April 10th 2017
Check against delivery
I'm delighted to be speaking to you tonight.
Environmental policy is one of the most complex and technical areas of Government and, as policy-makers we rely on the work of the scientific community to inform our decisions. I have been asked to speak this evening specifically addressing the theme of your event - "Putting the Eco in the Economy" - which is particularly relevant to the work of my Department.
Too often, economic policy and environmental policy are discussed as if they are two unrelated fields. But the very words 'economy' and 'ecology' are both derived from the same Greek word for household, 'Oikos'.
As a household needs to manage its own resources, Ireland needs to manage our financial and natural resources to ensure a sustainable future for our children and our grand-children. And to do this we must consider the economy and the natural environment as key parts of a single coherent system. What is good for the environment is good for the economy too.
A fundamental choice for every government is made on its very first day. It is the choice it makes about how functions are assigned at the cabinet table, and how the resources of departments are aligned behind them.
As the first ever minister for Climate Action the alignment of the Department I lead was a critical choice. The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is a new departure, with a clear purpose. It exists to holistically address the connected challenges of a country - and rural parts of the country especially - that are significantly behind where they need to be, in terms of modern communications infrastructure.
A key social, economic and political priority for me is Broadband and delivering the National Broadband Plan in particular. Last week I announced an additional 300,000 rural homes and premises will be connected to high speed broadband within 90 weeks as part of an agreement I negotiated with Eir. That means one home every minute of every working day is being connected to broadband with speeds of up to 1000 megabytes per second. This is great news for rural Ireland and its economy. Here in Westmeath alone an extra 6,700 premises will have fibre to the home within 90 weeks under this agreement.
The National Broadband Plan will play an integral role in revitalizing businesses and communities across provincial towns in rural Ireland. In tandem with delivering the Plan I am also trebling the available spectrum for wireless and mobile broadband services to improve coverage in blackspots right now across Ireland.
The economy, our climate, the communications networks that link us together and support our jobs, enhance our quality of life and underline the viability of our communities are part of a wider programme across government - to pool resources in ways that will make a measurable difference for a sustainable environment and for self-sufficient, connected communities.
Climate change is arguably at the heart of the intersection between the economy and the environment. The challenge of climate change is global and the question of how can any one of us meaningfully contribute to addressing it is one of our greatest challenges.
If climate change remains unchecked it could have devastating consequences for our environment and for the international economy. The world cannot meaningfully address climate change without the leadership and the participation of the European Union.
The European Union cannot lead or deliver without the full participation of the member states. Ireland as a member state cannot meet its obligation, without the participation and commitment of all our people and every sector of our society. That will not be forthcoming, nor can it be organised, without effective political leadership. That leadership must begin with government and with me as minister. But the leadership required, for a task as life changing and life enhancing as this, is broader. On climate change, it is a fact that the world will not change without you and neither will Ireland.
The landmark Stern Report on the Economics of Climate Change, published over 10 years ago, estimated that, taking the wide range of risks and possible impacts involved, the costs of climate change-related damage could be in excess of 20% of global GDP. Ten years on the core message on the potential costs of climate change remains the same.
Energy and Climate Action are inextricably linked. Using less energy, and using it more efficiently, is the most cost effective and accessible way for us all to take action on climate change. There is now much more grounds for optimism about the potential economic opportunities of climate change, or more specifically, the transition to a low-carbon, climate resilient, economy.
Over 350,000 people across Ireland have improved the energy efficiency in their homes through Government grants. Last week I announced a new 5 million euro scheme for householders to financially assist them in deep retrofitting their homes to an 'A' BER rating. Works supported by these programmes create jobs and support the local economy. Community based organisations are now training people to become experts in installing energy efficiency technologies and carry out energy efficient improvements to houses. Some of these are re-entering the workforce after long periods of unemployment. The skills they learn will be in ever-greater demand in the coming years and providing education, training and upskilling will ensure that the workforce keeps up with this demand. But we need more householders and communities to take ownership of their energy usage. We need to upgrade every low-performing building in Ireland in order to achieve our goal of decarbonising the energy system and the economy.
Again, globally, the investment required to transform our energy systems, our transport infrastructures and our buildings is in the order of trillions. For Ireland, this translates into significant amounts of money in order to make the necessary transformation.
The draft National Mitigation Plan, which I published less than three weeks ago for public consultation, presents our clear analysis of the costs and benefits for the emissions reduction measures that are already being implemented as well as the further options being considered.
This analysis is very much a first step reflecting the status of the draft Plan. We will continue to update and refine this analysis and the Plan itself will be a continually evolving document.
My ultimate objective is to have a coherent, holistic Plan that sets out exactly what Ireland is doing, and is planning to do, to further our transition to a low carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy. I hope that you will contribute your thoughts and ideas to this Plan via my Department's website.
Ireland continues to rely on imported fossil fuels to meet over 88% of our energy needs. This costs around €4.6 billion per year. Not only is this an unnecessary cost, it is money that could be invested in our low carbon transition.
The 2016 emissions data from the emissions trading sector, recently published by the EPA clearly show that our reliance on fossil fuels in industry and electricity generation continues to have a cost in terms of our emissions. With an overall increase in emissions of 5.4% compared to the previous year, we are now seeing a clear link between the economic upturn and our greenhouse gas emissions. As the EPA notes, this link can, in time, be broken by improved price signals within the emissions trading sector.
I expect that the scale of the challenge, and the strong tracking of emissions with our economic recovery, will be further underlined when the EPA publishes updated economy-wide projections of greenhouse gas emissions this coming Thursday. This will only serve to further reinforce the difficult decisions ahead of us as we try to reduce emissions to meet our EU-level targets.
While we endeavour to reduce harmful emissions, we still face difficult choices about how we respond to the impacts of climate change, and how we plan ahead to become climate resilient.
We need to adapt, and we are already seeing large scale adaptation measures aimed at reducing flood risk across the country, undertaken by the OPW and by our local authorities. I know only too well how such risks are of particular relevance to the people here of Athlone and Roscommon-Galway.
This Government has allocated €430 million to Flood Risk Management over the next five years. Annually, the allocation for flood defence works will more than double from €45m to €100m by 2021. But we must not forget however that responding to climate change is not only about building flood defences. It is also about ensuring that our transport and energy infrastructure can withstand the effects; that our water infrastructure can handle the increased likelihood of droughts and floods; that our local planning processes are climate proofed; that our native wildlife is protected from invasive species; and that our health system is ready to deal with the possibility of new diseases and new pressures. It is also about availing of the positive opportunities that climate change may offer to some of our economic sectors, such as tourism, agriculture, fisheries and forestry.
I will be publishing a National Adaptation Framework for public consultation in the coming months; it will set out strategic direction for all the relevant sectors in planning ahead for adaptation. Our decisions must reduce the risks and the future costs of climate change, for this as well as future generations. It is incumbent on us to act now in order to ensure that harder decisions don't have to be taken in the future.
Responding to Climate Change is only one element of this government's commitment to the concept of a sustainable economy. As I've already mentioned, managing our resources in a way that protects and preserves our environment is essential, and it can also save costs for businesses and consumers.
The concept of a Circular Economy is now globally recognised. It proposes the possibility to live well and prosper if we move away from the traditional model of 'take-make-dispose' and instead embrace waste as a resource; a resource to be reused, re-made and re-imagined.
By reusing items and materials, we can support local training and jobs in repair, refurbishment and retail. We reduce the costs of waste collection and disposal and we reduce the need to import more costly fuels and materials.
But currently, we discard 4 out of every 5 items that we produce after one use and we recycle only 1 gram out of every 100 of the valuable rare earth metals that we use in products.
That is why I am focusing on a number of practical actions related to resource efficiency and the Circular Economy.
For example, I am addressing the scourge of illegal dumping which I see as environmental and economic treason. I recently announced an anti-dumping initiative to provide financial support to community groups and to equip local authority officers with the tools required to effectively pursue and charge those responsible for illegally dumping including the use of drone technology. I am pleased to say that already the scheme has been oversubscribed so I intend to increase the funding available for this initiative.
I have also made the problem of food waste a priority for my Department. By tackling food waste we can address food poverty, sustainable consumption of food and reduce landfill. We have set about tackling food waste from three strategic positions - production, retail and at home.
I set up the Retail Action Group chaired by retail expert Eamonn Quinn which brings together the main supermarkets in an effort to come up with new solutions from the retail perspective and an awareness campaign is underway targeting householders.
In conclusion, I hope that I have been able to draw out the connections between some of the environmental, economic and social challenges and opportunities we face as a country, and indeed as a planet.
There are no silver bullets to meet these challenges, and no government acting alone can fully grasp these opportunities. There is hard work ahead of us, and to succeed everyone will need to contribute.
And that brings me back to the idea of the Oikos - the household. As human beings we all share one common home, the Earth, and the choices and actions that we take today will determine whether she can continue to shelter and sustain this generation and future generations.
Together, let us make the right choices.