I have the honour of addressing two events here in Tullamore today – I stand in front of you offering opening remarks for this Just Transition Conference and later I join Ireland’s Sustainable Future Conference – marking the culmination of the Accelerate Green programme for enterprises with a focus on social and environmental impact.
Yesterday I addressed the National Biodiversity Conference on the need to support farmers in the vital role they will play in the preservation of our living heritage.
Why am I sharing my diary with you? To emphasise what all of us already know - that profound change is on the agenda every day, driven by the realities of climate change and the biodiversity crisis. And to emphasise that collaboration has a vital role to play in the solutions. Thankfully everybody here recognises the existence of these crises, and I believe events such as today are hugely important and in facilitating the collaboration needed to address these crises.
Civil Society Organisations like those gathered here in Tullamore and online today will be key to the delivery of a truly Just Transition. Member States and EU institutions will legislate and make policy to facilitate a Just Transition, but they cannot bring about a Just Transition on their own. Civil Society Organisations have a tremendously important role to play in bringing the Just Transition out of the policy arena and into communities.
In Offaly and across the Midlands, and indeed across Ireland and the EU, communities want to transition to a low carbon society, but in so many cases people are worried about what that transition will entail. I understand that concern. And our citizens understand that it is no longer a question of whether we transition, but rather when we will transition, and how equitable the transition will be.
Within society we have many, including the young people I met at the Joint Oireachtas Committee Youth Engagement session last week, who say that we are neither going far enough nor fast enough in our transition away from fossil fuels. Science tells us the same thing. We also have other groups in society, particularly those worst impacted economically and socially by climate change mitigation measures, who argue that we are going too far, too fast.
We can all appreciate both standpoints, but the reality is that the movement is happening, it is gaining momentum at all levels, and it is not slowing down nor is it changing direction.
Governments have a responsibility to ensure that the Just Transition delivers not just for the early adopters, but also for those who, for a variety of reasons, will be slower to embrace the change. If we are to meet our emissions reduction targets, we will need all of society working together, so we simply must deliver for those feeling left in a vulnerable position as a result of the move to net zero by 2050, for those who feel great uncertainty about what the future might hold, for those who fear for their livelihoods, and for those who might be mourning the loss of certain ways of life.
The real challenge before us is how to walk the path between too fast, too far and not far enough – not in single file as tightrope walkers, with the few out ahead enjoying the benefits of the transition to a green economy, neglecting to check over their shoulders to look after the many coming behind. The challenge is how to walk shoulder to shoulder together, as collaborators and partners.
I am very excited by the potential for a more inclusive and equitable society, but I am not naïve to the scale of the challenges. I was heartened to read Kieran Mulvey’s conclusion in his Final Report as Just Transition Commissioner that with a cooperative approach we can ensure that a just transition is a reality for the Midlands region of Ireland.
Yes, this will be partly promoted by the National Just Transition Fund, currently in action, and the upcoming EU Just Transition funds, but there are other means by which we will deliver a just transition for the Midlands, and for all of Ireland.
The energy landscape is changing: we saw a welcome growth in the number of community-led projects getting approved in the recent RESS 2 auction, up from seven projects in RESS 1, to ten projects in the most recent round. Community ownership of energy generating infrastructure is as exciting as it is democratising.
In agriculture, I am proud to be playing a role in increasing the number of organic farmers and locally led environmental initiatives. I have also led a wide-ranging consultative process on the future of forestry in Ireland - in which Irish Rural Link played a vital role - to ensure that as we increase our afforestation rate as part of our transition to net zero, we do it in a way that ensures our forests deliver not only for climate, but also for biodiversity, for water quality and for communities.
Our education and training landscape has been changing for a number of years in response to the pace of technological change, and the consequent changing face of employment. The same needs to happen - and is happening here in the Midlands- in response to the Just Transition.
I read back in 2018 that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 did not yet exist. Whether we view that as exciting or frightening, we know that it will require a highly adaptive training and education response. Many of the ‘new jobs’ that have emerged in the past four years involve meeting the demand to implement our National Retrofitting Plan. I recently visited the Mount Lucas LOETB centre, where a range of cutting-edge Net Zero Energy Buildings Training Courses are up and running, and I can safely say we are in safe hands.
In Government, we need to encourage and support homeowners in every way we can to embrace retrofitting. Retrofitting will enable us to enjoy better health, lower utility bills, and increased comfort, while contributing to the economic and environmental security of our communities. While a significant money saver in the longer term, I appreciate that the initial cost of retrofitting, even with the available grant aid, remains prohibitive for many. That is why the National Retrofit Plan commits to introducing low-cost residential retrofit loans, and I am working with my Government colleagues to ensure that those loans can be launched at the earliest possible opportunity.
Some ‘old jobs’ are pivoting, and here I refer of course to Bord Na Mona. €590,000 has been committed to the Bord na Móna Employee Supports Training and Upskilling Project, to assist Bord na Móna workers to undertake up-skilling courses and prepare for other career paths and opportunities.
Furthermore, the Government has committed to investing up to €108 million in the Enhanced Decommissioning, Rehabilitation and Restoration Scheme, which will ultimately create over 300 jobs and will be delivered by Bord na Móna to rehabilitate 33,000 hectares over 80 Bord na Móna bogs. In 2021, the first year of this project, 19 rehabilitation plans were approved with works commended on 18 bogs. Plans for the 2022 campaign on a further 21 bogs in the Midlands region are well advanced.
As well as our bogs, our townscapes are changing too, thanks to many initiatives under Our Rural Future and Town Centre First policies. We are seeing enormous strides in our public transport and active travel infrastructure and broadband connectivity, and I know that we have more to do.
We face challenges in delivering a Just Transition, but a Just Transition done right, bringing communities along with us, also offers huge opportunities. I wish all panellists and participants today the very best of luck in discussing and debating how – led by Civil Society Organisations like those gathered here and online - we can capitalise on those opportunities in a way that delivers for the many, and not the few.
You can watch the conference here https://www.eesc.europa.eu/en/agenda/our-events/events/just-transition/webstream