seeing further progression in relation to embodied carbon.

6:54 pm

Photo of Francis Noel DuffyFrancis Noel Duffy (Dublin South West, Green Party)
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There are so many more issues I probably could talk about but I will keep it tight.

I thank the Members for their contributions and the Minister of State and the Department for listening. It is much appreciated.

I am grateful for this debate. I have been waiting a few years to push this agenda. I acknowledge, as the Minister of State was saying, the considerable work that is ongoing in decarbonising Ireland and the construction sector but there are some areas where we need to push a little harder.

There is a consensus, I believe, amongst the Members that we have little time to bring about radical change to protect our environment. The climate action plan commits Ireland to legally-binding targets to reach a climate neutral economy no later than 2050 and a reduction in emissions of 51% by 2030 by introducing sectoral ceilings. If we are serious about reaching that target, this report clearly advises the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on how we address embodied carbon in our construction sector through measurement and targets which will move us beyond the stage of merely talking about it. We have spent too long talking about it.

The timeframe the Department is working to is 2027. In my opinion, this needs to change. Both Mr. Pat Barry of the Irish Green Building Council and Mr. Ciarán O'Connor, Office of Public Works, OPW, State architect, concurred in our committee briefings that measurement can begin in 2023.

It is a simple enough process. I myself am practising it. I am working on a building where we are doing it. It is not that hard.

What we are simply asking is that Ireland catches up with other EU countries in adopting embodied carbon measurement and targets in our construction sector which will reduce embodied carbon emissions, assisting our climate change targets. Further to this, the Department must reform Part B of the building regulations to allow the use of timber as a structural element, as other jurisdictions are doing all over the world. We are so far behind the curve it is scary.

The global expert advice is we must start measurement of embodied carbon now and not wait until 2027 to begin, as it will take time to implement, to train and to bring our construction sector to that point, including the professionals, the teachers and the people building it. We have no time to waste. I hope we can move speedily in that direction.

Question put and agreed to.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 8.15 p.m. go dtí 2 p.m., Dé Máirt, an 6 Nollaig 2022.

The Dáil adjourned at at 8.15 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 6 December 2022.