Opening Statement by Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Mr. Denis Naughten T.D.
"Meeting Ireland's Environmental Challenges in 2016 and beyond"
Croke Park, Thursday, 22nd September 2016
Ladies and gentlemen, good morning.
I want to begin by thanking Laura Burke and colleagues in the EPA for the invitation to be here today and for giving me the opportunity to address this 12th Annual Environment Ireland Conference.
In particular, I'd like to extend a warm welcome to this year's conference to David Small, representing the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland.
In keeping with the theme of this year's conference, my focus today is on 'Meeting Ireland's Environmental Challenges in 2016 and beyond' – in particular, those aspects which fall under my own Department's remit-climate action, waste and resource efficiency and air quality.
There is unequivocal evidence that greenhouse gases emitted as a result of human activities are warming the Earth and causing changes in global climate. Consistent with global trends, Ireland's climate is changing and will continue to change for many decades to come.
Against this background, the Programme for a Partnership Government has identified climate change as "the global challenge" requiring "radical and ambitious thinking" in order to respond to the changing environment.
The establishment of a reorganised and newly titled Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment reflects the high priority assigned to dealing with climate change by this government and the new configuration is now a key component to meeting the challenges presented by climate change.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has been at the centre of international efforts to address the issue. The Paris Agreement of 12 December 2015 commits 195 countries to the mitigation goal of limiting the increase in global temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and Ireland's contribution will be reflected in the EU's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.
While internal EU negotiations are on-going in this regard, I am also conscious of the need to ratify the Paris Agreement and the timing of this is currently being prioritised through our discussions with the Commission and other EU Member States.
At national level, institutional and legal support for climate action has been bolstered significantly by the enactment of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, which provides for the approval of both mitigation and adaptation plans by Government for the purpose of pursuing the transition to a low carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050 – the "national transition objective". Work is progressing in relation to the development of the first statutory plans and I will be submitting both plans to Government in 2017.
The national mitigation plan will specify the mitigation policy measures to be adopted by certain Ministers for the purposes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and enabling the achievement of the national transition objective. The first iteration of the plan will place particular focus on putting the necessary measures in place to address the challenge to 2020 but also in terms of planning ahead to ensure that appropriate policies and measures will be in place beyond that timeframe.
Climate change adaptation is also an urgent policy priority. Notwithstanding any success in limiting and then reducing greenhouse gas emissions, our planet will take time to recover from the gases already in the atmosphere. The 2015 Act provides for the making and submission to Government of a national adaptation framework which will specify the national strategy for the application of adaptation measures in different sectors and by local authorities in order to reduce the vulnerability of the State to the negative effects of climate change.
Relevant Ministers will also be required to develop sectoral adaptation plans, which will specify the adaptation policy measures the Minister in question proposes to adopt.
These are robust measures designed to pursue transition to a low carbon and climate resilient economy by 2050, meet challenging mitigation targets and deliver meaningful adaptation responses. The signing of the Paris agreement sent an unequivocal message to business, stakeholders and citizens that all Governments are committed to playing their part in tackling climate change.
Global motivation to accomplish our common goals in this area is steadfast: that resolve, underpinned by the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, must be mirrored here in Ireland if we are to transform our ambitions and international commitments into meaningful actions.
Dealing with the causes and impacts of climate change remains an unresolved collective challenge here in Ireland and elsewhere but I am confident that we are now putting in place the necessary arrangements to meet these challenges post COP 21.
Finally in relation to climate change, I would like to mention briefly a commitment contained in the programme for government to establish a national dialogue on climate change. This undertaking builds on the Energy White Paper commitment for the establishment of a National Energy Forum which would invite a wide range of stakeholders to consider evidence-based inputs and maximise consensus on broad energy policy measures.
The national dialogue will encompass the role set out for the National Energy Forum but with a wider focus to include examination of key issues that need to be addressed in our long-term transition to a climate resilient low-carbon future. This "dialogue" represents another key priority for me within the National agenda for Climate Action and in this regard I hope to bring a proposal to Government in the near future to outline our approach for this critically important initiative.
I would now like to turn to the matter of air quality. We are fortunate in Ireland in that we have a generally good quality of air relative to more heavily urbanised and industrialised parts of Europe.
While our geographic location- in the path of westerly prevailing winds- plays an important part in this success, initiatives such as the 'smoky coal ban' have also had a very positive impact on the quality of air in our towns and cities.
We cannot afford, however, to rest on our laurels, or to rely on the vagaries of our weather to protect our air quality, and with it the health of our citizens and communities.
All around the world, there is growing evidence that air pollution is damaging human health in different ways and, even at levels below what was previously understood to be "safe".
Air pollution is now implicated in many of the major health concerns of our time, such as cancer, asthma, and cardiovascular diseases.
In Ireland, while the most recent annual report on air quality published by the EPA indicates that Ireland currently meets all EU standards for air quality, it does reveal that we exceed WHO air quality guidelines for particulate matter in some areas.
NOx levels are close to ceiling and this is a concern, particularly as economic activity increases. Behind such targets and ceilings, there is cost, both human and economic.
On our small island alone, the mortality impact from air pollution is thought to be in the order of around 2,000 deaths per year. The cost of air pollution to the State is estimated at around €2 billion per year.
While we are constantly seeking ways to tackle the scourge of air pollution it is a complex matter. One recent initiative which I expect to come on stream shortly is the commencement of tax provisions that provide for partial tax relief from Carbon Tax for low smoke biomass blend fuels – which are cleaner and more climate friendly.
As research in this area evolves it is clear that tackling air pollution will involve interaction with other strands of public policy. For example, some more recent policy measures, driven by the need to address climate change, have resulted in increased numbers of diesel vehicles on our roads with consequential impacts on air quality.
With all of this in mind, my Department will shortly be launching a stakeholder consultation on the main challenges and issues in clean air policy, with a view to developing the first ever National Clean Air Strategy for public consultation.
I intend for the Strategy, which will inevitably impact a wide range of other national policies that are relevant to air quality, such as transport, energy, home heating and agriculture, to provide the framework for cross-Government actions to reduce harmful emissions and improve our air quality and public health. It will facilitate the delivery of the measures required to ensure compliance with the EU Clean Air Package while at the same time ensuring coherence with other goals such as tackling climate change.
Waste and Resource Efficiency
Since becoming Minister, I have taken particular interest in our public resource efficiency initiatives. Our society has become a wasteful one and despite improvements during the years following the financial crisis, as economic activity picks up, we are back on track to rediscover our profligate ways.
However creating more jobs and improving living standards for our people should not come at the cost of our environment and we know that it doesn't have to. In principle, we know that growth can be decoupled from resource consumption.
The European Commission's Action Plan for the Circular Economy makes that clear. It proposes that we can re-organise our economies to the benefit of all citizens, and at the same time improve our protection of the environment. If we can transform our economic model, the Commission anticipates the creation of nearly 600,000 jobs and business savings of €600 billion across the EU. In carbon emissions alone, our environment would benefit by a reduction of 450 million tonnes every year.
That is in principle, but what about in practice? Many of you here will already be familiar with the good work done by the EPA's National Waste Prevention Programme.
Established nearly a decade before it was made a requirement by the EU and cited by the Commission as 'best in class' for performance, this programme has made real change happen within our businesses, our farms and our communities. Some highlights from 2015 alone include:
The Green Business programme helped 29 companies make savings estimated at €1.2m per annum.
The Smart Farming programme reached 650 farmers generating average savings of over €5,000 each. Nearly 5,000 farmers around the country availed of the hazardous farm waste collection, removing nearly 600 tonnes of dangerous substances from our farms.
Stop Food Waste community challenges reported average reductions of up to 45%;
These are just the headlines – other impressive gains were made in Green Healthcare; Green Hospitality reuse initiatives; resource exchange and community projects.
However, as is generally the case, there is more to be done. Demand for the services the programme offers continues to be high; it will be some time before our work here is done. But I am optimistic.
I have met some very driven people working in the area since I took office. I know that there are always new initiatives coming online courtesy not just of the EPA but also the local authority sector, represented by the Regional Waste Prevention Officers and of course the vibrant community sector. I have a particular interest in the issue of Food Waste and I am planning new initiatives here that we can all get behind.
While I have the floor, I would also like to give a plug to 'Reuse Month'. October has been designated as 'Reuse Month' by the Reuse community and the idea is to promote the ethos of "pass it on, repair it, refurbish it, or share it".
In the spirit of the month, the local authority in my own hometown of Roscommon, is compiling and promoting a directory of tradespeople who provide repair services in the locality. Such local initiatives have a positive social value too; support local training and jobs, in repair, refurbishment and retail.
Also in the Reuse domain, I am delighted to see that we are now one of the first countries in Europe to have developed a reuse scheme for WEEE products. The scheme applies standards for the approval of operators to gain cost-free access to WEEE stocks for the purpose of preparing for reuse. This includes access to valuable large household appliances and ICT equipment.
Formalising standards and approvals will bring credibility and certainty to this area for all. This is the essence of the Circular Economy and I congratulate those operators who have been granted approval to date.
In conclusion, I accept that meeting Ireland's future environmental challenges will not be easy-it will require be a major long term commitment. As I mentioned earlier, the establishment of my newly configured Department demonstrates the high priority given by this government to dealing with environmental challenges generally and, in particular, to tackling climate change, and the need to integrate energy and environment policy development to a much greater extent than has been the case up to now.
Thank you again and I wish you well today with what I'm sure will be a stimulating and engaging conference.