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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 24 Feb 2022

Vol. 1018 No. 6

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Climate Action Plan

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

79. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications his views on the recent comments by the Director General of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, that greenhouse gas emissions are unlikely to fall here in 2022; if he has plans to strengthen the climate action remit of the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, CRU, to prioritise the achievement of Ireland’s 2030 and 2050 emission reduction targets; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10693/22]

I ask the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications his views on the recent comments by the director general of the EPA that greenhouse gas emissions are unlikely to fall here in 2022. Has the Minister plans to strengthen the climate action remit of the CRU to prioritise the achievement of Ireland’s 2030 and 2050 emission reduction targets? Will he make a statement on the matter?

I am happy to make that statement. In 2021, we saw a step-change in our approach to climate action, with the signing into law of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 and the publication of the national development plan, NDP, and the Climate Action Plan 2021. The significantly strengthened legally binding framework established under the climate Act with clear targets and commitments set in law will help ensure Ireland achieves its national, EU and international climate goals and obligations in the near and long term. This includes our commitment to halving greenhouse emissions by 2030 relative to 2018 levels. Achieving these goals will require changes across all sectors of our society and economy. It will involve collaborative effort by Government, business, communities, and individuals to implement new and ambitious policies. The statutory framework laid out in the climate Act ensures delivery of successive climate action plans, national long-term climate action strategies, and national adaptation frameworks, supported by a system of carbon budgeting and sectoral targets with appropriate oversight by Government, the Oireachtas and the Climate Change Advisory Council, CCAC.

The CRU is a key stakeholder in a number of actions and measures identified in the climate action plan and the supplementary annex of actions published late last year. The commission's role in the protection of the environment, the promotion of renewable, alternative and sustainable energy use, the encouragement of the efficient use and production of electricity and supporting research and development for the generation of renewable and sustainable forms of energy and increasing the efficient use and production of electricity demonstrates its existing key role in supporting Ireland in reaching its climate objectives and emissions reduction targets.

It is a real challenge. What the head of the EPA indicated last week is indeed very possible. We see a particular problem with increasing emissions from Moneypoint power station and the return to pre-Covid traffic levels. These are the big challenges that are the cause of rising emissions but I am confident we can, and will, turn that around. Our plans that are in place will see emissions start to fall. It will take time but we are taking the right approach.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. As he knows, the director general of the EPA said it is hard to see how emissions will fall this year. I think a former head of the CCAC said they will likely increase. This is at a time we are in the second year of a carbon budget where we are supposed to see a 4.8% annual average reduction. I do not take any satisfaction from saying this but there is a real possibility that, as a Green Party Minister with responsibility for the environment, Deputy Ryan will preside over our missing every emissions reduction target in his tenure. The approach taken by Government is incremental. It is based on carbon tax which, regardless of one's position on it, is in itself incremental. Does he see an alternative, better way to finance this transition that reflects the urgency that is needed?

Finance is not the key obstacle. It is one of the elements we need to have in place but it is not the biggest constraint. The biggest constraint is that we all - public and Government - must engage in a form of system change that takes time, especially with transport, agriculture and energy. With energy, there is probably a clearer, more certain path. All the finance in energy is going to go in this clean direction towards retrofitting, renewables and hyper-efficiency in what we do. We are on the path there. It will take us time to switch off Moneypoint but we will do that. Transport and agriculture are more difficult. Financing is indeed one part but the biggest issue is probably political commitment at local and national levels. We have that political commitment in this House and it then comes down to the decisions themselves. It comes down to each decision on the allocation of space as much as the allocation of finance, to take that example. That is going to be the key metric.

I do not agree. I refer again to the level of funding committed to this. We differ on the carbon tax but it will at best raise €9.5 billion, though I question that figure. That figure is a drop in the ocean in respect of what is needed to deliver the type of urgent systemic change the Minister is talking about out. People do not see the impact on public transport, for example. They do not see it with renewables. We are not there and the window of opportunity is closing. This transition might happen, and I expect it will, but at this rate it will not happen in time. That is where I see the real issue with delivering that institutional change. For the State to lead on this requires a level of resources beyond anything that has been committed at either an Irish or European level. There must be a step-change.

The question I come back with is: where are those resources going to come from?

You are the Minister.

Yes, and my answer to that is much of the private finance is already going in this direction. What I say to the food industry and the farmers behind it is if they think that industry is going to be able to survive in this decade if it does not start addressing the ecological crisis we are in then they are badly mistaken because that funding will disappear. It is the same for forestry. We can, and will, examine new funding mechanisms to pay for nature-based solutions. However, I return to the key point, namely, that funding is available. Are we in this House, and local authorities across the country, willing to make the scale of leap we must make? I think we are and the people are. It will take time. There may indeed be periods when reductions are not seen. It is not going to be exact in each year. It is not a straight line. However, I am absolutely convinced we can, and will, make that turn. It will require absolute political courage in the decisions we must make, and there is no shortage of that on this side, as well as the funding to back it up.

Deputy Grealish is taking No. 80.

Cybersecurity Policy

Matt Shanahan

Question:

80. Deputy Matt Shanahan asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the increases in funding that have been given to the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, over the past 12 months; his views on the way the centre has improved Ireland's defence against cyberattacks on State infrastructure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10521/22]

Given the volatile situation in Ukraine and that the cost of the cyberattack on the HSE last year is €100 million and still rising, will the Minister outline the increases in funding given to the NCSC over the past 12 months? What are his views on the way the centre has improved Ireland's defence against cyberattacks on State infrastructure?

The programme budget for cybersecurity in my Department's Vote for 2022 is €5.1 million. That is broken down into €2.5 million in current expenditure and €2.6 million in capital expenditure. While this is the same funding allocation as 2021, it represents a trebling of the budget when compared with 2020.

In addition, provision has been made in the Department's Estimate for 2022 for a year-on-year increase in the payroll and administration of the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, in the sum of €2.5 million, €2.1 million of which is for pay and €400,000 is for non-pay administrative overheads. The increased pay allocation is in recognition of the Government's decision last July to expand the capacity of the NCSC with an additional 20 posts, which are to be filled before the end of this year.

Strengthening the NCSC is a key component of our strategy. In the past year, we commissioned a capacity review to benchmark the NCSC against its counterparts in European and other states. The consultants noted the knowledge, expertise and motivation of the NCSC's staff, which was apparent in their exemplary response to the HSE incident last May. The Government has accepted the recommendations in the capacity review and invested in increased capacity in a number of ways, including the appointment of a new director of the NCSC and a number of other new staff, new threat intelligence contracts and a new contract with the UCD Centre for Cybersecurity and Cybercrime Investigation. The NCSC has completed a national risk assessment of critical infrastructure to ensure that it has a thorough understanding of critical national infrastructure and has contact channels with all operators.

The Deputy will not be surprised to hear me say that this matter is of particular importance this morning. Given what is happening in the world, we should all be concerned about our security. Our systems are on heightened alert and are working with European and other colleagues to ensure that we are fully apprised of risks or threats. At the moment, the risk to our country is low to moderate, but the possible knock-on effects of what is happening elsewhere are something about which we must be vigilant. We are being so.

I welcome the budget increase for cybersecurity and the recent appointment of Mr. Richard Browne to the position of director of the NCSC. The incidents in question can have devastating consequences for national security, healthcare and many other social, economic and personal matters. The cyberattack on the HSE last year was the largest attack against any health service computer system in history. It paralysed systems and caused major disruption throughout every part of the health service, and its effects are still being felt in certain areas.

Cybersecurity threats pose some of the greatest challenges to our State. Only last Saturday, the NCSC issued an alert. Given that the military conflict in Ukraine has escalated in recent days, will the Minister confirm that all essential posts have been filled and that the NCSC is fully equipped with staff, technology and funding to deal with potential and probable threats in the coming months and years?

I am glad that the Deputy acknowledged that the appointment of Mr. Browne as director of the NCSC was a key appointment. Mr. Browne is well qualified and was centrally involved during the HSE attack last May. I can confirm that we have already brought on board many of the people we want. The NCSC is being moved to new offices that are fully equipped and secure. Further down the line as my Department moves to Beggar's Bush, we will be building a state-of-the-art, secure and isolated facility to give us all the capabilities we need.

I spoke to Mr. Browne in recent days to get a sense of the current risks. We are on heightened alert. We are not seeing immediate domain name system, DNS, or other attacks on our systems. It is key that not just the NCSC, but every Department and business monitors and manages its networks so as to reduce risk. The NCSC's key role is helping others to ensure that we have our defences in place.

In addition to large-scale cyberattacks from abroad, cybercrime is on the rise. According to Garda reports, it increased by 150% during the pandemic, costing billions of euro in 2020. Unfortunately, many people caught by online scams do not report it to the Garda, so the costs could be much higher. The attractions of cybercrime for criminals are many, as the rewards can be higher and the risk of getting caught are lower. Even criminals not involved in cybercrime are using encryption to hide their activities and cryptocurrencies to store and move money, making it harder for the Garda to track.

The Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau is struggling to recruit cyber experts due to competition from the private sector, which is paying much higher salaries in a competitive market. Is the bureau working with the NCSC or do they work independently of each other? Are there enough resources going into both to protect our State and citizens?

I agree with the Deputy on the risks in terms of crime as well as national security. It is vital that the Garda cyber unit, the NCSC and our Defence Forces cyber capabilities work. Each has a separate but co-ordinated role. The central co-ordinating role lies with the NCSC. It has to have the best expertise and contacts with international networks in order to assess risks and share knowledge and information. I saw that in evidence during the attack last May when there was a weakness in our system, which allowed an incursion into the health system. That system was particularly weak at the time because Covid had led to there being so many networked devices. While that weakness was regrettable, the State's response was quick, co-ordinated and collective. We need to ensure that the Garda, the Defence Forces and the NCSC work collectively. I am confident that they will.

Energy Prices

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

81. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications his views on the rising cost of energy and electricity for households; when households will receive the €200 electricity credit; the additional measures he will take to address rising fuel, electricity and energy costs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10694/22]

What are the Minister's views on the rising costs of energy and electricity for households? When will households receive the €200 electricity credit? What additional measures will he take to address rising fuel, electricity and other energy costs?

It is important that we help our people through what is, unfortunately, an historic period of high international fuel prices caused by international events - not just what we now see as the war in Ukraine, but a variety of factors that are outside our control. At the start, the Government's response was to monitor the situation constantly. This year's budget contains significant increases in social welfare that are designed to help those who are most at risk of fuel poverty. There has also been a significantly increased allocation for energy efficiency measures, which target those on low incomes in particular. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has given my Department all the capability it needs to help people become more energy efficient in that way.

It was appropriate of us to deploy various other additional measures: the reduction in public transport fares, increased help with medical prescription charges and, of more importance, the direct credit payment of €200, which is likely to appear on most people's bills this April. That payment was the most effective and fastest measure and, in comparison with what other European countries are doing, is in line with best practice and with what was recommended by the European Commission.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I did not pick up the date on which the €200 credit would land on people's bills. Perhaps he will clarify it.

It might seem a secondary consideration in light of everything that is happening, and our primary concern is for the welfare of the people of Ukraine, but will the Minister clarify the role of Russian gas in our supply? The Tánaiste stated that our supply was 50% from Corrib and 50% from Moffat. Previously, the Minister stated that it was one third from Corrib and two thirds from Moffat, with 3% of the latter possibly being Russian gas.

Does the Minister expect gas prices to increase? At what point, if any, will he consider the carbon tax and excise duties – the Government has ruled out VAT – if prices continue increasing for people?

The Bill to allow for the payment of the credit still has to come back to the Dáil. It was amended in the Seanad this week. Subject to it being able to return to the Dáil, which I presume will be next week, the Business Committee will have to decide. That would bring us into early March. It will have to be signed by the President and the various regulations will have to be put in place, so it will be the end of March and into April that we should start seeing bills being adjusted.

In recent days, I was speaking with colleagues in the European Commission about Europe's ability to manage our gas supplies during this crisis. Nothing is certain; we are in a completely uncertain moment.

We are not reliant on Russian gas. Of the gas that we use, only a relatively small percentage, in the low single digits, comes from Russian gas fields. In 2006 and 2009, we went through a similar Russian gas crisis when the pipelines were cut off. At that time, Europe was much weaker. We have improved our systems since then. We are still not protected but I am informed by the Commission officials to whom I spoke yesterday that we will be able to manage. There is latency and capability for us to progress even if some of the gas pipelines are shut off.

One of the ways we can help people with their electricity and energy costs is to empower and enable them to generate their own energy. When will we have the long-awaited updated regulations to exempt schools from the planning conditions in terms of solar PV? We heard from the Taoiseach that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage would have them ready in two or three weeks. We then heard from the Minister of State at that Department that the timeframe in that regard would be months because the Department is still awaiting an environmental impact assessment. My first question was in regard to missed targets. This is the low-hanging fruit. We need to empower communities, schools and farms to play their role. The State is acting as an impediment.

On the regulations, my understanding is that they were to be ready in weeks rather than months. I will have to check that and revert to the Deputy. He is correct that our response in reducing our emissions and our dependency on imported gas, regardless of where it is from, has to be in every different location and every school building. We have to avail of every opportunity to make the switch in our heating systems particularly and in our power generation. The heating plan we are working on with the SEAI will be developed and published in the near future. That plan will play a key role in giving clear guidance, particularly to public authorities, as to the changes we need to make.

Legislative Measures

Noel Grealish

Question:

82. Deputy Noel Grealish asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will consider an amendment to legislation to allow local authorities to use closed-circuit television, CCTV, footage as evidence to prosecute persons for illegal dumping; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10692/22]

Will the Minister consider an amendment to legislation to allow local authorities to use CCTV footage as evidence to prosecute people for illegal dumping?

My Department published the general scheme of the circular economy Bill 2021 on 15 June last. It is my intention under this Bill to facilitate not only the use of CCTV but the use of a broad range of audiovisual recording, AVR, equipment to assist local authorities in their efforts to combat litter and illegal dumping. Drafting of the Bill is well advanced and the final report of the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action was published on 16 December last. The Bill will be published in quarter 1 this year and enacted as soon as possible thereafter.

A combination of legislation and guidance will help to ensure that the processing of personal data obtained through the use of CCTV and AVR equipment may be carried out by local authorities tasked with enforcing litter and waste legislation thus providing an important deterrent to protect our environment from the scourge of illegal dumping while, at the same time, respecting the privacy rights of citizens.

I have seen in my constituency, as I am sure is the case in the Deputy's area of Galway city and county, that even where CCTV cameras are available very often the evidence cannot be used and prosecutions cannot be pursued. It is a real problem not just in regard to the issue of waste management but, I imagine, in a wide variety of different policing issues. We have to strike the right balance between the rights to privacy and how data is used, shared or stored. We cannot allow flagrant breaches of public environment, waste management and other rules to continue and a situation where there is no mechanism for local authorities to enforce that. The circular economy Bill presents an opportunity to address that issue. I am confident it will get the support of the Dáil. We will then have to put it into practice.

This is the fourth time in the past two years that I have raised the issue of illegal dumping in the House. It continues to be a major scourge on the landscape and it is particularly a problem in rural areas. Penalties for those caught in the act of illegal dumping are not strict enough. We still have the ridiculous situation whereby a person caught on CCTV in the act of illegal dumping cannot be brought to court. It was recently reported that illegal dumping is costing local authorities up to €90 million per annum. This does not factor in the time and effort of Tidy Towns committees and volunteers working in local communities on clean-ups.

When I raised this issue with the Taoiseach last March, he indicated that in his opinion privacy rights in regard to the CCTV footage of those caught in the act of illegal dumping should not apply and he would request legislation to be drafted to address this. Will the Minister please bring forward that legislation? He mentioned his constituency. The level of illegal dumping along a 1 km stretch of road on the outskirts of the Galway city is appalling. This has been going on for the past five years. This has to be dealt with it. It is destroying the rural countryside.

I agree. In that regard, the circular economy Bill, which will be published within weeks, will be critical. My understanding is that alongside that it is proposed to implement mandatory codes of practice that will ensure relevant data protection legislation is complied with by any local authority. The combination of legislation, non-statutory guidance and the use of mandatory codes of practice will ensure that the processing of personal data can be carried out by local authorities tasked with enforcing litter and waste law and compliance with GDPR and will address concerns previously raised by the Data Protection Commissioner. That then gives us the opportunity to unlock the enforcement mechanism that we all agree is needed.

On two separate occasions I have asked that a task force, comprising An Garda Síochána, departmental officials and local authorities, be put in place to deal with this issue. Such a task force would need to be given powers, including to use CCTV footage and to seize all vehicles and equipment involved in illegal dumping, with severe penalties imposed for those caught in the act in respect of the release of their vehicles. Once again, I am asking for a commitment that a task force to tackle this problem will be established as a matter of urgency. The only way to adequately tackle this problem is to hit those involved where it hurts. We can do this through the use of CCTV, the seizure of vehicles used for illegal dumping and the imposition of substantial fines in respect of the release of vehicles seized.

That is what we need. An Garda Síochána and the local authorities have been hindered previously for the lack of legislation that provided real clarity on data protection and privacy protection and, at the same time, allowed for enforcement. As I said, the combination of legislation and the codes of practices we propose to introduce will resolve that problem.

Climate Action Plan

Carol Nolan

Question:

83. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will report on the consultation process by his Department for the draft territorial plan necessary to access funding under the European Union just transition process; the number of submissions that his Department received during the recent public consultation process; when he envisages the final version of the territorial plan will be completed and submitted to the European Commission; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10535/22]

My question seeks from the Minister a report on the consultation process by his Department in respect of the draft territorial plan necessary to access funding under the EU just transition process, the number of submissions his Department received during the public consultation process and when he envisages the final version of the territorial plan will be completed and submitted to the Commission?

The EU just transition fund is a newly established fund for the 2021-2027 period operating within the framework of the EU cohesion policy. The fund is to address the adverse socio-economic effects of the climate transition by supporting the most affected territories and workers and ensuring a fair transition.

Ireland must prepare a territorial just transition plan and accompanying programme for approval by the European Commission to secure access to our allocation of €84.5 million under the fund. I have appointed the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly, EMRA, as managing authority for the fund. My Department and the EMRA are jointly developing the territorial just transition plan and programme.

I launched a public consultation on a draft of the territorial just transition plan on 20 December, which was open until 14 February 2022. The draft plan provisionally identifies east Galway, north Tipperary, counties Longford, Laois, Offaly and Westmeath, west Kildare and County Roscommon as the functional territory to be targeted for investment under the plan. Feedback on the draft plan was gathered through an online survey and online workshops. My Department and the EMRA have also held dedicated briefing sessions for Oireachtas Members and members and staff of relevant local authorities in the identified counties. It is planned to publish a report summarising all responses received. Responses to public consultation will be used to develop further and finalise the draft territorial just transition plan before it is sent to Government for agreement and subsequently submitted, together with the EU just transition fund programme, to the European Commission for approval during 2022.

Unfortunately, the Minister's response poses more questions than it answers. How many submissions has the Department received to date? I do not think the Minister gathers how serious this matter is. I remain opposed to the transition, which is not fair. The Minister mentioned its fairness but I can tell him it is far from fair. The Government is nonetheless steamrolling ahead and imposing this cost on people who are suffering from all sorts of issues, such as the cost of living. The Government is still imposing this cost. My main concern is we get a fair level of funding into the counties that are bearing the brunt of this.

The Minister also mentioned the publication of a report. Can we have a date for that? We need a plan here. We need dates and timeframes and, unfortunately, the Minister has not provided any of those.

Nowhere is it more applicable than County Offaly, which is expected to bear the brunt of the majority - 53% - of job losses associated with the just transition process. That is clear for all to see. It was also made clear to me by the cathaoirleach and chief executive of Offaly County Council and the corporate policy group of the council that the following issues require urgent consideration. Only 30% of the 47 strand 2 projects have received their final offer from the Department. Many strand 2 projects are still not finalised. Some 70% of projects are not yet at contract stage.

I will give the Deputy some of the numbers involved in response to her question about the survey. There were 82 responses to the online public consultation survey and 41 submissions from individuals and groups. We are only just assessing those at the moment so I do not have a timeline yet for the delivery of the report, but as soon as I do, I will share it with the Deputy.

With regard to the existing projects, 55 just transition projects have entered into contract and are delivering. The total value of projects in delivery mode is €30 million, with €20.5 million in grant funding. We estimate there are 154 direct jobs in those grantee organisations and there will be 932 indirect jobs. There are three remaining projects yet to have their grant agreements finalised. My Department is working closely with those remaining projects to try to finalise them as soon as possible. That work shows we will deliver. We will deliver new jobs and opportunities in the midlands that I believe will be able to deliver on the just transition.

I hope the Minister escalates the process of delivering the funding as much as he escalated the process for the transition, which was, as I said, totally unfair. I remind the Minister that only 30% of the strand 2 projects have received their final offer from the Department. There are still too many strand 2 projects - 70% of them - that have not been finalised. Those 70% of projects are, therefore, not at contract stage. I was informed by the local authority that a number of projects have encountered difficulties in accessing matching funding. From the council's perspective, the situation that arises in Offaly is serious and raises the question of the viability of these projects. I repeat my concerns that Offaly County Council is not in a position to provide direct funding to just transition projects in terms of the matching funding the council is seeking. All interventions to expedite the finalisation of these outstanding projects with the Department should be done. This should be done by the Minister's Department so that solutions for communities can be found. It is no good for the Minister to tell us he has delivered a handful of jobs when we are losing hundreds of jobs. That will not wash. It will not cut it.

I had the pleasure of visiting County Offaly late last year and meeting council officials, the people involved in organising these transition fund projects and a number of those who are involved in the projects. Rather than it being a story of a lack of success, what I heard from both the council and the people involved was that this is working. It took time. If I was in here saying the process around the spending of public money did not have every i dotted and t crossed, I would be lacerated. We have done that and are now seeing that those projects are starting to deliver. They will not all survive or succeed but many will.

We are also seeing a transformation and revival of Bord na Móna. There has been a massive increase in investment and significant numbers of new jobs are being created. That is the model to follow. Our Department is working closely with Offaly County Council to ensure it has a key role in managing, monitoring and delivering these projects. That is the right way to go. We are also working with the eastern midlands region on the European just transition plan. I think it is working.

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