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Speech by Minister Alan Kelly Addresses the Environment Ireland Conference at Croke Park

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Opening Statement by Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Alan Kelly, T.D.

Environment Ireland Conference 2014 “Towards a Sustainable Future for Ireland”

Croke Park

Minister Durkan, Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning.

Let me begin by thanking Laura Burke and the EPA for the invitation to be here today, presenting at what is now the 10th Annual Environment Ireland Conference.

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While today marks my first opportunity to address this gathering as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, I’m well aware of the importance of this event in the environment, and indeed the industry, calendar over the past few years.

This conference offers a unique and invaluable opportunity for communication between representatives of all the main sectors with an interest in Ireland’s environment. I will have a window of opportunity to give you but a brief snapshot on the “state of play” on the Government’s, and my own, environmental priorities and to outline the associated policy steps which I’m proposing to take.

Before going further I would like to warmly welcome Minister for the Environment in Northern Ireland, Mark Durkan back to this year’s conference.

Minister Durkan first addressed this audience this time last year, showcasing Northern Ireland’s environmental policy priorities and we are very much looking forward to hearing him present on Northern Ireland’s policies on sustainable economy and environment this morning.

I intend to build on the excellent foundation of co-operation between our two Departments, built by our respective predecessors, and to assure the Minister of my support in facing the many common trans-boundary challenges that lie ahead, including through our joint work under the auspices of the North-South Ministerial Council.

I’m pleased to say that the links forged between our jurisdictions over the past few years have remained strong and this relationship is proving extremely effective as we endeavour to meet our very ambitious environmental goals.

The theme of my address to you today is “Towards a Sustainable Environmental Future for Ireland”, and what better time to be looking to a stable and secure environmental future. The key word today is environmental.

This Government was elected to move our country from the “boom-bust” cycles promoted under previous administrations and from old thinking towards progressive economic, social and environmental policies to secure lasting, and sustainable prosperity. My mandate is to ensure that the correct balance is struck so that the economic progress and development that we have all been eagerly awaiting will not be at the expense of our environment.

Sustainable development

Sustainable development is the critical global issue of our times, and provides the solution to so many of our environmental, economic and social challenges.  It is the bottom line for our planet and needs to be integrated into every decision that we make about how we organise and develop our society.  For us here in Ireland, we must face up to this imperative by setting our environment and our economy on a path compatible with a sustainable future. Today’s presentations and workshops grapple with that key challenge; exploring the priority issues of climate change, resource efficiency and water management and the potential we have to improve our environmental performance in these areas, while at the same time maximising economic yield for all our citizens.

The Government’s policy framework for sustainable development, “Our Sustainable Future” was launched in June 2012.  It recognises sustainability as “a continuous, guided process of economic, environmental and social change aimed at promoting wellbeing of citizens now and in the future” and identifies some 70 measures to be implemented by a wide array of State actors.  It’s a highly ambitious statement and, given its depth and breadth, could verge on the unwieldy.  It is crucial therefore that we continue to refine and re-tune our strategy as the scale and nature of our sustainability challenges crystallise.

As Chair of the High-Level Group appointed to oversee implementation of the framework, I will continue to involve external experts in helping to deliver the framework. Bodies such as the EPA, SEAI and the Irish Environmental Network are all valuable expert resources that can assist in informing government policy and its delivery, ensuring our focus on sustainable development remains relevant, responsive and innovative. To that end, I look forward to leading a concerted and coordinated process to ensure that further substantial and measurable progress can be achieved across the entire framework during my term in office.

I am pleased, as part of that ongoing focus on sustainable development, to launch today the EPA’s guidance on“Green Public Procurement”. This is an important step in delivering on the ambition set out in the Government’s Green Tenders Action Plan, launched in 2012 and in assisting public authorities to plan and implement green procurement.

Turning briefly to the international arena, June 2014 saw the first meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi. Ireland played an active part in the Assembly, co-drafting one of the 19 adopted resolutions, supporting projects to improve water quality standards in the developing world, which will deliver significant benefits not only to the environment but also in terms of human health.

Throughout 2014, my Department has also been extensively involved with international efforts to agree a new set of Sustainable Development Goals which will form an important part of the new UN global development agenda. Due to be agreed next year, this new agenda has the potential to be truly transformative, improving the lives of the world’s poorest people while also addressing the serious environmental challenges we all face.

I am happy to say that the draft Goals reflect many of Ireland’s priorities in relation to the environment and sustainability and I intend that Ireland will continue to advocate for a high level of environmental ambition during these negotiations.

Water

On this afternoon’s agenda is another central pillar of environmental sustainability – good management of our water resources.  2014 has been a landmark year for the water sector. Following enactment of the Water Services (No.2) Act 2013 last December, Irish Water became responsible for water services on January 1st and commenced with 12-year service level agreements with local authorities, through which local authorities are acting as agents on behalf of Irish Water. Through this partnership of local expertise with the network and utility management experience available to Irish Water, the sector has begun on a journey of transformation.

It will be a demanding journey for all, but one, I believe, that will result in a water sector defined by the highest standards in customer service, sustainable investment, and greater environmental protection.

Since the start of the year, Irish Water is continuing to roll out its domestic metering programme. Almost 400,000 meters have been installed to date, sustaining about 1,200 jobs in the process. With a meter installed somewhere in Ireland on average every 30 seconds, the domestic metering programme is unparalleled anywhere in its scale.

By moving to water services delivery through a single, national and regulated utility, by raising performance standards and increasing investment; we can ensure Ireland’s future is one with a safe and secure water supply. I will leave it to one of my senior officials, Maria Graham to present a more detailed progress report on Ireland’s Water Reform Programme this afternoon.

Structure of the Household Waste Collection Market

Turning to the issue of waste management, this is an issue that I am very engaged in, especially in relation to the waste collection market.

I am an advocate of competition for the market and I make no secret of that fact. I believe that a system of competitive tendering operated by local authorities, either individually or working on a regional or sub-regional basis, can help to provide a robust structure for the collection of household waste in Ireland, for the following reasons:

  • Competitive tendering can ensure that competition occurs ex ante and in a manner which is transparent to the awarding authority.
  • It gives local authorities significant market power to maximise the common good, and to establish the specific terms and service conditions of the contract, such as levels of service, price and pricing structure, monitoring and adherence to environmental objectives.
  • Franchise bidding can also help to drive cost reductions for industry, typically through more efficient use of capital infrastructure and staffing costs. Regular renewal of the franchise ensures that the franchise winner has an interest in maintaining a positive relationship with the local authority, and its customers.

We have moved in a relatively short space of time from a system in which municipal waste authorities had full control over the waste market, but were over-stretched and under-resourced to do the job and operate to the standards required under national and EU law, to a situation in which we have handed over responsibility to the private sector, without giving the State adequate levers with which to regulate how services are provided.

This is the worst of both worlds in my view. And it has to change.

A far smoother transition would have been possible, had we moved from local authority direct provision to competition for the market.

If I was starting with a blank page, I would instruct local authorities to do just that or some variation of it. However we find ourselves in a different situation currently.

I have some significant concerns regarding the current performance of the household waste industry, for example:

  • the level of below-cost selling, the so-called “race to the bottom” and the environmental damage that can arise from this.
  • the de-stabilising effect this can have on the market generally and the extent to which it is discouraging investment in the development of badly needed indigenous waste treatment capacity.
  • the levels of customer service offered by a number of collectors, who are often merely ticking boxes when it comes to their customer charters, or implementation of the three-bin system without trying to drive more responsible behaviour or offer incentives.
  • the current compliance levels and number of enforcement actions that the EPA and local authorities are having to take against large and high profile collectors, of whom we should all expect better.

I am also very concerned that some operators appear to be ignoring some of their statutory obligations in certain areas by, for example, failing to roll-out brown bin collection services, despite the requirement to do so under the 2012 Household Food Waste Regulations.

All of these factors suggest to me that we have an industry that needs to be radically shaken up, modernised and professionalised. And it is my intention to do this and end this “race to the bottom”.

It is stated Government policy that household waste collection will be organised under an improved regulatory regime. My Department has been working for some time on a new regulatory regime to provide for that and to introduce a number of very fundamental changes to how the collection regime operates.

From next year, a number of measures will be introduced to specifically tackle these issues. To incentivise the greater reduction of waste and to move towards the long-term goal of zero waste, paying by weight for collection will become a reality for all consumers. Waste collection companies will also be signing up to specifically mandated service levels as well as statutory customer charters while a ban on the below-cost selling of waste will be introduced. The failure to adhere to agreed service levels will automatically result in a permit review – something that has not been seen before. This will create a challenge for waste collectors but to put it simply, something must be done.

Notwithstanding my preference for a system of franchise bidding, I am prepared to proceed with the reform programme, to give it the necessary teeth to make it as effective as possible and to give it a chance to bed in.

The “Race to the Bottom” is also directly contributing to a destabilising of the industrial relations situation in the waste sector – something that is benefitting neither customer, nor worker, nor the environment. I support the concept a statutory wage-setting mechanism for the industry to ensure stability, certainty and industrial peace. I know as recently as this week that Minister Nash’s Department of Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation has written to the Labour Court requesting examination of such a concept as part of the process around such agreements.

However, if next year the level of compliance with the new reforms is not sufficient, then I am prepared to take steps next year to review the current regime and system and consider other market approaches that can deliver the necessary improvements for all household waste collection markets in Ireland.

In that regard, the waste industry needs to be clear though: the new regulatory framework is the “last chance saloon” for the industry to demonstrate that they can work individually and collectively to improve performance, standards and levels of service and compliance records. I will give consideration to introducing a different market structure in the future if this does not occur.

Air Quality

Clean air is vital for good public health and quality of life and essential to delivering a sustainable society but its value is not always readily appreciated.

Here in Dublin, we dealt successfully with severe problems with smog through the ban on ‘smoky’ coal, now almost three decades ago. The game has moved on, and we are faced with new challenges, informed by World Health Organisation advice and based on the improved scientific understanding of the threat posed to health by air pollutants and the changing profile of emissions and their sources.

These include the emission of fine particulate matter and black carbon from diesel cars and buses in our cities and towns, as well as the persistent problem of ‘smoky’ emissions from the use of solid fuel for home heating.

Solid Fuel Carbon Tax

In that context, my Department is leading a cross-agency process to provide for relief from the solid fuel carbon tax for cleaner, lower-carbon solid fuels for home heating. Relief from the carbon tax can provide the leverage to stimulate a paradigm shift to cleaner lower-carbon fuels for residential heating, marking a transition to the clean, low-carbon, green economy that will be no less significant a step than the introduction of the Dublin ‘smoky’ coal ban in 1990, and the consequent public health benefits.

On related matters, my Department, in conjunction with colleagues in the Department of Environment in Northern Ireland, is conducting a joint study to examine, on an ‘all island’ basis, air pollution from residential emissions caused by the burning of solid fuel for home heating. The interim report has been delivered to my Department and work is on-going to complete the report by the end of this year.

Taking account of the study’s findings, all potential policy options for improving air quality on the island of Ireland will be examined. Air pollution also remains a significant threat to human health and the environment across Europe and the wider international community. In response to this on-going challenge, the EU adopted a Clean Air Package in December 2013 which establishes a series of updated air quality limits for 2030 with consequent impacts on range of sectors and Government policy areas.

The proposed measures will have wide-reaching impacts across a number sectors and my Department is leading on negotiations at EU level to agree the final details of the measures and also to oversee implementation of the package in the coming years.

Climate Policy

Moving on to climate change, while we cannot attribute individual weather events specifically to climate change, we are all aware of the adverse impacts of a changing climate. The recent bad weather events, which I know will be discussed later, serve as a strong reminder of the types of impacts we can expect and strong, focussed action is now required.

Recent reports by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set out clearly the types of actions that must be taken globally to avoid the potentially dangerous consequences of climate change.  This includes reducing global emissions by up to 70% by 2050 and continuing that effort after 2050 with a view to zero or negative emissions by 2100.  While many of the tools for this transition are already available, it is nonetheless one of the biggest challenges facing all countries.  Internationally, efforts towards mobilising action are stepping up with negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) intensifying as they move towards December 2015 when a new global deal on climate is due to be agreed in Paris.

This month, the Taoiseach will join other world leaders at the UN Secretary General’s Summit in New York – the first time leaders have met to discuss climate change since 2009 – with a view to building the political momentum needed for those negotiations, as well as mobilising further action on emissions in the near-term.

Ireland, in common with many other countries has set itself a progressive and internationally responsible goal of transition to a low-carbon future.

The National Policy Position, published in April this year, sets a long-term objective for 2050 of an 80% aggregate reduction of carbon emissions across the electricity generation, transport and built environment sectors, in tandem with an approach to carbon neutrality in the agriculture sector that does not compromise sustainable food production. This transition is not going to happen overnight and for it to be successful, all sectors of society must be involved and help to shape and bring about incremental and permanent transition.

The National Policy Position was accompanied by the publication of the final heads of the Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Bill. Together, the National Policy Position and the General Scheme of the Bill re-affirm Ireland’s commitment to compliance with our existing and future obligations under EU and international law.  They also recognise the equal importance of addressing the challenges and maximising the opportunities of a low-carbon future from a national perspective.

In addition to pursing a low-carbon and climate resilient economy, we must also focus on pursuing competitiveness and new business and innovation opportunities in the emerging global green economy.

The National Policy Position provides certainty by setting out a coherent, high-level policy direction for the development of plans to enable the State to pursue and achieve transition to a competitive, low-carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050.

It reflects the views across the spectrum of shareholders, and society generally, in terms of where the balance lies between the environmental, social and economic impacts that we must take into consideration. It sets a level of mitigation ambition for 2050 that is both ambitious and realistic. I believe the mitigation ambition level represents a fair contribution to overall global emissions reductions that takes account of Ireland’s distinctive greenhouse gas emissions profile.

The General Scheme of the Bill provides a statutory basis for the long-term transition objective set out in the National Policy Position and gives a solid statutory foundation to the institutional arrangements necessary to enable the State to pursue and achieve that objective.

The Bill is currently being drafted by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and enactment of the Bill is a priority for Government.

My focus is now firmly placed on how to achieve the transition objective and in this context, work is continuing on the development of a National Low-Carbon Roadmap to 2050.  The Roadmap will specify policy measures that will be required to manage greenhouse gas emissions and removals to achieve the transition objective. The policy development process over the last two years has been transparent and inclusive, taking account of the range of views that exist across Irish society and I am totally committed to continuing this approach.

It is my intention therefore to make a draft of the Roadmap available for a substantial period of open consultation to allow early input and discussion.

I know that flood risk management is one of the key themes here today. The National Climate Change Adaptation Framework provides for the development and implementation of sectoral and local adaptation action plans, which will form part of a comprehensive national response to the impacts of climate change, such as the increased risk of flooding.

The Framework provides that sectoral adaptation plans are to be made by the relevant Department or Agency and published this year, and that they will be revised at least every 5 years. My Department is chairing a Steering Group to assist in the development of these sectoral adaptation plans.

The Office of Public Works has a crucial role to play in this context, especially through its development of the Flood Defence Sectoral Adaptation Plan.

Planning

Before concluding, I want to touch on one or two crucial areas of planning reform which I consider intrinsic to sustainable environmental development. I firmly believe that good planning policy is the link between the theory and the practice when it comes to sustainability for the future.

The next legislative milestone will be a Planning Bill which we will publish later this year, providing for a Planning Regulator in line with the recommendations in the Mahon Tribunal Report as well as ensuring the new National Planning Framework, which will replace the existing National Spatial Strategy, has a statutory footing.

Office of the Planning Regulator

The Final Report of the Mahon Planning Tribunal opened a window to a time when the greed and profit motives of developers and land speculators, rather than the wishes of the community, were seen to be the drivers of our planning process.

We also need to remind ourselves that much of the reason that we’re faced with such severe fiscal and economic challenges at present is because of past obsessions with property and property development rather than the type of economic and spatial planning that secures lasting and sustainable economic and social development.

The establishment of an independent planning regulator is one of the most fundamental recommendations in the Tribunal report and I am determined to see this recommendation is fully and comprehensively considered and appropriately acted on.

The Office of the Planning Regulator will carry out independent appraisal of regional and local level statutory plans and will also have investigative powers to examine, inter alia, possible systemic failings in the planning system, again taking account of the recommendation of the Mahon Tribunal in this regard.

To enable the creation of the independent Office, my Department is preparing the General Scheme of a new Planning and Development Bill with a view to securing the Government’s approval to proceed to detailed drafting stage this Autumn.

Closing

Each year, this conference provides a platform for discussion not only on our future goals but also on outcomes.  Our aspirations in the area of Sustainability and Environment are great, but so too are the achievements. I hope that you will agree that what I have outlined over the past 25 minutes or so reflects the significant and critical challenges faced by my Department in the months and years to come, but also of the very tangible progress to date and of the firm commitment that we as a Government have to making positive and discernible moves towards a future that is sustainable yet prosperous for us all.

As luck has it, this September has offered me not one, not two but three opportunities to visit Croke Park, and while I wish this Conference every success, as a Tipperary man, I also look forward to a victorious return visit here on September 27th.

Thank you for your attention and enjoy the rest of the conference.

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