Thank you very much Sheila and Patricia.
I’m delighted to be here today.
A lot of the time we in Ireland look at the glass as half empty In relation to the whole climate agenda. It’s not half empty. We are global leaders in some areas. One of those areas that Sheila touched on is in relation to the green flags event which is run successfully in collaboration with the INTO and with teachers unions and communities right across the country along with An Taisce. We are global leaders in relation to this. We have more children involved in the green schools programme than anywhere else in the world and we are by far the world leader in relation to this and many countries are looking to see how we deal with it, in this country. Yes, we have weaknesses and Oisin Coghlan in the front row here will beat me over the head, and rightly so, but sometimes we tend to focus on the negatives when there are positives and we need to promote what we are doing right.
The theme you have for today’s conference, that of ensuring a just transition in the face of the decarbonisation challenge ahead of us goes right to the heart of the need to carefully manage the transition to a low carbon society in the years ahead.
I think that this is the most significant environmental conference that I have attended as Minister because I believe that workers have been missing from the debate on climate action. I feel that regarding employees, that has been a big void to date. I’m glad to see that this conference is being held to address that and I hope to continue working with you over the coming years.
Ireland relies on high emission, and imported fossil fuels to meet over 88% of our energy needs. This costs half a million every hour. That’s a cost that we cannot afford in cash, in 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, so 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, to bridge the gulf between global challenge and national responsibility, and between Ireland’s obligation and every single citizen’s responsibility.
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. If this money that Ireland spends on energy imports can be redirected to energy efficiency and smarter energy services it will displace imported fossil fuels with local jobs and opportunities for Irish companies.
People that are here today representing staff whose jobs are dependent on these important fossil fuels are rightly concerned but if 88% of the energy is cash going out of this country by developing indigenous Irish energy sources we can create more jobs here in Ireland.
In March as Patricia said, I published a draft of Ireland’s first national mitigation plan for public consultation. In publishing this draft, I stated that climate change is the global challenge of our generation, that we must meet this challenge head on, to achieve the economic and society wide transformation required, to move to a low carbon climate resilient future.
The plan makes very clear the significant amount of activity that is taking place across government, to implement measures and to prepare for a more radical approach to reduce emissions in the years ahead.
The government has already adopted a long-term decarbonisation target from 2050 and is committed to achieving this target. This will not be an easy task but the complexity of the work ahead of us does not seem to sit well with those who would argue we take radical action now, whatever the consequences.
The transformational challenge of meeting these objectives will be difficult, it will take time and will require engagement and collaborative leadership across the entire of society.
While the science tells us we cannot wait indefinitely to take action, we also need to ensure that our actions fully exploit the employment potential of the low carbon economy, that they should limit the impact on existing employment, and that they should not result in harm to the most vulnerable in society.
I’m very conscious of this and in particular the impact of this on workers and their families and the community, particularly of Littleton, County Tipperary. In the case of the Littleton announcement, as with others, we need engagement and imagination to come up with new and very different outcomes. We need to identify vulnerable industries and their communities. We need to explore alternative clean employment opportunities for these communities, existing employees and future employees. All of us needs to be honest about the future employer, staff, government. All of us needs to be willing to challenge our traditional perceptions.
Before the last general election, I took such an approach with regards to the peat fired power stations in the Midlands. I could have ignored the issue which was a political thing to do but instead I was honest with pointing out that we need to act now. To put alternative feedstocks and long-term clean employment opportunities in place, but because I did that, the traditional whispering campaign was started to undermine me and the points I was trying to make. I think we have to be honest and frank with people. Some will argue that we should shut down those three peat power stations in the morning and that the 1,400 families would become electricians and plumbers doing deep retrofitting jobs in Dublin. Yes, there are deep retrofitting employment opportunities and I’ll return to that in a moment, but it won’t be for people driving tractors today in County Offaly. So we need to find alternative clean employment for the current skill mix that maintains families and maintains the communities that are dependent on those jobs.
As well as harnessing the energy from the wind and sun, we must look to the land which provides us with the opportunity to grow our own business, biomass. Producing biomass in the vicinity of the existing plants meets that criteria. Bord na Mona, Coillte, Teagasc and others are working on that at the moment. The land that we have provides us with the opportunity to have an indigenous biomass fuel source.
To develop our emerging domestic biomass industry, I will soon bring a memo to cabinet to establish Bioenergy Ireland. This new entity will drive efficiencies of scale by making biomass available to the entire market and procuring from all sources.
I will also be bringing proposals to government in the coming weeks on a new renewable heat incentive for Ireland as a viable measure to stimulate growth in the domestic biomass sector as it will bring new markets. The objective is not only to develop an industry that will maintain existing employment levels, not just in the Midlands and other parts of the country but will also provide new opportunities for farmers. I also think there are significant opportunities in relation to production of biogas, but working with gas networks Ireland can help us bring in foreign direct investment in green gas supplies, something that hasn’t been fully developed anywhere else in the world.
Everyone deserves a home they can afford to heat and to light. But, regrettably some cannot and many struggle to make ends meet. And among those who struggle hardest, too many live in homes that are sinkholes for fuel poverty.
Ending this inequality is a priority for me. Energy poverty is an environmental issue. It is an economic issue that blights the lives and energy efficiency is the most important means of tackling it. That is why I secured additional funding for energy efficiency upgrades in this year’s budget.
The total investment in energy efficiency projects is almost €67 million which is supporting approximately 1000 jobs in the construction sector across the country. Insulation is not a single issue panacea for poverty but it ensures we can live in a home that is warmer and more comfortable and costs less to heat. It is not just the poor that are vulnerable, we are now looking at a suite of packages to assist the working poor, squeezed middle, to invest in cost-effective efficiency measures which will also help create more jobs.
Ireland has a target of meeting 40% of electricity demand from renewable sources by 2020. Provisional data for 2016 shows that over 26% of electricity demand was met from renewable sources and we are well placed to meet our 40% target by 2020, the vast majority of that by wind. By 2020 we expect to be in a position that at any one time up to 75% of the loading on our grid will come from wind. It’s known internationally as the Irish problem because nowhere else in the world has been able to put that much wind on an independent electricity network without having electricity fall off or drop. That is a huge challenge for us in relation to foreign direct investment we have here as well as indigenous companies who rely on a reliable source of electricity, but we intend to crack that nut. We intend to be the global leader in relation to that and will ensure on average in the calendar year over 40% of our electricity needs are met from renewable sources.
To date, the focus of renewable energy investment has predominantly been on onshore wind. In that respect, work on developing appropriate wind energy guidelines, is being finalised. My colleague Simon Coveney and I will be bringing a memorandum for government soon to cabinet. Real community engagement and long-term economic dividend will be the cornerstone of the wind energy guidelines we produce. It is important that the economic dividend goes beyond the lifespan of these energy projects. What do I mean by that? For example, at the moment in the midlands we are looking at a project north of Lough Ree, the Mount Dillon complex which is 18,000 hectares of cutaway bog. We are looking at re-flooding the cutaway bog now that it is no longer required for peat production. We are looking at turning it into a key tourism amenity not only for the local communities but also as a destination from other parts of Ireland to come into an area that did not traditionally have tourism in the past. We will also look at attracting people from outside Ireland into that region. So there are opportunities and we need to exploit those opportunities. Bord na Mona has been working closely with Offaly County Council in relation to some work for the cut away bogs.
However, the transition to a low carbon economy will not be delivered by any one single event or technology, it will be a process. While onshore wind will continue to have a role to play, or technologies, such as biomass, solar and offshore renewable energy, can play a critical role in helping us move to a low carbon economy by 2050. Government is now driving the programme of ocean energy because there are huge opportunities if we get it right. We are again one of the global leaders in this area. We have now a full-scale test site off the coast of Mayo, we have a quarter scale test site in Galway Bay and we have large scale test facilities off the coast of Cork.
The primary rationale for driving this program is to develop and maximise employment and wealth generating industry activities that could potentially be associated with ocean energy as it evolves into a fully commercially viable sector. Last year through my department we funded 17 prototypes that were tested in Cork, Galway and Mayo. This year we will fund a further 16 prototypes. Some of those have come back with positive results and hopefully we will see some of them develop on a large scale. We have also received a commitment from Ireland’s strategic investment fund that if an investor comes in here that wants to develop these facilities off our coast, they won’t be found wanting.
There are also huge opportunities in relation to the circular economy. As Minister for the Environment at European Council level I am currently engaged in negotiations on the circular economy at the moment. Opportunities in relation to reduce, reuse, recycle, repair, renew, all will improve resource efficiency, all will reduce energy input, all are involved in labour-intensive industry.
In March, I also announced the National Dialogue on Climate Action. As well as creating awareness around the need for climate action, I also see the Dialogue as an inclusive process of engagement and consensus building across society towards enabling the transformation to a low carbon and climate-resilient future. I want to make sure our adaptation and mitigation plans for climate action are accessible to all, and that individuals and communities are active participants in the transition and can influence the thinking behind the policy options we choose now and into the future.
The Dialogue will very much have a local and regional structure to it but I also envisage that ICTU as well as other national organisations will have a key role to play in this process. It is important that we engage and think about our options and we don’t always copy and paste elsewhere because we have very unique challenges Ireland, so let's come up with unique solutions. We are very innovative in this country when we want to be and when we are encouraged. I would challenge each and every one of you here today as we move along this road to walk with me, walk with all of us to come up with these innovative solutions, some of which will work and some may not, some may stimulate some other solution. But as Patricia said earlier on, we need to look at the employees and the impact it has on them today and how are we going to retrain and reskill them in the jobs of tomorrow. How can we ensure that as many jobs are secured in those local communities as possible and how can we create the new innovative industries in the future that are going to have the scale of long term employment, clean employment that we all need to see.
The economy, our climate, the networks that link us together and support our jobs, enhance our quality of life and underline the viability of our communities. These 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.
On climate change, the science is clear. What is less clear, is the human will to change.
Today, I have given you some sense of the challenge in-hand. Speaking over two hundred years ago 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.
It requires that as common humanity we pool our resources of talent and treasure, and pull together one with another, for the preservation of all.