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Cabinet Committees

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 8 February 2022

Tuesday, 8 February 2022

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will next meet. [4364/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

2. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will next meet. [4807/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Peadar Tóibín

Ceist:

3. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will next meet. [5146/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Jennifer Whitmore

Ceist:

4. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will next meet. [5957/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Christopher O'Sullivan

Ceist:

5. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will next meet. [6048/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Cormac Devlin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will next meet. [6257/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will next meet. [6398/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

8. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will next meet. [6401/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

9. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will next meet. [6404/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mick Barry

Ceist:

10. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will next meet. [6461/22]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (24 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 10, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change last met on Wednesday, 8 December, and is next scheduled to meet on Monday, 21 February. This Cabinet committee oversees the implementation of the ambitious programme for Government commitments on the environment and climate change. The key climate change commitments are now reflected in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, which sets out challenging carbon reduction targets for 2030 and the added statutory commitment of achieving a climate-neutral economy by 2050.

As part of its remit under that legislation, the Climate Change Advisory Council has proposed three five-year carbon budgets for the period until 2035. The carbon budgets are the overall, economy-wide emissions ceiling that we must work within if we are to achieve our reduction targets for 2030 and beyond. The proposals by the advisory council have been considered by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment and Climate Action, which yesterday published its recommendations. Over the coming weeks, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, having considered these recommendations and the original proposal by the advisory council, will bring a proposal to the Government on determining these budgets. When the budgets are agreed, the Government will then proceed to setting sectoral emission ceilings. These will determine the upper limits of emissions for each sector, which when added together must keep within the overall carbon budget.

Agreed policies and measures designed to ensure that sectors quickly and significantly reduce their emissions have been set out in the Climate Action Plan 2021, which was published by the Government before Christmas. The plan will be further revised this year to ensure the actions it contains are sufficient to meet the reduction targets that will have been made explicit through the setting of the carbon budgets and sectoral emissions ceilings.

Climate change is a profound challenge for this planet and Ireland must play its full part in addressing it. Just as the threats of climate change will touch each of us, the journey towards carbon neutrality on which we have now embarked will require all of our efforts. We have much to gain. We in government will take the lead and provide support where we can. Ministers will now be answerable for their performance on emissions reductions and ensuring that the sectors for which they are responsible play their part in cutting greenhouse gases. However, this is a shared journey. It will challenge us all to rethink how we work, how we live, how we heat our homes and buildings, how we grow our food and manage our land, and how we travel. Opportunities abound if we have the confidence to grasp them.

The Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will continue to meet regularly throughout 2022 to progress all these aspects of the Government's ambitious climate action and environmental policies.

There are many questioners present, but they will each have just one minute.

Last week, the Tánaiste expressed his frustration with the Government's slow rate of progress in accelerating plans and ambitions for renewable electricity and new fuels such as green hydrogen. If the programme for Government's commitments are to be realised, a Government-led hydrogen strategy is urgent. We can lead from the front on green hydrogen. This is the view of public and private energy providers, all of whom emphasise the role of green hydrogen in meeting our 2030 and 2050 climate targets. Currently, Scotland leads the way on offshore wind and published its first hydrogen strategy seven years ago. My colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, will introduce the hydrogen strategy Bill tomorrow. I hope that all Government parties will support it.

There is an urgent need for a comprehensive strategy with a focus on State-led investment delivering a return for the public purse and energy security. Ireland has one of the best offshore wind resources in the world. Capturing just a portion of this for the production of green hydrogen could deliver significant environmental benefits, green jobs and a return for the State. When can we expect publication of the Government's hydrogen strategy and the updated climate action plan for 2022?

The Cabinet has approved retrofit grants of up to €25,000. There will also be low-interest loans. The aim is to retrofit 500,000 homes by 2030 and install 400,000 heat pumps. The €352 million allocated for this year is just shy of €1 million per day compared to last year's €221 million for Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, schemes. However, there was a large underspend across SEAI grant schemes in 2021. The better energy, warmer homes scheme had a budget allocation of €100 million last year and the warmth and well-being scheme had a budget of €9 million. These provided for free upgrades for lower income households. Even allowing for the pandemic, though, only half of that allocation was expected to be spent last year. Even when the State was picking up all the costs of retrofitting, we were not getting the numbers done. How will this be addressed?

The Taoiseach stated that climate change was a profound challenge that would require all of our efforts to address it. I agree. Akin to how we dealt with Covid, it is a fundamental societal challenge. When we were debating and dealing with Covid, we followed the scientists' lead and the evidence.

At the committee dealing with carbon budgets in recent months, the independent scientists were clear that the proposed carbon budgets did not go far enough. Not only did they not go far enough to meet our climate targets, but they did not go far enough to meet the Government's commitment under the programme for Government for a 7% per annum reduction. In fact, only a 5.7% reduction is provided by these budgets. Is the Taoiseach concerned that the carbon budgets coming to the Cabinet for approval do not meet the commitments that it made in the programme for Government and what will it do about that?

As the Taoiseach well knows, protecting and maintaining our woodlands and forest cover is a key element of reaching our climate action targets, especially given that Ireland has the least tree coverage of any European nation. That said, I ask that the Taoiseach support the communities in Riverstick, Belgooly and the Kinsale area in preventing the sale of 22 acres of pristine woodland at Ballymartle Woods into private ownership. I visited the site yesterday. It is a stunning location. I got a full tour. It has woodland walks and old oak woodlands, and it is a perfect example of the type of amenity that we should be keeping for communities. I ask the Taoiseach to support them in their efforts to prevent the sale of 22 acres of that woodland into private ownership.

The Taoiseach will be aware of the significant impact that inflation is having on individuals and families across this country. The budget's increases in the fuel allowance were welcome, as are plans to give householders €113 credit against their electricity bills. However, these measures will only go so far. We know that inflation is likely to be higher than what was anticipated at the time of the budget. Will the Taoiseach consider increasing the electricity credit beyond €113 and rolling out an improved retrofitting scheme for minor improvements, for example, attic or other home insulation schemes?

The average cost of retrofitting a house is approximately €53,000. It can be €70,000 or €80,000 for older houses to get them up to the highest building energy rating, BER. If someone is wealthy, the mooted changes in grants will benefit him or her. They might allow someone to cover the difference between €25,000 and €53,000 or more. However, the hardest hit by the energy price hikes will simply not have the money.

The social housing retrofit programme is a joke. In my area last year, 1% of the social housing stock was retrofitted. There are similar targets for this year. For those in private rented accommodation, this offers absolutely nothing. Why does the Government, therefore, not get the State to invest in the retrofitting of all homes on a much bigger scale, upfront, so we will generate savings further down the line that benefit both the climate and the householder?

Last week, I raised with the Taoiseach the case of the strategic litigation against, and bullying of, Ballyboden Tidy Towns group by the developer Ardstone. He responded that no one should ever intimidate a Tidy Towns committee. I agree but it is clear that Ardstone does not. In response to our interaction here, its representatives wrote another letter to the Ballyboden Tidy Towns group. It stated the group has continued to brief against their client, Ardstone, referring to what I said in the Dáil and calling for an undertaking not to defame Ardstone to any person, media body, Deputy or other entity at any future time. It is clear that what is taking place is precisely bullying and threatening behaviour to get the group to back down from standing for sustainable planning.

This is not the only case. Councillor Dean Mulligan in Swords brought to my attention a similar one. It concerns MKN Property Group, which relies on McCann FitzGerald for a judicial review, but rely on AMOSS Solicitors in respect of correspondence that threatens a group of residents, the South Swords Residents Group, with legal action, again to prevent public participation. This seems to be widespread. What will be done to prevent this from happening?

The retrofitting of homes should be the low-hanging fruit in any campaign against climate change. Making houses warmer, more efficient and cheaper to run and reducing carbon emissions should be the first steps the Government takes. Ten years ago, I published a plan that would have resulted in the deep retrofitting of 500,000 homes within five years. It was at a time when many skills that we needed to keep were being lost from the country. The target for the past three years was the retrofitting of 50,000 homes. Last year, 18,000 homes were retrofitted. If we have a larger target, how will the Government be able to ramp up to reach it in the next couple of years?

The Taoiseach has a little over three minutes in which to respond.

On Deputy McDonald's points on green hydrogen and offshore wind, the Government is of the view that offshore wind energy has enormous economic potential in this country. It could do a great deal to redress the imbalance in economic development between the eastern and western seaboards. It will commence in a serious way off the east coast. Wind energy generation off the west and south-west coasts could be the equivalent of the Irish Financial Services Centre in Dublin for the regions. The Government, therefore, is really committed to a multidisciplinary approach to both wind energy and green hydrogen, which has enormous potential, and to working with the EU on its plans.

The marine area planning legislation we passed in this House just before Christmas is a very significant step forward. We now need to establish consents and get the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority, MARA, up and running to enable us to work within our timelines and give the industry confidence we can achieve the targets we have set. Investors are waiting to get involved. There is significant potential. The line Minister will be publishing detailed delivery plans in respect of this.

Deputy Duncan Smith raised the issue of the upgrades, and several Deputies referred to retrofitting in general. Approximately 465,000 houses have had some retrofitting or other between 2000 and 2020, or since schemes really began in earnest in 2000. We must accelerate the rate of progress dramatically-----

It is less than 10%.

-----and that is what the plan we are publishing today will do. Today's Government decisions are significant. They represent a very significant ramping up of the retrofitting agenda.

Deputy Devlin raised the issues of attic insulation and cavity walls, for which the grants are to be up to 80%. There will be a significant take-up. We will facilitate people to proceed on a phased basis. The grants are far more generous than any we have had before. Deputy Boyd Barrett should note it would not be feasible to announce that the State, on its own, would do every single house in the country; it is just not going to happen. That is not a real-world possibility.

The key challenge for us, even in the targets we have set, as alluded to by Deputy Duncan Smith and others, is on the skills front. That is why it is important that we map out how the carbon tax revenues will be used for the retrofitting programme. Approximately €5 billion in carbon tax revenue will be used for retrofitting over the next decade. That is what is enabling it to happen. Without it, it just could not be done at the scale we are attempting to achieve. The skills part is the key.

Tax the profits of the energy companies.

The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is working on ramping up in respect of the skills requirements. We need to give the industry certainty and clarity regarding the roadmap and invest in-----

I thank the Taoiseach. We have to proceed to Question No. 11.

Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan raised the issues of woodland and forestry. I accept the points he was making. I am uncomfortable with Coillte selling valuable woodlands of the kind in question given that, to me, Coillte, Bord na Móna and other State agencies must now be leaders in respect of climate change. To be fair to Coillte, it has done some fantastic work across the country.

What about the carbon budgets and the 7% commitment?

To be honest with the Deputy, we have an enormous challenge ahead of us to achieve what will be in those carbon budgets. We need everybody in the House to support this. We currently do not have the support, even in the House, to achieve the targets we have set.

The Government has support to do more.

We have to move to Question No. 11. We need to talk about how we handle all these things because it is not satisfactory. Members ask the Taoiseach many questions and then do not give him time to answer. When discussing Dáil reform, we might consider how to improve the system. It is much better than it was ten years ago but it is far from satisfactory.

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