Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Questions (1, 2, 3)

Micheál Martin

Question:

1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the role his officials have in implementing the bio-economy framework which was launched a year ago; and the actions that have been taken since. [47452/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the role his Department has in implementing the bio-economy framework which was launched a year ago; and the actions that have been taken since. [49141/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in implementing the bio-economy framework. [50047/19]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

My Department co-ordinated the development of the national policy statement on the bioeconomy which was published in March 2018. This delivered on commitments given in the Action Plan for Jobs and the Action Plan for Rural Development and built on actions in Food Wise 2025.

The policy statement sets out Ireland's ambition to be a global leader in the bioeconomy and outlines a policy framework to underpin the successful development of the bioeconomy in this country. The policy statement identifies actions to expand the bioeconomy, including promoting greater coherence between the many sectors of the bioeconomy; strengthening the development of promising bio-based products and growing the relevant markets for them; removing regulatory constraints; and accessing funding available at national and EU level as well as leveraging private investment. The Government has mandated an implementation group, jointly chaired by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, to co-ordinate the implementation of the policy statement. The group is working in close collaboration with industry and other partners to bring forward further recommendations to develop the bioeconomy. The membership of this bioeconomy implementation group includes officials from my Department as well as from other relevant Departments and agencies.

The first progress report from this bioeconomy implementation group was published on 3 September 2019. The progress report highlights activities undertaken in the areas of policy integration and coherence, industrial and commercial development, progression of leading bioeconomy value chains and awareness raising and financing. Many of the recommendations identified in this progress report dovetail with the actions identified in Project Ireland 2040, Future Jobs Ireland and the climate action plan.

Detailed questions on development of the bioeconomy in Ireland are a matter for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, who have lead responsibility in this important area.

It is important to focus on the wider bioeconomy in order to take sustainability to a more strategic level and show how Ireland can both address the environmental emergency and provide the good, secure and sustainable jobs we require.

When the national framework document for the development of the bioeconomy was published 20 months ago it was welcomed, but it has to be said that there was much scepticism about the Government's intentions. Some 51 submissions were made in the consultation process, providing a long list of very specific proposals for action. However, the final framework focused instead on general statements of intent and certainly was not an action plan of the type the Government likes to launch in many other areas. It was published without an implementation plan and only the vaguest statements about specific Government funding or actions.

Last year, one company, Glanbia, spent more on one bioeconomy project than was spent on all Government-funded activities put together. Very important activity is under way in this area, much of it for several years. However the evidence indicates that there has not been a dramatic step change. Despite this, the Taoiseach still talks about having a vision for global leadership in this sector. It is similar to the target for electric vehicles, something which the Government is happy to talk about but fails to back up with any credible strategy or demonstration of the capacity to achieve it.

Can the Taoiseach tell us if the bioeconomy framework is being implemented? What specific targets has he set to achieve the stated objective of achieving global leadership in this field?

The bioeconomy strategy pays lip service to forestry and its importance to the bioeconomy, biodiversity, a circular economy, etc. However, the actuality of Government policy suggests that all of this is just lip service and nothing more. A report by Mr. Jim Mackinnon, commissioned by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, has come out just this month. Frankly, it is damning of Government forestry policy. It points out that there is no coherence of targets. The Government has three different targets. We do not have enough foresters or inspectors. There is no serious campaign to win people over to the value and virtues of forestry. There are problems with the excessive emphasis on the industrial model of forestry. There are huge backlogs in the processing of applications because we do not have enough people working in the sector. Most damning of all, this year there is a target, which the Taoiseach has announced on several occasions, of planting 8,000 ha of forestry. The actual rate of tree-planting this year is the lowest in 30 years, at 3,250 ha. There is a consistent pattern of the Government failing to meet its own targets by a long chalk when it comes to forestry. From the points of view of biodiversity, climate change and the bioeconomy, can we get more than lip service when it comes to an afforestation programme?

The constituency I share with the Taoiseach has seen the investment of billions of euro in plants in the Dublin 15 area which manufacture biological drugs. They are at the cutting edge of modern medical treatments which are particularly important for children with rare conditions and diseases. Regarding the bioeconomy, we know clean air is critical to the wellness of both adults and children. However, clean air is not in evidence on many days of the year, particularly in Dublin and other big city areas in Ireland. A bioeconomy project could provide clean air for the citizens of urban areas. The report talks about focusing on education, training and skills. Clean air in cities will require greening cities and neighbourhoods. Trees act like giant vacuum cleaners and clean the air.

Another key bioeconomy project is public transport. If we want to get people out of their cars and reduce the pollution they produce, we need a public transport system. At the moment, it is still unclear whether a public transport proposal for Dublin will involve cutting down thousands of trees in the city. This Government has a problem with producing joined-up ideas that make sense in the context of the fantastic potential of the bioeconomy. We are already aware of this potential with the investment in our own constituency.

If we are to have a proper bioeconomy we need a wider national land use plan, one which maps our approach to climate change and the biodiversity crisis and recognises that all different end uses are interconnected - what we do in forestry, how we restore peatlands and what type of farming takes place where.

That wider national land use plan would give us a better idea of what limits we can set in the bioeconomy area. We cannot have anaerobic digesters everywhere if it increases levels of ammonia or other pollutants. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Teagasc have opposed such a land use plan. They say we cannot tell farmers what to do. I am not suggesting that the plan should deal with the micro level. However, if we are serious about climate change, we need a wider land use plan. We also need it to get our bioeconomy right and avoid making the mistakes made in the North. Massive supports introduced in the North for the bioeconomy had serious pollution and other effects downstream. The bioeconomy must be framed within a land use plan.

Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the implementation group has the capacity to oversee all of this work in the future and meet the objectives that have been set in the bioeconomy framework? One of the guiding principles of the framework is the precautionary principle to prevent policies or actions causing harm and damage to the public or the environment. Last week, The Irish Times reported that air quality stations are not in place in the majority of towns where smoky coal is still burned. The Sunday Business Post reported over the weekend that the Government had stalled the roll-out of a nationwide ban on smoky coal as a result of legal threats from three private coal companies. Is this the case? Given that the European Commission has already signed off on Ireland's smoky coal ban, why is the Government not proceeding with the matter as planned?

I put it to the Taoiseach that re-municipalisation of the waste management system needs to be actively considered. There is widespread illegal dumping across the State. Enforcement is minimal or non-existent and our waste cycle is opaque at best. In truth, nobody really knows or can be exactly sure where their waste or recyclable materials end up. The sustainability principle is described as a core principle of the bioeconomy, yet we know that our waste management sector does not and will not meet the objectives set out in the policy framework. Surely it is time to start the discussion on bringing waste management back into public ownership.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. The bioeconomy plan is being implemented. To give some examples of the progress being made, we have significant actions across the bioeconomy policy framework, including the development of physical infrastructure and the creation of piloting facilities such as the Lisheen national bioeconomy campus and the Páirc na Mara marine project, as well as research capacity at the BEACON bioeconomy research centre. Two EU LIFE awards have been successful and were secured to aid the scaling up of small on-farm and larger industrial bio-refining activities. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has awarded funding for two bioeconomy related projects. The launch of BioConnect Ireland's regional and technology cluster in Monaghan supports bioeconomy development. The BEACON bioeconomy research centre signed a memorandum of understanding with the Technological Higher Education Association to develop bioeconomy related education activities in technological universities. The Irish Co-operative Organisation Society was also awarded EU Erasmus+ funding to develop training to support bioeconomy development by co-operative members and farmers. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, have co-funded two research projects on the agri bio circular, ABC, economy and bio-circle which are focused on regional bioeconomy development. The ABC economy project held two workshops with industry, regional and rural stakeholders in counties Tipperary and Monaghan in the second quarter of 2019 to assess value chain development and the sustainability of regional biomass supply chains.

I was also asked about funding. Funding of €14.2 million has been provided through Science Foundation Ireland, with €4.6 million allocated to the Lisheen project under the regional enterprise development fund. Funding is also being provided through Enterprise Ireland's regional economic development fund for BioConnect in Monaghan and Páirc na Mara in Connemara. Applications have also been received in the disruptive technologies fund to support industrial development of the bioeconomy. Two EU LIFE projects have been successful in securing funding to develop bio-refining to assist small-scale beef farming activities and industrial level bio-refining activities.

Funding opportunities also exist at EU level, including Horizon 2020 societal challenge 2 and the bio-based industries joint undertaking, a €3.7 billion public private partnership that focuses on the development, de-risking and scaling up of innovative technologies and bio-refineries. The European circular bioeconomy fund, ECBF, is being designed by the European Investment Bank, EIB, with the support of the European Commission via Horizon 2020. The fund will provide access to finance to innovative circular bioeconomy companies and projects of various sizes. ECBF management funds will raise funds from public and private investors with a target fund volume of €250 million, and aims for a first close in the first quarter of 2020. A proposal by the EIB to invest €100 million in the fund will be submitted to the board for approval.

On the issue of forestry, Deputies will be aware that approximately 11% of our land is now covered in forest, the highest level for 350 years. This is, however, very low by European and international standards. We have set a target in the climate action plan to plant 440 million trees during the period of the plan. There is a job of work to be done to convince farmers, landowners and communities to buy into that target. As I mentioned at the International City/County Management Association, ICMA, conference on Friday, I am very keen to encourage large landowners, not just farmers, to plant at least 1 ha of native broadleaf trees. We want to pay them to do it and this could form part of our reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy.

On the issue of air quality and clean air, Deputies will be aware that in cities the problem is closely related to diesel cars. Our policy solutions include making diesel cars less attractive to buy and run, increasing the supply of electric vehicles and investing in public transport. Deputies will be aware that in recent days I announced a €1 billion five-year investment in our railways. In many towns, smoky fuels are responsible for poor air quality. We know that smoky coal, peat and wood are equally bad when it comes to damaging air quality. This issue, on which I answered a question from Deputy Martin earlier, needs to be looked at in the round.

Deputy Ryan raised the issue of a land use plan. While it is not something I am familiar with, I will give it consideration. I have not heard any objections from Teagasc or the Department to that but perhaps that is the case. Part of our climate effort will involve land use change and forestry or LUCF.

The re-municipalisation of waste management is a matter for the local authorities. At least one authority has passed a motion calling for re-municipalisation. It is up to one or two authorities to try this approach and see how it goes. I believe they will find it very expensive and difficult to do. It would be interesting to see if any of the local authorities in Dublin want to give this a go. That would then allow other local authorities to see whether it is a good idea.