23 September, 2010

Car Free Day, Ploughing and Cleaner Seas

Car free day? I wish.

I may have started the day on my bike in the rain, but by yesterday evening I’d taken cars, taxis and airplanes. I’m in Bergen in Norway for two days, at a Ministerial meeting of the Ospar Commission.

I took that pic yesterday on South William Street in Dublin City Centre.

Meanwhile I’m still in awe of the National Ploughing Association after my visit to the Ploughing Championships on Tuesday. The site near Athy in Co. Kildare resembles a small army on the move. There were tents to the far horizon, and tens of thousands of people on the search for the latest developments in Agriculture. At the Bord Bia pavilion their Chief Executive Aidan Cotter had a good story to tell: Irish food and drink exports are up by 8% this year to over €3 billion, and the new policy Food Harvest 2020 focuses on clean, green growth. They also served up a mean artisan sausage bap, just next door to some nervous looking cattle.

I called in to the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association
(IOFGA), and they were pleased with an attendance of 150 last week at the annual Organic Conference in Birr last week, up 50% on last year. Teagasc organised the event, and I spoke at it, stressing the importance of organic farming in addressing the challenges of energy security, peak oil and climate change. I called in to the IFA tent, and had a chat with their President John Bryan. There’s a certain apprehension at the phase-out of the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (REPS)and people were keen to find out more about its replacement -the new Agri-Environment Options Scheme (AEOS).

The number of stands that focused on renewable energy was striking, and I shot a YouTube clip with a SIAC wind turbine in the background. Many of the stands focussed on the potential of bio-energy crops such as Willow, Miscanthus and Eucalyptus.

Ploughing? There was definitely something visible on the far horizon, but between artisan producers, and bumping in to half the country, I never got to see it a close-hand.

European Mobility Week is coming to an end. I was delighted with the green carpet that Dublin City Council laid on on South William Street in the City Centre, together with the ferns that resembled giant palm trees. The car free area between South Great Georges Street and Grafton Street was working well when I called in around lunch-time. Hopefully it can be a spring-board to a more permanent pedestrianisation of more city centre streets. I'm told there was also a showing of " TheTriplets of Belleville" on Fade Street at a temporary outdoor cinema, which all sounded magical.

In Dún Laoghaire the Council put its efforts into upgrading the cycling and pedestrian facilities along the Metals - the path that runs alongside the railway between Dún Laoghaire and Dalkey. The Cherrywood Luas extension is almost complete, and there's workplace promotion of cycling being undertaken by the Council. One pet project I’m working on with the Council is drawing up plans for a contra-flow cycle lane on Newtown Avenue in Blackrock. This could allow an embryonic version of the ambitious Sutton to Sandycove cycle path to progress, and make it easier for cycle commuters find their way between Dún Laoghaire and the City Centre. I’ll keep you posted on progress.

Ospar? The Ospar Commission (OSlo PARis) is a mechanism by which fifteen Governments on the west of Europe cooperate to protect the marine environment. I'm in Norway, where Ministers are meeting for the first time in seven years to finalise a review of where we're headed on improving the maritime environment and focusing on cleaner seas. Ospar has put up a nice site for this meeting on Squizmix. Its nice to see an organisation like this embracing new media. Some interesting witnesses such as Jostein Gardner, author of "Sophie's World" will present at the meeting

The main substance of the gathering though is to adopt the North East Atlantic Strategy and launch the Quality Status Report, the first in a decade. Hopefully we can sign off on the creation of new Marine Protected Areas in the Atlantic that can provide some protection for vulnerable fish and animal species. That includes protecting various shark species, and the Orange Roughy, a fish that disturbingly seems to get more hits on Google for recipes, than for sustainability. I'm told there was a detailed discussion earlier in the week between France and other countries in relation to Tritium discharges. France's dependence on nuclear power generation is producing an increase in radioactive discharges of Tritium, but at least there is a commitment to monitor levels in the years ahead, and hopefully set a baseline for discharges. It just goes to show that nuclear is not perhaps as clean a fuel as some make it out to be. There will also be recommendations on preventing pollution from oil and gas activities in the light of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year. All of the discussions will feed into implementing the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which aims to achieve good environmental status for EU marine waters by 2020. It will also inform the review of our Foreshore Licensing System, which is long overdue.

Its been a busy week, but one that illustrates the different threads of sustainability that run through the different areas of Government.

03 September, 2010

Back from the Break

I'd recommend the South West for holidays. We were blessed with the weather, and had a great week west of Dingle, and another on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork with a 'staycation' week at home in the middle.

The pic shows a well-used old caravan near the beach in Allihies - a magical part of the world.

This Autumn is going to be tough. Difficult choices need to be made in Government to get us through these challenging times. The call on Anglo-Irish Bank is a difficult one. Senator Dan Boyle has said that the wind-down of the Bank needs to be quicker than ten years, but regardless of the time-frame it will put huge costs onto the tax-payer. Most commentators (including Dan O'Brien in today's Irish Times) feel that letting the Bank go the way of Lehmans would cause even greater difficulties. The heart and the head are going in different directions on this one, and we are all gritting our teeth as we consider what's the best option. At least we have the luxury of a bit more time this time round to consider these momentous decisions than we did two years ago with the Bank Guarantee scheme. It seems that everyone in Government is keen to see a solution at least cost to the tax-payer, and that's our priority over the Autumn. I'll be interested in seeing what the European Central Bank and the European Commission have to say on these issues over the month ahead. I'll also listen to the Central Bank's comments, and read the robust commentary and analysis on the Irish Economy blog.

A huge challenge over the coming months is how we close the gap between the State's income and expenditure. Either way it looks as though we have to narrow the budget gap by another three billion euro next year. An additional increase in income tax on working families would be hugely challenging, and I don't envy Brian Lenihan the task that he and his colleagues have in Cabinet to bridge the gap. I'm sure we'll have a passionate debate about these and other issues at our Parliamentary Party think-in down in Carlow in a fortnight's time.

Currently I'm trawling through the information that's coming out from the nationwide survey of ghost estates carried out by the Department of teh Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I've heard a lot of good suggestions for how we make best use of these housing assets. Certainly, it can be a selling point of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation when attracting businesses to Ireland if they could offer housing on a turn-key basis to potential employers in many areas. In addition, Third Level institutions may well be able to take advantage of this surplus to offer housing close to campus. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the surplus hotels end up as step-down accommodation for those convalescing on release from hospital, thus releasing beds for those who need them most. My colleague Minister of State Michael Finneran has been looking at how empty housing units can be used for those on local authority housing lists. However in some cases the accommodation may be unsuitable for family needs, or be in the wrong location for access to the job market. By the end of September we should have some good analysis completed, and be in a position to sit down with stakeholders and offer some positive advice on these issues. The new Planning Act will make it difficult to build housing estates for which there is no proven need, and will focus on providing good development in the right locations.

Charging for water is another hot button issue at the moment. Currently most householders pay for their water through the general taxation pool, apart from those on Group Water Schemes, or with their own well. Clearly more has to be spent on leak reduction and upgrading schemes, but there's no great incentive to conserve water. Currently in the greater Dublin area we're about to take water from the Barrow River and there are plans afoot to tap the Shannon during the Winter months and pump water to the East coast via a new Midlands reservoir on Bord na Mona lands. Would charging for excessive water use obviate the need for this? I'm not sure, but we need to concentrate people's minds on the need to use water resources wisely. If water meters can be fitted at a low enough cost, it might be a way of reducing demand and tackling those who waste water. The important issue is to make people aware that water production has a cost; to use that precious resource wisely; and to ensure that the small minority who waste water pay a real price for their squandering of the resource. There's other issues that are being worked on within the Department of the Environment at the moment, such as improving the Building Regulations to provide for water harvesting and gray water re-use, and encouraging low-flow taps that can be very effective at reducing demand. More effort is also required from local authorities to ensure that all commercial water users pay the full price for their water, and many councils need to improve their poor performance in this area.

Charging for pollution is an effective way of improving the environment. The introduction of a carbon tax at €15 a tonne has made people more aware of the need to tackle global warming. It has also taken pressure off tax hikes in other areas. Certainly the new system for car taxation has motivated people to choose lower emission vehicles when making new car purchases. Work is progressing on the Climate Change Bill that will ensure that Ireland honor its international commitments, and ensure that we're better placed for reducing emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, and its successors. Ireland can change its reputation from being an excessive emitter of carbon to capturing the early adopter gains of low-emission employment, but a more concerted effort is required across all government departments.The measures we take towards 'de-carbonising' Ireland will pay dividends in the years ahead. My hunch is that we'll get a decent-enough global agreement on tacking Climate Change at the COP 17 in South Africa at the end of 2011, rather than at the December talks in Mexico, and that countries will pay a much higher price for carbon subsequently. Those counties that face up to the climate challenge sooner will be better placed to create employment in low-carbon industries subsequently.

In the meantime, there's a stretch of railway to be re-opened between Clonsilla and Dunboyne tomorrow. This will realise real benefits for the traveling public, a good news story in these difficult times.