Pivotal

Author

John Martin

John Martin

Published

It is now just over 100 days since the Northern Ireland Assembly returned to much fanfare after a two–year hiatus. This is of course to be welcomed and it has been heartening to see the First and deputy First Ministers attending public events together, often crossing the political divide. 

The newly formed Executive has many challenges such as delivering the recently agreed budget, which will allow Ministers to start addressing issues such as hospital waiting lists, educational attainment, major infrastructure projects and social housing to name a few.

The summer of 2023 put Northern Ireland into the headlines again, but not necessarily for the right reasons. The explosion of blue green algae in Lough Neagh which resulted from a wet winter and spring, flushing agricultural runoff, domestic and industrial pollution into the lough, which was then activated by a warm May and June. A perfect storm perhaps, however a signal from our environment on the neglect of one of Northern Ireland’s most highly protected places. The new DAERA Minister, Andrew Muir, has rightly prioritised action on Lough Neagh as it is clear that current environmental governance has failed to protect the lough for present and future generations. The Minister is also correct to use tempered public rhetoric on the timeframes involved in restoring the lough. No quick fixes are available, and this will be a challenge over decades instead of years. 

The result of a recent ‘Biodiversity Intactness Index’ should give us further pause for thought. The ‘Index’ is a tool for figuring out the amount of nature a country has lost over time, and it placed Northern Ireland 12th and Ireland 13th from bottom. Out of 240 countries that is 228th and 227th. The lowest in the G7. The relegation zone for want of a better term. The most recent State of Nature report also showed that in Northern Ireland 12% of species assessed are now at risk of extinction. Some examples include 97% of wildflower meadows lost in the last 50 years and species such as the basking shark, the darting Irish damsel fly, the freshwater pearl mussel and puffin at risk of extinction. This begs the question. Are we happy enough to suppose that future generations will only see these species in storybooks? Spoiler alert, I’m not. 

The DAERA Minister alone has a number of hugely significant statutory deadlines to meet which could help turn some of these declines around. One such deadline is that of Northern Ireland’s first Environmental Improvement Plan which was missed last July and is awaiting NI Executive approval. The Climate Change Act also has a number of deadlines to meet this year such as publishing departmental Climate Action Plans, consulting on the role of a Climate Commissioner and putting plans in place for a just transition. Other strategies due for publication include a seabird conservation strategy, peatland strategy, nature recovery strategy, green growth strategy and the implementation of a new agricultural policy, all of which were put in place by the previous DAERA Minister. 

However, as good and as important as strategies are, non–binding targets have failed leaving Northern Ireland environment in a poor state. So it begs the question – is it time for targets in law for nature’s restoration? The answer is inevitably yes and long overdue. The Environment Act in England brough forward 6 legally binding targets to halt the decline is species populations by 2030, restore water bodies, increase tree planting, half waste, reduce air pollution and restore marine protected areas. Wales are currently working on a white paper setting out proposals for a new statutory nature recovery framework and the introduction of legally binding nature targets in Scotland was an element of the Natural Environment Bill due to forward in late 2024. The EU are also close to bringing forward the Nature Restoration Directive which will be applicable in Ireland. 

As we edge closer to the 2030 deadline to halt biodiversity loss, we need strong political leadership and ambition to match that challenge. The Northern Ireland Assembly has a once in a generation opportunity to set us on a more sustainable path and future generations, our economy and our nature will thank us for it. Will they take it? I certainly hope so. 

John Martin, Head of Policy and Advocacy, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Northern Ireland

 

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