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Minister Naughten at Environment Ireland Conference “Our environmental challenges in Ireland, 2017 and beyond”

 

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Remarks by Minister Denis Naughten at ENVIRONMENT IRELAND 2017

 

28 September 2017

 

Thanks very much Bryan and I'm delighted to be here this morning at this event. I hope it's a happier occasion for a West of Ireland man to be here at Croke Park today. We haven't had too much positive in Croke Park this year. The lift got stuck on the way up earlier on, and I said to some of the lads in the lift and I said, 'look, the only way is up for us.' We're looking forward to next year already.

 

Firstly, I want to thank Laura Burke in the EPA for the invitation to open proceedings this year.

 

I also want to welcome David Small, chief executive of the Northern Ireland environment agency. Continued good relations, north and south, between both regulatory bodies will be even more important now post-Brexit. 

 

I suppose my particular Department, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, is really the Department of Efficiency.

 

It's about using the natural resources that we have in a sustainable manner to drive change, to transform rural Ireland, to support employment, and to protect our people and our planet for future generations.

 

My job is to provide the leadership through policies and programmes that translate that efficiency aspiration into action.

 

And action is the most important word in the title of our Department.

 

I know that the Environmental Protection Agency in its recent State of the Environment 2016 report reflects some progress, but also leaves no doubt that a big challenge remains, and new ones are emerging for us all.

 

I think it clearly sets out a work programme for me as Minister, and I think all of us within the environmental sector. I think for many of us, and looking back now over the last twelve months since my appointment, I think for many of us in relation to the whole environmental area, I think we're far too futuristic and far too fatalistic at times.

 

I think Oliver Callan recently described me as the Minister for the Apocalypse.

 

And yes, we have a huge task, and that's compounded by the particular and sometimes unique challenges that we have here in Ireland. And if we don't get it right now, then the next generation is the generation that would suffer. 

 

It's not just about things that are happening globally. A group of young people from Ballinasloe yesterday at a youth seminar in the Mansion House were talking about climate refugees, and the movement of people across the globe.

 

And I said, you don't need to go outside of Ireland, all you've to do is look down the road in County Roscommon to climate refugees.

 

At this point in time we're working with 6 families about relocating them from their homes - homes that have gone back for 200 years, from generation to generation, those homes have been passed down. And now they have to be relocated from those homes because of the severe flooding we've seen, particularly within the last decade in the Shannon callows.

 

So, this is something that is hitting us here and now. And I think the vitally important challenge that we have is that we must bring these global challenges close to home.

 

We've set out how we're going to start that process through the National Mitigation Plan which was published in July. And in that context we had an all-day, full-day Cabinet meeting to discuss climate and related matters in relation to the National Planning Framework and a 10-Year Capital Investment Plan.

 

I think we will see in the Budget, in the Capital Investment Plan, and the National Planning Framework, which will be published by the end of the year, the direction the Government is going in relation to this, and starting to begin the implementation of that mitigation plan.

 

Now, I had a speech here that was going to go through that for the next half an hour, but Terry from the Department, I think, is going to deliver that particular speech later.

 

What I want to focus on is very much the people, the public, and our own communities.

 

Because I think unless we can bring people with us, then we're not going to be able to meet the challenges that we have today. And our challenge isn't defined by the false difference between Pittsburgh and Paris. It's the real challenge which every parish and townland across the country face, not in competition with, but in solidarity with the world.

 

We all know that the cheapest unit of energy is the one that we don't use in the first place.

 

Our homes are significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. To achieve Ireland's long-term climate and energy goals, we need to encourage more households to engage in deeper renovations of their homes. 

 

And we have now anecdotal evidence and hopefully by the end of this year, empirical evidence, in relation to the Warmth & Wellbeing scheme that we piloted here in the city of Dublin, which show that people now that have had these deep retrofits carried out in their homes - so we targeted a couple of groups of people; initially people over the age of 55 with COPD, and this year we're targeting young families where children have asthma - and what we're finding is that people are far more comfortable in their own homes.

 

So yes, there's the energy benefit in relation to it; there's also a health benefit, because these people are getting sick less frequently, get admitted to hospital less frequently, and when they are admitted to hospital, they're being discharged far quicker back into their own homes, rather than maybe through a step-down facility as would have been the case in the past.

 

And I think what we need to do is to look at the long-term goals that we have in relation to climate, and bring them back to the here and now. And I think air quality is one of the ways that we can do that.

 

Not just through the Warmth & Wellbeing scheme, but in the far broader terms deal with the issue of air quality.

 

To give you an idea of the scale of the challenge and the potential impact of addressing of air quality has, in 2016 there were 333 beds currently occupied in our hospitals with patients with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

 

That's the equivalent of filling St James' Hospital in Dublin, the biggest hospital in the country, for four months of the year. Four people a day, in this country are dying as a direct result of complications from poor air quality. One in five children in Ireland suffers from asthma.

 

So if we can address the issue of air quality, it brings it back very much into real terms for people: in terms of comfort in their own home, in terms of reduced admission to hospital, in terms of addressing the chaotic situation that we have at times in some of our accident and emergency departments. 

 

In making sure that young people are not gasping to catch their breath. And the Warmth & Wellbeing scheme has shown us what can be done in relation to that.

 

But it's a far broader challenge for us.

 

And that's why the Clean Air Strategy, which has gone out for consultation recently, is so important to not just meeting our short-term goals in relation to air quality but our long-term goals in relation to climate. And I hope by this time next year, we will be implementing a ban on the burning of smoky coal in this country. 

 

At present, working with the Environmental Protection Agency, we're doubling the number of air monitoring stations across the country. They will be all linked up online and live so people can actually look and see what the situation is in their own community and I know Laura is going to talk a bit about how we can link that up with schools across the country as well.

 

But it's not just about the issue of COPD and children and a challenge here in Dublin. As I say, the results coming back are quite positive and we will have empirical results by the end of this year.

 

But look, I come from a rural constituency. I come from the most rural constituency in the country. And solid fuel and turf in particular is the backbone of the heating system of many homes across provincial towns and rural Ireland in particular. In fact, in Co Offaly, under the last census figures, one in five homes, their only source of heating is solid fuel.

 

And that is the huge challenge that we need to address.

 

So I'm currently finalising plans for a grant support scheme to cover a deep energy efficiency upgrade in those homes, targeting solid fuel homes in the midlands. In practical terms, it'll mean investment in external wall insulation, windows, doors and heat pumps, and those that are in energy poverty will benefit from a higher rate of grant. 

 

So we're taking the theory and looking at putting into practice on the ground. It will not only deal with that, but also deal with a growing problem we have in relation to air quality, in provincial towns as well. And while we have from a statistical point of view, don't have an significant issue in relation to it, let's make sure that it doesn't become a problem by addressing this far earlier.

 

The carbon footprint of waste food is estimated to be 3.3 gigatons globally. 

 

If food waste were a country, it would rank behind only the United States and China for greenhouse gas emissions.

 

We are generating two tonnes of food waste every minute in this country. And yet, one in eight people go hungry in Ireland.

 

It's a conundrum when deprivation exists beside waste. And it goes back to the old advice of our grandparents of 'waste not, want not'.

 

We need to start to make a change in this area. Like climate action, action on food waste is needed right across society. If we don't grow too much of the wrong thing, or supermarkets don't super-discount vegetables - you know, we always cast the buck on that it's someone else's problem.

 

It's a problem for all of us, and we all have a role to play in being part of the solution in relation to that. The average family in Ireland throws away €700 worth of food every year. That's because we plan little, think less, and simply buy too much.

 

People are confused over sell-by and use-by dates. And that's one of the reasons, one of the main reasons that earlier this year I abolished flat-rate bin charges. Because I want people to start to think about what they're buying, and more importantly, what they're throwing out.

 

We've already run a very effective consumer campaign to try and encourage people to think about putting food waste into the food bin, but also to think about what they're actually throwing into that food bin. Is there a way of minimising that in the first instance? 

 

It has been quite successful, and this is something that's going to continue to run. We're now rolling out brown bins to every single community across the country with a population greater than 500 people.

 

That, in tandem with the work we are doing in relation to the abolition of the flat-rate bin charge, will get people to reduce waste, reduce waste going into landfill, encourage them to use the brown bins, but hopefully will reduce the overall scale of food waste as well.

 

In March, I also established Ireland's first ever action group on wasted food in the retail sector, which includes representatives of all the leading supermarkets. The markets themselves are indispensable in our modern busy lives. But they also have a huge role in influencing the purchasing and marketing of products.

 

Because of that, they have a responsibility. I would expect the industry not just to tick the box in relation to corporate social responsibility, but to act upon that. I'm looking forward to seeing real actions being delivered, the drive, efficiency, and sustainability in this area.

 

Again, what we're talking about here is taking the far bigger challenge in relation to climate, and applying it, at a local level, in practical terms in the day to day lives of people.

 

Another frustrating aspect of the environment for me, particularly as someone from rural Ireland, is the issue of illegal dumping. I personally believe that there's both economic and environmental treason. It undermines our tourism industry. It's a blight on our communities. It undermines pride of place in our own areas.

 

Money alone will not solve the litter problem. We have to have behavioural change and personal responsibility.

 

Earlier this year I launched a major anti-illegal dumping crackdown, using covert surveillance, smart technology, aerial imagery from drones and satellites to try and stop the problem and catch those that are responsible for it.

 

In tandem with that, we're introducing new compliance schemes for end-of-life vehicles. That scheme has already been introduced earlier this year. On Saturday next, the new regulations will come into effect which places a quoting obligation on tyre operators to provide data on the number of tyres coming on and off the market. 

 

Already this year, we have collected up over 3/4 million tyres in tyre mountains around the country. We're working with the IFA to assist them in removing unnecessary tyres that have built up on farms over previous farm practices, with silage pits.

 

And we are going to up the resources in place to actually enforce the new management regime for tyres, because consumers and the public were paying for the recycling of tyres and yet they were ending up in sheds and in fields across this country - entire mountains. That to me is unacceptable. People should not have to pay double for the same thing.

 

So again, it's about resource efficiency: managing the resources that we have, encouraging people to avoid using it in the first place, to reduce it and reuse it.

 

And waste efficiency, again, is an effective way of dealing with climate action: it's economically smarter, and it is a way of taking the global challenge right down to the local level.

 

One that has seem to have caught the imagination of the public in recent months is the issue of marine plastics and micro-plastics.

 

Just to update you, I know that I spoke about it here this time last year in relation to the environmental challenge that we have in relation to micro-beads. At that stage, I had just come back from the OECD ministerial council in Paris, where I had pushed this particular issue. The government now is working on new legislation to ban the manufacture and sale of certain products including micro-beads, which would be in cosmetics but also in other body care products and detergents.

 

I, as a member of the European Council of Environment Ministers, am advocating for a European-wide ban, not just on personal care products, but on household products, detergents and other abrasive products.

 

They are the challenges that we have. And I think as I said at the start, we are sometimes far too fatalistic in relation to the environment as well. 

 

You know, we have some good news stories out there and I think we should be proud of telling those, as well as addressing the challenges.

 

For example, in relation to renewable energy, last year 26% of all our electricity demand was met from renewable energy. I'm confident that we will meet the 40% target by 2020. But what that will do is, to achieve that, we must be able to take at any one time, a 75% loading of electricity on our grid.

 

Today, officially, we can take a 60% loading of variable electricity from wind on our grid. No isolated grid in the world has ever achieved a 60% loading like we're doing today.

 

In January of next year, that will go up to 65%.

 

Never heard of anywhere else in the world. And we are going to be the global leader with what is globally known within the electricity sector as the 'Irish problem', and we will have solved that problem. And we are the leaders in relation to that.

 

There's huge opportunity as well: Ireland is spending about half a million euro every hour on imported fossil fuels. It's a cost that we as a country cannot afford in cash terms, and that our planet cannot afford at all.

 

There are huge opportunities there, particularly with the development of technology in relation to the 'internet of things', where we're now connecting ordinary day to day items to the internet: kettles, cookers, toasters.

 

We can remotely, now, turn on and off these particular devices because of the internet of things. Every second of every minute, between now and 2020, 600 new day to day items will be connected to the internet globally.

 

Because we're rolling out pure fibre broadband to 900,000 homes across provincial Ireland, rural towns and rural areas, including 28,209 farms, over the next number of months, we're at the cutting edge in relation to that.

 

So we can be at the innovative edge of coming up with novel solutions in relation to this. How do we encourage people, rather than commuting long commutes into Dublin to work from home, or to work in their local village, or their local community in hot desks that are now available?

 

Every single village, or 95% of villages in Ireland, by 1st January 2019, will have pure, fibre high-speed broadband in that village that can be connected up to the local community centre, to ensure that people can work in their own local parish, rather than commuting long distances. And I think there are huge opportunities now with regard to that.

 

On the renewable sector, we have now established a new semi-state entity called Bord na Móna Bioenergy, to drive forward in relation to the renewable heat incentive scheme, to drive forward the whole biomass sector in this country, and driving forward not just in a sustainable manner, but also to minimise the impact on air quality, particularly in relation to particulate matter.

 

We have globally now the biggest genotyping of a beef herd in the world has taken place in Ireland. One million beef animals have now been genotyped. That gives us a huge opportunity to develop new breeding regimes that can have a significant impact on emissions.

 

Again, the first in the world to do that.

 

And talking to Laura Burke earlier, and I want to compliment the EPA on this, the initiative that the EPA has taken, along with the IFA, in relation to smart farming, where the results that will come out next month, will show that there has been a significant increase in the savings that farmers can make on farms by having a more sustainable energy-efficient operation. That will be a positive development for greater cooperation.

 

Finally, I want to flag the climate adaptation consultation document that is out for public consultation at the moment - the National Adaptation Framework document.

 

I would encourage you to input into that.

 

I am going to encourage you not just to look at this to address the challenges that we have in our cities and towns - and I made this point to my own environment colleagues at the last European Council meeting - there is no point pushing the flood waters out of villages and towns, unless we also address the impact that's going to have in our rural communities as well.

 

So look, our environment is complex, and it is fragile.

 

But I think that there are some very good initiatives beginning to develop here in Ireland.

 

I think we need to grasp those, and we need to see how we can develop and expand those. And I think we need to take the global climate challenge that we have, bring it down to a national level, but more importantly, bring it down to a local, community level, and bring it down to the here and now that people understand.

 

So we need, as a community, as an environmental community to reimagine how we think.

 

My challenge to each and every one of you is to take that on-board. See how you can take what's discussed here today, and bring it back to your own, local community, your own peers in your own community, get them on-board, let us all work together to meet this challenge, meet this challenge as a community, as a country, and be the global leaders in leading it on behalf of everyone.

 

Go raibh míle maith agat.

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