Monday 6th March 2017, Croke Park, Dublin.
Good morning ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you David and thanks too, to the team at Energy Action.
Today's conference is an important event about fundamental challenges. It is worthwhile I think at the start, to reflect on first principles. The purpose of government, and NGOs such as Energy Action, is remarkably simple. It is to allow us to pool our resources of talent and treasure as a people, and to pull together better as a community.
Making a difference is firstly about making choices. There may never be enough resources, but what resources we have in government, are contributed by the people. 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.
My appointment, and 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. We are as a country playing catch-up on our obligations in relation to climate change. This obligation, is as least as much an opportunity as an obligation. In any event it is a moral necessity and a vital national interest.
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 priorities that were chosen by this government from the start. They are connected; not stand alone responsibilities. They 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.
The challenges we have are clear, and they are many. What is less clearly developed are the economic opportunities in terms of jobs and investment, for a country that is better connected in an information age and where the scarce and valuable commodity of energy is conserved, in smarter, more fuel efficient homes and businesses.
Energy poverty is an environmental issue. It is an economic issue that blights lives. We are here today with the common purpose of combatting it.
It's just over a year since the Government's Strategy to Combat Energy Poverty was published. In that time there has been real political change, but the commitment to tackle energy poverty is enhanced. Everyone deserves a home they can afford to heat and to light. But, regrettably some cannot. Many struggle to make ends meet. And among those who struggle hardest, too many live in homes that are sink holes for fuel poverty. Ending this inequality is a priority for me. It is also an economic opportunity. Ending fuel poverty, one home at a time, creates jobs. It contributes to combatting climate change too.
Today, our poorest people and our vulnerable planet are between the cross hairs of the related issues of climate change and fuel poverty.
Ireland relies on high emissions and imported fossil fuels to meet over 88% of our energy needs. This costs around €4.6 billion. That's €.5m every hour. That's a cost we cannot afford in cash, and which our planet cannot afford at all. The word 'global' in global warming, accurately summarises the incontrovertible science underlying that imminent threat. It is also in its vastness, potentially daunting, even discouraging. How can any one country, especially a small one, make a difference? How can any one of us meaningfully contribute?
It is the task of politics, it is the task I am applying myself to, to bridge the chasm between global challenge and national responsibility, and between Ireland's obligation and every single citizen's responsibility. It may be a tired truism that you can't change the world. On climate change, it is a pressing fact that the world will not change without you.
Moving on from first principles to effective plans, I will bring a memo to Government tomorrow on Ireland's first National Climate Mitigation Plan. It will set out the measures already underway, and those that are planned to reduce our carbon emissions and make our society sustainable.
Energy efficiency will be central to this plan. This is because using less energy and using it more efficiently is the most cost-effective and accessible way to tackle climate change.
If the very first choice a government makes is about how it aligns departmental functions with its priorities, then the second fundamental choice Government makes is about aligning its resources in its first budget.
Budget 2017 was this government's first budget. It was the first for my department and critical choices had to be made. I secured one the highest percentage increases in capital expenditure of any department. This is the critical choice I made with Government backing on the agenda I am charged with delivering on. Energy efficiency is the most important means of tackling energy poverty. That is why I secured additional funding in this year's Budget.
Insulation isn't a single issue panacea for poverty. But it ensures a person can live in a home that is warmer, more comfortable and costs less to heat. State income supports for energy such as the fuel allowance and the household benefits package stretch further. It also ensures that people are less vulnerable to changes in energy prices or unexpected falls in their income.
Here this morning, I know that I am preaching to the converted.
Warmer Homes Scheme
Many of you are familiar with the Warmer Homes Scheme and what it has delivered. It will remain the Government's primary energy efficiency support for those in energy poverty. I have secured a record level of funding for the progamme this year. I want to announce today that those people who meet the eligibility criteria for the Warmer Homes Scheme (Fuel Allowance, Family Income Supplement or One Parent Family Payment) and are living in a home that is in particularly poor condition will be entitled to receive a new deep retrofit which will significantly upgrade their home free of charge.
These deeper renovations will provide for solid wall insulation, mechanical ventilation systems and renewable heating solutions.
In addition, those who previously received attic or loft insulation under the scheme but did not have their cavity walls treated can be revisited to receive wall insulation now.
The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland is currently tendering for providers. When this tender is complete we will have quadrupled SEAI's capacity to deliver deeper retrofits.
Policy is about choices, and this is a policy choice I know is right.
Warmth & Wellbeing
Tackling easier, cheaper energy efficiency measures first has been the sensible approach to energy efficiency. However, we are now moving into a new phase to deliver larger energy savings from larger scale projects. For those who can afford to invest in their own homes, we are developing new incentive schemes to leverage larger investments from them. Throughout this process, however, I am determined that we focus on those who don't have the means to invest any funds in their home.
Cold damp housing is a breeding ground for poor health, especially chronic respiratory conditions. The Warmth and Wellbeing Scheme ensures better housing and better energy efficiency, delivers for better health outcomes, helps tackle fuel poverty and plays a part in the bigger agenda of climate change.
I know, however that the dropout rate for state energy efficiency schemes can be significant due to what I call 'the hassle factor', even with schemes offered free of charge. However under Warmth and Wellbeing the dropout rate is small. This demonstrates that barriers, including the hassle of uncertainty can be overcome if people are supported in the right way through the process.
The scheme was initially launched last year in Dublin 12 and Dublin 24 and targeted at over-55s. Thanks to significantly increased resources the scheme is extended to new areas in Dublin 8, Dublin 10 and Dublin 22. Eligibility has been opened up to families with young children.
This morning I am announcing that the world renowned London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will undertake an evaluation of the Scheme. The aim is to publish world-class, peer reviewed research which can be used to enhance it and to ensure a wider rollout of the scheme across the country.
A critical factor effecting energy poverty is the cost of energy people must bear. I want to ensure that energy markets are working for those in energy poverty. Therefore I welcome the Commission for Energy Regulation's recent review of competition in the electricity and gas markets.
CER will implement initiatives to stimulate consumers and their interaction with the energy market. It is worth noting that electricity and gas disconnections continue to fall and have been cut in half since their peak 6 years ago.
These are all practical examples of pooling our resources of talent and treasure as a people, to pull together better as a community.
Looking ahead, I want to outline two key initiatives that my Department will progress in the coming weeks. Firstly, as many of you are aware next month we will have new census data for the country. In addition, in the new clean energy package the EU Commission is proposing the Member States measure and report on energy poverty levels every two years.
This is the time therefore, to develop a new methodology for Ireland. It is unquestionably a challenge. There is a wealth of data and strong mechanisms are required for collecting and understanding it. I am confident that with better data we can have better policy that more effectively targets those most in need. I intend to appoint an independent chair to lead this process, to co-ordinate across Departments and to engage with all concerned to develop the best possible mechanism.
Within weeks I will publish a consultation paper to look at minimum efficiency standards in the private rented sector. I know the current rental market in Ireland is tough on tenants. The simple fact is that a person renting is more than twice as likely to live in a home with a poor energy efficiency rating than a homeowner. In the absence of Government intervention this will increase. We cannot allow a Strumpet City to re-emerge in the twenty first century.
The job of turning the tables on climate change, and of tacking fuel poverty effectively, does not come with a silver bullet. These are densely integrated agendas, requiring discipline and persistence. They require that everyone without exception, make their contribution. The political challenge, the basis for the political choice that was made in creating a Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is to put in place the policies and the programmes than can animate mass action.
Today, I have given you some sense of the work-in-progress. Speaking over two hundred years ago on great political issues Edmund Burke famously said "nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little".
The challenge of climate change dwarfs, every issue that ever confronted humankind. If we fail to do the little we can, the consequence of our mistake will be tragedy. But, it need not be. Billions of individual people, each doing the little they can, led by fewer than two hundred governments that rule the earth, can succeed in preserving our planet.
It requires that as common humanity we pool our resources of talent and treasure, and pull together one country with another, for the preservation of all.