I thank the Chairman and the members of the committee for inviting me to discuss the opportunities and challenges in the forestry sector in the context of the climate action plan. I welcome the climate action plan and acknowledge the work that has gone into its preparation. In particular, I acknowledge the work done by the all-party committee chaired by Deputy Hildegarde Naughton and the comprehensive set of recommendations that emerged from that in-depth consideration. The climate action plan underlines how essential it is that we all act now to meet the challenge of climate change and underlines that it is in all of our interests and those of future generations to work together to safeguard our future. The plan has a strong focus on implementation, including actions with timelines and steps needed to achieve each action, assigning clear lines of responsibility for delivery.
Agriculture currently accounts for 33.3% of Ireland’s total greenhouse gas emissions so the long-term challenge for the agriculture sector is to meet the national policy objective of adopting an approach to carbon neutrality that does not compromise the capacity for sustainable food production. To meet our emissions reduction target, we will need extensive behavioural change by each and every individual farmer. It will be require getting better, not just bigger, and focusing on productivity enhancements rather than just numbers.
My focus today is forestry and the challenges and opportunities relating to climate change mitigation and adaptation. Before I go further, it should be noted that we have been following a three-pillar approach to climate change, namely, to reduce emissions where we can, to increase carbon sequestration and to displace fossil fuel and energy intensive materials with renewable sources. These principles are also reflected in the plan, with the second and third of them presenting both opportunities and challenges in the forestry sector. There are 34 actions in the plan relating to agriculture, forestry and land use, namely, actions 101 to 134, inclusive, a number of which focus on the role of forestry.
Forests and wood provide a triple climate benefit through active sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the long-term storage of carbon and by substituting non-renewable materials with larger carbon footprints. The role of forests as potential sinks and sources of greenhouse gases is well recognised in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement but the development of accounting rules has been challenging at both European and international level. The figures and targets in the plan are, therefore, the outcome of in-depth analysis and negotiation.
In summary, the EU agreed regulations in 2018 covering emissions reduction targets for the accounting period 2021-2030 for the non-ETS sectors and land use, land use change and forestry - usually shortened to LULUCF - accounting rules, which cover managed forestland, crop land, grassland and wetland. These two regulations are linked as EU member states can employ a capped amount of net accountable removals from LULUCF to meet their emissions reduction goal for the non-ETS sectors. For Ireland, this cap is set at 26.8 million tonnes of CO2 for the ten-year period. The LULUCF regulation presents opportunities to expand the important role of forests and wood in climate action while providing recognition in terms of increased removals and emissions reduction, but also presents challenges to ensure that forest management practices continue to be conducted in a sustainable manner, including the use of bioenergy.
Given Ireland's recent and outgoing afforestation policy and regulatory environment, managed forests as a whole should be a substantial contributor to Irish emission reduction targets for 2030 and provide the majority of the possible contribution from LULUCF. Ensuring this contribution is achieved will involve continued afforestation, avoided deforestation and the ongoing dedication of industry to sustainable forest management practices, hence the range of actions in the climate action plan relating to forestry.
The Government has actively supported the development of Irish forestry through the national forestry programmes over the years. The most recent national forestry inventory, the results of which I launched this time last year, found that forests account for 11% of the total land area of Ireland, with forest cover estimated to be at its highest level in more than 350 years. We are currently benefiting from our investment in forestry from previous programmes, with the establishment of a vibrant, export-led timber processing industry, including providing significant contribution towards meeting our targets in climate change.
We need, however, to maximise the climate mitigation benefits of forestry. To this end, we will, as outlined in the plan, increase afforestation rates from their current levels to an average of 8,000 ha per annum, supplement the attractive financial incentives already in place under the forestry programme with knowledge transfer programmes to raise awareness of the benefits of forestry and ecosystem services, tackle the attitudinal and behavioural barriers to changing land management and use through promotional and communication campaigns, ensure ongoing action to manage the risk to current carbon stocks from natural disturbances such as fires and deforestation, and support and encourage the construction of forest roads to allow for the efficient and timely harvesting of timber for delivery to the market.
There has been considerable focus on increasing the rate of new planting to an average of 8,000 ha each year. This matter was recently raised with me in the Seanad. As I mentioned in my response, my Department currently approves around 9,000 ha every year for afforestation but the conversion rate to planting consistently remains at approximately 60%.
This means that the Irish forestry sector and landowners have at their disposal planting approvals for up to 10,000 ha. The challenge that arises relates to the translation of those approvals into plants in the ground if the targets are to be met. An average of 8,000 ha per annum of newly planted forests does represent a significant challenge. We propose to meet this challenge through the continued availability of grants and premiums for landowners to plant new forests, promotion of farm forestry, a focused promotion and communication campaign and continued dialogue with stakeholders, including Coillte and other State bodies. Ways in which farm forestry can be better aligned and integrated with the CAP will also be explored.
One of the actions in the plan is "to implement the Forestry Programme 2014-2020 in line with Mid-Term Review recommendations and targets set". The implementation of the forestry programme, which offers a wide range of options and grants and annual premiums for landowners, continues to be a priority. As matters stand, the current programme is averaging afforestation rates of 5,500 ha per annum, or 75% of its overall target. This will clearly need to be improved to meet the goals of the climate action plan. My Department and I have ongoing engagement with stakeholders to ensure that issues and challenges are addressed as they arise and that we avail of opportunities to promote afforestation. I chair a forestry implementation group and a forestry promotion group which are working together as regards implementation and ways to promote afforestation, respectively.
We should also be cognisant of the challenges and risks to forest posed by climate change. It is important that adaptation options are considered in order to improve resilience. Climate change will have impacts resulting from increased levels of atmospheric CO2, changes in air and soil temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns and extreme events such as those involving wind. To assist in this context, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, and I launched a public consultation process last week on a draft climate change adaptation plan in the agriculture, forestry and seafood sectors. In addition to focusing on mitigation or reducing the emissions that cause climate change, we also need to take steps in climate adaptation planning. Submissions on the draft plan are welcome from interested parties as we need to work together to ensure that our forests and forest management take adaptation into account.
Linked to resilience is species diversity. We have seen the impact of ash dieback on our ash woodlands. The committee will be discussing this issue later. I am well aware of the impact of ash dieback on Ireland's ash plantations. When this disease first presented, we put in place an Exchequer-funded reconstitution scheme to restore affected-forests. Since then, over 1,600 ha have been restored at a cost of €4.4 million. However, when the scientific outlook changed and it became evident that the disease could not be eradicated, the scheme was suspended in April 2018 in order that a comprehensive review could be undertaken. Landowners who wished to continue growing their ash forests could continue to be paid their annual premiums and the woodland improvement thinning and tending scheme remains available to ash plantation owners. The review has taken the form of extensive consultation and evaluation and initial indications are that it has identified a broader and more responsive range of options to assist owners in managing affected forests. I hope to be in a position to announce the full results of the review shortly.
The Government has shown its ongoing commitment to this and other issues relating to the development of Irish forestry through its annual budgetary allocation and its approval of both the forestry programme and the enhancements to the measures in the programme following the mid-term review. This ongoing support was clear recognition of the contribution which forestry continues to make to the economy, environment and society in Ireland. Forestry combines the best climate mitigation land use that we have as well as a viable and sustainable land use income for farmers. The climate action plan gives us in the forestry sector an opportunity at a national level to highlight the importance of forestry and endorses the investment that both the State and individual landowners have made to date in its development. It presents challenges but I am satisfied that we are up to meeting them. My priority, and that of my Department, will be the implementation of the range of actions relating to forestry. The sector also has its part to play in engaging with local communities to ensure that the multifunctional benefits of forestry are there for all. I look forward to the members' contributions.