30 years of plans… and counting

May 28

30 years of plans… and counting

May 28th 2022

Next month (June) will mark the 30th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit. That’s right, 30 years. In 1992, when I was just finished my first year in college and heading off for a summer of fun in Munich, thousands of delegates from across the globe were heading for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the biggest ever gathering of world leaders on the subject of the environment. The speeches were fulsome and, we now know, hollow, but serious work was done. The main legacy of the Earth Summit were the three international treaties on climate change, biodiversity and desertification and the periodic ‘conference of parties’ (COPs) that hobble along on to this day. The treaty on biodiversity was formally known as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and its aim was to halt the loss of nature that was then glaringly apparent.

Article 6 of the CBD stipulated that signatories would prepare national Biodiversity Action Plans (BAPs) and report back on progress. It took a whole decade from the Rio meeting for Ireland to publish its first BAP which was prefaced by then-minister Síle de Valera, stating:

Biological diversity – the variety of life on Earth – is experiencing serious and accelerating losses. This National Biodiversity Plan sets out the framework through which Ireland will provide for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity over a five year period.

But the main text of the plan started off on the wrong foot:

The Biodiversity Plan spells out a range of measures, involving significant costs, and the time-scale within which they might be implemented. These measures will be considered in due course in the context of available resources.

This, remember, was 2002, the age of the Celtic Tiger, the building of motorways and a level of conspicuous spending that the German ambassador would describe as ‘course’. The emphasis on ‘significant costs’ and how measures ‘might’ be implemented ‘in due course’, even in this time of plenty, would be prophetic. Ireland’s BAP, like the CBD from which it came, was never legally binding. You could say this doomed it from the get go and certainly the language in the BAP did not inspire any sense of urgency or commitment. Nevertheless, some useful actions were identified, including:

  • To ensure all relevant plans and programmes and all new legislation, and key existing legislation, incorporates provisions requiring the conservation of biological diversity;
  • Create biodiversity units or posts within relevant Government Departments and State agencies whose functions will include the preparation of biodiversity action plans within the framework of the National Biodiversity Plan;
  • Introduce legislation to provide a legal basis for National Parks (and other heritage properties) and, if necessary, introduce a National Parks and Heritage Properties Bill;
  • Review previously proposed Natural Heritage Areas and designate as appropriate under the Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2000;
  • Elaborate and publish a framework for the selection and designation of future Natural Heritage Areas;
  • Prepare and implement site specific conservation plans and other plans (e.g. Commonage Framework Plans) with particular reference to Natura 2000 sites, NHAs, Nature Reserves and National Parks in consultation with affected landowners and the public;
  • Establish a comprehensive programme to monitor the condition of protected areas;
  • Ensure the new approach to hedgerow management for wildlife under the REPS scheme is implemented throughout the country, and that penalties for any removal of hedgerows are applied.

To this day, not one of these actions have been progressed. And it’s not an exhaustive list of forgotten promises in the first BAP. Which is not to say that no action was progressed. It’s true that some local authorities developed their own biodiversity action plans while a Biodiversity Forum was set up and which continues to this day (the Environmental Pillar has two seats on it, one of which is taken by the Irish Wildlife Trust).

The Forum has been weak and largely ineffective but its finest achievement has been the production of a review of the third national BAP in 2021 which blasted the state as the ‘biggest transgressor of environmental law’ and called for much stronger measures to ensure implementation of these plans. Because it is the case that not only the first BAP went largely unimplemented but also the second (published in 2011) and the third (published 2017).

That third plan has now expired and the government, led by Minister of State Malcolm Noonan in the Department of Housing, Heritage and Local Government, is setting about writing the fourth. Next week (June 8th and 9th) will see Noonan and his colleagues lining up at the National Biodiversity Conference, which is being used as a promotion of this fourth BAP.

It will be a difficult task to engage with this exercise without a sense of fatigued cynicism. For a start, apart from the 2021 report from the Biodiversity Forum there has been no analysis as to why we are failing so miserably. There has been no formal response from Minister Noonan to the Forum’s recommendations and past reviews of the implementation of the plans has been carried out by the same people who wrote it. What, in short, is going to be different this time? The answer is: we don’t know, maybe nothing.

We do know that for a plan of this importance to succeed it needs legal backing, just like the Climate Action Plan. A new Biodiversity Act will need to set out where the responsibility lies for implementing the plan, something which, like the Climate Plan, requires an ‘all of government’ response. The role of the opposition parties and the Joint Oireachtas Committee will be key – no previous minister has been asked to appear before the JOC to account for the failings of the BAP, so not only has there been no implementation but there has been no accountability either. Just like we now have ‘carbon budgets’ perhaps we need a series of hard and fast biodiversity targets with timelines, notwithstanding that biodiversity is a much harder thing to measure than greenhouse gas emissions.

The tagline for the Biodiversity Conference is ‘Act Now for Nature’ but there is precious little sign of action. Those of us who remember the Rio Earth Summit 30 years ago might recall a modicum of hope that the abuse of nature would come to an end. That it has gotten so much worse has led to a cynicism that is compounded by the ever-growing heap of reports with all their broken promises. I am personally not interested in seeing a 4th plan, what I want is to know when we are we really going to act for nature.