Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Questions (17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24)

Jennifer Whitmore


17. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will meet next. [31558/21]

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Mary Lou McDonald


18. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will next meet. [33087/21]

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Alan Kelly


19. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change last met; and when it will next meet. [33145/21]

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Christopher O'Sullivan


20. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change is next scheduled to meet. [33360/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


21. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will meet next. [33400/21]

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Paul Murphy


22. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will meet next. [33403/21]

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Bríd Smith


23. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will meet next. [33405/21]

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Mick Barry


24. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will meet next. [33548/21]

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Oral answers (17 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 to 24, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on environment and climate change last met on 31 May 2021 and is scheduled to meet again on 1 July 2021. This Cabinet committee oversees the implementation of the ambitious programme for Government commitments in regard to the environment and climate change. Those commitments are reflected in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021, which is now progressing through the legislative process. The committee also oversees implementation of the current climate action plan and the interim climate actions for 2021, as well as the work that is now under way to develop an updated climate action plan. In addition, the committee considers other aspects of environmental policy, including, for example, in regard to investment in water services and water quality.

I want to raise the issue of the end-of-waste approval process. I am not sure whether the Taoiseach is familiar with it. It is the application process by which waste is taken by a company, processed and recycled and the company can then on-sell it. It is really the essence of the circular economy. There are 34 live end-of-waste applications with the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, at this time. Unfortunately, there is a huge backlog. Only one decision on an end-of-waste application was made in 2020 and four such decisions were made in 2019. Given there are 34 live applications, it is clear there will be a significant timeframe before they are assessed. The difficulty with that is there are companies waiting for their applications to be assessed. I am aware that a number of companies are considering moving to Northern Ireland because they can get the same application assessed there in six months. It would be a shame to lose those jobs and the opportunities to invest in our circular economy. Is the Taoiseach aware of this issue and will he look into it?

Under the new climate Bill, Ireland will need to reduce its emissions by approximately 7% per annum. We have been told that capital expenditure is set to increase significantly in the coming years. I expect a sizeable chunk of that will be for green capital infrastructure. I would be interested to see a clear roadmap for how capital investment will be used to reach our targets. I have raised this issue previously but have not been given any exact details. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether this has been discussed by the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change and, if not, whether he can progress it?

I also want to refer briefly to an issue that has been raised previously by Deputy McDonald and on which no progress has been made to date. The Taoiseach is an advocate of the all-Ireland pollinator plan but his Government has taken no action to secure the future of the National Biodiversity Data Centre and its incredible staff, who deserve the bulk of the credit for the plan's success across the island of Ireland. Currently, the Heritage Council outsources the contract for the data centre. This is not a sustainable model if we are serious about tackling the biodiversity crisis. Will the Taoiseach commit to engaging with the Opposition in considering a sustainable organisational model for the data centre that will secure its future, staff and data?

The Dáil recently passed the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021, which is among the most important legislation ever to come through the House. It is a response to the thousands of young people who marched throughout the country looking for change. It sets fairly ambitious emissions targets and I want to touch on two of the ways we will get to those targets. One is by way of a proper retrofitting programme, such as the warmer homes schemes, which allows old dwellings to be made more efficient in terms of loss of heat and energy usage. At the moment, there is a huge backlog in that scheme because of the lack of available workers with the skills to do the work. The second way is by people being given the opportunity and chance to work from home, thereby cutting down on commuting. However, for that to work, we need a proper roll-out of rural broadband, which has been delayed in many parts of my constituency. These are two elements we must tackle if we are to achieve our emissions targets.

I want to push the issue of Dublin Bay up the agenda of the Cabinet environment committee. Dublin Bay is a UNESCO biosphere and a place where fishermen-----

Sorry, I should have said "fishers". It is a place where fishers make a living in what is left of the decimated fishing industry. Critically, it is a precious public amenity where huge numbers of people swim. We have a major capacity problem with the Ringsend waste water treatment plant, which will not be dealt with until 2025. In the meantime, there are discharges of untreated sewage going on all over the bay, both from the plant and from storm overflows because of the lack of investment by Irish Water in rehabilitating our water infrastructure. There is a simple measure that could be taken to address this and I ask the Taoiseach to look into it. I put the same request to the Tánaiste last week. There is an ultraviolet treatment facility at Ringsend that is only being used three months per year, for the swimming season. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister to instruct Irish Water to use that facility all-year round? It reduces the microbiological bacterial load of untreated effluent going into the sea and it would make a difference immediately if it were used.

I am not sure whether the Taoiseach saw the footage from ITV in Britain last week relating to the practices of Amazon. In its fulfilment centres in that country, the company is destroying up to 200,000 products, and an average of 124,000 to 130,000, per week. Those products are in perfectly good condition, from toasters to televisions to face masks. They could be used but are instead being destroyed in an effort to maximise Amazon's profits. In January next year, the company will open its first fulfilment centre in Ireland. If it adopts the same practices there, it will be destroying, and adding to landfill, hundreds of thousands of products every single week. What action is the Government taking to ensure these anti-environmental practices are not used in this country?

We have had two very worrying reports in the past two days. Yesterday, the EPA reported on our possible failure to meet our emissions targets. Today, it is reported that the application for a liquefied natural gas, LNG, facility at Shannon will progress to An Bord Pleanála. These reports highlight fatal flaws in the Government's climate policy and, indeed, the climate Bill. It is Government policy, apparently, not to support the importation of fracked gas, but it refuses to legislate to ban LNG projects, saying we have to wait for the European Union to take a stand. In the meantime, powerful fossil fuel interests proceed with their plans in this country. The Green Party at least, and perhaps the Taoiseach's party as well, will never be forgiven if LNG facilities are built in this State when the Government had a chance to ban them.

The EPA report yesterday also notes that the ludicrous target of having 1 million electric vehicles in use by 2030 will not be met. That target is unrealistic and is not the correct response to the climate crisis. Instead, we need to focus on free, frequent public transport throughout the country. It is an absolute fantasy that we can meet a target of 1 million electric vehicles in nine years. It is also undesirable. Will the Taoiseach comment on that?

The Taoiseach needs to ban LNG projects. All such projects are meant to be frozen pending an energy supply review. That decision came about under pressure from environmental campaigners and as a result of the growing awareness of the link between LNG and fracked gas and the extreme danger posed to our environment by fracking. However, the wheels have not stopped turning. We learned last night that New Fortress Energy is on the verge of applying for planning permission for a €650 million LNG terminal for Shannon at Tarbert, with the appeal proceeding to An Bord Pleanála. A representative of the local campaign group Safety Before LNG, John McElligott, said:

It seems that the door is constantly being kept open for Shannon LNG in spite of clear government policy to the contrary. This is unacceptable.

Why is the Taoiseach not heeding his point and closing that door?

Deputy Whitmore spoke first on the circular economy and the end-of-waste approval process. I will engage with the Minister in that regard. We met recently with the environmental and social pillar. We are broadening and expanding social dialogue. In that context, we met with the environmental and social pillar. We heard a good presentation on the circular economy from the NGO group. I will engage with the Minister on making sure that we can progress more speedily the end-of-waste approval process.

On Deputy Farrell's point regarding a clear roadmap ahead, the Government's economic recovery plan has been very clear in its emphasis and focus on public transport, a national retrofitting programme, biodiversity investment, particularly the all-Ireland pollinator plan, and across the board development of greenways. There has been a dramatic increase in investment under this Government. We will transform this country in terms of active travel. There is no doubt about it. Some of the funding for that will come from the carbon tax fund, which will help us to protect against fuel poverty, facilitate environmental farming schemes and to deliver to the national retrofitting programme. The programme will help many people in respect of fuel poverty and in reducing dramatically their heating emissions. It will take time but the carbon tax is an important part of that. I know the Deputy's party opposes that, but I would ask that it be reflected upon. People have aspirations for climate change, but ring-fenced funding is needed to enable step change in investments and retrofitting, public transport, active travel and the biodiversity agenda.

Deputy O'Sullivan rightly said that the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 will probably be the most significant legislation passed by this Oireachtas, and in the fullness of time, will be seen as such. It will entail challenges in implementation, but it represents a fundamental and profound step change in legislation.

I agree with the Deputy on the retrofitting agenda. Part of the recovery plan is not just the allocation of funding through the carbon tax fund to retrofitting, but also the allocation of additional funding for reskilling and upskilling and providing additional places so that the skills are there to step up retrofitting activity. Where a house is retrofitted, it provides enormous savings to the householder. The issue of working from home and the technology and broadband provision is essential to facilitating that. That will also have a very significant impact on our climate change agenda and targets.

I do not disagree with what Deputy Boyd Barrett said regarding Dublin Bay. I will engage with the Minister on the Ringsend treatment plant and the ultraviolet treatment system. The Deputy said that it is only used for three months of the year. I take his point and I will come back to him on that. It is an important point. Many people swim all year round.

On Deputy Murphy's point regarding Amazon, I have not seen the programme to which he referred. Amazon is building a fulfilment centre in Ireland in Dublin, which will create a significant number of jobs for many people. That cannot be ignored either in the context of that investment in Dublin by Amazon. Surely, it is in Amazon's interest, as it is in everybody' interest, to reduce waste and damage to products. I have not seen the programme so I cannot comment accurately in on the points the Deputy made, other than to say that economies evolve and develop. Amazon has grown and expanded. The fulfilment centre in Dublin will create additional jobs for people in our city.

Jobs cleaning up the mess.

It will create jobs. The Deputy will try to recruit the people who get the jobs to her movement. That tends to be the cycle. To be serious about it, they are important jobs. In all of these operations, it is important that optimal practice pertains and prevails in respect of the minimisation of waste and the facilitation of the circular economy. The Minister will bring in legislation on the circular economy.

Regarding the EPA and fracked gas, we are opposed to fracked gas and the importation of it. The Government has been very clear on that. According to the European legal framework and the law in terms of single markets and competition and so on, individual member states cannot take unilateral actions in respect of enterprises. We have been very clear in our policy on LNG facilities. That remains the case. I do not necessarily agree with the Deputy in respect of electric vehicles, EVs. The target of 1 million was set in previous climate action plans. However, the dramatic impact of EVs on air quality will be enormous. Sometimes we lose sight of the air quality dimension of getting rid of fossil fuels. To me, as a former Minister for Health, it essential,.

The EPA said that the Government will not reach the target, not me.

No, the Deputy said it was not a good idea. She said that she does not agree with EVs. She said that she does not agree with the concept, which is what I took from her comments.

Public transport is the answer.

I agree on public transport as well, but people are not going to stop using cars overnight, or indeed, on an ongoing basis. EVs are far cleaner, better for one's health and better for the environment than fossil fuel driven cars.

Sitting suspended at 2.06 p.m. and resumed at 3.06 p.m.