THERE are two years left in the life of this Government — maybe less if the perpetual farrago of political storms keep brewing — and Eamon Ryan is in a hurry.
As the lightning rod for much of the ire directed at the Government online for various policies — the Taoiseach and Tánaiste escape relatively unscathed in the greater scheme of things — it is with either admirable optimism or a lack of self-awareness that the Environment and Transport Minister ploughs on with various elements of Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon society.
Expect more of the same, only with more urgency in the final stretch of this Dáil term, according to the Dublin Bay South TD and long-time leader of the Green Party.
“We are in a very good place in terms of doing a lot of the work in the last two years to set things up,” he says. “We have a very good climate law which we introduced a year and a half ago. Last summer, we set up sectoral targets of specific ambition in energy and transport and agriculture, and so on. And then, only a month ago, it became really more detailed, a real plan in terms of how we have to deliver it.
“So for me, it’s all about delivery. Firstly we don’t have any choice. Failure is not an option because of the nature of this Irish law but also the reality of European law and European policies that are perhaps even more ambitious, in terms of scale and speed, and need for change.
“Also, I would argue this is going to be good for the country. It’s not a hardship, it’s a positive development, and solutions on the climate side will be good for us.
“It will be good for security, it will be good for creating employment, it’s good for Irish agriculture.”
Mr Ryan concedes the level of change needed will be difficult.
“They are connected because what we do in housing can and will be good for climate if we got it right. Absolutely.”
One such challenge that brings together climate targets, housing, and health into one strand is that of retrofitting homes. There has been criticism of the slow progress so far, despite lofty ambitions and targets up to the end of the decade.
The Government announced a national retrofitting scheme last February at a cost of €8bn, which aims to upgrade 75,000 homes every year from 2026 to 2030, with an overall target of 500,000.
According to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) at the end of October, more than 36,000 applications were received by it across its schemes, and all are experiencing significant levels of demand from homeowners.
This equates to approximately 28,800 homes being retrofitted, the SEAI said. Homeowners typically have a period of eight months to complete works once approved, and there are constraints on delivery at the present time, it added.
There are different schemes, which has led to confusion among homeowners and political figures alike as to the application process, while fewer than two dozen firms are actually hired or in the process of being hired to carry out the works — an enormous workload for such a small pool.
Mr Ryan defended the pace of the national retrofitting programme, saying it has been only running for less than a year.
“It’s starting to deliver. We did deliver on what our targets were. We delivered last year around 27,000 upgrades. Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris, was telling me that we are seeing a huge increase in training and apprenticeships, about 2,000 have applied. You talk to people in the industry — they’re flat out, they’ve never been busier.
He defended the low number of ‘one-stop shops’ assigned by the SEAI to carry out the retrofitting programme.
Mr Ryan said: “They are ramping up, and they’re not small firms — this is the likes of ESB and Scottish and Southern (SSE) — they’re not companies without scaling up capabilities. It does take time.
“Last year was only the start, it was always a warming up. We have delivered roughly the scale and speed that we expected. We will go this year to 37,000 houses being upgraded, and up again the year after that. It’s delivering, the way I see it.”
The glacial pace of planning of key infrastructure around the country is frustrating, the Environment and Transport Minister acknowledged.
Housing and transport are the casualties, despite being huge social issues, he added.
“We’re not moving fast enough, that is clear. I’ll give you an example. If you look at any assessment, it’s taken us roughly 10 years on the current system to deliver a bus corridor. It’s probably taking about 20 years to deliver a railway line, and similar in housing. It’s our biggest problem.
“We have a lot of projects now that have had planning permission but they’re not being built. So we need speed in so many different areas and quicker changes.
“One of the things we’re doing is sustainable mobility in the transport side. We set up a task force to look at how we can accelerate everything. We’re focusing very much on the next three years.
“I’ve rang every county council manager around the country, all 42 councils. I said to the managers, ‘can you give me examples of projects we could deliver in the next three years?’ I said we’ll fund them and we’ll make sure that it gets real attention to try and get through planning, to try and get all the support the State can give to make it happen.”
It led to around 70 applications, he said.
“We have picked 35 on a scientific basis in terms of the ones we think are most demonstrative projects and so on. And it’s all about how do we deliver the next three years. So for example, in Limerick, putting a train station in Moyross because there we’ve got huge areas of State land where we could put in new housing if we had a good public transport system. So build it.
“In Waterford, move the railway line and station and suspension bridge — and these things are happening now — so that you develop the north quays, the Ferrybank side.
“That is a housing as well as a transport development project.
“In Galway city, to deliver the cross-city bus route that would start to address the chronic transport problems that they have, everyone living on one side of the city and working on the other side and having a real difficulty kind of making the city function. They’re just some of the examples.”
If some local authorities can’t deliver, the department will move on to one that will, he warned.
“If councils feel they can’t do it and they won’t do it — because these are difficult, a lot of decisions such as Galway are going to be difficult because it means taking road space and giving priority to buses and cycling and walking, and that can be controversial — we will say ‘OK, fine, we’ll take that project out and we’ll provide that funding to another council to do something else instead’.
“We need to incentivise councils to act fast because the truth is that for a variety of complex reasons, including our planning system, complication in that and so on, it takes too long.
“By taking such length of time, it’s costing the public a lot more, not only in terms of increased cost of construction, but also the loss in having better transport infrastructure better local community, better housing, more housing.”
The minister has acknowledged the anger over plans by State-owned commercial forestry body Coillte to sell thousands of acres of rural Ireland to British investment fund Gresham House as part of an afforestation deal.
“I do understand the disquiet. I think we have to really focus on how we get forestry right, not only in the number of hectares that we grow, but the type of forestry for better biodiversity as well as storage of carbon.
“One of the real constraints here is around a decision by the European Commission back in 2003, which said that Coillte couldn’t avail of the grants and premiums that apply in afforestation. And it’s very hard without those grants and premiums because there’s significant upfront costs, and you’re competing with others who will be able to access those premiums.”
Mr Ryan said he will consult with Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Pippa Hackett, on the European Commission implications.
“I know she probably will agree with me on this, we should go further and I know her department and Coillte have already started questioning with the European Commission whether there a variation on that state aid rule, which would allow us invest in our land, Coillte to invest in a forestation in a way that doesn’t fall afoul of the European legislation.
“That would transform what’s possible.”
There is also a need to look at other funding mechanisms including State funding to develop forestry which is closer to nature, with much more emphasis on biodiversity rather than timber production, he said.
“That’s happening, and Coillte has committed 50% of their afforestation and developments to be in that type of forestry. And that’s the one that I think we really need to focus on and deliver and develop at scale.”
Such plans have started, albeit on a small scale, he said.
“Scaling that up, I think is one of the things that where, with environmental movements and others, there is real agreement.”
The forestry programme agreed by Government in November and the €1.3bn behind it is also vital, he said.
“It is all directed at getting farmers to plant land and to promote agroforestry and the use of riparian forestry strips within farms that have real benefits in improving the local environment, providing the farm with a steady supply of timber for its own needs, and also really restoring biodiversity as well as storing carbon.”
Mr Ryan and his party have come under sustained fire from sectors of agriculture since entering Government, with some perceiving the Greens to be stifling traditional farming.
The Green Party is an ally of farmers, Mr Ryan insisted.
“My sense is that there’s real change happening in Irish farming.
“There is huge interest in farming and, similarly, if you look at the number of farmers who have applied for this new environmental scheme, the Acres Scheme, it is way above anything previously. So I think the narrative of farmers versus the environment is wrong. The reality, what’s happened on the ground is farmers are realising this is the future.
“This is where the income is. This can use their skills in a way that’s really beneficial and productive. And it’s happening — we’re seeing the numbers climbing from environmental schemes and agriculture, organic schemes, that we’ve never seen before. I think we’ll see the same in forestry, particularly with the much higher premiums that are applying for those sorts of environmentally sensitive farming systems. I expect them to take off.”
Mr Ryan said he believes the Irish people “want to play their part” and “won’t turn their back” on so-called climate refugees.
Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman said earlier this month that the asylum system will have to be expanded to include a new category for people fleeing the effects of climate change — comments which former justice minister Charlie Flanagan criticised as “making policy on the hoof”.
In relation to climate refugees, Mr Ryan said: “I think the Irish people have a real sense of understanding and a sense of care for what is happening in the world — for playing our role, small as we are. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, we’re not responsible for doing so, but I think by and large that the Irish people want to play their part proportionately and fairly.” He rebuffed Mr Flanagan’s comment.
“The chair of the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee [Mr Flanagan] may have misunderstood what was said, and certainly I don’t think it is correct what he said about “policy on the hoof” in how we manage climate refugees.
“What Roderic said is clearly and absolutely correct. This is something that must be considered at an international level, particularly Europe. We don’t decide this on our own, it is decided as part of international agreements, and rightly so.”
Ireland “has to manage it”, Mr Ryan said, adding that he was personally affected listening to Pakistan’s environment minister speaking about last year’s devastating floods, described as the most damaging in its history.
“The truth is that we are already starting to see, for example, in Pakistan last year — up to 30m affected. I met the Pakistani minister at Cop27 in Egypt, and it was heartfelt and heartrending when you heard the scale of destruction that occurred.
“Climate change is everywhere. You can’t ignore it and you can’t stop it. We will manage it as part of an international effort. We’re not like Atlas carrying the world on our shoulder but I think Irish people want to play their part, and want to be part of a world where we start to care for the environment and to care for the planet. Where those consequences are inevitable, we won’t turn our back.”