We have plenty to talk about. The Minister is never far from our minds.
My party spokesperson at the time welcomed the idea that the Minister put forward proposals. It is still short of the proposals and targets we think can and should be met. Given the opportunity in Government, we would push harder to see those targets met. We are starting from far behind other countries which have at least had the courage to address these issues many years before us.
A similar acknowledgement, or criticism, could be made of the Minister's proposals on renewable energy grants. The criticism here is that grants could have been larger or that there could have been a different distribution of the percentage available from the grant to the house owner. More elements could have been available with regard to renewable projects, and there could have been a more integrated approach in linking insulation of houses to the grant scheme. Nonetheless, we are going down the right road now, although not far enough and a bit late. The Government must do better.
What is disappointing is that part of this process is brought about by necessity and some of it is caused by European Union directives that we must live up to. Another Bill before this House is the Building Control Bill 2005, which will at last introduce the idea of heat and energy efficiency standards for new houses built as and when the new Bill is passed by this House. That is welcome in itself and it is part of our obligation to the European Union directive.
The effects of the Celtic tiger have not been taken into account. Taking 1995 as a starting point, some 30% of the housing stock has been built in a ten-year period. That means almost a third of all housing has been built with substandard or zero energy and heat efficiency standards. What the Minister proposes through his grant scheme will only partially address the issue. What the Government is proposing through the legislation with the Building Control Bill will only deal with buildings built after the Bill is passed.
What are we to do with our historical housing stock, much of which has been built in the Celtic tiger period, and much of which has been responsible for our added reliance on fossil fuels? Much of it is responsible for exorbitant and rising fuel bills for households in this State. That is the biggest failure arising from the lack of a Government energy policy.
This Bill has been approached in a disintegrated way, which makes the Government's lack of policy all the more disappointing. The question of energy policy must be dealt with in an integrated way. Factors include the sources we use to produce energy, the distribution of energy and the use of energy itself. Much of the common misconception regarding energy policy here is that it relates solely to electricity which is only a small element of the energy used. A growing proportion of energy has been eaten up by the type of transport policies we have followed. Much of this has to do with the transport imposed by the planning policies put in place.
For the Minister to talk about introducing a Green Paper this late in the day, preceded by this "John the Baptist" bits and pieces Bill, is an admission by the Government that it has failed to provide a co-ordinated and cohesive approach, with joined up thinking in Government, to get things right. We have created so many of these problems unnecessarily. As a result, I do not believe this to be a Government that can live up to its promises.
On the weekend the Minister introduced his promises about renewable energy targets, he mentioned figures and times that should be feasible. The Green Party believes that higher targets are feasible within the same time span. However, the track record of this and previous Governments in all the alternative energy requirement programmes shows that none of the six programmes to date achieved their target in the time provided. Given that type of track record, what confidence can we have on this side of the House, not to mind those outside the Chamber who depend on having a coherent energy policy, in anything the Government or this Minister has to say on targets?
Deputy Connolly said we need bold practical measures from the Government to show how we can bring about better energy usage. One of the successes of the Green Party in Germany, in its first term of Government, was the implementation of a programme where the Government fully paid for the introduction of a solar panel in every household. This was done in 1 million households in the course of the four-year term of Government. In Irish terms, that would equate to the Government providing 100,000 households with solar energy.
Solar energy may not be the most feasible in terms of how houses are located. There is a problem in where we build houses, which way they are pointed and how they are affected by sun, wind and rain. All these factors have energy implications. If the solar option is not feasible, we have other sources in Ireland. Geothermal heating, using underground water sources, is available to a large swathe of the country. It is not enough to just have a grant scheme in place. My party believes the Government should go further and directly install much of this technology in each household unit so that we can begin to make a mark on energy conservation and with regard to the international agreements we have entered into relating to carbon emissions.
The Minister also had what could be termed a misfortune in being the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, having to steer Government policy with Kyoto Protocol commitments in mind, along with the prospect of having a national energy policy. The Government's performance, or lack of performance, in meeting Kyoto targets means we are rightly cynical about anything the Minister said in recent weeks about what targets can be reached and when.
This is outside a European Union commitment which indicated the EU as a whole would reduce its carbon emission levels to 1990 levels by the time the Kyoto Agreement is put in place. Ireland, in the same time period, was given the leeway of an increase of 13% of carbon emissions. We have since managed to double that increase, even before the period has finished.
The Minister and his counterparts in Government spoke confidently of the 13% figure being reached, or at least going towards it in the interim. I do not share that confidence. The effect of failing to meet that target is a bill the Irish taxpayer will have to pay of the equivalent of €1 billion. If the Government had put in place the appropriate policy measures at the time we were given the 13% level with the Kyoto Agreement, the €1 billion could have been used much more effectively in directly assisting householders in energy efficiency measures.
This Bill does not even come close to dealing with the wider area of energy use, particularly with regard to transport. I have already mentioned that car usage here is the highest in the world. We spend more time than other people in our cars. Deputy Cassidy seems to think it is a productive use of people's time to spend so much time in cars, particularly if stuck in traffic jams. That is a result of the Government's policies. All that time lingering in traffic uses fuel imported into the country from sources that are fast diminishing, and this means this type of transport planning and policy, as bankrupt as it is, will not even exist as an option within the next 15 to 20 years.
What are the Government's alternatives? The Taoiseach stands before us on the Order of Business most days speaking of what public transport spending is likely to be under the much vaunted Transport 21 initiative. Many of the costings for Transport 21 do not make sense, are not spelt out and are as vague as the Government's energy policy, if such a policy exists. The public transport initiatives that have been put on the table focus on getting into, out of and around Dublin. Those of us who live outside the greater Dublin metropolitan area, especially those who have the misfortune of living on the west coast of Ireland, will not have the same degree of choice. In most cases, we will not even have the option of a viable public transport system. Until such options are made available so that people can choose not to spend so much time in cars as the only means of getting from one place to another, the targets the Government aspires to can never be achieved. The reality is very different from the theory, as it is with many aspects of Government policy.
I will talk about the sources for the production of energy. There has been a partial debate on the future of nuclear energy and its potential in this country. My colleague and party leader, Deputy Sargent, managed to persuade a former Minister for Public Enterprise to accept an amendment inserting a clause in legislation prohibiting, at least in the short term, nuclear power as an option. I question whether that is strong enough, however, because legislation can be and is changed on a regular basis. If the political will existed to proceed in a different direction, and there was a Government majority in support of it, I fear the current Government parties would be capable of bringing about such a change. The person who proposed this at Government level was common to both parties in the current coalition, namely, the founder of the Progressive Democrats and former Fianna Fáil Minister for energy, Mr. Des O'Malley. He referred to those who made the case against nuclear power at that time, pre-Chernobyl, as members of the flat earth society. Those arguments are as valid now as they were then.
Dr. Edward Walsh of the University of Limerick discounts the chances of the Government introducing nuclear power but the potential exists, despite the Taoiseach's emphatic denial during Taoiseach's Question Time some days ago. The Taoiseach made a speech that same week to an international gathering of engineers in Dublin and from the tone of his argument it did not seem that he was opposed to nuclear power but rather felt it was not politically feasible. It was not an argument he could sell but if the engineers could help him put together such an argument he might countenance it in the future. That is where the Government seems to stand on the future of nuclear energy.
The economics of nuclear energy are a nonsense. It would cost a fortune in public funds to set up and would be a huge white elephant, even before the environmental costs are taken into account. That would not deter a Government which, in its nine years in power, has produced a whole herd of white elephants in terms of public expenditure.
If the Government had the opportunity to acquire a badge of pride by adopting nuclear energy, it is possible it would do so. I would like the Government to be more emphatic about the nuclear option. I would like to see it admit to its double standards in taking electricity from countries which use nuclear power. To what extent can we guarantee to Irish people that the electricity they use is not from nuclear sources? I would like the Minister to say where the Government stands on the issue, not just now but in the future, because there is no confidence that the Government will not go down that road.