NED: Sustainable revamp of policy to protect nature vital to State's future stability

Immediate Release

A sustainable revamp of State policy to protect nature is vital to tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis, Ireland’s largest environmental coalition told the Government at the National Economic Dialogue this week.

The Environmental Pillar – a coalition of over 30 national environmental groups – was represented by several expert members at NED that was attended by the Taoiseach and members of the Cabinet in Dublin Castle together with a range of social partners over the past two days.

The aim of the dialogue is to facilitate an open and inclusive exchange on the competing economic and social priorities facing the Government as they prepare for Budget 2020.

The key issues raised (see below for detailed commentary) by the Pillar include the need for:

  • A high level stakeholder forum on climate action that includes nature-based solutions and better incorporates biodiversity protection into State climate policy
  • An update of the new All-of Government climate plan to include concrete biodiversity protection measures, including a National Hedgerow Conservation Strategy
  • A major increase in our extremely low level of marine protected areas and an urgent update of fisheries policy to a more sustainable model
  • A new forestry model based on native woodland over current failing clearfell non-native model
  • A Citizens Assembly session on how the State can act to halt biodiversity decline
  • A carbon tax increase that is delivered fairly and for the Government to drop its hypocritical stance on supporting fossil fuel exploration
  • A new biodiversity friendly agri-model thatmoves away from an over-reliance on intensive beef and dairy farming  The integration of Green
  • Public Procurement plans into Office of Government Procurement to drive greening of the whole supply chain

Stakeholder Forum and Marine Protection

Speaking yesterday, the Coordinator of the Pillar, Karen Ciesielski, called for the Government to launch a high level stakeholder forum on climate action that looks into the above issues if it is serious about the climate and biodiversity emergency.

She highlighted in particular the need to ramp up efforts to hit our international target of protecting 10 per cent of our waters by 2020. At present, she said, just over 2 per cent of Irish waters are protected, the second lowest percentage in Europe.

“We can and should be at the lead of the global movement to significantly increase our marine protected areas,” she said, warning that a lack of management plans and no restrictions on commercial fishing are worsening the situation.

“According to the New Economic Foundation, Ireland ranks as the Member State with the third, highest level of total quota above scientific advice. In 2019 Irish fishing limits are set 22 per cent above scientific advice. Ireland has set fishing quota over 700,000 tonnes above scientific advice since 2001,” Ms Ciesielski added.

She said that the State must “urgently change how we fish to a more sustainable model” that will protect dwindling species numbers while also reaping more long term economic benefits.

“It has been estimated that by setting quotas below scientific advice, Ireland would increase landings by 200,000 tonnes and €200 million in value compared to 2014,” she added.

“This would translate into greater profits, higher wages, and more jobs. Transitioning to more sustainable fisheries management is not just a moral or legal obligation but also the greatest opportunity available for us as an island nation to grow Ireland’s blue economy.”

Biodiversity Protection

Speaking on the issue of biodiversity protection, the Pillar’s Oonagh Duggan called for significant financial investment in biodiversity “as if our lives depended on it – because they do”.

She highlighted the latest CSO figures from 2016 that place biodiversity expenditure at just 134m euro, almost 50 per cent below the previous 10 year average.

A recent UCD review of national biodiversity expenditure found that direct spending on biodiversity from 2010 to 2015 amounted to €1.49 billion or 0.31 per cent of Government expenditure, well below the minimum 0.3 per cent recommended by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Ms Duggan detailed a number of recent national and international report that stress the “grave reality of biodiversity loss” with two-thirds of our wild bird species and one-third of our wild bee populations under threat in Ireland.

“The irony,” she said, “is that the primary sectors of agriculture, fisheries and forestry are ultimately dependent on ecosystem services such as pollinators , soil fertility, erosion control, marine habitats or inter-species interaction within the ecosystem.”

“An Irish Government report from 2008 conservatively estimated that Ireland currently benefits from at least 2.6bn worth of free goods and services from biodiversity,” she said.

While the new Climate Action Plan is broadly welcome, Ms Duggan said that the plan  “fell down” in terms of linking up nature based solutions with our new climate action policy.

“Significantly greater investment in peatland conservation, continuous cover and community based native woodlands and moving away from Sitka plantations will help tackle climate change as well as help biodiversity. A national hedgerow conservation strategy is essential and needs to be coordinated by Government and developed by stakeholders,” she added.

In addition, Ms Duggan said that it is “very regrettable” that the topic of biodiversity loss was not included in the latest round of topics for the Citizens’ Assembly, despite a recent motion that passing in the Dail for its inclusion.

Carbon Taxation

Speaking yesterday on the looming hike in carbon tax, the Pillar’s Oisin Coghlan said that environmental groups may have trouble promoting the tax increases if the Government continues to promote new fossil fuel exploration.

Mr Coghlan told the Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe that the Cabinet’s position toblock the Climate Emergency Measures Billthat would end the issuing of new fossil fuel exploration licences is “either immoral or implausible”.

Mr Coghlan added: “It’s not tenable that the Government would say to consumers and households that they will face increasing carbon taxes on using fossil fuels and at the same time continue to encourage fossil fuel companies to start new searches for oil and gas that wouldn’t come on stream until the 2030s, when we simply can’t afford to burn it.

“The most generous projections by the likes of the Governor of the Bank of England and the CEO of the International Energy Agency are that we have to leave at least two thirds of existing reserves of fossil fuels, already on the books of companies and states, in the ground to give ourselves a decent chance of keeping global warming to under 2 degrees.

“When the Irish Government says it still wants to issue licences for companies to start looking for more oil and gas that wouldn’t come on stream until the 2030s, it is either saying it is not serious about implementing the Paris Agreement to avoid climate chaos or it is saying that Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela of the US should forgo extracting some of the oil and gas they have already found in order that Ireland can have a share of the shrinking oil and gas pie.

“It is not too late for the Government to withdraw its assertion that a money message is required or to issue the money message and allow TDs get on with their job. Any legitimate concerns about property rights, energy security and our decarbonization pathway can be best dealt with in the legislative process itself, rather than by blocking that process and the will of the majority of the Dáil.”

Forestry Policy

Speaking on the issue of forestry this morning, Andrew St Ledger said that the Pillar wants to see a reappraisal of our current forestry model in order to meet the “mounting challenges of climate change, energy security, maintenance of biological diversity”.

At present, Mr St Ledger said, our current policy of “business as usual, industrial tree farming of mostly non native species” has left Ireland struggling to even maintain our level of 11 per pent forest cover, one of the lowest in the EU.

He said that we need a sustainably managed model focused on native woodlands that is designed to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of present and future generations in line with the aspirations outlined in the landmark 1992 Rio Declaration that Ireland signed up to.

Mr St Ledger added: “Thee Environmental Pillar is calling for the full implementation in Ireland of a comprehensive interpretation of Sustainable Forest Management based on what we have signed up to do.

“We need radical changes in the Forestry sector, including reform within the regulatory authority, the Forest Service who are too embedded in a timber industry led production policy.

“We need a defined three strand Forestry Programme, targeting, Timber production, Biodiversity conservation and enhancement, and Community/Urban native woodlands, with training for farmers and communities in small scale sustainable forestry management.”

Mr St Ledger decried the fact that the Government’s new climate plan fails to mention the words “native woodlands”, “native forests” or even “native tree species” despite their vital role in achieving sustainable forestry management and the fact that native woodlands are the most valuable land based habitat for biodiversity.

“Our native trees and forests are the foundation for biodiversity on this island, therefore it is incomprehensible to not see this reflected specifically within this new climate plan,” he added.