Dáil Éireann, 12th October
Climate change is the defining challenge of our time and it is during our time that the obligation exists for us all to take action. We need to act now and think long term. We are also a country playing catch-up on our obligations in regard to climate change. This obligation is as much an opportunity as it is an obligation. In any event, it is our children's future and of vital national interest.
The challenges are clear and many. What is less clearly developed is the economic opportunity in terms of jobs and investment for this country, which is better connected in an information age and where a scarce and available commodity such as energy can be conserved in smarter and more fuel efficient homes and businesses.
Across the country, from inner cities to remote rural parishes, communities are partly or sometimes wholly excluded from the basic criteria of modern convenience and comfort in terms of communications, energy efficiency and fuel poverty. This comes at economic, social and economic opportunity costs. Those are the costs that yesterday's announcements are intended to address.
Budget 2017 is a significant step in a broader plan to address these pressing challenges, but also to bring Ireland out ahead into a leadership position in terms of employment in growing industries globally. In a scenario where politically critical choices had to be made, I have secured one of the highest percentage increases in capital expenditure of any Government Department. This is a critical choice I made, with Government backing, on an agenda that I am charged with delivering on.
This budget is not a panacea or a ready-made answer. It is, however, a significant step forward in delivering on an agenda that has been thought through. Energy and climate action are inextricably linked. I will bring proposals to Government next Tuesday to start the process of ratification of the Paris agreement in the Dáil. I will be relying on the support of Deputies in this Chamber to move this process along speedily, with a view to ratification being complete by the time the conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is held in November in Marrakesh, which I will attend. Completing the ratification process will be a strong and important signal from Ireland of our commitment to the global effort to combat climate change.
Significant funding has been committed by the Government in budget 2017 to address the climate change challenge. In my Department, an additional €24 million will be invested to expand energy efficiency and renewable energy programs across the country. That is an increase of 35% on last year's allocation. Overall, in 2017 at least €100 million will be invested in energy projects that will save over 116,000 tonnes of carbon emissions every single year. These will support about 3,000 jobs and reduce our overall dependence on imported fossil fuels.
The funding next year will allow an additional 30,000 homes, including homes of those in energy poverty, to receive an energy upgrade on top of the 330,000 homes already upgraded. This will make these homes far more comfortable for people, reduce their energy bills, improve their quality of life and health and reduce admissions to hospitals and the impact on our environment. Along with new builds and refurbishment under the home renovation incentive scheme, over 3% of all homes in Ireland will be far more energy efficient in just 12 months' time.
As the first ever Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, I am charged with driving our climate change agenda and my Department is among several that have a key role in this area. Other measures announced as part of yesterday's budget will have a significant impact on climate. The extension of the relief for vehicle registration tax on electric vehicles and bikes and hybrid vehicles will cost about €10 million. Reducing to the minimum level allowed under the EU rules excise for the use of natural gas in vehicles will also help to reduce emissions.
The measure will also help to stimulate the development of biogas as a transport fuel in Ireland. These are just the first steps in helping to address the impact of transport on our emissions.
Far more radical in addressing the unique transport challenges in Ireland is reducing the need to travel in the first instance. The national broadband plan allows people to work from home and in their own communities, thereby removing the need for long commutes. I announced yesterday that all three bidders involved in the tender process for the national broadband plan are proposing a predominantly fibre-to-the-home network solution to connect rural Ireland. I want people to think about this for a moment. What this means is that the vast majority of consumers in rural areas will have access to 1,000 Mbps broadband. This will radically transform the economy of provincial towns and rural areas. It will take pressure off our congested roads and major urban centres. It will reduce emissions and improve air quality. The national broadband plan will place Ireland at the forefront in Europe and internationally in terms of connectivity and quality of service. Fibre to the home, the preferred solution for rural Ireland, will effectively reverse the urban-rural divide. We will place Ireland in the vanguard in terms of our communications networks. This will represent a massive competitive advantage for Ireland. While not flagged as part of the Government's Brexit measures yesterday, I assure the House that it will act as a magnet for foreign direct investment into the regions and have a transformational effect on small businesses, farmers and householders in the intervention area.
The big question relates to when this will happen. I assure the House that it will not be one day longer than is absolutely necessary. However, this is a 25-year contract and we must get it right. It is about delivery of broadband, not about dates. That is why we can do much to improve the quality and number of homes covered by both mobile and wireless broadband in the short term. I intend to sign regulations in the coming days that will allow ComReg to proceed with an option of the 3.6 GHz spectrum band in early 2017. This option will provide an extra 86% in total harmonised spectrum available for mobile and fixed wireless broadband services. In addition, €8 million will be invested next year to facilitate the reallocation of the 700 MHz spectrum away from television broadcasting to support our broadband and mobile telephony plans in rural areas. This means that a very valuable spectrum band will be freed up for better delivery of mobile data services, including 4G and 5G, particularly in rural areas. Ireland is now likely to be the first EU country to roll out 5G on a geographic rather than a population basis. This will again reduce the need to commute from provincial Ireland for jobs, thus having a direct impact on transport emissions.
The carbon reliefs announced in the budget will have a direct impact on solid fuels. The incentive is to support solid fuels that have biomass. Approximately one in six homes in Ireland uses solid fuel. Changing the dynamic of that will again have a direct impact on carbon emissions in a significant number of homes throughout the country. It will also have an impact on our air quality. Four people a day in this country are dying because of air pollution. It is costing our State €3,800 every single minute. We cannot continue to ignore that in a country in which one in five children has asthma and is literally gasping for breath every single day. We have an opportunity to improve air quality, not just in this measure, but also in taking smoky fuels out of our economy altogether.
Finally I want to refer to agriculture. Significant movement and progress is being made in this area. The GLAS scheme announced by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, yesterday will have a direct impact on emissions. Ireland is leading, along with Tanzania, Costa Rica and New Zealand, the drive in research in this area to reduce emissions further. The scientific community, working in conjunction with Teagasc, is going to be the main driver in reducing emissions within our agricultural sector in order to have a sustainable agrifood sector in Ireland that can feed Europe by using low-emission agricultural methods.