Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Cybersecurity Policy

Paul McAuliffe

Question:

67. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he is satisfied that Ireland has the ability to prevent and overcome another cyber-attack given that Ireland currently ranks 26th on the 2017 GCI global cyber security index and ranks a medium to high 17th in the EU in a recent cybercrime vulnerability score; and his plans to improve cyber security. [29460/21]

Is the Minister of State satisfied that Ireland has the ability to prevent the occurrence of another cyberattack, given that Ireland is ranked 26th on the 2017 global cybersecurity index, GCI, and ranks mid-table in the EU in respect of its cybercrime vulnerability score?

I thank Deputy McAuliffe for this timely question. The threat of attack by cyber criminals is increasing across the world.  Ireland is recognised by the global cybersecurity index as one of the countries that are ranked highly in terms of our commitment to cybersecurity. Addressing the growing threat requires a combination of responses, including actions by the State, by individual organisations and by all of us, as citizens. While ensuring the security of the networks and information systems of organisations is a matter for each individual organisation, the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, plays an important role in this area.

The NCSC was established by Government decision with a broad remit across the cybersecurity of Government ICT and critical national infrastructure. It acts as a central contact point in the event of a Government-wide or nationwide cybersecurity incident affecting the State. The NCSC also co-ordinates and supports the response to significant incidents, with the lead role being taken by the entity affected by the incident.

Information sharing is a key component of the work of the NCSC, whereby it acts as a source of expert advice and guidance. The NCSC gathers threat intelligence data, trends and risks from national, global and local sources, and it then shares that information with the people and organisations who need those data to protect their own systems. It supports public bodies, operators of essential services and digital service providers to improve their cybersecurity posture and to fulfil their obligations under the European network and information security directive. The NCSC takes a very proactive role by supporting these organisations to build their cybersecurity resilience continually through a range of initiatives, including by publishing advisories based on the most recent threat intelligence and by hosting seminars and workshops.

Going forward, it is important that every organisation, public and private, continues to invest in strengthening its cybersecurity resilience. Recognising the need to evolve continually, a capacity review of the NCSC is being undertaken. The review, which is due to report shortly, will inform the future development of the NCSC and the extent of any additional resources required for the NCSC to continue to deliver on its important mandate.

I thank the Minister of State. It is an incredibly difficult time for all those in the HSE. They managed to continue to provide services during what can be only described as an unimaginably difficult 12 months and then faced the difficulties of the cyberattack. My heart goes out to everybody in the HSE who has had to deal with that situation.

We are lucky. I pay tribute to the Minister of State in terms of his experience outside of politics. Having somebody in government who knows this area and brings expertise to it is important. In addition to the 29 staff of the NCSC, the increase in the budget from €1.7 million to €5.1 million has been very welcome. Is it sufficient. What will the review bring?

I cannot say what the review will bring, but I can say what it is meant to determine. Under the terms of reference, the review is to establish if the NCSC is fit for purpose, if it is lacking anything, if it needs any additional skills or staff and how it compares with other similar organisations across Europe and the world. That is the purpose of the review. The review is due in quarter 2 of this year and will report in the coming weeks. I will need to consider it carefully in light of the recent events. It cannot be taken in isolation and considered as if the recent attack on the HSE had never happened. The review will make recommendations. I will publish as much of the review as possible without endangering national defence while at the same time trying to make sure we are preserving transparency and democracy as we consider our cybersecurity.

I acknowledge the work that is being done. In particular, the review will be important because it will ask question whether the NCSC is fit for purpose and what we need to do to ensure it is. In many ways, the cyberattack gives the Minister of State the opportunity to engage with other Ministers on the need for investment in this area. I would support the Minister of State in that regard. The incidents over recent weeks demonstrate we must continue to invest in this area. We need to do it primarily because of the reputational risk it poses to Ireland's foreign direct investment policy as well. I would like to know if the Minister of State intends to engage with the FDI sector in Ireland that has expertise in this area and equally with international defence experts. As I said, I appreciate the work that is being done.

I will allow a supplementary question from Deputy Ó Murchú.

I would agree with an awful of what was said in some of the interactions the Minister of State and I have had on the need for the NCSC review to take into account the shameful ransomware attack carried out on this State. We need to ensure we are up to spec. The general conversation is that 29 staff, no director and a €5 million budget is not going to cut it, but I assume we will get that answer from the NCSC review, which we will need to implement as soon as possible.

I would also like to know the status of the risk assessments that are being carried out. We need to make sure they are completed. Do we need to look to having a great level of capacity? I heard the term "counterstrike capacity" being referenced by a number of experts. Do we need to consider the establishment of another agency, which might fall within the remit of the Department of the Taoiseach or somewhere equivalent to that?

I thank the Deputies. The budget for the NCSC was trebled last year. The review was initiated more than six months ago and so it is not that we are reacting to this incident suddenly. I was asked about co-operation with FDI companies and international law enforcement and intelligence agencies. That is critical and it goes on all of the time. We have been interacting with those agencies and companies and they have been raising this issue with us over many years. There is nothing new there.

Deputy Ó Murchú asked about our offensive capability, which does not fall within the remit of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications or the NCSC. The question is one for the Minister for Defence. On the risk assessments, they are carried out by all critical infrastructure providers. They are required to do that and to address any shortcomings that arise as a result of those risk assessments. It is a legal requirement under the NIS directive.

Digital Hubs

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

68. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the steps he has taken since he took the decision to abolish an agency (details supplied); and his plans regarding the lands, contracts and staff of the agency. [29386/21]

As the Government proposes to dissolve the Digital Hub Development Agency, what steps does the Minister of State propose to take to retain the cluster of digital companies that are in the digital hub in the Liberties?

I thank the Deputy. I know he has previously asked this question about the digital hub so it is obviously a topic of interest to him.

Following a strategic review, which concluded that the digital hub is no longer required to sustain the continued growth of Dublin's digital enterprise sector, the Government decided on 27 April that the Digital Hub Development Agency, DHDA, should be dissolved and its land and property assets transferred to the Land Development Agency, LDA. This decision has been communicated to the board of the DHDA, the chief executive of Dublin City Council and to the LDA.

The Government remains fully committed to the regeneration of the Liberties area of Dublin 8 and is of the view that redevelopment by the LDA of the DHDA properties in conjunction with properties in the area owned by the Office of Public Works, OPW, and Dublin City Council represents a priority and transformative project for Dublin. Preliminary modelling by the LDA has suggested this could include the construction of 500 social and affordable housing units, along with civic, community and retail development.

I will shortly request the board of the DHDA to prepare a programme for an orderly wind-down, addressing the needs of the staff of the DHDA, client companies and communications with the local communities. My Department will work closely with the DHDA on the finalisation of the necessary steps, including the redeployment of its permanent staff within the public sector. My Department has met with the LDA following the Government decision and it is also keenly aware of the need and value of community engagement as part of its plans for the regeneration of the area. It will work closely with the DHDA, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the LDA to ensure the wind-down takes account of the needs of the community.

The Minister of State is correct that I have raised this matter on a number of occasions. It is a bizarre decision to collapse what was, and is, a successful enterprise and successful regeneration of an area which underwent huge urban decay and has managed to come out of it. It is illogical to transfer the 5.6 acres from the digital hub to the Land Development Agency. There are problems in regard to the Land Development Agency anyway. There are other sites as large and maybe larger in the Dublin 8 area that are in State hands. There is no shortage of land in State hands for housing, but there is a shortage of good businesses. The digital hub has sustained employment in the area. It is illogical in this day and age to be moving companies out of a community when many in that community are employed in them. I ask that the decision be reconsidered before the damage is done.

The DHDA did great work over that time.

It regenerated the area and brought businesses back into it. However, the view at this stage is that its purpose has been served and it has delivered what it was asked to do. Dublin city is filled with enterprises and start-ups but what is lacking is housing. Providing housing for 500 families is a really critical thing to do. It is not just about providing 500 units or apartments but enabling 500 families to live in a community, with access to the amenities they need and the associated retail. It is another form of regeneration. Business is not the only form of regeneration we can bring to the Liberties. There is still start-up activity going on in the Liberties and there is the National Digital Research Centre, NDRC. The approach we are taking is the correct one and the right way to go about it.

Again, what the Minister of State is saying is illogical. While Dublin may be successful in attracting businesses, the Liberties area has been because of the Digital Hub but that facility will not be there in the future. Housing is not the only issue. As I said, the State has quite a lot of land in close proximity to the area, including in Bridgefoot Street, St. Michael's Estate, the CIÉ works land, which nobody is talking about, OPW land and two sites on Davitt Road. All of those sites are quite large. Nobody is talking about what will happen to the children's hospital in Crumlin when the new hospital opens. These are all places where homes can be built for families. There is a need for housing in the Liberties and I have been condemning what is happening in terms of those developments. However, I find it very strange that a Minister in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is happy to transfer land that is being used for enterprise to the housing sector rather than looking at the sustainability of the community in the long run and the importance of having jobs on people's doorsteps.

Does the Minister of State agree it is a bit ironic that members of Sinn Féin, who continually lambast the Government about its housing strategy, seek, on every conceivable occasion, to oppose the provision of housing on public lands? This is yet another example of that.

I listed a whole range of sites in the area that could be used for housing but which the State has not even bothered its arse to look at.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh was not interrupted when he was speaking. I ask that he not interrupt other speakers.

I hope Deputy Bruton will learn some lessons and look at what I am talking about.

I do not want to misrepresent Deputy Ó Snodaigh but my understanding is that he is asking why we have to build housing on this particular site when there are plenty of other sites that could be used. He is saying that we should not build it in this place when it could be built in some other place. In fact, it is not an either-or choice. The sites the Deputy mentioned should also be developed for housing. One or two housing sites are not going to do it. We need a great deal of high-quality, new community housing within Dublin city centre. This particular development will bring fantastic regeneration. We do not have to choose between one and the other.

The Deputy referred to the children's hospital in Crumlin. There is a new children's hospital being built and there will be many staff working in that hospital who will need to live somewhere. Many of them will find homes and communities and build families in Dublin 8, including in the Liberties, and will rejuvenate the area. I was in Thomas Street recently and saw how it is being regenerated. The Liberties is getting better and becoming a stronger and more resilient community.

I will not engage in attacking Sinn Féin.

National Broadband Plan

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

69. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the status of the acceleration progress of the national broadband plan, NBP; the timeframe in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29512/21]

First, regarding the point I raised on a previous question, it was probably unfair to throw it into the public domain. The Minister of State has an element of experience in the particular field being discussed and I was interested in his view on whether we need to look into capacity issues.

It is not a great shock that I am asking a question on the acceleration of the national broadband plan. We have had the roll-out of the planning permit system under section 254 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, over the past three weeks. Will the Minister of State give an update in this regard?

It is indeed no surprise that there are questions on the national broadband scheme. Every Deputy in the House wants to know about the acceleration of broadband provision and when it will come to their area. It is not just an issue for rural areas. Even in urban areas, there are black spots.

As I outlined in my reply to Deputy Canney's question, the programme for Government commits to seek to accelerate the roll-out of the national broadband plan, NBP. My Department is currently engaging with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, to explore the feasibility of accelerating aspects of the NBP roll-out, with the aim of bringing forward premises that are currently scheduled in years six and seven of the network build plan. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has recently written to NBI seeking to put the acceleration of the programme on a contractual footing. Any change to the contract will require detailed technical, commercial and financial analysis by both parties.

NBI has established a dedicated team to investigate the potential for acceleration of the fibre network roll-out from its current contracted schedule of seven years. Substantial work has been completed by the team to date, including productive engagement with current build partners. It is premature at this point to speculate as to how many premises may benefit from this potential change. I can say that the premises currently scheduled for the latter end of the roll-out will be the focus of the analysis.

While significant progress has been made by NBI over the past year, in challenging circumstances, the pandemic has caused delays to elements of the programme. A remedial plan to mitigate those delays has been agreed and it is in this context that the potential to accelerate the network roll-out is being explored. I expect to receive a detailed assessment from my officials by the autumn and will then bring an update to Government on the matter.

My Department continues to work with the Department of Education to prioritise schools with no high-speed broadband within the intervention area for connection over the term of the NBP. An acceleration of this aspect of the plan will see some 679 primary schools connected to high-speed broadband by the end of next year, well ahead of the original target delivery timeframe of 2026. Further details are available on the NBI website.

I appreciate the Minister of State's reply. It is not the first time he has given it this evening. I spoke with NBI earlier and, as such, there is an element of my carrying out a fraud, for which I apologise. It just happened that I got the telephone call earlier, before I came into the House to speak on this question. In fairness, the NBI offered me similar information to what the Minister of State has just given. Reference was made to the Department having eyes on the section 254 applications that are in place and that things are looking positive as regards dealing with local authorities and planning out the whole system. The NBI representative also mentioned that acceleration requires a complete audit of everything and looking to almost double capacity in reference to the past two years, if everything is moved from years six and seven into years four and five. The major consideration at this stage is the importance of there being a contractual footing and the interaction with Eir and the ESB with a view to ensuring everyone has capacity and can deliver on the project.

I agree with the point the Deputy is making. The State could take the approach of just negotiating these details on a friendly basis with the companies concerned without putting things on a contractual basis. However, we have taken the option to push for a contractual basis in order to have a legal agreement in place rather than relying on agreements made on the basis of good faith. As I said, there is continual pressure for broadband roll-out from every Deputy. There will be a focus from the public on getting information and a more detailed roll-out plan showing when people will get broadband in their area. I will do everything I can to make the situation as clear as possible.

The broadband connection points are an option and can be rolled out rapidly. The plan is to connect community centres and schools quickly. If the Deputy has been in a primary school classroom recently, he will have seen that blackboards have been replaced with electronic whiteboards. Every school needs a broadband connection.

I thank the Minister of State for his answer. He hit the nail on the head regarding the necessity of putting things on a contractual basis and ensuring there is follow-through. We need to make sure that happens.

I have a final question. There is a plan in place for this particular roll-out but there will be huge areas for which it will be three, four or five years before they have proper broadband provision. I hope we have the detail by the end of the year on the complete accelerated plan and timelines. Mobile telephone companies and satellite broadband providers offer some solutions but we probably need an element of a State audit and to look at anything that can be done to facilitate capacity and ensure we can offer an interim solution to those areas. If satellite is the option taken, it may require a conversation between the Department and the private providers.

It will be difficult and disappointing for anybody in year 4 or year 5 who feels an immediate need and is faced with this long gap. The Deputy suggests looking at technologies like satellite or fixed wireless and he is absolutely correct. Those technologies are developing all the time. One of the things about a project like this is that the assumptions made at the start or the environment at the start will be very different a couple of years later as technology develops. Fixed wireless access will be suitable in some situations. More mobile masts will provide some type of basic broadband connection, and for many people that will be the answer. It will not be easy. Accelerating from seven years to five years still leaves people waiting until year 5, and many of those people will not be happy. We have to investigate every other way to give them broadband connections, whether in a community setting, through a wireless setting or through a school.

Departmental Schemes

Seán Canney

Question:

70. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will consider expanding the better energy warmer homes scheme to include households that previously benefited from insulation grants but do not meet the required building energy rating, BER; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29207/21]

I wish to ask the Minister about the better energy warmer homes scheme. Will he expand the scheme to include households that previously benefited from the insulation grants but do not meet the required BER, in particular houses with solid wall construction that under previous iterations of schemes could not be insulated and just saw their attics done. Now that external wall insulation is part of a grant scheme, can we look at inviting people in these houses back into the scheme?

I thank Deputy Canney for his question. The better energy warmer homes scheme delivers a range of energy efficiency measures free of charge to low-income households who are vulnerable to energy poverty. In order to qualify for support, applicants must own and live in their home, which must have been built and occupied before 2006, and must be in receipt of certain social welfare payments. To date, over 143,000 homes have received free upgrades under the scheme. In 2020 the average value of the energy efficiency measures provided per household was over €14,800.

There are nearly 8,000 homes on the warmer homes scheme work programme. These homes have not previously received any free upgrades under the scheme and for that reason are the priority to receive upgrades. Recommendations on the implementation of changes to the scheme to better target those most in need are being developed and I anticipate that they will be finalised shortly.

It is important to note that I have secured additional resources this year to expand the capacity of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, to deliver the scheme. Funding for the energy poverty retrofit schemes has also increased to over €109 million in 2021. This is an increase of €47 million on the 2020 allocation. In addition, delivery capacity has increased due to a new, broader contractor panel that commenced at the end of 2020.

It is a great scheme for the people who need it and who are in energy poverty, but in the review being done it is important we look at households which are still in energy poverty. They are not getting the benefit of the scheme as it is now. I accept that lots of homes have not benefited so far, but it is important we redress the absence of proper insulation in some of the houses. This is nobody's fault but is due to the types of grants that were available in the past and the type of construction of these houses. I welcome the fact that additional resources are being put into the SEAI, but it is important we now expedite the installation process because there are still very long waiting times from the time a person applies for the scheme until even a survey is carried out. The Minister might look at that as well.

I will commit to looking at that. The key issue is that we are looking to get to every single house in the country. That is what we have to do to meet this climate change challenge. Every place matters. We have to go to every community in a systematic way. It will take three decades, with 500,000 houses a decade and 50,000 houses a year reached. That is what we need to do. That is why at the launch of the national economic recovery plan today the message given to people was that we need more than anything else young people to start developing the skills, including the craft skills, that will help us in this work. In truth, one of the biggest obstacles to the ramping up we need to do is the shortage of skilled carpenters, plumbers, plasterers and builders to be able to do this work. That is the first, most immediate and biggest constraint. We are spending a lot of money not just on the warmer homes scheme - about €100 million, as I said, to tackle fuel poverty - but also on social housing. That is another area where we need to ramp it up. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has scaled up that budget. We will not give up on this. It will have to be consistent year in and year out to get every home that way, as Deputy Canney rightly said we need to do.

I thank the Minister. I agree with all the sentiments he has expressed regarding the importance of this issue. It is one of those areas where we can make a huge difference to people's lives and at the same time save a lot on energy and make sure that people's homes are warmer and better places for them to live in. An issue arising now, as the contractors will tell one, is that the cost of materials, including insulation material, is growing as a result of a lack of supply of certain materials to make the product. It is important we keep an eye on this, spend the allocations from the budgets the Government has set and which the Department has successfully got from central government, and get as many houses done as possible with those allocations. I welcome the fact that social housing is being included. This is a huge undertaking. Coming from a construction background, I understand there is a huge shortage of skills, but we need to keep focused and make sure we do not leave behind these houses that had got some but not all of the benefits of previous schemes.

It is true what the Deputy says about the supply chain. Across a range of different sectors what we are seeing as a result of the pandemic is disruption to global supply chains. It is very real and is occurring in the construction sector as well as other sectors. It is adding to inflationary pressures, which is a real difficulty. We have to hope and expect that, as the economy returns to some sort of normal, the vaccines are rolled out and people are able to get the supply lines working better again, that short-run cost inflation will be temporary. The Irish industry has been good at this. We raised the planning and building regulations standards in 2007 and 2008, I recall, when we were in government. I remember talking a few years later to someone from Enterprise Ireland who said that that had led to a transformation in the supply chain of Irish companies which had good-quality insulation. Our standards at that time were higher than those in the UK and elsewhere. We ended up being an exporting country for a lot of such material. It is not just jobs in the construction sector; I think we can create jobs in the supply lines, where we have good companies, and that with the 30-year supply chain we can get the cost down and get the industry built up.

National Broadband Plan

Brian Stanley

Question:

71. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the number of completed connections made under the national broadband plan in 2020 and to date in 2021. [29371/21]

I wish to ask the Minister the number of completed connections made under the national broadband plan in 2020. I know he will not have complete up-to-date figures for 2021, but even indications of how the programme is going would be of use. The Minister knows how important this is for jobs and balanced regional development and in the context of increased remote working.

The national broadband plan State-led intervention will be delivered by National Broadband Ireland under a contract to roll out a high-speed and future-proofed broadband network within the intervention area, which covers 1.1 million people living and working in over 544,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms, along with 695 schools. Despite the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, National Broadband Ireland has made steady progress on delivery of the new high-speed fibre network under the national broadband plan. I am advised by National Broadband Ireland that as of 27 May, over 220,000 premises have been surveyed across all counties.

This survey work has enabled detailed designs to be developed for each deployment area. The detailed designs are then used to initiate the so-called make ready project with Open Eir, whereby Open Eir ensures that any poles and ducts being reused are fit for purpose and makes ready other required infrastructure. This step also informs decisions on equipment ordering. Survey data are also needed to initiate pre-works, which pave the way for the deploying of fibre. Pre-works involve the construction of new duct routes, the erection of poles, the building of chambers and tree trimming.

On completion of these pre-works, the main construction works can commence.

The first fibre-to-the-home connections have been successfully connected in Carrigaline, County Cork, and Cavan, with almost 4,000 premises passed and available for connection to date. Premises in Galway and Limerick are expected to be available for connection in the coming months. I am advised that build works are continuing across the country in 12 deployment areas covering townlands in Carrigaline, Ballinasloe, Cavan, Clare, Dundalk, Galway, Limerick, Monaghan, Roscommon, Tipperary, Tralee, Wexford and Carlow. In addition, make ready work is under way in a further 15 deployment areas.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. If I heard him correctly, he stated that 220,000 premises had been passed. Will he clarify that figure?

Some 115,00 premises should be connected to high-speed broadband by the end of 2021. Some 544,000 premises are included in the national development plan, with between 70,000 and 100,000 premises to be passed each year thereafter. I welcome that the primary schools programme is being rolled out quickly. I understand that 679 schools will be done by the end of 2022, which is good news. These connections will be welcome. I also understand that more than 90% of premises should have access to high-speed broadband by 2025. Has Covid impacted much on these deadlines? Has National Broadband Ireland, NBI, missed any of them?

The Deputy's first question was on whether the 220,000 homes had been passed. No, but they have been surveyed. The number of homes that have been passed and are ready for connection to broadband is 4,000. The first of those was connected this year in Carrigaline.

The Deputy asked whether the pandemic had delayed the deployment. The answer is "Yes". The original deployment plans for the first year will not be met. However, the deployment plans for later years will be greater. The new contract will define that acceleration.

To clarify, the first stage is the surveying of premises. Later stages eventually arrive at the point where fibre is passing the house. Of those homes, there are 4,000.

I thank the Minister of State for clarifying. However, my question was on the number of homes connected. Some 115,000 should be connected by the end of 2021. From the Minister of State's answer, I understand that a small number of houses are starting to be connected. That is welcome.

In my constituency, some 12,000 people commute out of Laois every day, which is unsustainable, and more than 7,000 commute out of Offaly. Nearly 20,000 people commute out of both counties for work. We need to get more people working from home or working in their constituencies, using technologies such as the one we are discussing.

We cannot penalise people for delays owing to Covid. That would be unreasonable. Setting that aside, though, will the Department consider penalties if deadlines are missed? What would the penalties be? Is the Minister of State confident the project will meet all of its deadlines?

The Minister appoints one member to the board of NBI. I pointed this fault out at the time. Who is the Minister's representative on NBI at the moment and how is that situation working out?

The Deputy's first point was about how working from home underlined the need for broadband. It creates greater demand, as people working from home will need more broadband for their video meetings and so on.

The Deputy asked whether there were penalty clauses. As I understand it, there are none in the current contract.

The Deputy also asked about the Minister's representative on NBI. I might defer to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, if he has an answer. I do not have the answer, but I can get the Deputy that information from my office.

Did I miss any other question?

No, that was it.

Question No. 72 replied to with Written Answers.

Environmental Policy

Richard Bruton

Question:

73. Deputy Richard Bruton asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if the work on the circular economy, when completed, will become a major spine of climate action planning and cross-government implementation. [29517/21]

In the context of the circular economy strategy the Government is developing, will ambitious targets be set for, for example, reducing the material usage and increasing the sectors involved in the repair, refurbishment and sharing economy, which could affect the adverse impact of our environmental activity?

The short answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". Today's linear economic model, which is based around take-make-waste, is environmentally and economically unsustainable. The programme for Government recognises that Ireland needs to establish a circular economy to help achieve our climate ambitions. As a first step in that process, the Minister launched a new waste action plan for a circular economy in 2020. This action plan goes beyond waste management. It looks at resource use much more broadly to capture and maximise the ongoing value of materials that might in the past have been discarded. The plan reconfirms the link between the circular economy and climate action and provides for the establishment of a circular economy division in my Department, with a mandate to ensure a whole-of-government approach in line with the programme for Government commitment.

My Department has produced a draft whole-of-government circular economy strategy. It is undergoing public consultation. Its first iteration aims to provide an overall framework for circular economy policy development. I intend to have the strategy updated in full every 18 months to two years. Future versions will include specific actions and targets for all Departments and sectors of the economy. Following publication of the strategy, an interdepartmental circular economy working group will be established to drive cross-government implementation. This joined-up approach will ensure circular economy practices are embedded across government.

In parallel, the 2021 climate action plan is in preparation and treats the circular economy as a cross-issue of importance. Circular economy actions and principles will be incorporated across the thematic areas of the document, for example, in terms of construction, agriculture, food loss and enterprise.

While I welcome the strategy's introduction, it is disconcerting to see that what has been published to date contains no targets, proposes no specific actions or timelines by which they would be delivered, and provides for no budget through which it would be effected. Does the Minister of State not agree we need to take a radical look at sectors like construction, retail and fast fashion and make genuine changes in the way their activities perform so that we can genuinely see a greater length of life for products and more usage of materials instead of products going to the dump at the end of their lives? Without targets, budgets and actions, it is difficult to see how the strategy will make an impact.

We are at the public consultation stage. We need budgets and timelines, but we must first establish what our principles are. I agree we need to take a radical look at practices like fast fashion. Since they are cultural, they will be difficult to change.

Deputy Bruton has made insightful contributions to the process so far. They are of great use to me. I thank him for putting in the effort to provide that information, which I am sure is based partly on his experience as Minister.

I thank the Minister of State and am glad he finds the work I did to be of some use, but I will repeat what I said. We need to see actual actions, for example, banning best before dates being put on food products and only relying on the use by dates, which is the statutory requirement. In large retail stores, 20% of space could be provided for people who bring their own containers. While I accept that establishing the principles is important, we need to go beyond that and see pragmatic actions coming from the strategy instead of relying on broad-based principles.

I tried to submit questions to other Ministries to learn how they were adopting the circular economy concept. Despite the whole-of-government approach, they rejected taking the questions. They did not even have the courtesy to offer replies.

I assure the Deputy that I am deploying and implementing measures instead of just producing strategies or documents that go on shelves. I am keen to see things happen, knowing that my time as Minister of State is not infinite.

Certainly, the idea of removing best before and sticking with use by is a good suggestion, as is the allocation of parts of retail use for people with their own containers, which is certainly something worth looking at. I will address the problem of the Deputy putting questions to Departments which are refused because they are not part of my Department. Just like climate change, the circular economy is a whole-of-government issue which means that every Department has to be answerable for their part.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste on the circular economy and I know that at the highest levels in Government that they are keen to make this work and are fully behind it.

Climate Change Negotiations

Richard Bruton

Question:

74. Deputy Richard Bruton asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the Irish position in relation to extension of the emission trading system to new sectors and to the negotiation of a new effort to sharing target for member states as part of the new EU approach Fit for Fifty Five. [29518/21]

This question is just to clarify an issue. In the European negotiations going on under what I believe is a title called the Fit for 55 package, as the targets that are being set are being enhanced. Ireland has a target of of 43% reduction in the emissions trading system, ETS, and 30% including flexibilities in non-ETS. Can the Minister now tell me what the EU is now seeking of us and what the Government's position is in these negotiations?

I thank Deputy Bruton. With the 2030 Climate Target Plan and EU climate law, the EU will raise its ambition on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030. This is a substantial increase compared to the existing 40% emissions reduction cut. The Commission is preparing to present by July 2021 an overhaul of all relevant climate legislation as part of a what is called a Fit for 55 Package to align with the newly proposed target.

Ireland fully supports the enhanced ambition at EU level. It is consistent with the national approach, as the programme for Government commits to achieve net zero emissions by no later than 2050, and a 51% emissions reduction by 2030.

However, in the absence of the Commission’s proposals, it is not possible yet to analyse the potential impact on Ireland in terms of technical feasibility, cost-effectiveness and fairness. Ireland has agreed with other member states that the Commission should swiftly put forward its legislative package, together with an in-depth examination of the environmental, economic and social impact at member state level.

It will be important that the updated EU 2030 target of at least 55% is delivered collectively by the EU in the most cost-effective manner possible, balancing considerations of fairness, cost effectiveness and solidarity, and ensuring that no one is left behind.

If I may refer to one further specific issue which has been debated at length at the Council meetings which is the issue of whether the ETS would be extended, particularly into the areas of heating and transport. I am interested to hear the Deputy's own views but my own perspective, which I have shared with the European Council, is that particularly in our country with the commitment which is now legal to increase carbon tax, year in and year out until 2032 to a level of €100 a tonne, a change in the ETS in the transport area would have significant knock-on and difficult consequences for us. That is not an initiative that I will be supporting within the Fit for 55 Package negotiations process.

My concern is, in particular, on the challenges that we face in agriculture and land use. At the moment there is no provision for recognising land use other than through the flexibilities. If we are to see significant progress on agricultural emissions we will have to be in a position to pay farmers for effectively carbon farming. That does not seem to be in the proposals. That might emerge if agriculture entered into the ETS. What negotiating stance is being taken by Ireland? Are we seeking to introduce land use into this so that sequestration done on farms will be a credit against our obligations? We need to change the system that is now in place if we are to drive change in a way that reflects the phrase just transition within the sector.

Much of what happens here will depend on the outcome of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, negotiations which are not concluded yet. I will be honest in saying that I will be very supportive of new income streams that we can create to pay for nature-based or environmental services that our farming community might deliver. It is critical that the CAP negotiations help in delivering on that.

The Deputy will be aware that many of the regulations around land use issues are set at an international, UN level. The European Union has not to date set out detailed proposals regarding sinks as well as sources of carbon. I expect that to change in this coming decade and that we will start to see land use and sinks coming much more within the European system.

From our perspective and our own targets, we are very much aligning to the UN process because that is where, in the end, this issue will have to be decided. In that regard we are involved in the diplomatic arena in looking at getting the best possible measurements of the effect of, in particular, biogenic methane to reflect the need to protect nature and to provide incomes to our farmers.

Electricity Grid

Brian Leddin

Question:

75. Deputy Brian Leddin asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the measures he is taking to ensure that Ireland has the electricity grid infrastructure that will support the development of offshore wind off the west coast; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29425/21]

Will the Minister tell me the measures he is taking to ensure Ireland has the electricity grid and infrastructure that will support the development of offshore wind off the west coast, and if he will make a statement on the matter?

Ireland’s increased climate and energy ambition is reflected by the Government target to achieve 5 GW of installed offshore wind generation by 2030. There is a further commitment in the programme for Government to develop a longer-term plan to utilise the potential 30 GW of offshore floating wind power in our Atlantic waters.

The 5 GW target will be primarily met through development of offshore renewable energy in Ireland’s eastern and southern coastal regions. This reflects the suitability of water depths in these regions for deployment of conventional fixed bottom offshore wind turbines and existing electricity grid infrastructure to connect these projects to the onshore grid.

Subsequent cost-effective deployment of renewables in deeper waters off the west and southern coast to take advantage of stronger and more consistent wind speeds should be increasingly feasible through future advances in floating turbine technology. This will benefit local communities in employment and commercial opportunities, and in the development of regional port infrastructure.

The Irish transmission system operator, EirGrid will have primary responsibility for ensuring that Ireland has the appropriate electricity grid infrastructure to support development of offshore wind. Future grid development will be informed by EirGrid’s ongoing public consultation, Shaping our Electricity Future, which will analyse approaches to developing the grid in order to meet our ambitious renewable energy targets.

In addition to this, a new framework for Ireland’s offshore electricity transmission system recently approved by Government, has designated EirGrid as the operator and owner of the offshore grid with responsibility for developing the necessary associated onshore grid infrastructure to connect offshore generation.

I thank the Minister for his response. This is a very significant opportunity for the west coast and indeed also for my home city of Limerick. The ESB-Equinor project that was announced earlier in the year will be the first of many similar projects costing €5 billion and representing 1.4 GW yet it is only scratching the surface of the potential that is there. Indeed that potential could be up to 50 times the size of the ESB-Equinor project if one factors in the size of Irish territorial waters. To harness that potential we need grid development of the same scale or else we will simply not be able to take this on and will only be tinkering around the edges. If we want to become a major exporter of power and indeed of green hydrogen, which we may produce from excess renewable electricity, then we really need to invest in the grid infrastructure on the west coast.

I agree with the Deputy and even since the programme for Government was written, things are changing here which may actually see some of the targets being exceeded, if we get our policy approach right, and we may get some of the timelines reached earlier. As an example of that, I cite the announcement by ESB and Equinor, two companies with real scale, experience and a history of delivery, and that by 2028 we would start seeing the deployment of this offshore floating capability on the west coast. Indeed, as the Deputy has said, there is the potential development of large hydrogen stores, which may not relate to the grid aspect of this question but is one of the elements that is connected to the grid, which is how we store, share and export this power.

The scale of potential for us if we get this right is beyond compare. As I said in response to Deputy O'Rourke, it is increasingly obvious that those areas that have the grid, where the power comes ashore or where the grid is strong and accessible, are where industry will go. For the new Shannon task force the Government is establishing, this is the economic opportunity to lift the entire region.

I agree that the Shannon Estuary certainly has a unique role to play with grid connections and, as we know, Shannon Foynes Port has a railway connection as well, which could be part of the development of the industry locally in Limerick and the mid-west. As well as the Minister doing what he can at a national level, we in Limerick need to ensure we recognise the scale of this opportunity for our city and the mid-west. It will be very significant in terms of jobs potential and we need to prepare to grasp the opportunity through the development of skills as well as infrastructure.

It is interesting that the Deputy mentioned Limerick. I was reading The Irish Times a couple of weeks ago, and while I cannot recall which supplement it was, it was on this subject. I turned the page and there was a full-page advert, I presume from Limerick County Council, stating that Limerick was going to go green and this was the future for the county. I must admit I was nodding. I think it is the future for the city and the county.

If we think about it strategically and long term, we have world-class manufacturing capability in the people of Limerick. They are brilliant. I recall years ago visiting the Johnson & Johnson Vistakon plant in Limerick, which continued manufacturing there when that should have been moved to China decades before, because the people were just bloody good at working together to change the production line and keep advancing. Moreover, we potentially have world-class comparative and competitive advantage because the north west and west of Ireland is one of the windiest places on the planet, and offshore wind seems to be one of the scaled renewable technologies that will be delivered. We have large-scale access to water, which is one of the other constraints that there will be in a climate-changing world. Many countries will have difficulty sourcing water, but we have the River Shannon. If we put that together - power, water, grid, people - we should see this as the economic future of the region.

Post Office Network

Violet-Anne Wynne

Question:

76. Deputy Violet-Anne Wynne asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if there is a contingency plan to protect the network of rural post offices considering the recent warning by a union (details supplied) that up to 200 further post offices could close in the next 12 to 18 months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29466/21]

Is there a contingency plan to protect the network of rural post offices in light of the recent warning by the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU, that up to 200 further post offices could close in the next 12 to 18 months?

The programme for Government sets out the Government’s commitment to a sustainable, nationwide post office network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas. An Post is statutorily obliged to provide a postal service and needs a viable network to deliver on its mandate. The company had commenced a transformation programme designed to modernise the business practices in post offices, attract greater footfall and complete more transactions. However, the anticipated 36-month timeline for implementing the network transformation plan has been severely impacted and has constrained postmasters' ability to transform their businesses.

With the Minister, I brought a report on the provision of offline Government services to the Government on 9 March. On foot of this, the Government approved the establishment of an interdepartmental group, co-chaired by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, to examine the feasibility of directing more Government business to the post office network. This group has met twice, with a further meeting scheduled early this month, and will report back to the Government by the end of July.

The Government continues to provide significant business to An Post through the Department of Social Protection’s social welfare contract and National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, business. Government efforts have been focused on supporting An Post in the roll-out of new services and the delivery of its strategic plan. An Post has been growing its financial services as a key part of its business strategy, building on the significant savings business it operates in partnership with the NTMA, its market-leading position in foreign exchange and its existing current account, credit card and consumer-lending customer base.

The Government is committed to working with An Post and postmasters to ensure the network continues to play a strong role in delivering State services. All options will be considered fully to give effect to our commitment to ensuring a viable post office network.

I welcome much of the information in the Minister of State's response. I asked this question on behalf of the postmasters and workers affected in my constituency, Clare, who as we all know have endured significant hardship and uncertainty in the name of Covid. I would love to be able to return to Clare and tell them the Government is committed to putting preventive measures in place to prevent these closures as projected by the Irish Postmasters Union. It laid bare the potential impact if the Government does not continue with the transformation payments and put other safeguards in place to protect the future of rural post offices. The anticipated number of closures is 200, which is huge given that only 160 were lost in 2019, and six in Clare specifically. Recently, we lost a much-needed post office in Broadford, a community to which an awful lot of people seeking rural communities have relocated due to the pandemic.

I assure the Deputy the Government is committed to ensuring a viable network throughout the country. Part of the work I have been doing across government relates to that focus and exploring the potential for a one-stop shop approach to delivering Government services. As the Deputy knows, the Government is also, as part of our programme for Government, preparing a national strategy for the digital transformation of the public service. Many people will always need offline service and access to that. I see An Post playing a vital role in that work, which is why that cross-departmental group will be essential. The IPU commissioned Grant Thornton to produce a report on how the network could be made more sustainable and that report is being assessed by NewERA. An Post has also put forward a proposal, which has been assessed by NewERA.

The introduction of a public service obligation, PSO, was vital to secure the future of the network and to allow post offices to continue to provide excellent and important services. I cannot stress enough to anyone living in Dublin the need for them to remain in these rural communities. Not committing to the introduction of the PSO is unravelling the fabric and killing the heartbeat of our beautiful towns and villages. The Minister of State should not underestimate the importance of this service, and specifically to our most marginalised and disadvantaged, such as our elderly and disabled, and to the many others who see this service as vital to their everyday lives. It is interesting that during a debate on a Sinn Féin motion on post offices, Fianna Fáil tabled an amendment supporting the introduction of the PSO. Is that party, now that it is the lead party in government, rolling back on that commitment?

Deputy Stanton wishes to ask two questions before the Minister of State responds.

I have been contacted by constituents who are very concerned about this issue. Is the Minister of State concerned that post offices might close from the end of July and never reopen? Has she recently met representatives of the Irish Postmasters Union to discuss the matter?

To respond to Deputy Stanton, I have had regular meetings with the IPU, and its representatives are in constant contact with Department officials. I am considering options with officials at the Department and everything is under consideration. As I said, NewERA has assessed the proposal from Grant Thornton, while An Post has also come forward with a proposal. The Grant Thornton options have been assessed and are being considered at the Department with officials.

I assure the Deputies that the sustainability and viability of the post office network is critical. The transformation payments will cease at the end of June. The interdepartmental group is working on the offline services piece, and will report to the Government at the end of July, so I am conscious of that June date. Work is ongoing in the Department to look at the most viable options.

Electricity Generation

David Stanton

Question:

77. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the potential benefits for coastal communities of having offshore electricity infrastructure located in close proximity; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29374/21]

Referring to Deputy Leddin’s question, which is linked to mine, offshore electricity generation is an extraordinarily exciting development. I want to ask the Minister a question about marine protected areas, which have been mentioned to me. I know there was a report submitted in October 2020. Does the Minister have any concerns about the impact of offshore wind generation on marine protected areas or can they both work together? Could an offshore wind generation platform be the same? Will he also talk about the proximity issue?

Deputy Stanton is correct, it is a real opportunity for Cork as well as Limerick. They have similar characteristics There is a world-class deepwater harbour in Cork. There is a lot of energy infrastructure. It is the same in Shannon with the Moneypoint grid. In Cork, there is the plant in Aghada, all the energy assets and the pharmaceutical industries, so it has the same combination. It is close to offshore wind energy that can be brought ashore. It will only work if we get the planning right, particularly the environmental planning. Critical to that, the Government is developing a marine area planning Bill which will be published within the next few weeks, as I understand. We will have to manage this in a careful way to protect marine life and to be conscious of visual issues from the shore, but I believe it can be done. To answer the Deputy’s question, yes, I believe we can get that done. There is no direct result that means offshore wind must be excluded from marine protected areas. It can complement nature protection because there can be an area that is not trawled or is deliberately left idle because of the turbines, and that can see a potential return for marine life.

In the development of the projects, we must be careful about seabirds and their feeding. I believe this is achievable. We are already starting to see development. There was an announcement, as well as the advert in Cork I mentioned, for a firm based in Ballycotton, which is looking at a development in Aghada. I know it will take time, but this is the first of what I expect to be the industrial development of the future for our country. As it happens, if you look at the deepwater port areas we have, they have everything you would want in an international location, including very strong wind speeds. It will be a big part of Cork as well as Limerick.

Linked with that, I welcome the announcement today that the Cork commuter rail link will be electrified. It is to be hoped that if we get the turbines up, there will be plenty electricity to drive the trains, which would be fantastic.

As to infrastructure, and the Minister mentioned east Cork, the harbour in Cobh, and so on, the road infrastructure is an issue in Cobh, as he is aware. This could be a major hindrance to the development of offshore energy because the road infrastructure there is 18th century. It was designed for horses and carts, so that needs to be upgraded. I ask the Minister to support that when the report comes from the council.

Will the Minister comment on breathing life into local coastal communities and whether this technology, when it comes on stream, can do that? What are the benefits to local communities for employment, industry and servicing and maintaining the infrastructure?

Many of the jobs will come. Take the likes of Ballycotton or other areas along the west Cork or east Cork coast, for example. There are many small ship fishing vessel capabilities which would be perfectly involved in servicing and maintenance. The numbers are not huge but, at the same time, they would be significant for coastal communities.

I keep coming back to the point about the real potential in answer to questions from various Deputies. Increasingly, it seems what we see in this new energy system is that industries and jobs locate to points on the grid where the power supply is strong. You bring the industry to the power rather than shipping the power all the way. That will apply to either hydrogen or electricity. Again, to take the example of Cork and the oil refinery there, is it possible for us to switch that towards the likes of hydrogen production and return Cobh to its historical roots as a stop-off point for international shipping to power up? That is the potential we have.

We are out of time for the questions. If Deputy Stanton wants to make a quick comment, there is not even a minute left.

I thank the Minister for his enthusiasm and ask that he put even more of his energy into these projects. I am concerned about possible brownouts and blackouts because of the huge demand for electricity in Ireland, and we have seen threats of that recently. The sooner we get the infrastructure up and running the better.

That threat is something that can trip us up. We must do everything to avoid that, which will involve a series of different measures. We will have short-term, interim, open cycle gas and reactive power to keep balancing our system. Part of the problem is we have lost two large gas plants, which are down due to prolonged repairs. That has put us into difficulty. I will be honest and say it is one of the highest risk and most important issues we must address over the next year, but I am confident we will be able to do that. If we get our planning correct, this will be an industry that will power our future as a country. I am convinced of that.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.