Wednesday, 6 December 2017
Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015: Statements
Following the Minister's statement on foot of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, we will have contributions from group spokespersons of up to eight minutes with the contributions of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the debate to conclude by 6 p.m., at the latest.
I am pleased to be here today. As Senators will have heard from my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, our first national mitigation plan was published in July. As my Department covers one of the key sectors involved in that process, I am very pleased to present the annual transition statement for the agriculture, forest and land-use sector and, in particular, to outline the efforts the sector is making to address our climate obligations. It is important at the outset to set out the long-term vision for the sector and what it is we are trying to achieve, which is an approach to carbon neutrality which does not compromise our capacity for sustainable food production. While carbon neutrality has yet to be fully defined, the aim is to balance agricultural emissions by increasing carbon sequestration, reducing emissions and increasing fossil fuel and energy intensive materials displacement. This is not an easy task.
The achievement of carbon neutrality is both challenging and complex, which has been recognised by the Climate Change Advisory Council. Recent EPA projections show that overall national emissions have risen by 3.5% while agriculture emissions increased by 2.7% in 2016. However, it is not all bad news as emissions in agriculture remain 3.5% below their 1990 levels and we have seen a decoupling of emissions from output. I will give the House an example. In the five-year period 2012 to 2016, dairy cow numbers increased by 22% and corresponding milk production increased by 27%, but emissions increased by just 8%. That said, we are not complacent and clearly recognise the need for further improvement, in particular the need to contribute to the overall national requirement to reduce emissions by a proposed 30% by 2030.
We continue to promote efficiency of food production, afforestation, sustainable forest management and enhanced soil sequestration. In addition, we are encouraging the mobilisation of biomaterials and residues to displace fossil fuel and other energy intensive materials, including by promoting a wider use of wood products in the built environment and elsewhere. We are also investing heavily in climate change actions through our research funding programmes. Such research is not only key to informing policy interventions but one such research project - Agri-1 - has lead to changes in our national inventories and that has impacted positively on compliance with our climate targets. Based on 2016 provisional greenhouse gas emission figures, the indications are that Ireland will now be in compliance with the 2016 effort-sharing decision annual limit.
The sector's contribution to the national mitigation plan consists of a number of cross-cutting measures with benefits for climate change adaptation, water quality, biodiversity and rural development. These include a number of forest measures as afforestation is one of the primary opportunities for the sequestration of agricultural emissions and a key agricultural investment priority. My Department has supported the establishment of over 300,000 ha of forest since 1990 and over 9,000 km of forest roads. In 2016, over 1 million cubic metres of domestically sourced forest based biomass was used for energy production in Ireland.In addition to the mitigation measures, over 30 actions have been identified in the plan to advance our emission reductions obligation in the land use sector. I will highlight some specific examples where progress is being made. I already mentioned decoupling sector growth from gross emissions. This achievement has been delivered as a result of continued research, advances in animal genetics, health and nutrition, and through optimising the use of fertilisers. Over 50,000 farmers have joined GLAS, with 4,700 farmers committing to low emission slurry spreading techniques, with consequent reductions in CO² and ammonia emissions. There are approximately 2,600 farmers planting 26,000 ha of catch crops annually which prevents soil erosion and absorbs nutrients. There are carbon sequestration and biodiversity benefits arising from the planting of 1,300 km of new hedges, 1,300 traditional orchards and 5,000 groves of native trees. The carbon sequestration potential of these 5,000 groves of trees on their own, which equates to approximately 450 ha of woodland, is around 900 tonnes of CO² annually.
In terms of maintenance and improvement in water quality, almost 12,000 farmers have committed to excluding cattle from almost 17,000 km of watercourses for the next five years. The beef data genetics programme has attracted almost 24,000 applicants under tranche 1, another almost 1,700 applicants under a second tranche. Over 900,000 animals have been genotyped. On the energy side of things farmers are availing of energy efficiency investment options under TAMS II pig and poultry and the young farmers capital investment schemes. Both agri-industry and farmers are committing to the Origin programme rolled out by Bord Bia which includes the completion of carbon calculators by farmers on their individual farms.
It not possible in the time available to go through each and every measure but I hope those that I have outlined gives Senators a flavour of the range of measures being undertaken in the sector. The agriculture sector is serving multiple objectives, from producing sustainable food, biomass and wood products to sequestering carbon and providing other essential eco services including for water and biodiversity. It is these multiple objectives that make it different to the other sectors that Senators have heard about over the last week.
At international level the role of agriculture in tackling climate change and achieving the ambitions of the Paris climate agreement is well recognised. This is evidenced by the decision on agriculture taken at the most recent COP meeting in Bonn under the Fijian presidency last month, which the Irish delegation played a key role in achieving. Climate vulnerability and building resilience is also something that is high on the international agenda, as it is for us here in Ireland. My Department has published a non-statutory adaptation planning document for the agriculture and forest sector under the 2012 national climate change adaptation framework. The document is a first step towards reducing vulnerability and building resilience in the agriculture and forest sector. As expected, the analysis undertaken as part of that process found that climate change has affected and will continue to affect all areas of the agriculture and forest sector. Building resilience and reducing the vulnerability of the sector is key. I should also mention that a draft adaptation plan for the marine sector is also being prepared and I expect this to proceed to a public consultation in the coming months.
We have a thriving agrifood sector that is efficient and environmentally conscious. We will continue to work with all stakeholders to ensure that the sector continues to play its part in meeting our climate obligations and challenges.
I thank the Minister for his very comprehensive statement. Before we go on, I wish to welcome Mr. Charles Tannock, MEP, to the Gallery. I understand that although he is from the UK, he is a new Irish passport holder. He is very welcome to Seanad Éireann.
Each of the group spokespersons has eight minutes. I invite Senator Paul Daly to contribute.
I welcome the Minister to the House and I also welcome the opportunity to discuss the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015. I commend the Minister on his comprehensive report on same. We all understand the job at hand. The elephant in the room when it comes to agriculture, which is often conveniently ignored by commentators, is the fact that we never had an industrial revolution in this country and, therefore, agriculture is very prominent in our economy.
The outputs from agriculture are always going to be the biggest but I do not think that gets proper coverage. We are compared with other countries that have massive outputs from industry, transport and energy production and people are given the impression that Irish cows are world polluters. That is something that must be addressed. We had much talk this week about the correct and proper use of language. The image of Ireland that is portrayed and the language that is used is important.
This is not a bad news story. There are targets which need to be met and I would differ with the Minister on how we will achieve those targets. The Minister hosted a fantastic event on Monday and the FoodWise 2025 document contains brilliant targets which are very achievable. Indeed, they must be achieved for the future of the sector. If we are going to increase our output by up to 85%, it stands to reason that our emissions, if not handled extremely well, are also going to increase. That is evident in the 2.7% increase in greenhouse gas output in the agriculture sector in the last year. However, that 2.7% increase went hand in hand with a 22% increase in cow numbers and 27% increase in milk production. We are one of the most carbon efficient producers of dairy products. If the knee jerk reaction of some and their narrow-minded attitudes to solving or attempting to solve this problem were to be heeded, we would be pushing that food production to other areas of the world that are far less carbon efficient. That might solve our problem and bring our figures closer to the targets but this is a global issue. It is not a question of one country ticking its box. This is a global issue and needs to be viewed as such.
In terms of sequestration, I welcome that land use changes and forestry are now included in the 2030 framework. Sequestration can remove up to 26.8 million tonnes or 27 million tonnes of CO². The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine produced a report recently on the future of the tillage sector. With that in mind, all sectors need to be involved and there must be joined-up thinking both within the Department and across Departments. The Minister alluded to that on Monday in his closing remarks at the FoodWise 2025 event. Agriculture reduced its output by 3.5% from 1990 to 2016, which goes unmentioned. At the same time, transport outputs increased by 139% and energy by 116%. If we tick all the boxes and achieve our targets within agriculture but the same is not happening in the other carbon emitting sectors, it will not have the desired effect in terms of influencing climate change. All Department need to come on board in this.
To refer back to tillage. We have farmers who are leaving that sector at the moment. Tillage would not be a major carbon emitter. In fact, it would have plenty of sequestration opportunities to offer if we were to look at the diversification of products and the production of biomass crops. If farmers were able to make a living from tillage they would not be considering giving it up and moving into dairy, which the figures show produces more carbon emissions. In terms of the overall sector, therefore, we need more joined-up thinking. We are way off our reduction targets at the moment. We are supposed to achieve a 20% reduction by 2020 but it looks like we will come in somewhere between 6% and 11%. At the same time, there are farmers walking away from tillage which is one area that would actually help to improve those figures. They have no choice if they are to make a living from agriculture but to consider moving into the dairy sector.Incentives in areas such as tillage could help to improve those figures into the future and at the same time help us to achieve our targets of increased food production by 50% by 2050. The requirement to reduce our carbon emissions and at the same time increase food production on a worldwide basis by 50% by 2050 is daunting, but knee-jerk reactions will not serve us well. The cull of 50,000 cows in the Netherlands as a means of achieving targets was a knee-jerk reaction. We are seeking to increase our livestock while in the Netherlands they are culling them. I acknowledge that production in the Netherlands is not nearly as carbon efficient as it is here, but to hear about such high levels of culling is frightening. The objective of Foodwise 2025 is to increase production here by 85%. As worldwide food production must also be increased by 50%, it is catch-22 situation.
Some of the schemes introduced have helped to reduce emissions. The Minister mentioned that there are 25,000 farmers in the genomics scheme and that GLAS has 50,000 members. I believe GLAS needs to be reviewed in the context of what more can be achieved from it. We face major fines if we do not meet our targets. Depending on to whom one speaks, the amount of that fine increases astronomically. It would be far more beneficial to incentivise or subsidise schemes to assist in achieving our targets rather than spend that money on payment of a fine. This would be money well spent. The Minister needs to give consideration to this proposal.
As I said earlier, this issue needs to be addressed cross-departmentally. We are speaking specifically about the agriculture sector today but one sector alone will not solve the problem. We need joined up thinking on this issue. If the agriculture sector becomes carbon neutral but carbon in the transport sector continues to increase by up to 140%, it does not make sense.
I concur with Senator Daly that, taking the Irish statistics in isolation, it does not read well that one third of greenhouse gases come from the agriculture sector. One could be inclined to a knee-jerk reaction to that, but it is important to point out that we have never developed an industrial base in this State. In terms of our industrial base versus that of our neighbouring island, France, Germany or Italy or any of the Northern European countries in particular, there is no comparison and so we zone in on, on a micro level, the impact of the agriculture sector in Ireland. There is a need to see the bigger picture.
I was annoyed by the intervention yesterday of the EU Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan. According to him, we have a challenge in Ireland and we need to step up and deal with these issues; otherwise, we face major fines. The European Commission has cut back targets in terms of biofuel in the transport sector and that has seriously disincentivised investment in that sector. We have heard similar stories in this regard from industry and farming organisations throughout Ireland. The very Commission that is lecturing us on the need to address our challenges in agriculture is blocking a route and solution in that regard. It is important to say that. The message we are getting from the European Commission is almost schizophrenic.
I welcome this debate. We know that climate change has serious implications for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, our country and the world. We will not be seen to be picked off in isolation as this needs to be addressed in the broader context of the global and European challenge. The research indicates that the long-term effects will be significant. Droughts will increase pressure on grasslands from grazing animals and will also increase water demand for irrigation of crops in the east of the country. This will have significant cost implications for some crops, making them economically unviable, particularly the potato. Land use change will see livestock production become more dominant in the west, with cereal production more dominant in the east of the country. Increases in the sea temperature are likely to lead to increased algal blooms, increased infection rates and increased presence of exotic species, which all have negative implications for the aquaculture sector, notably salmon farming. The short-term effects are serious too. We will be facing significant fines for not reaching our 2020 targets. We need to have a balanced conversation on this issue and not ignore it.
The mitigation plan published in July of this year will be yet another dust collector unless we have a real conversation on how to address the issues. As our renewable energy is almost exclusively concentrated on onshore wind, we are reliant on rural Ireland and we will continue to be reliant on rural Ireland into the future. The State has virtually neglected diversifying our renewable energy sources, which are indigenous and will provide cleaner renewable energy and generate employment in rural Ireland. This includes biomass and biogas. Sinn Féin believes that these alternatives can be a direct replacement for some of our fossil fuels, which we import and spend billions of euro on each year. This is also a dispatchable power source as they will act as a complement to the intermittent nature of wind.
We are currently importing biomass to mix with peat to burn at the Edenderry plant. This is being imported from America but could be grown here. Bord na Móna plans to invest €60 million in a plant in North America. It has been importing palm oil husks from across the globe since 2010, to be burned with peat in the Edenderry plant. This makes no sense in respect of the environment and the carbon miles accumulated in travel. It also makes no sense from an economic perspective and from a security of supply perspective.
I note that a biomass scheme to grow willow was established in 2015 by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine but, alarmingly, only four farmers signed up to it. We can and should be providing biomass on this island. We need to know the reason for the low take-up in respect of that biomass scheme. Consultation on this issue is desperately needed. This is a viable solution that could work for all stakeholders, but we need farmers on board. I am asking the Minister to address their concerns and reservations and to respond accordingly. I know that the Department has initiated some initiatives in the area, including the establishment of Bioenergy Ireland by Bord na Móna and Coillte with a view to developing our bio-energy sector but our starting point is unfortunately way behind that of other states. With the phasing out of peat, we must consider converting the current peat plants to biomass, which puts money into rural Ireland and reduces our emissions. We need to get farmers on board and to get this done.
Another viable suggestion for reducing agriculture carbon emissions is diversification towards biogas or anaerobic digestion. This is where we can use by-products such as slurry, mixed with other farm waste, such as crop residues, rotation crops and food industry waste, to generate gas to be either put into the mains supply or used directly to generate electricity. Germany has 8,000 biogas plants and Britain has 600. We have none and only a first pilot scheme coming into operation next April. An EU Commission report has highlighted that Ireland has one of the best resources in Europe for biogas. This is a huge opportunity that cannot be missed. As well as providing an added and long-term revenue stream for farmers, it has the potential to create sustainable jobs in rural Ireland. An SEAI study this year cited the possible creation of 3,000 jobs from biogas in Ireland. These are sources of renewable energy that need to be utilised and have been neglected up until now. There has been a derogation sought recently in respect of spreading slurry. We know the effects this. These could instead be a source of income for the farmer and a source of renewable energy for the State.
Biogas is also diverse as an energy source. It can be used for heat injection into the mains grid, for electricity generation and to replace imported natural gas, on which we are very heavily reliant for the production of electricity. Furthermore, it can also be used as transport fuel, in particular in regard to our commercial transport sector, helping in the shift from diesel. We need to develop sustainable agriculture, including the development of the sugar beet industry which can be used in the process to generate biogas. There are also by-products in the process, including bio-fertiliser, which displaces imported fertilisers. This again reaps a benefit for farmers.
Through consultation with farmers and with proper supports in place, we can play a more important role in the energy transition of this State.To highlight it succinctly, the benefits of diversifying our energy sources to biomass and biogas, as I have argued for, would be reduced emissions, the creation of jobs, revenue streams for farmers and increasing security of supply. We cannot ignore this opportunity. Providing a direct replacement for some of our current energy sources would greatly reduce our carbon emissions without unfairly impacting on one cohort within the sector. I urge the Minister to look at the detail and take these suggestions on board.
I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss this important issue and I thank him for outlining actions taken under the national mitigation plan in respect of agriculture, food and the marine. It is clear that we must all be mindful and responsible citizens. That is the direction in which the conversation is moving, from the top to the bottom. When we try to address problems, the starting point is often identifying the party to blame and then pointing the finger. The big bad wolf in recent public discourse has been agriculture. That is very unfair. I have mentioned this matter at the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and elsewhere. I do not question the bone fides of the Citizens' Assembly, but I feel it was not presented with a fair picture in the context of agriculture. The Minister cited the fact that carbon emissions from agriculture and food production has decreased by 3.5% since 1990, while output has increased by 40%. Output has increased but carbon emissions have decreased. Equally, we know that some of our systems for dairy and beef are excellent. We are top of the class for dairy and we are near to the top for beef in terms of our carbon footprint.
The Minister outlined some of the measures that have been overseen by his Department. Every single farming scheme devised has to take on board the idea of sustainability, the potential environmental impact, and increasingly how it can serve to reduce our carbon emission reduction objectives. Farmers know all about this and they know all about the challenges involved. They operate at the coalface.
There has been cold weather again recently. Animals had to be housed as early as September in some cases, which led to clear problems. If we are to bring every single stakeholder on board - including farmers - we should start to ground our conversations in reality when we ask people to take certain actions. We cannot suddenly ask them to go from zero to 100 without providing a roadmap. We have to empower farmers to make the necessary changes so that they can be more carbon-neutral in their activities. The blame game puts many people, not just farmers, off, particularly when they really have been pushed to the pin of their collars in terms of commodity volatility in respect, for example, of milk and beef production. Farmers are working to the tightest of margins, and they are really trying. They should get credit for that.
The dialogue we are having cannot focus solely on agriculture. The message must be communicated to the broader public that farmers, farming organisations, Teagasc and departmental officials are doing good work and that there is a very real drive towards addressing issues.
In terms of the European perspective, I am just back from a trip to Brussels with the joint committee. The Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development painted a very stark picture for us. The reality is that there is a very big environmental lobby now which is extremely proactive and media savvy. I do not want to take from its objectives or intentions, but the reality is that more and more will be demanded from farmers under the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. That does not take into account the targets we have to meet. More and more schemes will have to have other dimensions to show that they are environmentally friendly. Anybody telling us that we are grand and that we should keep going as we are is incorrect. There is no doubt that it has to be ramped up. There will be extra costs involved, and I believe that is a debate we need to have. We have to stand behind our farmers.
Britain is pulling out of the European Union, and there will be a substantial reduction in the new budget. We have to begin by capturing our budget, and if new measures, whether for water quality or biodiversity, are being introduced for farmers, money will be required. We are asking farmers to act for the greater good of society. We need to talk about all of that, and continue to bring farmers on board.
In the environmental analysis conducted by the Minister's Department, the establishment of a sustainability sub-committee to monitor environmental impacts relating to the Food Wise strategy was recommended. Where do matters stand in that regard? It is essential that we keep moving in the right direction and that we anticipate any difficulties as we try to produce food. It has been stated already, but I reiterate that we are producing food in the most sustainable way. We need to be fed and it is by means of sustainable farming methods that we should produce our food.
I already alluded to the bad weather. There is concern among farmers that there will be a fodder shortage. Teagasc is carrying out an assessment of the amount and quality of fodder available. When farmers are obliged to house animals from early September in anticipation of a long winter, we know that some may get into difficulty. I suggest that this is part of the fallout from climate change. The Minister might give some assurance to farmers regarding the actions he is taking on this issue. He might also outline the options available to farmers if they have hungry animals or if there is an animal welfare issue. I look forward to the Minister's response.
Another storm is forecast for tomorrow. Storm Caroline is coming in, bringing winds of 110 mph from the north west. It is our latest forecast for bad weather and is unfortunate for everyone.
Ireland is one of only four countries in the EU where greenhouse gas emissions are still above 1990 levels. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has shown that agricultural emissions increased last year by 2.7%, following a 1.5% increase in 2015. In his speech on Monday at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's Food Wise conference in Dublin, our former Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan, told Ireland to "wake up and wake up soon". Irish people are proud members of the European Union. Studies show that Irish people consistently poll as some of its biggest supporters. As Commissioner Hogan rightly points out, with that membership comes a responsibility to take on and embrace the EU’s role of being global leader on climate change. At the event in question he stated, "The day is gone when we can pay lip service to sustainability and climate action". This echoes the advice given by former Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon in 2015 to the effect that:
Ireland has also been a champion of efforts to conquer hunger. But today, one cannot be a leader on hunger without also being a leader on climate change. The rise in extreme weather associated with climate change could drastically reduce harvests and degrade arable land. I encourage Ireland to align its climate efforts with its admirable work against hunger.
Irish family farmers are the stewards of our countryside. It is often forgotten that the survival of the beautiful landscapes that give Ireland its Origin Green image is largely due to the positive attitudes of farming people down the years. Their care of our land for generations, often in the face of great poverty and stress, has secured the beautiful landscapes, fresh rivers and vibrant biodiversity that build the world around us, an integrated world without which we cannot survive. There is broad agreement among farmer and agrifood stakeholders that the current CAP greening system does not do what it says on the tin.
I want to quote the words of a local farmer, regarding an exchange with a Government official on rural payment schemes for ecosystem protection. He said, "I am not accepting those payments. I love the corncrake".He also stated, "Like, I mean, I didn’t want the money to protect the corncrake."
For too long a narrative has been allowed to grow that climate action will be disadvantageous to Irish farming and that it is climate action, rather than a broken, productivist CAP system, that is damaging our farming families. I do not buy into the idea that farmers and environmentalists are opposed. We have the potential to develop a better economy for farmers that would not benefit only the biggest and most productive farms. We can develop a low-carbon, grass-fed pastoral system that suits a minority of farmers, although this cannot be used as a reason to double output on the false premise that it is either environmentally sustainable or a secure long-term strategy. Large-scale, productivist Irish agriculture cannot continue to have an exemption from its responsibility to help lower our greenhouse gas emissions and protect sustainable farming on our island.
We should build on the success of agri-environmental schemes. These have been shown to serve both our environment and the farmers that engage with them - economically, environmentally and socially - and we should develop new ones which address climate concerns. Investing in such schemes will help to reduce our agricultural emissions. For example, farmers involved in the organic farming scheme do not use any synthetic fertilisers or chemicals on their lands. They focus on improving the health of the soil, water, plants and animals and they make responsible use of our natural resources. Lower stocking rates on organic farms will reduce agricultural emissions. Organic farms have been shown to have 50% more biodiversity when compared with non-organic farms. Despite this, the scheme has been closed to new entrants.
Ireland should be a leader in reducing food waste. Farmers have been encouraged by successive Governments to produce more and more food to feed a growing world population, yet data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggest that in the region of one third of all food produced is wasted. Irish data indicate that households throw away some 100 million tonnes of food each year. This disposable attitude to our food and poor food choices perpetuate the cycle of poor product prices for our farmers. This will only worsen with the cycles of flooding, drought and eco-system loss that climate change will bring.
Let us not allow the destruction of farmers' livelihoods or of our environment due to climate change. Our responsibility is to prepare and adapt to climate change as well as trying to avoid it happening in the first place. In each case Irish farmers, foresters and fishermen and women will be at the front line of what we need to do. They will be the heroes of our cause.
I wish to read into the record a quote from Edna O’Brien:
Later, as the day cools and they have gone in, the cry of the corncrake will carry across those same fields and over the lake to the blue-hazed mountain, such a lonely evening sound to it, like the lonely evening sound of the mothers, saying it is not our fault that we weep so, it is nature’s fault that makes us first full, then empty.
Since the 1970s, the corncrake population in Ireland has declined by 91%. There are fewer than 20 breeding pairs left. When I was a child growing up in Tramore, my father had a farm. The corncrake was the sound of the countryside. We are losing so much as a result of climate change and habitat loss. The farmers are losing so much. We have to take smart action and we have to take it now.
I will not read the Minister poetry, although I am being encouraged to do so. In all seriousness, when we enacted the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, we set up the Climate Change Advisory Council. Its recent report clearly shows why it was set up, which was to give an early warning that we would not hit targets. It was built and designed on the model of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. I brought that up on Committee Stage. During the period of recession and economic crisis, the council reported annually and its advice was taken by Government on many occasions. We are facing a similar crisis in respect of climate change to that which we went through over the last eight years in respect of the extremely severe recession. We have to give it the same response, which is an whole-of-Government response. I know this issue is close to the Minister's heart. At this stage we have to start defining exactly how we are going to deal with the crisis the country is facing and with the possible fines of somewhere between €400 million and €600 million we will be facing after 2020.
The Climate Change Advisory Council's report refers to the approximately €100 million in subvention being given to turf-fired power stations in the midlands. We have to examine whether that is the best way to invest in the midlands. We do not want to make the midlands a rust belt but we have to examine whether a subvention of €100 million is the best way to invest in the region. Perhaps we should invest in people, in training and in alternative industries in which there could be a future for the communities in the midlands.;
I have a couple of questions for the Minister. When will see a definition of the term "carbon-neutral" in respect of agriculture? It is a phrase which is thrown out regularly but nobody quite understands it. We need to be clear on what the Minister's or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's definition is. We also talk about our investment in forestry and where we want to go with it. We have a clear target to have 15,000 ha of forest cover by 2050. I would like to see annual targets towards achieving that. If we do not have an annual target, we will find ourselves slipping very quickly.
We often hear that Ireland is the best place for milk, beef and everything else. We often hear that Ireland is the best place to feed the world. Ireland is never going to feed the world. Let us kill off that idea. In many markets, our agricultural produce is targeted at the top of the market in order to get the best return. We are selling our beef as the best in the world rather than as the cheapest. As a small producer, that is exactly where we should be focusing our efforts.
I have one real concern. I know that many people will think this comparison is a little mad, but tobacco producers constantly say they need help to continue growing and producing tobacco. If one does a Google search on that issue, in the United States, and particularly the south, the tobacco producers fight strongly to be able to continue growing tobacco plants for the tobacco industry. Growth in the tobacco industry is mainly in Third-World countries, particularly those in Asia, and in India and China. It is a little bit like that with formula milk. Ireland is now one of the largest producers of formula milk in the world. It is all for export, mostly to China and other Asian countries. We know that the best milk for a baby is mother's milk, yet we have major international foundations marketing formula milk in the Third World and in other countries where people can least afford to change from breast milk to formula milk. We feel that is okay. There will always be a role for formula milk. People do make that choice. However, we need to be a little concerned at the way formula milk is being marketed outside of Ireland. We constantly tell mothers that breast is best but, on the other hand, we say that it might not be if it means we can export formula milk to Third-World countries and encourage the use of scarce resources to buy it when people could be buying much more nourishing food for their families.
I welcome the Minister to the Seanad to present this annual transition statement from his Department. Others have touched on reports of just how far off track Ireland is in terms of meeting its climate change targets for 2020. I do not want to go into too much detail on that issue, but I do want to highlight it. It is a matter of very serious concern that we have fallen 28 places in the ranking of countries that are achieving their targets. It is also concerning that we are running very far behind where we hope to be by 2020 and, indeed, 2030.The fact that we are moving in the wrong direction has very serious consequences, and not only the real consequences we are seeing from climate change and extreme weather events such as damage to homes, businesses, farms and infrastructure. In 2012, for example, we had a fodder crisis that came out of a poor growing season and that then cost the economy €900 million. In terms of the impact of extreme weather events, which will become more frequent under climate change, these kinds of crises are very immediate. Quite apart from all of these real and immediate direct costs, however, we are also on track to incur significant fines on our economy. These fines have been estimated to range between €200 million and €600 million annually. The environmental coalition Stop Climate Chaos has estimated the overall economic impact of climate change down the line as €2 billion annually. I acknowledge that my colleague has spoken about why we need to really start looking at our position in terms of the facts and figures because we need to know from where these costs are coming.
We also need to address targets. Speaking at the Food Wise conference this week, the European Union's Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Mr. Phil Hogan, talked about Ireland sleepwalking into fines over our climate change targets. Commissioner Hogan made it very clear that there will be more flexibility in the next round of Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, funding to recognise the differences between countries. I believe this to be positive and I hope it will address some of the conflict we have had previously whereby upland farmers in Ireland were perhaps wrongly penalised in terms of the availability of certain land for agriculture. There have been contradictions in the way in which the CAP has come down the line in the past and I hope these can now be addressed in the new scheme. These contradictions specifically concerned farmers being encouraged to maintain growth while at the same time being penalised if land was not agriculturally available in the uplands. This specific issue has caused tension before. We can address these issues but what is important is that the CAP will still set very high targets and will continue to look at outcomes. There will be no way around making choices in the area of agriculture.
I have spoken at length in this Chamber on the issue of our hedgerows, which Ireland uses regularly as one of our key carbon sinks. The Minister referred in his speech to the planting of new hedgerows. There is, however, a real concern that there are measures in the Heritage Bill 2016 that mean we will not be able to track where hedgerows are being lost because discretion is being returned to cutters without their activities being reported or charted. There is real concern that we are perhaps undermining the role played by hedgerows as a carbon sink vital for Ireland's fulfilling of its CAP targets. We need to make a strong case under the new CAP for how we are going to meet our climate targets.
There are also issues in the area of diversification of our agricultural input. We know that tillage is strong in Ireland and we know that our cattle and beef industries are strong. As mentioned by Senator Humphreys, however, there is an opportunity there for us at the top end of the market because Irish beef could and should be the best beef available. We could look to give greater recognition to highland beef and lamb for the particular space they might hold in the market. I point out to the Minister that when it comes to cattle and beef production we cannot look at quantity issues alone.
The all-Ireland pollinator plan is of central concern if we want to diversify further into high-value horticulture. This is something we are already starting to see in the west of Ireland, for example, and we are also starting to see a strong agrifood industry growing off the back of an increasing focus on horticulture. This is both a key area for us to grow and an appropriate area for diversification, and pollination and the all-Ireland pollinator plan will play a central role in that. One factor that has an impact on pollinators, however, as well as on the hedgerows, is climate change. Pollination and hedgerows, then, are both part of the solution and response to climate change but also two of the areas in jeopardy from it.
My next point concerns the Minister's adaptation strategy, which he has indicated to be a living document. Will the Minister be taking on board the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly in that living document? A total of 97% of the members of that assembly recommended that the State end subsidies for peat extraction and move instead towards peat bog restoration; 89% recommended a tax on greenhouse gases from agriculture; and 99% recommended that the State review and revise supports for land use diversification, with particular attention to the planting of forests and supports for organic farming. As the messages and votes to come from the Citizens' Assembly are certainly strong, I ask the Minister how these will feature in the adaptation strategy.
My final question is this: how can we better support, through Irish Aid, adaption funding for farmers in developing countries so as to ensure that those who have done the least to cause climate change are not-----
I sincerely thank all the Members who have taken time to contribute to this important debate. I sometimes think we would probably be well served by some kind of forum or agency that would establish the facts on our achievements and problems as accepted by all parties. I am not looking for a free pass for agriculture in this debate. Far from it. I accept that we in the sector have a lot of work to do in this regard. I am equally adamant, however, that it be recognised that the agricultural community has also achieved an awful lot, something that has very often been lost in the debate. Senator Paul Daly made reference to some of those achievements in agriculture. We in Ireland are the most carbon-efficient in the world when it comes to dairy production, for example, and we are also the fifth-most carbon-efficient overall in Europe. These achievements are not in themselves reason enough to say that neither our dairy nor beef sectors need to do any more. That is far from the case, in fact, and this has been recognised by my Department, which is spending substantial amounts of money on further improving those sectors. In the area of beef, for example, we have a beef data and genomics programme and have genotyped almost a million cattle. This is something that might not be recognised by people from outside the farming world but we know more about individual cattle in the country than we do about citizens. We know all about their movements and their genotypes and so forth and we have a phenomenal database on this, which is the envy of the world and to which there is substantial inbound traffic from other states to see how we are doing these things.
We are spending more than €100 million a year on the Department's forestry programme. Next year we will be spending €104 million on this programme, which covers areas such as afforestation and building roads to help with extraction. We are harvesting huge volumes of biomass, though I take Senator Mac Lochlainn's point that we need an awful lot more of it. If we need more biomass, however, we as public representatives need to change the narrative around forestry. It is not good enough for us to come in here and talk about biomass in an abstract sense and then go out into the community and speak out against afforestation as an unnecessary evil that is killing communities. Communities can live side by side with afforestation and there is income and employment to be had from it. The Department is undertaking a review of our afforestation programme and there is some concern that some of the targets we had set on the hectarage we are planting may be slipping somewhat. Also of concern is the fact that our level of tree cover in this country is substantially lower than the European average. We are looking at how we might change the forestry crop to some faster-growing, quicker-harvested alternative to assist the biomass sector, particularly as this is an area in which we can contribute to breaking down existing prejudices against forestry . At the same time this would allow us to bring faster to market a renewable crop that would meet the growing potential of the biomass sector as a means of reducing our reliance on imported, non-renewable fossil fuels. This is important. What we cannot do, however, is indulge in the luxury of speaking out of both sides of our mouth when it comes to biomass and afforestation. They are the same issue and we need to take this seriously. We need to develop a new narrative around forestry. County Wicklow, for example, the county neighbouring this one, is widely accepted as a pristine county and yet it has the highest level of afforestation of any county in the country.It manages to sell that as a positive, by and large. I do not hear the same negative commentary about afforestation in that county as I do about afforestation along much of the western seaboard in particular. In some areas, it is seen as a threat to existing agricultural practices, many of which do not deliver the same income levels as forestry can deliver. I accept that we all have work to do to package this message better. That is important.
I assure Senator Grace O'Sullivan that we believe we have the best beef industry. Senator Humphreys suggested that "Ireland is never going to feed the world", but I remind him that Ireland is the largest exporter of beef in the northern hemisphere and the sixth largest exporter of beef in the world. Our beef industry is of global scale. Some people talk against the bovine industry - beef or dairy - when they are discussing climate change as a global phenomenon. Unless one believes in social engineering to an extent that I consider neither practical nor possible, one will agree it is better to have a beef industry in which Ireland is capable of being the best and most climate-friendly and carbon-efficient producer than to have a beef industry that is contingent on clearing vast swathes of the Amazonian rain forest. That is what the industry in South America is doing to enable it to export its beef under a potential trade deal with Europe, thereby displacing our product, which is far more carbon-efficient. We need to be conscious of these issues when we talk down our industry.
I accept that more than 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the agriculture sector but I stress this is because we have not traditionally had a heavy industrial base. Agriculture will always account for a disproportionately high proportion of our emissions. Ireland and New Zealand share a similar profile in this context because we have had similar experiences. Ireland's industrial revolution, if it ever happened, was in the era of information technology, etc. That is our industrial base. It is not heavy engineering, by any means. Our profile is skewed in that sense, which is what gives agriculture a bad name. Within our agriculture sector, we are quite good at what we do. That does not mean we are looking for a free pass.
We have been told that after 2020, as a country we will have greater flexibility with regard to the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. We sometimes like to say that the bad aspects of the CAP are all the fault of Brussels. We have an opportunity to use the greater flexibility that is now envisaged to tailor the CAP for our purposes. This will be a difficult challenge. We all say we are in favour of greater autonomy in devising CAP, but I suggest that when it comes to doing the work, there will be raised voices about what we should do. It is my firm intention to avail of this opportunity to address further the need to meet our climate change obligations and challenges. That is as it should be. Based on my engagement with farm organisations, it seems to me that farmers recognise this necessity. The journey will be difficult but there is an acceptance that it is the right thing to do for all the reasons that have been articulated. We are not climate change deniers by any means. In my view, this industry is visionary and progressive. It knows where it fits into the overall global scenario. It wants to play to its strengths. We are blessed with a climate that facilitates a sustainable agricultural base.
Senator Paul Daly referred to what is happening in the Netherlands. The Dutch agricultural industry is reaping the consequences of having rapid expansion without paying due respect to sustainability issues. I understand that up to 250,000 cattle are being slaughtered in the Netherlands to meet the requirements of its nitrates action plan, although I stand to be corrected in that regard. We recently negotiated a successful renewal of our nitrates action programme with the Commission, which recognises that we are on a sustainability journey. We have not arrived but we are committed to doing new things as part of the journey we are on. The Commission wants to work with us. We like to think the approach being taken involves the carrot rather than the stick. The Commission recognises many of the progressive things we have been doing.
Senator Grace O'Sullivan referred to the organics scheme. Most of the schemes under the rural development programme are closed. The organics scheme is one such scheme. The level of funding that has been committed to the organics scheme this time around is almost twice the level of finding that was committed last time around. It is still at a low base. I recognise that market demand is growing in this area. I suspect that the greatest level of demand in organics now is on the dairy side. If we had sufficient numbers of dairy producers with organic certification, I note there is an almost insatiable global demand for organic dairy products. There is a ceiling on the level of funding available under the rural development programme. The organics scheme is closed. There has been a significant change in the number of people participating in it.
Senator Higgins referred to the conclusions of the Citizens' Assembly. I do not want to say they are ill-informed about the broader detail, so I will say they reflect a concern. I do not believe we should penalise our farmers, who are more carbon-efficient than people in many other sectors. They are on a journey and they recognise they still have a distance to travel. We should not tax them out of existence. I suggest that the conclusions of the Citizens' Assembly reflect the fact that broader society wants the agriculture sector to continue to accelerate its journey towards carbon neutrality.
A number of Senators spoke about the challenges that undoubtedly are being faced in the tillage sector. I had an interesting experience during the summer on an organic tillage farm in the midlands. The yields on such farms are comparable with anything that is available in conventional tillage. Prices are probably three times higher per tonne. We are importing substantial quantities of organic oats because we are unable to meet the demand for this product nationally. I appreciate that there are many challenges for the mainstream tillage sector, not least because much of this crop is grown on rented land. That is an option, in that the substantial level of demand in the aforementioned market can give some people in the sector an opportunity to ensure their future viability.
Senator Mulherin made the important point that a cohort of farmers will feel particularly challenged by this debate. This is especially true of farmers whose viability is marginal in any event. I will return to her point about the fodder crisis. We need to find a form of language that enables us to communicate our plans in a way that does not threaten farmers but instead enables us to bring them with us. Farmers are the guardians of the countryside. They have done a phenomenal job. They are part of what has made the island of Ireland globally recognised as a green island. Our credentials in that regard are being increasingly questioned at international level. When we put a sticker on the label, we need to be able to stand it up to scrutiny. Organisations like Bord Bia, through its Origin Green initiative, are working to prove our green credentials. We need to be able to bring the farming community with us. I refer particularly to sections of that community that already feel financially threatened.
I will conclude by responding to Senator Mulherin's point about the fodder crisis. I have met people from farm organisations in recent days. I have also spoken to others who have an interest in this matter. I will convene a wider stakeholder forum to monitor this in the coming weeks. Representatives of farm organisations, officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, people from Teagasc who already have been dealing with this matter on the ground and representatives of various co-operatives and livestock marts will participate in that forum in order that we have a comprehensive picture of what is happening on the ground. I will continue to monitor their feedback on the best and most appropriate things to do.
I thank Members for the opportunity to say a few words on this important discussion and debate. I am delighted to be here to address the Seanad as part of the annual transition statement, ATS, process. As Members are aware, the 2017 annual transition statement provides key information on climate change mitigation and adaptation work across the largest emitting sectors for 2016, namely, agriculture, transport, electricity and the built environment, the sector for which I have responsibility. In this regard it forms part of the accountability arrangements vis-à-visOireachtas Members in respect of Ireland's progress in meeting our climate action objectives. To put this issue in context, climate change is one of the biggest global challenges of this century. The scale and complexity of climate change demand a co-ordinated effort and approach at both national and international levels. Ireland is committed to concerted multilateral action to tackle climate change through the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement, as we all know, sets out a long-term goal to put the world on track to limit global warming.
Climate change will have diverse and wide-ranging impacts on Ireland's environment, society and economic and natural resources. Impacts are predicted to include sea level rise; more intense storms and rainfall events; increased likelihood and magnitude of river and coastal flooding; water shortages in summer, particularly in the east of the country; increased risk of new pests and diseases; adverse impacts on water quality; and changes in distribution and the timing of life cycle events of plant and animal species on land and in the oceans. Against this background, strategies must be devised to reduce and manage climate change risks through a combination of mitigation and adaptation responses. This 2017 ATS provides an overview of developments in respect of Ireland's first statutory national mitigation plan and first statutory national adaptation framework and includes an overview of sectoral emissions reduction and adaptation activity for 2016 and, where available, 2017.
The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is the lead Department regarding a number of different measures proposed in the national mitigation plan, which was published in July 2017 by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment in accordance with section 4(8) of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015. The measures for which my Department has responsibility relate predominantly to the national planning framework, NPF, and the built environment, as well as social housing.
These measures include action 10 and action 65 and measure T11 of the national planning framework, to ensure climate considerations are fully addressed in the new national planning framework. The publication of the national planning framework consultation draft towards the end of September represented a unique opportunity to set out an ambitious vision and 20-year strategy for what our country should and can look like in 2040. The NPF covers a broad range of issues concerning planning for Ireland's future over the period to 2040. This includes national policy objectives to support climate action and planning, sustainable land management and resource efficiency and renewable energy generation. While public expenditure allocations are a matter for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are working closely together to ensure an effective alignment between the national planning framework, with a view to ensuring that long-term planning objectives shape Ireland's investment and infrastructural development approach into the future. The finalisation of Ireland 2040 as a draft in September was very much driven by the Government's decision to align the rapidly forthcoming ten-year national investment plan with the national planning framework, avoiding past mistakes whereby decisions as to where to spend scarce public capital investment took place before the national spatial strategy was finalised. The joint publication of the finalised NPF with the national investment plan will be a very visible statement of intent by the Government to set out a strategic vision for our country and, moreover, to back it up with the right national investment strategy.
With a national population increase of 1 million by 2040 and 8 million on the island as a whole by then, "business as usual" continuation of sprawl trends and uncoordinated development will not wash; physical and spatial development of Ireland must be much better. As recent events remind us, our climate is changing and we need both to take the immediate steps to adapt to these changes and put in train changes to address the drivers of climate change by decarbonising our way of life and taking advantage of the many opportunities that come from that.
Among a number of strategic goals, the draft framework aims to integrate land use and transport planning policy in a manner that reduces commuter travel demand and supports more efficient travel. Investment in social, educational, health and employment spheres will all have an impact on the development of an integrated, efficient and sustainable transport system. Recognising these interactions and setting a longer-term path will help to deliver more sustainable transport over time.
The principal elements of the strategy behind Ireland 2040 include better strategic planning for our cities, including Dublin as our capital and key international driver; growing Ireland's four other cities significantly; addressing connectivity to and opportunities within Ireland's regions and rural areas; and securing more compact forms of development to reduce sprawl and provide more choice. If we implement the NPF, we will see our country set on a more strategic development path, better prepared to address challenges like competitiveness, quality of life and Brexit. We will see people living and working more closely. Current trends are unsustainable and we all know why. We will see a reversal of rural decline, the promotion of sustainable growth patterns and better distribution of regional growth. We will see imaginative urban regeneration to transform settlements of all sizes and to bring life and jobs back into cities, towns and villages, with less congestion and all the hassles of traffic. We will also see co-ordinated delivery of infrastructure and services in tandem with growth, with a joined-up national planning framework and capital plan and consistent sectoral plans.
The finalisation of the NPF will also be followed through by tasking our three regional assemblies to bring forward complementary regional spatial and economic strategies linking strategic planning and investment at the national level with the physical planning and local economic and community development functions of local authorities. Together, the finalisation of Ireland 2040 with the new national investment plan and the regional spatial and economic strategies, RSESs, will bring about a total overhaul and vertical alignment of Ireland's spatial plans, from the NPF, through the RSESs and down to the local authority city and county development plans, to drive delivery of the framework, in particular compact and co-ordinated urban growth. Consultation has closed on the draft publication and my Department is now reviewing the more than 1,000 submissions it has received in recent months. These include submissions from public agencies and bodies, stakeholders from the infrastructure, environment and education sectors, social and voluntary groups, citizens, regional assemblies, individual councillors and local authorities. We have been trying to engage in public meetings with many of these different groups, and there is time to talk through the written submissions a little more as well. We have also received submissions on behalf of the Houses of the Oireachtas and their committees and we had a chance to discuss this on the floors of both Houses of the Oireachtas and in the committee rooms.
Action 20 aims to finalise the wind energy guidelines. The wind energy development guidelines 2006, issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, sets the national planning policy context for local authority plan-making regarding wind energy and the determination of planning applications and appeals by planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála. A targeted review relating to the noise, setback distance and shadow flicker aspects of the 2006 guidelines, which included a public consultation, commenced in 2013.A Programme for a Partnership Government contained a commitment to conclude the review of the guidelines, with a view to offering a better balance between the concerns of local communities and the need to invest in indigenous energy projects. In this regard, a preferred draft approach to the review of the guidelines has been developed to address a number of key aspects, including sound-noise, visual amenity setback distances, shadow flicker, community obligation, community dividend and grid connections. This was announced in June 2017 by then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Deputy Naughten.
As part of the overall review, a strategic environmental assessment, SEA, will be undertaken on the revised guidelines, incorporating the proposed draft approach before they come into effect. This is in accordance with the requirements of EU Directive 2001/24/EC on the assessment of the effects of certain plans and programmes on the environment. The strategic environmental assessment, SEA, is a process by which environmental considerations are required to be fully integrated into the preparation of plans and programmes which act as frameworks for development consent, prior to their final adoption, with public consultation as part of that process. It is envisaged that the public consultation as part of the SEA process will be undertaken in early 2018. In the meantime, the current guidelines remain in force. When finalised, the revised guidelines will be issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. Planning authorities and, where applicable, An Bord Pleanála must have regard to guidelines issued under section 28 in the performance of their functions generally under the planning Acts.
On measure BE7, social housing upgrades, local authorities are currently undertaking an ambitious programme of insulation retrofitting, with the support of the Department, of the least energy efficient social homes. Funding of some €107 million has been provided from 2013 to the end of 2016 to improve energy efficiency and comfort levels in 58,000 local authority homes, benefiting those at risk of fuel poverty and making a significant contribution to Ireland's carbon emissions reduction targets and energy reduction targets for 2020. The insulation retrofitting programme is being implemented in a number of phases. Phase 1 commenced in 2013 and is focused on providing attic-roof insulation and the less intrusive cavity wall insulation in all relevant properties while phase 2, which has been piloted in Fingal and Westmeath county councils, will focus on the external fabric upgrade of those social housing units with solid-hollow block wall construction. Based on the most recent information from local authorities, it is estimated that there are some 18,000 and 19,000 social homes requiring phases 1 and 2 works, respectively.
On measures BE10-1 to 10-4, regulations transposing the requirements of the energy performance of buildings directive, EPBD, for nearly zero energy buildings, NZEB, and major renovations, have been introduced. The 2010 energy performance of buildings directive, EPBD, requires member states to ensure that from 31 December 2020 all new buildings meet the NZEB standard, while new buildings owned and occupied by public authorities will be required to achieve this standard two years earlier - 31 December 2018. The Office of Public Works, OPW, is doing great work in this area. The directive defines a nearly zero energy building as a building that has a very high energy performance, where the nearly zero or very low amount of energy required should be covered to a very significant extent by energy from renewable sources, including energy from renewable sources produced on site or nearby. In addition, the EPBD requires that major renovations achieve a cost-optimal performance where technically, economically and functionally feasible. A major renovation occurs where a renovation includes more than 25% of the surface envelope of a building, and in broad terms a cost-optimal performance means that the energy performance should be set with a view to achieving the cost-optimal balance between the investments involved and the energy costs saved throughout the life cycle of the building.
In Ireland, over 40% of the total energy produced is used in the building sector and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, report Energy in Ireland 1990-2015 shows that in Ireland there has been an increase in the energy demand of 18% in the residential building sector and 29% in the commercial building sector. This is why increasing the energy efficiency and reducing the energy demand of buildings is so vital. My Department is currently working on an amendment to Part L of the building regulations and the corresponding technical guidance document, TGD L, which will specify the advanced performance requirements for new dwellings. I intend to publish these documents, together with a regulatory impact analysis, which will include a cost analysis for public consultation early in 2018. It is intended that this will be finalised in 2018 and take effect in early 2019.
In relation to non-residential buildings, a public consultation on Part L was published by my Department in March this year and 50 submissions were received, including 574 individual comments. These comments were fully considered and the final regulations were signed into law last month. This amended regulation and TGD L will, in general, apply to all building works, material alterations, material change of use and major renovations which commence after 1 January 2019. All of the above measures are key actions in the contribution of the built environment to Ireland’s national low-carbon transition and mitigation plan to address climate change and I am confident that they will be implemented and achieve the projected emissions reductions.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Fianna Fáil recognises that climate change is one of the most, if not the most, pressing moral and practical challenges of our generation. In this regard, we need look no further than the recent flooding in Inishowen, the widespread drought in southern and eastern Africa and the devastating extreme weather events in the United States. During a recent weather event, Hurricane Ophelia, this country virtually shut down because we were not clear about how it would impact on us. During that event three lives were lost. We did not understand the importance of this weather event until it had passed.
Scientists have said that storms, flooding, hazardous weather and extreme weather events, once called once-in-a-lifetime events, are becoming more frequent because of climate change. In the global age of Trump and climate change sceptics, we in Ireland are doing a terrific job of ignoring climate change, seeing it as an issue only the rich fossil fuel companies have to worry about, but the pensioner in Donegal still experiencing the after-effects of the tail end of Hurricane Gert, who has to stock the front-door with sandbags before she can sleep, is worried about climate change. We need to worry about climate change.
While we welcome the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act, we have a number of concerns around the manner in which it was drafted and how it will be implemented. With regard to Ireland's housing stock, not enough has been done to retrofit this housing stock. There is no comprehensive retrofit programme. Furthermore, there is no programme targeting the rental sector despite that there are almost 500,000 homes in this rapidly expanding sector. Fianna Fáil supports the green deal initiative and the energy agency, which will act as a one-stop shop, providing access to low-cost finance and expert advice to people who want to upgrade the energy and efficiency of their homes.
As things stands, Ireland is all but certain to fail to meet its 2020 targets. Recent figures show that our greenhouse gas emissions increased by 3.5% in the past year. This means we will face fines of at least €455 million. When elected, the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, claimed that the Government would develop a climate change plan and that he would provide for additional investment in this regard in budget 2018. Our transport energy and home heating sector accounts for almost half of our emissions. The Government has dragged its heels on the renewable energy support scheme and the renewable heating incentive scheme which has more or less frozen development in the renewable energy sector. Despite paying lip service to renewable transport, the Government has effectively given up on meeting our targets by 2020.
Home heating is an area in which Ireland has made relatively little progress, with just 6.5% of home heating coming from renewable sources in 2015. For example, fuel poverty is estimated to affect between 200,000 and 400,000 Irish households every year. Even if a home is not experiencing fuel poverty, retrofitting and energy upgrading create more comfortable and cosy homes that are of a higher quality. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of homes receiving grant aid to retrofit their homes declined by 77%. The Government continues to provide only small grants via the local authorities for wall insulation, lagging jackets and attic insulation. While I welcome that provision, funding for windows, doors and proper heating is not being made available. We need to invest in this area. I am being approached constantly by people who need work done but there is no proper funding in place to facilitate that work. As I said, this issue needs to be addressed. As current measures for retrofitting focus on only on social housing, privately owned or owner-occupied homes, the rental sector is missing out.There are over 500,000 homes in the rental sector but people living in rented accommodation are twice as likely to live in a home with a poor energy rating than owner occupiers. We must invest in that area.
Fianna Fáil will introduce a new green deal agency under the SEAI which will provide expert advice and low-cost financing to people who want to upgrade their homes. We will introduce a new pay as you go model, similar to the German model which is working extremely well. Approximately 160,000 social houses would be eligible for funding. The scheme would operate through the local authorities and the SEAI green home agency. The green home agency would provide low-cost loans to private home owners and landlords to invest in green initiatives in their homes. We need to provide incentives. Landlords must invest in their properties and I am sure the Minister will consider this carefully.
Fianna Fáil has devised a national plan to lower Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions and a national framework to provide for a response to changes caused by climate change. These two plans would be renewed every five years. It is also looking at the establishment of an advisory council on climate change policy. We are on this planet and it is our only home. We owe the future to our children and we cannot give them a half used one. I ask the Minister to act now. I know he is working on increasing funding for these areas and this is crucial. We have a housing crisis and there are many people living in houses that are cold because they are not up to standard. There is no funding available to them. We need to make sure that people are living in appropriate accommodation. The weather is so bad these days that we cannot tell our winters from our summers anymore. We used to have a winter wardrobe and a summer wardrobe but not any more. We need to act on it now because it is urgent.
I welcome the Minister to the House for this important debate on climate action in the context of his area of departmental responsibility, namely, housing, local government and planning. There is no doubt that Ireland, along with the rest of the world, faces huge global challenges in terms of its response to climate change. This is the second annual transition statement as per the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015. Under that Act, the Government is committed to present to both Houses of the Oireachtas an annual transition statement and to report on progress or lack thereof.
Ireland's targets are well known, namely, to reduce emissions by 30% from base 2005 levels in the non-emissions trading system, ETS, sector by 2030 and to reduce emissions by 20% by 2020. The latest EPA projections indicate that we are a good bit behind in reaching those targets. In fact, at current rates, we will only reduce our emissions by between 4% and 6%. This is a cause of genuine concern for policy makers and all stakeholders.
Numerous factors are contributing to the challenge we are facing. Obviously, our economy is growing again and we have increased productivity. In conjunction with that we have increased demands for both energy and transport. The Minister noted in his contribution that the demand for energy in the residential sector has increased by almost one fifth, while demand in the commercial sector is up by almost one third. In that context, the challenges are serious. Ireland is not alone in this regard, even within the EU. Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg and Malta are also facing similar challenges. It is up to us to respond in a responsible way and to engage our citizens and all sectors so that we can meet the challenges ahead.
The national mitigation plan is critical in terms of how we respond in the various emitting sectors like agriculture, transport, energy and the built environment. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is concerned with where people reside, with local communities and with the private and public housing stock. The energy efficiency of the housing stock is key to reducing energy demand and reducing emissions. We must acknowledge that even in the most pressing of times, the Government has supported various grant schemes to improve energy efficiency in homes. In 2016 alone the SEAI, through Government funding, supported over €130 million worth of energy efficiency upgrades in over 24,000 homes and almost 400 community buildings. The national energy authority also provided over €5 million in funding for 41 research, development and demonstration projects to find new ways of meeting the challenge ahead. I note that this evening the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, announced further grant assistance for various schemes to add to the existing warmer homes scheme. The Minister has announced an incentive for people who want to move away from burning fossil fuels to install heat pumps. A new grant of €3,500 towards a heat pump will come into effect from April 2018 which is to be welcomed. Heat pumps are a new, renewable energy technology that can contribute to reducing emissions produced in the residential sector. The grant for heating controls is being increased from €600 to €700. The external wall insulation scheme has grant levels ranging from €2,750 to €6,000. The Minister also announced a new, guaranteed funding commitment for smaller community energy projects, involving €28 million in grant aid which will be awarded in 2018 to encourage the transition away from fossil fuels. This all represents a recognition by Government that serious investment is needed to incentivise citizens and communities to move away from the burning of fossil fuels.
There are still many challenges ahead in the areas of standards and regulations, building technologies, insulation and materials and renewable energy generation. There is great potential in the development of solar power for the residential and commercial sectors. There is also great potential in geothermal technology. Wind has had its challenges but there is also potential there, particularly in offshore wind energy generation. Hydro schemes are also important. The small village where I come from generated almost 400 kW of hydro electricity from the River Clodiagh back in the 1800s. Unfortunately, not even 1 kW is generated there today. We need to leverage those hydro schemes again. I know there are regulations and EU obligations governing development around water sources but we need to unlock the potential of hydro, wind, solar and geothermal energy production in a more proactive way. We also need to engage our communities and bring them with us. In that way, we will avoid the objections that we see so often to renewable energy projects.
We must educate through our schools. The green schools initiative is very important and that should be acknowledged. Young children know a lot more about the environment than the middle and later generations. That is something that gives us hope for the future because those young children are the adults and leaders of tomorrow. Hopefully, they will continue efforts to drive down our emissions for the sake of our planet.
Another grant scheme in existence which should be acknowledged is the deep retrofit pilot scheme which is tackling energy efficiency in older housing. That scheme is available through the SEAI. The pilot programme will benefit many houses. It is referred to in the national mitigation plan and involves a commitment of €21.2 million between 2017 and 2019. That pilot project should be increased and expanded to include other housing schemes around the country.
Spatial planning and sustainable land use and management are critical for the future of sustainable communities. In that regard, I welcome the fact that a new national development plan has been announced by the Government. As the Minister has said, consultations on the plan will take place through various platforms and at various levels including regional assemblies and local authorities. I would expect that as a result of a new national planning framework being rolled out, all our county development and local area plans will be reviewed and revised to ensure that they align themselves with the national development plan. The objectives of the plan are to grow our cities to serve our regions and to achieve balanced regional development. It also aims to ensure that within our communities we develop sustainable transport options, including bicycle tracks and footpaths. Sustainable communities need to have facilities on their doorsteps, including renewable energy initiatives.
We have so much to learn. There is so much potential out there and so much to do.I offer my support to the Minister of State and to the Department in trying to achieve goals. With that potential, we can unlock the energy, vision and motivation of the young pupils in the schools with a Green Flag. If we can engage citizens in a proactive way, we will achieve the progress we need to make. There must be real tangible support from Government to incentivise the various projects I mentioned earlier.
I wish the Minister well. We must have an ongoing debate with constant reviews and re-evaluation to ensure we make the progress we wish to achieve.
It has become abundantly clear that Ireland will fall short, as other Senators have mentioned, in meeting the targets for renewable energy and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has recently reported a 3.5% rise in emissions last year. Earlier in the year the EPA reported that Ireland will fail to meet its greenhouse gas emission targets for 2020, which is a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions on the 2005 levels. The EPA has speculated that Ireland will reduce its emissions by 4% to 6% on the 2005 levels, as Senator Coffey has mentioned. Ireland's horrendous record is emphasised further in the recently-published Climate Change Performance Index 2018, which states that Ireland is "the worst performing European country". The report glaringly shows the inaction of the present and previous Governments on climate change. In spite of the Minister of State, Deputy English's good intentions, it is unlikely that Ireland will meet its renewable targets. By not reaching our targets, not only are we affecting our environment, we are also facing substantial financial penalties for inaction. The money that will be spent by the State on fines could be spent on renewable energy infrastructure.
As the power sources for residential properties transition to more renewable sources, the current costs are being borne by the ordinary customer. We need to address the plight of people suffering fuel poverty. There must be an acceptable standard of warmth in the home at an affordable cost. Households in Ireland are currently defined as energy poor if they spend more than 10% of their disposable income, as in severe energy poverty if they spend more than 15% of their disposable income and in extreme energy poverty if they spend more than 20% of their disposable income on energy costs in any one year. These people could be living in poorly insulated homes and this could include houses in the private rented sector. The private rental sector is an area neglected in terms of energy efficiency measures and this must be addressed. Organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul pay out millions of euro each year for those suffering fuel poverty and for those who need help in paying their energy bill.
The cost of electricity in this State is one of the highest in Europe. This is an added burden on those suffering fuel poverty, both in terms of the high prices and needing to spend more to heat their homes because of the lack of energy efficiency. The household spend on energy is now higher than it was 20 years ago and the trend seems to be on an upward spiral.
The Sinn Féin spokesperson on climate action in the Dáil, Deputy Brian Stanley, has asked repeated questions as to why our electricity prices are so high. Has competition affected electricity prices? The energy regulator judges competition by switching rates. We know for instance that the elderly are much less likely to switch provider and therefore can be on the most expensive tariff. Will the Minister give a departmental response in respect of the ever-increasing electricity costs?
There are two direct ways though which the State addresses the energy efficiency of homes, namely, the warmer homes schemes for those in receipt of fuel allowance and the better energy homes schemes. Measures under these schemes need to be extended. The SEAI published tips for heating the home in October 2017 and it states that much of the heat loss from a house goes through the windows, particularly if they are single glazed windows. Sinn Féin proposed in its alternative budget the extension of the warmer homes scheme to include the replacement of single glazed windows. Sinn Féin also sought an increase in the grants under the better energy homes scheme specifically for a grant to install solar energy so that more homes can generate their own renewable heat.
Government policy on energy costs focus on the competitive market and supports for energy efficiency. Will the Government take action to incentivise home owners towards renewable heat?
Last year the Government produced a 75 page comprehensive document on the targets on climate change in compliance with the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015. This year, several Ministers have come to the House to discuss climate change in their area of responsibility. We had the senior Ministers to date but with no disrespect to Deputy English, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is not in the House today in compliance with the legislation. I do not have a hard copy of the Minister of State's statement and I would have appreciated it greatly, because it would have given me an opportunity - - - - - -
I requested a copy when the Minister of State came to the Chamber but it was not circulated to Members until just this moment. It is really necessary to have a copy of the statement when the Minister comes into the House, as it gives Members a better opportunity to keep up with the points.
My view of the climate crisis in recent months is ever more coloured by my experience of being a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. Day after day I hear directly about the ever increasing scale of our shameful housing and homelessness crisis. There are now 8,492 people homeless in Ireland, of whom 3,194 are children. These 3,194 children are homeless at Christmas. There is a huge demand for social housing that can and should be designed and built to the highest energy efficiency and environmental standards. As I stated in my previous speech when the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, was present in the House, there is no mention of climate justice in the national mitigation plan or the 2012 plan and the most recent national adaptation framework. This is in direct conflict with section 3(2)(c) of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, which places a legal obligation on the Minister to have regard to climate justice in developing a national mitigation plan and national climate change adaptation framework. In the words of the former President, Mary Robinson, Climate justice is "a human-centred approach, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its impacts equitably and fairly."
I would like to know how the Department for Housing, Planning and Local Government has had regard to climate justice when developing its sectoral adaptation and mitigation plans and frameworks? Climate change has been described by the UN as the ultimate threat multiplier. The lack of preparation to provide extra accommodation for rough sleepers during Storm Ophelia was a case in point. All scientific evidence of climate change points to increased incidence of high-impact storms in Ireland, not to mention flooding, drought and unpredictable weather. The weather forecast for this weekend is of very high winds, up to 110 mph. This weekend, Storm Caroline is forecast to come in, that is, another storm in the context of the unpredictability and frequency of weather. This adds to the dilemma of climate change.
With a record high of 184 people now sleeping rough in Dublin city on 7 November in the freezing cold - and in the space of one week, a third homeless persons was found dead this morning - reading the vague non-committal national mitigation plan and the national adaptation framework, I regret to say that I do not have much hope for the Department's preparations for the oncoming climate crisis and its future storms.
There are more positive things to look forward to from the Department. The national mitigation plan states it will develop proposals to establish regional climate action offices to co-ordinate the local authority response to climate change and climate action. Local authorities are best placed to tackle climate change mitigation and adaptation and public awareness.Six local authorities in Ireland already have signed up to the covenant of mayors, my own Waterford City and County Council included. However, despite this clear willingness to engage on the part of local authorities, there is still a lack of understanding of climate issues at a local level caused by a lack of staff and monetary resources. The regional climate action mentioned in the national mitigation plan should include an energy officer and a climate action officer in each local authority. These officers need to be professional, high-level, technically adept champions of the issue with an understanding of how local authorities work. As Senator Coffey pointed out, we have a generation of green schoolchildren and teenagers coming through the schools and the universities and there are, no doubt, well-qualified, competent professionals for these roles.
Ireland at European level is arguing that the energy efficiency directive must include national objectives to fight energy poverty. This is welcome work that integrates a climate justice perspective. However, social housing has been excluded by the Irish Government from the EU's nearly zero-energy buildings directive being implemented from 31 December 2018. This is a backwards step for the Department and has serious implications for energy poverty and air quality in housing. The nearly zero-energy buildings standard is the warmest, most energy efficient that there is and public housing tenants deserve that. It also means fewer subsidies to dirty fuels that the EPA states is directly linked to dangerous air quality.
The national planning framework also plays a major role in reducing our carbon emissions and should have as a national investment priority the decarbonisation of our economy. We also need to implement a planning framework that decarbonises our energy system in a fair and equitable manner. Communities must feel part of the change to a low carbon energy system. Public buildings, schools, churches and community halls should be covered with solar panels, like in many other countries, generating energy and wealth for the community with a wholesale price for solar energy, as recommended by the Citizens' Assembly.
The Green Party believes that a better development model can be achieved through the creation of a national community energy strategy, operating in tandem with the national planning framework with specific targets. Flooding must also be integrated into the framework as a matter of urgency.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House and I commend him on the energy and capacity he brings to the Department. Only a few hours ago, we were both in County Cavan witnessing the good work of a company, KORE, which takes a collective community approach to retrofitting and reducing carbon emissions with great success. We are proud to say we have a number of other successful companies in Cavan but the flagship company at the vanguard of all insulation work and new technologies is Kingspan, which has an international status.
I also acknowledge the announcements by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, that he is increasing SEAI grants and that, as Senator Coffey noted, 24,000 houses were retrofitted in 2016, which represent major progress. These announcements are a step in the right direction and as the economy grows there will be a need to increase those grants to achieve a greater take-up.
It is disturbing that Ireland's emissions increased by 3.5% between 2015 and 2016. We understand it in the context of growth in the economy of up to 5% but it is not where we want to be. Any potential fines need to be headed off in order that we can use the money domestically to incentivise measures to avoid the fines, though I assume this logic is not lost on the Minister.
As we increase broadband coverage, more people will work at home and this will reduce emissions in the transport sector. I want to see broadband in every home in Cavan-Monaghan in the next year or two and I was at the launch, with the IFA, of Eir broadband, a commercial activity into which there is also Government input. We have a huge tradition in my area of the co-operative movement, including the creamery movement, and we have some of the most successful co-ops in the country such as Lakeland Dairies and Glanbia. They all grew out of small local co-ops and there is a precedent for buy-in to the movement. The Minister of State, who comes from the neighbouring county of Meath, needs to look at this as there is huge untapped potential for co-operative community wind turbines and generators. The community would have collective ownership of the generators to provide energy to homes and surplus energy to the grid, yielding an income. There is also individual microgeneration. We could put solar panels on houses using the co-operative system and we should look at this. I ask the Minister of State to indicate whether he thinks this could be piloted or incentivised.
In the agricultural sector, the potential for digesters is enormous both for generating energy and for lowering carbon emissions. Car pooling also needs to be done and can be incentivised, as can electric cars. The retrofitting of local authority houses is a very important project and I hope it continues. There has been considerable progress in Cavan-Monaghan and across the country and 58,000 homes are targeted in the current programme. What are the Minister of State's views on getting all our local authority houses completed in this regard?
I thank all Members for their comments and questions and for this opportunity to respond to some of them. On the point raised about the presence of the various Ministers, the legislation requires that the Minister with responsibility for the relevant actions will be in the House to make a presentation. It does not detail whether that is a Minister or a Minister of State. While I understand the Senator's point, I am in charge of building regulations and that is why I am here. A lot of the work we do is around building regulations. I am also charged with implementing the planning guidelines across the county development plans. That is why I am here, as the planning regulations are the point at which my Department can have greater influence on this plan. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Murphy, would like to be here too but he cannot. He would also love to cover areas such as social housing and the national planning framework but the implementation of those is for me to do. The key thing is that a representative of the Department is here.
I was asked about the statements made by the different Ministers this week - and there will also be statements in the Dáil tomorrow night - in comparison with last year's 75-page document. There are two parts to the statements. There are oral statements and written statements and an email on this matter was sent to the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, last week. The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment will compile the written submissions and ours will be a 200-page document, which there would not be enough time to read into the record of the House today.There will be a written submission by the Department therein which will answer the questions that have been raised on areas of concern in the past week as well as other issues. It will contain relevant statistics and figures and far more detail than there is time to include in my oral statement. I have no problem facilitating another discussion on the issue once Senators have gone through that statement. It will all be on record but now is not the right time to go through it because there is a large amount of detail in that document. I hope that will address Senator Grace O'Sullivan's concerns, which I appreciate are genuinely held.
I mentioned that the 2017 annual transition statement provides key information on climate change mitigation and adaptation work across the largest emitting sectors and forms part of the accountability arrangements vis-à-visOireachtas Members in terms of Ireland’s progress in meeting our climate action objectives. Climate change is one of the biggest global challenges of the century. All Members agree that the effects of climate change can be seen in recent weather events in Ireland and other parts of the world. There is another storm brewing that is to due to hit Ireland this weekend, which is of concern. On average, there are 50 such storms every year and that has been the case for many years. The storm that has been forecast for this weekend is classified as category orange, which is not uncommon. Storm Ophelia was of a different magnitude and not a typical European storm. It was uncommon but there have been similar storms in Ireland. The number of storms in Ireland so far this year is in line with the norm. However, we recognise other effects of climate change such as flooding and fluvial rain and no one is denying them. The Government and the country are very focused on our efforts to tackle climate change and our contribution to that on a world stage. Along with actions by Departments, the Government contributes on the world stage to combating climate change and has a very strong voice in that regard on behalf of both Houses of the Oireachtas. It is important for that to be done and that the documents we produce play a leading role.
Against that background, strategies must be devised to reduce and manage climate change risks through a combination of mitigation and adaptation responses. That is why the 2017 annual transition statement, ATS, provides an overview of developments in regard to Ireland’s first statutory national mitigation plan and national adaptation framework. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is the lead Department in respect of a number of different measures proposed in the national mitigation plan. The measures for which my Department has responsibility predominantly relate to building regulations in regard to the built environment and include adaption of social housing, which was raised here tonight, and the national planning framework which sets out our commitments under the national mitigation plan. Under actions 10 and 65 in measure T11 we will ensure that climate considerations are fully addressed in the new national planning framework. That was discussed at an Oireachtas committee and I gave a commitment to Senator Grace O'Sullivan and Deputy Eamon Ryan that we will strengthen the wording in that respect if necessary because they raised a concern that it was not sufficiently strong or clear. That will be focussed upon and ensured in the final draft. That is why we are here.
Senators Coffey and O'Reilly asked about the implementation of those guidelines and what will happen after the national planning framework. It is the national document. There are three regional strategies and the county development plans which have to reflect what is set out in the national planning framework. My job is to delegate responsibility to implement that and ensure the guidelines are followed throughout the process, and that will be done. The regional strategies will be developed during 2018 and the county development plans will be rolled out from 2019 onwards. However, development plans that are in progress must to try to reflect what we are setting out. We will ensure that what is set out in the national planning framework system is driven throughout the planning system because we want to honour our commitments in that regard, and we will do so. I give Senators my strong commitment in that regard.
As regards wind energy guidelines, the process is taking far too long. The review began in 2013 and agreement on the draft guidelines was finally reached in July of this year, but because of the new process set down with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, the final process will take a little longer to complete. However, it will get the balance right and address the concerns of communities in regard to flicker, noise, the height of turbines and so on. Such concerns will be dealt with in the guidelines, which are quite good and will be acceptable to most reasonable people. There will still be some difficulties in particular cases that will have to be talked through. It is important that we get buy-in from communities in terms of their involvement and gain, which has been discussed and I think Senators have raised. I would like there to be far more community projects in respect of energy production.
The issue of offshore energy was raised. There has been significant investment in research into offshore wind production primarily, as well as other forms of offshore energy production. Great progress has been made in that regard. I am in charge of the marine environment for planning purposes and some interesting projects are coming through that will put us in a position as a country to be able to contribute far more to offshore wind development in the coming years. Much investment is required because our Atlantic coast is quite complicated, but we are making progress and I am proud to say that Irish companies and researchers are leading the charge in that regard. It is great to see that endeavour and it is hoped the Government will be able to back their work and do more in that regard in the future.
The guidelines for onshore energy should be finalised in 2018 and will bring greater clarity because the current guidelines are 11 or 12 years old. It is time to bring forward a clear direction for local policy decision-makers through the local planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála. That is a commitment under action 20 in the national mitigation plan on which we have given feedback.
As regards work on social housing stock and regulations in that regard, we are conscious of the cost of non-energy efficient social housing. If a person is in social housing that is not up to scratch in terms of energy usage, efficiency and effectiveness, it costs him or her more money and he or she may be in danger of suffering fuel poverty. We have heavily invested in that area and have retrofitted more than 58,000 houses. There is a commitment to continue that roll-out in phase 1 and phase 2 and to retrofit that housing stock. We will mainly focus our resources in the next year or two on the 18,000 to 20,000 least efficient houses and will be rolling out more funding in that regard. Approximately €110 million has been spent on the area and we are committed to completing that work as quickly as possible.
More than €150 million has been spent on voids or vacant properties that were brought back into use and have been brought to an acceptable level of energy efficiency. In excess of 8,400 such houses have been brought into use over the past two years and there are more to come in the coming months. It is necessary to carry out the energy efficiency works because although there is an urgency in terms of increasing the social housing stock, we are committed to top-class quality and design and ensuring that all regulations and standards are met because people have to be able to live in those homes and run them as cost-effectively as they can. This action also contributes to the national commitment on climate strategy.
As regards regulations and standards, the regulations for non-domestic dwellings have been signed into law in the past couple of weeks and will apply from January 2018. Regulations for dwellings will be enacted by 2020. Publicly owned buildings have to reach the nearly zero energy buildings, NZEB, standards by the end of 2018, and the OPW is leading the charge in that regard and is doing quite well. Strong commitments have been made and we are backing them up with funding. The consultation for the NZEB 2020 targets will take place in the first half of 2018. I would be delighted for this House to become involved in that discussion and I encourage Senators to do so. There will be consequent extra regulations and complications in building a better standard of house in terms of energy efficiency and so on, and it must be borne in mind that that will add to the cost of the house. That must be acknowledged and we will have to bring forward more affordable housing projects and try to deliver more such projects on State-owned and local authority lands as well as through the private sector. We have to allow for that in respect of standards but that does not mean that we will renege on what we want to achieve through the standards. Certain other issues were raised of which I have made a note and I will revert to Senators on them.
As regards rough sleepers, in extreme weather events far more rough sleepers engage with emergency services than would do so in normal weather conditions. That is why we provide extra emergency beds every winter. I acknowledge they are emergency beds and are not ideal nor a permanent solution. Some are permanent. Last year, a couple of hundred new emergency beds were added, while this year we have committed to an extra 200 emergency beds being made available before mid-December along with 80 temporary emergency beds which cater for those who might not seek a bed on a clement evening but would do so during severe weather conditions. During Storm Ophelia, I and our teams in Dublin and other urban areas went out and encouraged rough sleepers to engage with services and to come in and use the emergency beds. Even during such events, some rough sleepers refuse any assistance. Along with other services, we will have to try to work with such people in the coming years to encourage them to come in and engage with the services of various Departments and eventually avail of the Housing First option and the supports that exist in that regard. We want to do our best to provide services for the homeless, whether they are sleeping rough or in bed and breakfast accommodation or a hotel and who want to live in a more permanent house. It is an area to which much money has been allocated. However, I re-emphasise that although it is urgent that we provide housing solutions, we will not renege on the quality or design of those houses, which is important in the context of this debate.
I cannot dictate the rules.The second part of these statements is the written statement. I certainly have no problem with the Minister coming back to the Seanad if time is arranged for him to do so. I will commit to coming back in. That written statement is not complete. There is a lot more detail in it. I am not going to make up the detail. I want to have it in front of me so that I will be able to go through it with Senators. I am happy to do that at a later stage. That is up to the House.