Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Proposed Legislation

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

95. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications if his attention has been drawn to the concerns and suggestions brought forward by stakeholders and experts at the pre-legislative scrutiny meetings on the climate action and low carbon development (amendment) Bill at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action; his plans to amend the Bill to take account of these concerns and suggestions to strengthen the Bill; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35129/20]

I want to ask the Minister about the climate action and low carbon development (amendment) Bill. As the Minister will be aware, the Bill is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny at the Joint Committee on Climate Action. The committee is just coming to its conclusion. I thank all the various stakeholders. I want to know if the Minister has heard from the stakeholders on the positive suggestions that they have brought forward and if he will be accepting and making amendments to the Bill.

The draft text of the climate action and low carbon development (amendment) Bill was published on 7 October and referred for pre-legislative scrutiny at that time. Those proceedings provide a welcome opportunity for detailed examination and debate on the text of the Bill by members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action and by witnesses. The committee commenced pre-legislative scrutiny on 14 October and I understand it is ongoing.

I have followed proceedings and note that a number of witnesses have attended to date from a range of backgrounds and provided valuable evidence. I understand these proceedings are to conclude shortly. This is an important element of the legislative process and I look forward to considering any report prepared by the committee as soon as it is available. In this regard I expect to be in a position, subject to further consideration and having sight of the committee's report, to take on certain recommendations from the committee ahead of commencing the legislative process in the Oireachtas. While the Bill remains priority legislation for the Government, I will await the outcome of this pre-legislative scrutiny before finalising its content.

I appreciate and think useful the work that is being done in the committee. I believe it will bring real results in improving the legislation before we go into the full legislative process.

I welcome the fact that the Minister is open to accepting amendments. There is some degree of consensus emerging, certainly that there is an amount of work to be done to improve the legislation. Will the Minister outline the expected timeline, working on the basis that the committee's report will be ready in the next week or two, for the further progress on the legislation?

I ask the Minister to speak to a point in relation to public involvement and public engagement and the opportunity that exists with the passing of this framework legislation to include the public voice in decision-making around our climate action obligations. It is an issue that came up consistently in the deliberations of the committee and I merely want to hear from the Minister in terms of his openness to improving the Bill in relation to public engagement.

On the timing issue, when we first published the legislation I expressed the possibility that the pre-legislative scrutiny would be quite short and much shorter than usual. That is because there is a certain urgency in my mind in getting the Bill passed so that we can start implementing its measures next year. In that way we can include 2021 in the first five-year plan, and there is real urgency for us to raise our ambition on climate action. It has taken longer than I had originally expected but that is not unusual. It is appropriate if the committee has been doing good work in assessing it, which I think it has. I would still be hopeful - I cannot force the hand of the committee on this - for us to have the report in the third week of November, as was the window I was hoping for which is not that far from now. The benefit would be I could implement a number of amendments reflecting on what the committee has done and that would give us time to get back into the Dáil in a fairly timely manner. I will come back on the issue of public consultation later on.

There is a range of issues that have been raised, as the Minister might appreciate, from the range of stakeholders whom I again thank. I refer to the strength of the language, for example, on the targets and the need for, if not interim targets, certainly checks and opportunities to correct the path if we are going astray. That is a significant ask and I would ask the Minister to address that.

On the question mark over the 2050 target, given the changes at a European level and the climate target plan there, where we are proposing to reduce emissions by 51% between now and 2030 and they are saying at least 55%, does the Minister think there is a fundamental issue there and a need to recalibrate at this stage? Is that something he is looking at?

On that last point, we should be careful that we are comparing like with like because one of the unfortunate difficulties is we are starting on effectively a zero level not having achieved any of the reductions that we had expected by 2020 and for us to get to 51% is the full 51 yards. In the European Union, most of the countries are significantly ahead of us in the emissions reductions that they have already achieved and it is the equivalent of starting a 50 m race where they have a 20 m, and sometimes a 25 m, head start on us. Our level of ambition will be way beyond any of our European comparator countries because we have so much catching up to do. We can do it. It will be good for our country.

The more public consultation we do to get a widespread understanding of that and public buy-in to the solutions in a bottom-up way the better, but no one should underestimate the scale of the change. No one has ever done a 7% per annum reduction in climate emissions.

I was following the committee proceedings with the likes of Professor Kevin Anderson, and others whose work I know well, who is absolutely right. If one is adhering to the Paris climate timetables to meet a 1.5°C temperature increase limit, much more aggressive and ambitious timelines would be needed. I will be honest. First of all we have to show that we can achieve the existing level of ambition. If we can do that, I would have no problem accelerating but no one should underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead of us.

International Agreements

Duncan Smith

Question:

96. Deputy Duncan Smith asked the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications the response by Ireland to the withdrawal of the United States of America from the Paris climate agreement; the impact the withdrawal will have on obligations of Ireland under the agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35326/20]

I submitted this question just after 4 November when the United States had withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement. They say a week is a long time in politics. Things look a little different now but I would still be interested in the Minister's thoughts on the decision of the United States, the time that has been lost since the United States first indicated it would leave in 2017 and how it looks now with new President-elect Joe Biden, hopefully, coming into the White House.

I might send on the script. As a personal reflection, and I hope I am not breaching a confidence here, the Taoiseach mentioned to me that he was speaking to President-elect Joe Biden this evening - he had to leave the Questions on Promised Legislation for that phone call. The Taoiseach said to me in the conversation one of the key points that President-elect Biden made was that they were going to be rejoining the Paris climate agreement. It was, for him, one of the key messages he wanted to get across in the conversation. That is a really welcome development.

I was in Paris at the signing of the Paris climate agreement and the sense of hope and expectation it raised is not all lost. It is close to being lost if we do not proceed with urgency now but it is still the only and best legal framework we have for international collaboration in achieving its object.

I was fortunate to meet the Chinese ambassador yesterday. In a visit to me, his primary message was that they are looking to achieve a more ambitious national declared contribution sooner than 2060 to net zero. I believe that has been helped by the European Union taking the position it has in going for the higher targets that we mentioned with Deputy O'Rourke earlier. This virtuous circle, I hope, in terms of the increased ambition from Europe, faster ambition from China and now America pledging to come back within the international agreement, gives us some hope that there might be a race to the top rather than a race to the bottom. The Americans rejoining the Paris climate agreement is about the best news I have heard in a long, long time.

I think so. The Paris climate agreement was signed in 2015. The Minister was present. He was not an officeholder at the time. I am not sure if he was a Deputy. It is worth saying it just shows the Minister's commitment to this goes beyond what office he holds.

Many people on the left feel the need to caveat their congratulations to Joe Biden by saying they do not share his politics. I am not going to do that. I am delighted someone of such decency has won the presidency in America. I am especially delighted to hear the report the Minister has just given us that in his conversation this afternoon with the Taoiseach, Mr. Biden indicated his intention that the United States will rejoin the Paris Agreement soon after his inauguration on 20 January. Everyone knows it is not a perfect agreement but at least everyone is on the pitch playing the same game and with the Americans, who emit 15% of the world's carbon, coming back in it at least gives us some hope and hopefully we will have a race to the top. Will the Minister, in his capacity as our Minister with responsibility for climate action, be writing to the President-elect to follow up on that call with the Taoiseach? What other actions will he be taking between now and then?

It might be slightly above my pay grade but the Taoiseach might be writing to him. I hope we may be welcoming him here shortly because I think it has been reported that the President-elect is expecting to come here. On a related topic, I had a further meeting last week with the Governor of California, Mr. Gavin Newsom's top climate officials. This is not just at federal level but is also at state level. In those technological centres, in particular, where innovation is coming from, they are committed because they see their state burning and the risks associated with climate change becoming very apparent and real. We can operate in co-operation with a whole range of different actors. What gives me a certain confidence regarding the President-elect, Mr. Biden, is that within his Democratic Party he has alliances with the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders and the sort of zero-carbon and keep it in the ground divestment movement Senator Bernie Sanders tapped into and he did not shy away from that during the election campaign. It probably lost him a good chunk of votes in some states but it gained him votes elsewhere and that strong commitment to divestment from fossil fuels in the election campaign gives me real hope.

It was encouraging for those of us with a passion for climate action that during this campaign, which took place during a pandemic and which was in many ways a referendum on the other fellow, anyone listening to Mr. Biden's message would know that the climate action agenda was running right through his campaign. That is very encouraging for the future. The Minister has given us a good answer there.

On the tech industry, I have a question coming up in a couple of minutes' and we may have a different view on its relationship with the climate.

Fuel Poverty

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

97. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications if the rolling out of green infrastructure, including smart meters, EV charging points and home retrofitting, have been subject to a human rights and equality impact assessment as required under section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35127/20]

It is vital our progress towards a carbon-neutral 2050 and a greener future is done in a fair and just way. Have key climate proposals, such retrofitting, the installation of smart meters and electric vehicle, EV, charging points, been subject to a human rights and equality impact assessment as required under section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014?

The achievement of the goals set out in the Department’s statement of strategy are dependent on the efforts and professionalism of my staff and underpinned by the values set out in the Civil Service Renewal Plan. The Department, in its dealings with staff, stakeholders and citizens on actions to address climate change, including policies on smart meters, EV charging points and home retrofitting, is committed to the public service ethos of independence, integrity, impartiality, equality, fairness and respect.

The programme for Government sets out the Government's response to the significant challenges facing the country, including Covid-19, decarbonising our economy and creating a sustainable future for all. A new statement of strategy for my Department is currently being developed in accordance with the requirements of the Public Service Management Act 1997.

The strategy will set out the vision and mission for my Department for the next three years and the key objectives, outputs and related strategies across the broad portfolio for which we are responsible. It will, inter alia, address the comprehensive and ambitious suite of commitments in the programme for Government to be delivered by my Department. An important part of the development process involves scanning the external environment to ensure that the Strategy reflects changes and challenges in society and the economy, including any statutory requirements such as the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014.

It sounds as if they have not been equality-proofed, so to speak. It speaks to the point of the actual impact of policy decisions of Government and the need to do away with the notion of "them and us" in relation to the green agenda. It seems to frame much of what happens and that is underpinned by the implications in the real world of policy decisions on the green agenda. I want to ask about some of the retrofitting programmes, specifically the warmth and well-being energy efficiency programme and the better energy warmer homes scheme. Those are important schemes to protect some of our most vulnerable living in fuel and energy poverty. They are stymied at this time due to Covid. There are significant delays in delivering on those programmes. Can the Minister give me an update on those?

Taking the issue of retrofitting, section 42(1) of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 states:

A public body shall, in the performance of its functions, have regard to the need to—

(a) eliminate discrimination,

(b) promote equality of opportunity...

I could go on but what we are doing with the retrofitting programme is meeting the requirement in that section. I cite the fact, and this is from memory, that of the €270-odd million in funding the Government has committed next year to retrofitting is a budget commitment to this area that is huge and beyond compare. Some €70 million or so is going to be in social housing, targeting the homes of those who are typically, but not always, on lower incomes. Similarly, the warmer homes scheme is one which, as the Deputy said, is specifically targeted at those in receipt of fuel allowance, where there is 100% support for it. I think it accounts for more than €100 million of that overall budget so in our framing and design of this, it is very much designed to target social justice improvements as well as environmental and building quality improvements.

The Deputy is right that the system did suffer somewhat due to Covid-19 but we are continuing the work right through level 5 because it counts as essential construction work. I asked my officials about this the other day and they informed me it is proceeding and is not being delayed by Covid. It is subject to every on-site assessment but there is not a restriction on that work at the moment.

There is a significant delay in terms of a backlog. I certainly welcome the funding and would encourage a significant ramping up of recruitment of workers to address that. I also acknowledge the fact that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul indicated that there are around 400,000 people living in fuel and energy poverty. Age Action indicated that there are in the region of 2,000 excess winter deaths related to fuel and energy poverty. I reference the strategy to combat energy poverty 2016 to 2019. Is the Minister going to take on that baton and follow through with a number of the recommendations, including, for example, the establishment of an independently-chaired energy poverty advisory group? Is this something the Government is committed to and will commit to in the time ahead?

This is part of a massive investment in the area. This is a project of a scale that is probably one of the biggest investment projects in the history of the State, and for the private sector as well. On the backlog, the Deputy is right there has been a severe backlog with the likes of the warmer homes scheme. That is one of the reasons that in the budget, as well as increasing the actual quantum we are providing, we got agreement for an additional 57 staff within the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, and 50 staff within my Department to ensure we are equipped to deliver this scale of ambition. Included in that will be a full suite of measures to implement the objectives on the eradication of fuel poverty. The best way of eradicating fuel poverty in the long run is for us to meet our objective of going to every single house and removing the need to burn fossil fuels and the bills that come with that. Improved public health will come with better-insulated, warmer buildings so a large number of the additional 107 staff joining the existing Department and SEAI complement will be going into this very area and aiming to tackle fuel poverty.

Warmer Homes Scheme

Seán Canney

Question:

98. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications his views on the warmer homes scheme and its effectiveness in view of the fact there is a two-year delay in Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, inspectors visiting homes approved by the scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35282/20]

My question also relates to the warmer homes scheme and its effectiveness. In view of the fact there is a two-year delay in SEAI inspectors visiting homes, never mind getting the work carried out, I would like more insight as to how we will deal with this. As the Minister says, construction is an essential service and I do not see why the delays are not being dealt with. All I hear is that in my constituency there is a two-year waiting list for an inspector to come out.

The SEAI better energy warmer homes scheme delivers a range of energy efficiency measures free of charge to low-income households vulnerable to energy poverty. To date, more than 142,000 households have received free upgrades under the scheme, making their homes warmer, healthier and cheaper to run. The value of works carried out under the scheme now ranges between €5,800 and €28,500 per home, depending on the starting condition of the property and suitability for the measures available.

Eligible homes are allocated for initial survey on a first come, first served basis, and as the Deputy has said, the average time between application and survey is now 21 months. This wait time is a result of strong demand for what is an extremely popular scheme. There are currently more than 7,000 homes at various stages of the scheme work programme.

The SEAI originally estimated that works would be completed in approximately 3,500 homes under the scheme this year. Delivery has however been negatively impacted by Covid, particularly between March and June when the scheme was fully paused in line with Government guidelines. In line with the wider construction sector, retrofit works are continuing, subject to a full risk assessment and compliance with all available guidelines. Activity under this scheme is now expected be closer to 1,500 homes this year.

Budget 2021 provides €109 million in capital funding to support lower income households to retrofit their homes. This is the largest budget ever for this purpose. It is expected that this funding will support free energy efficiency upgrades for up to 5,800 lower income households, in line with the programme for Government. Capacity by the industry to deliver increased activity will also be increased due to a new, broader contractor panel to provide works commencing this month. Recommendations on the implementation of changes to the scheme to better target those most in need will be finalised shortly.

I thank the Minister for the reply. The answers I receive from the SEAI are that it takes up to 24 months. We also have a situation whereby people have an expectation but are being told they have to wait two years for the inspection. There seems to be a huge amount hinged on the fact that all of this has to be carried out by the SEAI. I cannot understand why local authorities are not being used. They administer the housing adaption grants and the mobility aid grants. Why can this not be administered at that level? We have also created more bureaucracy because the SEAI has to approve the contractors, when most contractors doing this work are already approved in one way or another and can certify their own works. It would make for greater efficiency and greater speed in getting the works done. I ask the Minister to consider reviewing all of this in light of the fact there is huge demand and there is a budget. How much of the budget will not be spent this year and will be carried over?

I do not have the figure but I will ask the Department to come back to the Deputy directly on this. As I said, there will be significant carryover on this, as in other areas. A lot of this is because in the first Covid phase between March and June, the construction sector by and large, like the rest of the economy, was shut down. We still have ongoing issues in terms of building up the contractors' capability and capacity to deliver a lot of this work. The Government has been adopting the right approach in that in the budget the Minister, Deputy Harris, indicated significant investment with up to 1,500 apprenticeship places specifically in the area of retrofitting. Previously it used to be bedevilled by stop-start contract arrangements whereby contractors would have to wait until early in the new year to know when they would get work for that year. They then had a short window during the summer when they did the work and they stopped again in the autumn. What we did in the July stimulus this year was change the rules so we can run 12 months of the year and right the way around.

I am delighted to hear some movement has been made to try to streamline the whole process. It will be a pity if we do not take the issue on board with regard to the panels we create for the SEAI-approved contractors list. It is something I notice in my own area. Not many contractors are on the list because they are not interested in it. We have to make it more attractive for the local contractors to get involved. I was looking on the website today and I think I would have to go to Mayo to get a contractor for Galway. I wonder why this is. It is also very cumbersome for people to try to find a contractor on the list. There is a little bit of shaping up to be done in terms of making sure we deliver the benefits. We have the money, and if there is a budget carryover for next year, we want to be able to increase the capacity. I know the Minister is doing this but we need to increase it further and perhaps keep an eye on how the funding is being spent and how quickly it is being spent. The Minister is right that we cannot have a stop-go attitude.

There is a lot of shaping up to be done. In truth, any underspend this year has been spent on our obligations regarding the European Union renewable heat targets, which we did not meet. We have had to buy our way out of that obligation. I would far prefer that we had spent the money on putting in new energy efficient homes with heat pumps so we would meet our renewable heat targets. There is a huge amount of shaping up to do.

The Deputy is right with regard to the contractors. Perhaps a lot of contractors looked at this in the past and thought it was too small, too stop-start and too uncertain. Now they know that for the next ten years by law the carbon revenues we will get from the carbon tax will be allocated. This will be some €5.5 billion for the retrofitting industry. This is only one of the revenue streams we will need. We will have a variety of schemes and revenue sources, including private financing, that will make this a €50 billion industry in the next two decades.

Thank you, Minister.

Any contractor who is thinking forward, and they are doing so, will see this is an area they need-----

The time is up. Thank you, Minister.