Seanad debates

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

Wood for Construction: Motion


10:30 am

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann:

recalls the: - State’s obligation under the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Acts 2015–2021 to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 51 per cent by the end of 2030, and to pursue and achieve, by no later than the end of the year 2050, the transition to a climate resilient, biodiversity rich, environmentally sustainable and climate neutral economy;

- Government’s commitment in the Climate Action Plan 2021 to increase afforestation, to facilitate and promote the development and use of alternative construction materials and techniques, and to decrease embodied carbon in construction materials;

- potential for the use of wood products in construction to reduce significantly the embodied emissions in buildings; acknowledges: - the significant funding package of over €1.3 billion proposed by Government for the Forestry Programme 2023–2027, and the positive contribution this will make towards increasing afforestation including, by extension, availability of sustainably grown, commercial grade timber for use in construction;

supports the aspirations in the ‘Shared National Vision for Trees, Woods and Forests in Ireland’ that:

- by 2050, Ireland’s forests and woodlands will be seen as a symbol of the transformational social, economic and environmental changes that were needed to address the climate, biodiversity, housing and health emergencies of the 2020s;

- the right trees will be in the right places for the right reasons with the right management;

- forestry will be at the centre of the circular and green economy;

- Irish grown timber will be the material of choice for the substitution of carbon intensive building products for new Irish homes; and calls on the Government to: - establish without delay a working group between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to devise and implement the necessary policies and legislative changes to remove existing barriers to the increased use of timber in construction;

- work with industry, third-level institutions and other State bodies to continue to increase knowledge among construction professionals and the wider public of the benefits of timber as a construction material;

- ensure significantly increased use of wood as a construction material through public procurement and through the introduction of ‘wood first’ policies and whole life carbon reporting in construction regulation.”

Photo of Vincent P MartinVincent P Martin (Green Party)
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I second the motion.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is welcome to the Chamber. We are delighted to have her here to take this important motion.

Two of the big crises facing our country at the moment relate to housing and climate change. The motion deals with both. We know that housing simply is not being built fast enough or cheaply enough. It also involves an enormous volume of embodied carbon. The motion aims to deal with all of those things.It calls on the Government to do three things: first, to establish a working group between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in order to devise and implement the necessary policies and legislative changes to remove existing barriers to an increase in the use of timber in construction; second, to work with industry, third level education and State bodies in order to skill up the construction industry on timber as a construction material; and, third, to increase timber use in construction through public procurement, a wood-first policy and whole-life carbon reporting. My colleague, Senator Martin, will deal with a couple of those elements. I will deal first with the important issue of the climate crisis.

When we look at buildings in Ireland we see that 37% of emissions come from the construction and built environment sectors. That equals the emissions from agriculture. We often hear people talk about how much carbon emissions there are in agriculture, and they are astronomical, but it is the exact same for construction and building, and that is rarely heard. I know the Minister of State is passionate about using wood because it has the dual purpose of getting houses built and reducing our carbon footprint. It is important that we get going on that and everybody buys into it. Not only that, but if we start to ramp up the use of timber in construction, we can ensure that 100% of our wood is used. Wood is an imperative when it comes to nature, but when we look at the timber industry we can make sure that we have houses built and that the byproducts are then used for energy, so timber can have that dual purpose.

What is embodied carbon? It arises from the extraction of resources, the quantity of the materials and the processing, manufacturing, fabrication and construction. Concrete is what is predominantly used in this country, and that is the wrong approach. It is not the approach of Scandinavian countries or much of the US. Embodied carbon is not measured in Ireland. When something is not measured it is not reduced, so the motion calls for such measurement.

When we look at the jobs in the sector there is a huge opportunity in Ireland. A study by the Council for Forest Research and Development this month found that the economic contribution of forestry to Ireland is €2 billion per annum. We could increase that massively if we were to ramp up the construction element. The estimates for direct and indirect employment are 3,500 jobs for forestry and the harvesting sector and 5,900 jobs for the wood and wood products manufacturing sector. That shows a significant contribution to employment from forestry, and that is mostly in rural areas. Another motion we heard earlier today was about the greyhound industry and how its removal would impact rural Ireland. I do not believe it would. Employment in that industry certainly does not come anywhere close to the kinds of jobs that can be created from this, a green industry which has a positive impact on climate change.

This entire motion is based on and framed in the context of not only the climate action plans, and a new plan will be announced in the coming weeks, but also the climate action Act, which we passed very soon after we entered government. We know there is a commitment to increase afforestation and promote the use of alternative materials in construction, but what has not happened is the task force to ensure that that advances as quickly as possible. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has announced €1.3 billion for forestry, the largest amount ever invested in forestry. The backbone of that investment and seeing a return on it has to be to have an industry around forestry. We have to make sure we have the right tree in the right place and for the right function, which is something the Minister of State always says. There is a place for wood in everything in Ireland. There is a place for it in nature, a place for it in respect of biodiversity and a place for it when it comes to jobs and to reducing our emissions. That is at the core of this motion.

I look forward to hearing the response from the Government, not just from the Minister of State's Department but also from the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Enterprise, Trade and Employment. There is a key piece in each of those Ministries.

Lastly, in respect of education, there is a skilling up to be done in this area, just as there is across all areas of green skills. That is core to this because that number of jobs means that number of training positions, so it is important the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is part of this as well.

I will pass over now to my colleague, Senator Martin.

Photo of Vincent P MartinVincent P Martin (Green Party)
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I congratulate and commend the Minister of State on the recent €1.3 billion investment in forestry. That will represent the largest ever investment by an Irish Government in tree-planting and is indicative of how seriously the Minister of State is taking this matter.

In the 1600s there was 10% timber coverage in Ireland. In the following 300 years, our country was asset-stripped and that coverage went down to 1%. In 1923, the State began a process of afforestation, and in those 100 years Ireland has returned to around 10% timber coverage. Ireland does not have a sawmill culture of building in timber for houses, unlike the Japanese, the northern Europeans, the Americans and the Australians, who have all built with timber for a long time. Buildings in some of those countries are over 1,000 years old. Timber lasts if one minds it. Ireland does not have a culture of building with timber. That may arise from the Great Fire of London in 1666. Soon thereafter, about two years later, a law was brought into Ireland whereby one was not allowed to use timber.

All has completely changed now, however. In the past 20 years modern technology has brought us various types of timber products, including cross-laminated timber, CLT. Huge amounts of research have been done in the west of Ireland by engineer Annette Harte on our timber, especially our Sitka spruce. Our Sitka spruce is akin to the high-producing Friesian cow because we can grow it quickly and it is a big producer. We can grow a lot of it. Our timber grows at twice the speed of that of the Scandinavian countries. It is slightly softer so has a different grade, but we can still use it to build buildings. We export most of it to the UK and it is used to build houses there. CLT allows higher rise buildings to be built more safely. An Irish timber frame company, Cygnum, has won the Stirling award for buildings built in the UK. The first passive house standard school building constructed in the UK was built and designed in Ireland, with Cygnum being to the fore of that.

That raises the question as to why Ireland is not doing this. In Ireland there appears to be a knowledge vacuum, and the builders, architects and teachers are generally not used to designing or building with timber in the main, apart from, of course, roofs and floors, so there is a knowledge deficit. There are challenges with dampness in Ireland, so one would have to detail the buildings so they are ventilated. There are fire issues, which are a legacy of hundreds of years ago. These challenges have been overcome around the rest of Europe but in Ireland they are quite problematic. We need to change our fire regulations to allow us to build in timber.

We also need to implement embodied carbon measurements and targets because our building and construction industry produces about 14% of all carbon emissions. Ireland needs to reduce that by bringing in embodied carbon emissions measurements and targets, which will encourage people to use timber.

When one builds in timber most of it is built off-site and brought onto site. The process when it is off-site is in a clean environment. Typically, 100% of the material is used, so there is no waste or minimal waste because the timber is precision-cut in a factory. Most of it is assembled in the factory and, because it is done off-site, there is less use of large cranes. That can save in site costs. Overall, therefore, it is a cleaner, more precise way of building. There are companies in Ireland doing this today, bringing in timber. This is coming and we in Ireland need to embrace it. We need to change not only the culture but also the politics.

This is a significant moment and the first step towards a new dawn which will be a win-win on the carbon emissions front as well.

The motion, tabled by the Green Party or An Comhaontas Glas, calls for "a working group between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to devise and implement the necessary policies and legislative changes to remove existing barriers to the increased use of timber in construction[.]" This will be essential if we are to realise the true benefits of our forest products. We must make sure there is joined-up thinking in how we manage our forests for nature and enterprise and how we incentivise landowners and farmers to enter the forestry sector. I know the Minister of State will be addressing the motion later, and I know first-hand that she understands, appreciates and will be a leader for this joined-up, holistic approach. Joined-up thinking is crucial. For too long we have approached forestry from a siloed position and we can see it has not worked out very well.

The motion calls for State bodies to promote timber in construction through public procurement. This is also welcome. We can make sure all tenders from the public sector include a wood-first preference. This will drive change across the construction industry. We will ensure people are exposed to working and designing with timber, as well as to using and enjoying buildings made with timber. This is the future and the way forward.

In respect of forestry and nature, planting trees will be hugely important in the coming years, with significantly increased afforestation a key part of our climate action plan. We must be careful of the impacts on the environment of planting forests. In the past, as a country we got this wrong. Forests have the potential to bring many environmental benefits, including cleaner air, increased biodiversity, important habitats for many species and flood storage, as well as recreational benefits. However, forestry can lead to many environmental problems when planted in the wrong place, or the wrong tree. Many forests planted on bogs, wetlands, uplands or marginal lands have had a detrimental impact on nature. In particular, single-species forests like Sitka spruce plantations are not the way forward.

I welcome the Government embracing this motion. I know the Minister of State gets this. This is a first step. The motion is coming in under the radar but this is big news for the future. It means a lot to the Green Party, An Comhaontas Glas, and, more important, to our country in tackling climate emissions. It is not party political and is a new chapter in an approach with innovative thinking at its centre. I am delighted to second the motion and speak in favour of it.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber, which is her Chamber too. I thank her for being here and thank Green Party Senators for this motion and for using their Private Members' business. It makes sense and I will fully support it.

I am conscious the Green Party is in government and coming to the mid-term of the Government's life-cycle. I have not yet seen the mid-term review. I presume one is planned, as is the case in most coalition Governments. This one has a huge, ambitious programme, much of which I agree with. I would look forward to a review of the achievements of the Government. It is something I would be calling for in the new year. I do not want to digress but it is important.

I am also conscious of Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025, an excellent document. There is a lot of stuff in there, a lot to be achieved, a lot of tasks and a lot to be done between now and 2025.

This motion calls to "establish without delay [I am somewhat surprised at this] a working group between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to devise and implement the necessary policies and legislative changes to remove existing barriers to the increased use of timber in construction[.]" I fully support all of that. I do not think it is a problem and it does not need any special motion. Parliamentary parties meet, Government meets and I would have thought this is totally consistent with Government policy. I am surprised it has not happened before now. That is a surprise to me and I am a member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We need to move on this fast. I fully support it.

Photo of Vincent P MartinVincent P Martin (Green Party)
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And our approach to-----

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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No, I do not need you to add to it, I am grand.

The motion calls on the Government to "work with industry, third-level institutions and other State bodies to continue to increase knowledge among construction professionals and the wider public of the benefits of timber as a construction material[.]" I also agree with that. Like the Green Party, I support sustainable development. I have been reading up on this and looking at research in Finland, Norway and Sweden. There were major challenges in relation to Bostik and other glues and adhesives for cross-panelling and sticking of timber. Many of them are toxic and there are serious questions in the European Union about them. We need to be aware of that. It is a challenge if we are talking about sustainability but I am sure there are ways to overcome that.

The motion calls on the Government to "ensure significantly increased use of wood as a construction material through public procurement". I believe in all of that. It is important. Forestry can help with housing issues and challenges and in achieving climate goals. Increasing forestry and the use of timber in construction would be significant and help to address the housing crisis. Carbon is locked away in the fabric of buildings, so it is a virtuous cycle. That is a positive.

The Minister of State would know more than anyone about the protracted issues concerning forestry licensing and harvesting. They must continue to be addressed. We are making steady progress. The Minister of State inherited a system and had to develop systems with her officials in the Department. I acknowledge their engagement on that but more work has to be done. Investment in forestry and its relation to the infrastructure is one way to assist in making house building more sustainable and affordable while reducing Ireland's net emissions of greenhouse gases. We have no difficulty with that.

More timber-framed and modular houses can and should be built in Ireland and the practice has worked well in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Austria, and in Poland recently I also saw modular housing.

We have an issue concerning Coillte. This is overlapping two aspects of the Private Members' business tonight, but Coillte should be incentivised to show more creativity and innovation and to promote wood products to support biodiversity and decarbonisation of our built environment. There is scope for that.

We need to be clear and unambiguous on the contentious issue of planting conifers. Planting conifers that grow quickly and capture carbon at a high rate is important for climate mitigation. We have to accept that. There is overwhelming public support generally and it makes economic and sustainable sense before planting trees to significantly increase our issues around climate. However, we need a higher level of broadleaves to provide for long-term carbon storage. Coillte is our State forestry board but there are a huge number of people in the private sector. It is about 55%, it is quite even. Coillte has impressive forestry but the private sector is involved. Sometimes those in the private forestry sector tell me they do not believe they are on an even keel and are not necessarily supported.

I supported the proposals. Irish forests are important for nature, biodiversity, human amenity, meeting our targets and for modular and fabricated housing. I ask one thing of the Minister of State. It is time for a national forestry board. We need a level playing field between the private sector and the public sector, including Coillte. It is surprising we do not have a national forestry board. I call for one tonight.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Fianna Fail)
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I support the Green Party motion. It is good we can have an open and frank debate and that we have so much in common on this issue. Forestry and the production of timber have for far too long not been advanced in the way they should have been and have not provided the benefits to the country that they should.It is only in recent years that people have come to understand that forestry and the production of timber have a really positive impact on the environment in terms of the carbon it sequesters. We have failed over the decades to plant as much timber as we have should have done. I know there have been issues in certain areas. I have spoken on this in the past. I will get a call from someone in Leitrim and Cavan who will say there has been over-intensification in those areas and that it is pushing people out but we must recognise in the first instance the positive impact afforestation can and should have on our carbon sequestration.

More importantly, sawmills across this country are calling out for timber. We are importing a phenomenal amount of it. I know there is a necessity to import some because of the quality of the timber and the moisture content for certain construction elements. From a home production point of view, timber frame houses work really well. We live on an estate of 50 houses, all of which are timber frame with a block out relief. Those houses were built in 2004. The only issues that houses built in 2004 have is the fact that the level of insulation then was lower than it is now. If you talk to contractors and developers, you can see that they certainly recognise that the timber frame allows them to move more quickly. We have lots of issues around climate change and we certainly have one around housing. The Government's policy is aimed at building more houses more quickly and timber can play a significant role in that. We need a national strategy around the use of this really important resource that involves setting targets that will ensure we do not have to import the level of timber we have been importing.

I recognise that there are certain areas where we should be planting timber for the long term - not for felling or construction but because of its amenity features and its benefit to the environment in terms of older forests with native species, which are really important from a biodiversity perspective. It is important that they go on to provide that recreational amenity for our community. It is vital that we watch this as well so it is not just all about production for the construction sector.

This brings me to the concern that there has been an overconcentration on one type of timber. This is probably where a lot of the negativity has come from. People do not want to see these typical Douglas fir or pine trees. They do not look particularly attractive in certain areas. This is why it is important to have a national strategy that is based around certain species for certain areas where the ground type is suitable for a particular species' growth and meets the needs of local communities.

The Minister and I have spoken about this before. People who have invested in forestry have a real concern about the length of time it takes to get felling licences. They have issues around the necessity for a lot of different permissions. I know that if you start out with a commercial crop of timber, it is 20, 30 and in some cases, 40 years before it will be felled but there should be a process at the beginning that recognises that this is the ultimate goal and that you do not have to seek permissions all along the way, be they for thinning, putting a road through the plantation or necessitating a felling licence at a later stage. We cannot create those road blocks that disincentivise investment in the forestry sector. We have seen that we are not reaching the levels we want to reach. I know the Minister has been working really hard on this because European legislation is required, particularly in respect of the impact of felling on the environment and how that needs to be addressed so there are more ecologists. However, we need to see that continue. We also need a plan based on the amount of timber that is now reaching maturity and is ready to be felled because trees do not grow overnight. It should not be a surprise to anybody at departmental level that when timber reaches a certain age and size, it is ready for felling so we should not be having the kind of delays and backlogs we now have. While there was great enthusiasm 20, 25 or 30 years ago for encouraging farmers to plant land that was possibly suitable for nothing else, unfortunately, this motivation has gone because of the delays and red tape so there is a burden on the Minister, which I know he will be able to handle, to win back those landowners and persuade them to invest and do something really positive for our environment from a biodiversity and carbon sequestration perspective and also in terms of developing a natural resource. We are not big on oil and other than small amounts off the coast of Mayo, we do not have a lot of gas but we have suitable soils and small farms that can be utilised to better deliver for their communities.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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This is a very important motion. I am very interested in this motion because I did a lot of reading on this subject over the summer. I will talk about the significant challenges in the forestry sector in a minute but I will start with the actual product and the potential it has. People have mentioned timber frame houses and modular homes. It is much bigger than that. We are talking about multistorey buildings. New York could have 20 or 30-storey buildings built out of timber. The technology, particularly in the past decade, is amazing. Obviously, it will take time and a change of momentum in the construction sector but we must look at what is happening in other countries. Senators mentioned countries in eastern Europe but the way they have used timber in the US is fascinating and there is learning here for us. If we could take what they have done in the US and bring it here, we could change how we construct our houses.

The normal rotation of a normal crop could be 35 years. If we look at projections regarding where we will be with regard to housing stock in 2055, we then need to work out how many trees we need to plant so we can reach the target that is required - not to export timber but for our nation. Are we anywhere near the number of hectares required? When we look at the unfortunate barriers we have put in place, for example with regard to peatland or high land, we see many barriers pertaining to forestry that probably were not there in the 1970s and 1980s. This must be factored in when we are considering the amount of land required to reach targets between now and 2055. If we are to reach those targets between now and 2055, we need a projection of where we need to be. It involves where our population will be in 2055, the amount of housing that will be required and the retrofitting of housing and producing an afforestation policy that will meet that.

This is a massive project that will involve the census, projections and probably a significant policy change but if we look at what is happening with the technology of timber, that is where we need to be. I predict that if we were to do that calculation, it would be a frightening figure. It would be a multiple of where we are today. The real issue then is how we reach that target, incentivise farming communities and get confidence back in the sector. That is a major body of work.

The motion is really important and we need to build on it. We need an indication of what we need in 35 years time and then put in place an afforestation plan that will reach that target. The goal must be for every house to be built from timber in 35 years time. What we do not want to be doing is importing timber from Scotland or some other country because straightaway biosecurity issues arise. I fundamentally believe that the sooner we ban the importation of timber on biosecurity grounds, the better. It is something we need to start talking about.I am paranoid about what happens at our ports where timber enters the country. We have an island that does not have the beetle. Were we ever to import it, our industry and these proposals would be grossly affected, to say the least.

This is about reaching our potential. We need to move on from this motion and put a target in place for 2055. I am fearful about what that target will be, but it will be necessary. The target will be a multiple of the number of hectares that have been planted so far. I would suggest that tens of thousands of hectares are required to reach our potential. This is the challenge for us as a society.

Photo of Lynn BoylanLynn Boylan (Sinn Fein)
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Ba mhaith liom, i dtús báire, fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. Tá áthas orm go bhfhuil an deis agam labhairt sa díospóireacht seo.

I welcome this Green Party motion on timber use in construction. The State must drive demand in the timber sector. There has been much talk about this issue, the technology is there and other countries are already leading on this. We need the Government to lead the way and create a pipeline for the technology by putting it to use in public building projects such as schools and houses. This would develop the market for the technology.

Significant advances have been made by Irish companies in the development of high-quality timber-based products that meet the building control, fire safety and lifespan requirements for public housing. When delivered at scale, these products can be quicker to assemble and result in lower costs and lower carbon emissions than traditional building methodologies. They are also good for attracting more people into the labour force, given that it can sometimes be difficult to encourage people to join the wet trades in the construction sector. A great deal of timber construction work is done inside and off-site, though.

Sinn Féin is committed to a reform of the building regulations to permit timber-based residential developments above 10 m, subject to the highest fire safety and building control regulations. In many spheres, we look across the water to our neighbours in Scotland for an excellent example. Consider how Scotland has implemented its just transition and its climate Act, how it has rolled out its deposit return scheme and how it has set energy poverty reduction targets. Now we can add leading on the roll-out of timber frame houses to that list, given that such houses account for more than 75% of newly constructed homes in Scotland. In Ireland, the figure is 24%.

The Department of Housing, Heritage and Local Government must step up to the plate. One of the steps it could take is to provide clear and consistent guidance surrounding the safe use of timber. It should revisit Part B of the 2006 building regulations technical guidance documents. It needs to use a specific framework agreement that is open to manufacturers providing timber-framed public buildings. It also has to use low-emission cement, as there is going to be an ongoing role for some amount of concrete. We need to use existing technologies to achieve the lowest possible emissions.

I have mentioned some of the benefits of building with timber, but carbon emissions are the prime reason this needs to happen so urgently. I am not sure if the penny has dropped within the Department, though. Section 15 of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 states categorically that the Minister must have regard to the need to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, we are seeing no evidence that the Department is taking its responsibilities seriously. It has twice been asked to appear before the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action to express how it will meet its sectoral targets, and twice it has declined to do so. We need to hear from the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, an outline of how he is going to reach those sectoral targets.

The built environment and construction make up a significant portion of our emissions. Of emissions in the built environment sector, 14% come from the production of construction materials, the transport of materials, the construction process, and the maintenance, repair and disposal of buildings and infrastructure. We need to consider embodied emissions more carefully. We all agree that the lowest carbon building is the one that has already been built, so the most carbon-efficient building practice is to reuse the existing building stock we have. This has the double benefit of revitalising our towns and villages.

I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, but we need to know that the Government is taking a joined-up approach. The Minister of State gets this, as the Green Party is serious about this issue, but I do not believe that the Minister has fully got his head around what he and his Department need to be doing on emissions reduction and adopting proven technologies. We need to hear from him on this matter.

The Department must work with stakeholders, including the Irish Green Building Council, the Construction Industry Federation, the Irish Home Builders Association and the County and City Management Association, to set out a clear and ambitious pathway that ensures that the construction industry plays its part in meeting our legally binding 2030 and 2050 emissions reduction targets.

Sinn Féin is happy to support this motion and we thank the Green Party for using its Private Members' business to table it and discuss this important topic, but we have had enough talk. We need more planning. It is time to put the plans into action and deliver timber-framed social housing and public buildings. We need to be reassured that the Minister is serious about his role under the Act.

Photo of Pippa HackettPippa Hackett (Green Party)
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I thank Senators for their contributions. It is clear that there is support across the House for this Green Party motion. I thank the Seanad for the opportunity to welcome this Private Members' motion on the use of wood in construction.

As the Minister of State with responsibility for land use, biodiversity and forestry, I recognise the important link between our forest resource and the wood it produces. Wood is a renewable and natural product and we must work hard towards making it the material of choice for far more of the buildings we construct. We need to increase the amount of wood we use in construction and to address the barriers that are preventing architects and builders switching to this more sustainable product.

Last week, I was in the beautiful setting of Avondale Forest Park where Coillte and my Department hosted an excellent field of national and international speakers to talk about wood and share best practice. The theme of the event, "Build with Wood - The Pathway to Net Zero", set the scene for our direction of travel. We in Ireland have a great deal to learn from international best practice and we, too, can move towards a far greater share of construction primarily using wood. Our forests can provide all the wood products we require to build our homes sustainably.

We have set legally binding targets in terms of climate action and we aim to reduce our emissions by 51% by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050. This will require transformative change across the whole of society and all sectors to make significant changes. It will require changes to the way we construct buildings in order to lower embodied carbon and make them energy efficient over their lifetimes. We must ensure that we do not lock in high-carbon materials in the buildings we design.

I have just published a new vision for forests for 2050. This vision is rooted in the principles of planting the right tree in the right place for the right reason with the right management. It envisages wood as a material of choice in the buildings we construct. The motion aligns with this vision in calling for an increase in the use of wood in construction.

When I first came to this brief, forestry was in a difficult place after a series of court judgments that severely impacted the licensing process. I established Project Woodland to address a number of issues facing our sector. We had significant backlogs on the felling licensing side, which had a large impact on forest owners and the forest sector more widely. We have made significant gains in reducing this backlog and are reversing the trend across a range of areas.

To implement our new forest strategy, I recently announced a €1.3 billion package for forestry, which is now going through the state aid approval process. Once in place, it will provide a wide range of financial supports for the creation of new woodlands as well as supports for existing forest owners. This is the largest investment in planting trees in the history of the State and demonstrates the Government's commitment to forestry. Our national forest policy and the direction of travel within the EU place forestry front and centre in our climate policy.

It is also important that we acknowledge the excellent work that is taking place in timber research and innovation in timber technologies. My Department provides significant funds to research institutions to explore the use of timber and investigate the properties of Irish wood.This research provides the evidence and science to allow increased use of wood and to allow architects to specify wood in construction.

We have provided significant funding to a number of programmes such as the WoodProps programme in the University of Galway and more recently NEXGENWOOD, which is a collaboration between BiOrbic, AMBER and others to extract high-value materials from wood.

We must also acknowledge the excellent work carried out in Letterfrack at ATU Connemara in furniture design. Building in wood and furnishing our homes with wood creates important living and work spaces that can have positive impacts on our well-being. My Department supports the annual Wood Awards, which celebrate best practice in the use of wood in buildings in Ireland. Last week in Avondale Forest Park, which I encourage all Members to visit, I saw that Irish home-grown timber is being used in engineered wood products such as glue-laminated timber and cross-laminated timber, which is showcased in a state-of-the-art visitor centre. There is also an impressive new treetop walk and slide - the slide is not made of timber but the treetop walk is - which truly demonstrates what can be achieved in building with Irish timber.

We also need to train and develop our specifiers in the use and installation of wood products. TU Dublin is providing a four-year honours degree course in sustainable timber technology which will make a positive contribution to our timber sector. My Department also funds advisory services providing specialist information on the use of timber. All these initiatives are important but we need to do more to ensure that sustainable buildings using wood are increased at scale across a range of construction types.

The EU forestry strategy and the green deal recognise the importance of the use of wood as a significant climate change measure. Crucially, they identify the need to examine regulatory barriers in construction. The EU forestry strategy states that harvested wood products in the EU represent an active net carbon sink of around 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, while also generating climate benefits through a material substitution effect, with values ranging from 18 to 43 million tonnes per year. The strategy states that scaling up the production of long-lived wood products is limited by construction regulations, such as fire safety regulations, which do not yet fully reflect the technical possibilities of modern timber construction. I heard last week in Avondale from international and national experts that small changes to our building codes would allow an immediate significant uptake in wood construction. The EU strategy also states that member states should be encouraged to reflect best available scientific knowledge in the design of regulations favourable to long-lasting wood products, including by acting on the energy and environmental performance of building and construction products.

As one of the largest contributors to global carbon emissions, the built environment has a key role to play in achieving emissions reduction targets. Carbon emissions from the construction sector are mainly attributable to operational emissions from energy consumption required for day-to-day running of buildings and embodied emissions arising from the production, installation and maintenance of the building fabric. In Ireland we need to build large numbers of new homes and there are considerable opportunities to increase the use of timber frames and to make greater use of cross-laminated timber, glue-laminated timber and other innovative products.

The Council for Forest Research and Development, COFORD, which provides my Department with advice, has produced an excellent report, "Forests and wood products and their importance in climate change mitigation". It contains a number of recommendations which we need to progress, for example with regard to reducing barriers to the use of wood. Specifically, as an example, it references Ireland's building technical guidance documents, which effectively limit the height of apartments and buildings constructed using timber to no more than 10 m, or a maximum of four storeys. By overcoming barriers such as these in the building regulations, we could foresee future construction projects adopting mass timber construction and dramatically reducing the carbon-intensive materials needed. Across Europe we see large buildings made from cross-laminated timber which can be up to 80 m in height. In the UK we see Irish home-grown timber used in timber frame buildings over 10 m in height, which is in excess of what can be built here in Ireland. It makes sense that we use the best available scientific advice that allows buildings to be constructed safely and aligns with best practice. I also favour central government and local authorities promoting the use of a wood-first policy. I believe we should introduce whole-of-life carbon reporting throughout the construction sector.

In conclusion I am delighted to support the Private Members’ motion on behalf of the Government. We need increased collaboration between Departments, agencies and stakeholders to shape our policies and increase the amount of timber used in construction. We have ambitious climate targets and it is vital that as part of our effort to reach them, we increase the use of sustainable construction materials. Timber was the building material of choice for many centuries until relatively recently. It can again become the material of choice in the 21st century but only if we put in place policies to make it happen.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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I am very heartened by the amount of support we have received from across the parties and the passion behind the contributions. The reason for the motion is to build that sense of consensus and to create a sense across all the Departments that we need a wood-first approach. I want to reiterate the importance for both the housing crisis and the climate crisis of getting this right and putting a sense of urgency at the core of this. It is almost as if we need to learn again what wood can do in this country. The use of wood in construction is nearly as old as time itself, from simple tools to more complex structures, and society has almost developed around wood. Yet, as Senator Martin said, Ireland has a relatively small amount of forestry cover. That is shifting under the Minister of State but the way to really shift it is to create multiple uses for the product itself in recreation, for nature, for biodiversity and for construction.

Senator Dooley raised a really important point around the importation of wood. The industry is calling out for local wood supply. This kind of policy would ensure that happens. It would support the industry itself and also support jobs.

Senator Lombard made a really interesting point on multistorey buildings, to which the Minister of State also referred. There are legislative and policy barriers which can be overcome. From having engaged with the Minister of State and her Department on this, it is clear that when it comes to retrofitting buildings and increasing storeys, wood is the best product so it is a no-brainer that we would start to change the regulations and legislation to enable that to happen.

Senator Martin raised public procurement. That is where we can take a leading role as a government and as a state and show that there is demand. The creation of demand is important in any kind of industry in order for people to make a long-term investment in something. We have seen that with our retrofitting programme. The long-term ten-year plan for the national retrofit programme meant that we could get people skilled up and that there could be private investment and therefore we could see a ramping up. Again, the forestry sector needs to see that. Unless there is a long-term plan, we cannot get people skilled and we cannot get the kind of investment we need.

I thank the Minister of State for her time today and for putting her energy behind this project. I agree with Senator Boylan that it is important to have the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on board with this. I can see today that the Government is on board with it. This has gone through the Cabinet. That we have support from across the different Departments to get this going is an important point. There is a sense of urgency around climate not just from ourselves but also across society in general. People must understand fully that wood can play a key part in bringing down our emissions because it sequesters carbon. There is also a key concern around the housing crisis and our approach in tis regard will provide faster, cheaper and warmer homes. It ticks all those boxes. As I have said, it is a no-brainer.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar athló ar 7 p.m. go dtí 10.30 a.m., Déardaoin, an 1 Nollaig 2022.

The Seanad adjourned at 7 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 1 December 2022.