Ladies and gentlemen, I am very happy to be here with you this morning.
The theme you are exploring today is how rural communities can deal with the climate challenge in a proactive and beneficial way.
This is a complex issue but above all it is a very timely issue, because in my experience, rural communities are intensely aware of the risks posed by climate change and they are champing at the bit to play their part.
In the climate debate rural areas are increasingly viewed as holding massive potential to provide solutions to the climate crisis. This is both correct and overdue.
Today I want to give you an overview of how the European Commission is approaching this question and what supports may be of interest to rural Irish stakeholders in the coming years.
There are already countless examples of Irish towns, villages and remote communities innovating and working together in this area. Let me give you just a few:
The Burren Project in Co. Clare is considered best practice in Europe when it comes to designing a smart and sustainable locally-based agri-environment scheme.
The town of Westport recently banned the use of plastic straws in bars and restaurants.
A number of our offshore islands are rolling out electric community vehicles.
And more and more rural households are availing of sustainable energy grants to retrofit their homes and upgrade their energy systems to renewable power sources.
These initiatives and hundreds of others like them are to be warmly welcomed. But the reality is that we need to do more, and we need to do it faster. A study released by the European Commission today confirms this fact: policy structures like the CAP have improved their climate performance significantly, but a "great leap forward" is urgently needed.
The intention of the European Commission is therefore to “aim higher” in relation to the contribution of European farming and rural areas to the EU climate and environment agenda.
The European Union and its Member States are the driving force behind the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
We are not only signatories to these critically important global agreements, in my view we are the best hope for making sure they are delivered.
Our citizens want the CAP and other policies to do more for the climate and environment and they support the European level as the right place to do it.
Politicians understand this: just look at how central the climate question has been in this year's local and European elections.
Or take the schoolchildren's climate strike, where tens of thousands of young people in over 100 countries took to the streets demanding climate action.
Our children, the custodians of our future, are laying down the challenge to us, and we must have the courage and foresight to respond.
If we understand the scale of the challenge, we need to develop policy solutions on a similar scale.
I believe the Commission's proposals for the future CAP and Horizon Europe represent the best hope for the future of our rural areas: they acknowledge that the environmental and climate challenges remain significant and they see farmers and rural communities as being part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Our CAP proposal puts on an equal footing the economic, social, environmental and climate goals of the policy, outlining nine specific objectives, three of which address the environmental and climate challenges.
The key innovation in our proposal is a new delivery model, which will replace the existing one-size-fits-all approach with a more flexible system. This new approach will allow greater freedom at national level to decide how best to meet common EU-wide objectives while responding to the specific needs of farmers, rural communities and wider society.
Our proposed new delivery model will provide Member States with the flexibility required to design interventions that most adequately fit their local situations and needs, and that can better contribute to the national climate strategies and targets.
Each national CAP Strategic Plan will be a roadmap to develop a coherent forward-looking strategy for “climate and agriculture”, both on adaptation and mitigation.
Crucially, farmers and rural communities will be rewarded for their climate action. A variety of mandatory and voluntary schemes and funds will be in place. The proper incentives need to be on offer if they are to do this work on behalf of society as a whole.
I would urge you all to familiarise yourselves with the new CAP delivery model, and make sure your voice is heard when the time comes to designing the Irish CAP Strategic Plan.
New Green Architecture
In practice the proposed tools for achieving the environment and climate objectives can be grouped into three main layers:
In the first layer, a new system of "conditionality" will link income support for farmers to the application of environment- and climate-friendly farming practices.
The next layer consists of "eco-schemes" funded under Pillar One. These eco-schemes must address the environment and climate objectives in ways that complement the other relevant tools available.
The third main layer of the new "green architecture" consists of payments under second rural development pillar. With these payments, various kinds of interventions can be supported, including particular practices in farming or forestry, and so-called agri-environment-climate schemes.
Both eco-schemes and rural development could be used to pay Irish farmers for going an extra mile on the climate agenda and for implementing climate friendly measures such as:
Precision farming optimizing the application of nutrients to plants.
Nitrification inhibitors to reduce the release of nitrous oxide when mineral fertilizer or manure is applied.
Preserving organic soils.
Soil cover and low tillage to increase soil organic content of arable lands
Deployment of anaerobic digesters to reduce GHG emissions and produce energy.
In addition Member States can continue to be able to use their rural development budgets to fund a range of other types of support, which are very relevant for the environment and climate - such as funding for knowledge transfer, eco-friendly investments, innovation and co-operation.
Horizon Europe & Bioeconomy
Other EU funds are ramping up their ambition too. A specific budget of 10 billion EUR from the new Horizon Europe programme will be set aside for research and innovation in food, agriculture, rural development and the bioeconomy.
The emerging circular and sustainable bioeconomy is a driver for climate-smart development and it can help to revitalise rural areas by creating additional outlets for higher value-added products as well as spurring innovation in the primary sector.
In the bio-based industries one million new jobs could be created by 2030, according to industry estimates.
Ireland’s food production capabilities provide a huge opportunity to create bioeconomy projects.
There are already established traditions in Ireland in the area of bio refining and the bioeconomy.
Innovative products based on biomass have a great potential to replace fossil-based materials: energy, textiles, plastics, chemicals including pesticides that have been fossil-based can be produced with biomass from agriculture and forestry.
This creates new and additional business opportunities, the potential of which is widely under-estimated.
New circular and sustainable models have being established valorising waste streams and creating diversified and additional income for primary producers, specifically in the livestock and milk production sectors.
The bioeconomy and the circular economy are those type of "why didn't we do it sooner" concepts: it's all about using the by-products and leftovers from farming and forestry to create new products.
The EU-funded flagship project AGRICHEMWHEY is a good example of the circular bioeconomy approach to agriculture and agro-food wastes. The location of the future flagship biorefinery plant and the new Irish National Bioeconomy Campus in Lisheen at the former zinc mining site symbolise the transformation of rural areas in Ireland.
Of course, none of the above can be achieved without people in rural areas. Many areas continue to experience rural depopulation, especially among the young.
We need to do more to turn that around. We need to promote generational renewal and entrepreneurship in rural areas. We need to make sure our rural communities remain vibrant, well serviced and well connected.
The good news is that the European Commission has a plan: our Cork 2.0 Declaration from 2016 for "a better life in rural areas" remains the blueprint for rural-proofing all relevant policy instruments.
Rural voices and the rural dimension to policymaking must be kept high on the agenda if we are to have a truly balanced development of the European Union. Training and access to advisory services is key to make sure many of the good ideas that exist in this space can also be adopted by farmers and other rural entrepreneurs.
Connectivity & Smart Villages
Connectivity is the key to many of these plans: reliable broadband is a prerequisite for rolling out precision agriculture, or more intelligent and energy-efficient homes and businesses.
Rural people must not be treated as second class citizens when it comes to connectivity. And how can we expect rural areas to provide the solutions without giving them the right tools?
It is essential that Ireland implements a rural broadband plan as quickly as possible in the interest of our economic competitiveness and in order to deliver a better quality of life for people in rural areas.
Other excellent initiatives are already taking place on the ground. I recently launched the Airband pilot project in Ballyhaise, Co. Cavan.
This is a fantastic example of a state body like Teagasc working with a technology company like Microsoft to delivering new solutions in relation to rural connectivity.
The partnership is, at its heart, around the potential for technology to help develop data driven approaches to farming, to help develop new skills for those involved in agriculture, and to look at the use of emerging technologies to support rural development, including the climate agenda.
We must also bear in mind that developing the infrastructure is only a first step: strategies need to be put in place to assist rural communities and businesses to make the most of connectivity.
With this in mind, I would encourage you to study the Smart Villages initiative. I believe this could be a suitable vehicle to ensure that rural Ireland develops its "connectivity potential" to the absolute maximum.
A number of Smart Villages pilot projects are underway across the EU, supported by both the Commission and European Parliament.
This could be the perfect policy vehicle to ensure that rural Ireland develops a sustainable plan to make the most of its improving connectivity, including in the fight against climate change.
In conclusion, dear friends, we can say with confidence that rural communities will be at the vanguard of the EU climate and environment agenda.
Conferences such as this one will be very important in relation to helping rural stakeholders get their ducks in a row to make the most of their potential.
I wish you the best of luck for today's conference and for your future plans. Thank you.