Thursday, 28 November 2019
Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine
190. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the state aid rules in place with respect to grant aid for an agency (details supplied) to afforest land; the EU regulations in place and state ceilings set; if the matter has been raised at EU level; and the process involved to have the matter reviewed. [49553/19]
State aid is the term that refers to forms of public assistance, using taxpayer-funded resources, given to undertakings (public and private) on a discretionary basis, with the potential to distort competition and affect trade between member states of the European Union. The principles governing State aid are enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, mainly in Articles 107-109. These provisions provide for a general prohibition on the use of State aid, subject to certain exceptions, the interpretation of which are largely the preserve of the European Commission, subject to the jurisprudence of the European Courts.
However, if an EU Member State has identified an area of market failure and feels that it is justified to provide an incentive effect in the form of State aid in a particular area, Member States must notify the Commission of proposed State aid in advance and seek the Commission’s advance approval before the aid can be paid. There are a few exceptions to the notification requirement, namely:
- If the measure falls within the General De Minimis Regulation which allows overall aid of less than 200,000 euros over 3 fiscal years.
- Agricultural de minimis aid to farmers of less than 20,000 euros over 3 fiscal years.
- Measures which are covered under a pre-existing approved Irish Scheme.
- Measures falling within the General Block Exemption Regulation.
State Aid approval was requested and received from the European Commission for the Forestry Programme 2014-2020 in 2014. The Forestry Programme is 100% State aid funded and is therefore required to fully comply with all relevant State Aid Guidelines, notably European Union Guidelines for State aid in the agricultural and forestry sectors and in rural areas 2014 to 2020 (2014/C 204/01), issued by the European Commission and applicable to the 2014-2020 programming period.
My Department's Afforestation Scheme is part of the Forestry Programme. In accordance with the relevant State aid provisions, the scheme terms & conditions set out that a fixed afforestation grant towards the costs, subject to the maximum laid down in the scheme documents, will be available to private land-holders, companies or public entities. Aid for the afforestation of state owned lands may be granted but only if the body managing such land is a private body or a municipality. Land owned and managed by public entities will not be eligible for payment of premiums.
It is expected that the European Commission will issue new State aid Guidelines for the next programming period (2021-2027). The first step of the consultation on the new State aid rules with the Member States has been initiated by the European Commission earlier this year and my Department is participating in this process. In consideration of the new national afforestation targets, all aspects of how forestry is grant aided will be under review during the coming years in preparation for the next Forestry Programme.
191. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if the carbon sequestration potential has been examined of all designated land including hen harrier designated land with respect to permitting some planting on such land. [49554/19]
Forests can make an important contribution to climate action through the sequestration and storage of carbon dioxide and by supplying sustainable and renewable materials that support the decarbonisation of our economy.
The Government's Climate Action Plan 2019 recognises this key role which afforestation has to play in climate change mitigation particularly through carbon sequestration. Under current rules, agreed as part of the EU Effort Sharing Regulation, forestry can contribute some 2 million tonnes of CO2 per annum of carbon towards Ireland’s emissions targets under the next climate mitigation period 2021-2030.
Planting achieved under successive afforestation programmes will be the basis for this emissions reductions figure. The Climate Action Plan now sets a target of an average of 8,000 hectares of new planting per year. While this will mostly yield benefits in the longer term post-2030, it will also contribute to our 2030 target through carbon sequestration.
Issues concerning the designation of Special Protection Areas (or SPAs) and the setting of conservation objectives are a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. As previously outlined by Minister Madigan, the issue of afforestation within SPAs important to breeding hen harrier, is an ongoing issue and a previous protocol on the issue was discontinued as the European Commission considered it non-compliant with the EU Birds Directive.
The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has prepared a draft Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan in co-operation with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, and with my own Department. The draft Threat Response Plan must also undergo public consultation.
Regarding the issuing of afforestation licences, the Deputy will be aware that, under the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011, any Minister considering a plan or project in a SPA or a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) shall give consent for such a plan or project only after having determined that the plan or project shall not adversely affect the integrity of any SPA or SAC. In addition, under the European Union guidelines for State aid in the agricultural and forestry sectors and in rural areas, within SPAs and SACs, only afforestation consistent with the management objectives of the Natura sites concerned, and agreed with the Member State’s authority in charge of implementing Natura 2000 (in Ireland’s case, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht), shall be allowed.