The government recently celebrated a year in office. The IWT supported the Programme for Government (PfG) on the basis that – if implemented – it would set us on a course to addressing the biodiversity emergency. Green Party leader and minister for Transport Eamon Ryan, has said that it is the greenest PfG in Europe and few could suggest that it isn’t the most nature-friendly PfG we’ve ever seen (granted, it’s a low bar). How has the year gone? Are we, as we hoped, on our way to addressing the biodiversity emergency? Before giving my assessment, it’s important that a couple of caveats are laid down.
Firstly, the IWT supported the PfG, that is, the document that was presented in black and white. We are an apolitical organisation and so it was not a decision to support any political party, though clearly having backed the PfG we supported Green Party members in approving it (there was very little debate within Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil around this in comparison). As such, this analysis looks at the government’s implementation of the PfG and it is not a critique of the Green Party or their role within the government. The Green Party obviously pushed for many of the policies that we supported but it cannot be their responsibility entirely to get everything over the line.
Secondly, the government inherited a mess in terms of environmental action. While the previous administration slow pedalled implementation of climate commitments, it actively undermined efforts to address biodiversity issues (e.g. the Heritage Bill or defunding the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS). Building new structures and institutions take time and the foundations are only now being put in place.
Also, there many facets to environmental action, not least promoting active travel, decarbonising energy networks, the circular economy, retrofitting buildings etc. These are important, but I don’t intend to go into these areas so my focus here is on what the PfG has delivered so far for nature.
The Climate Bill, expected to be passed by the Dáil very shortly, is no doubt the most significant achievement for the government and it has benefited from cross-party support as well as enhancement by parliamentarians of all stripes at what is termed ‘pre-legislative scrutiny’. This process has proved to be invaluable and has greatly improved the bill from its first draft. From a biodiversity point of view, there are provisions to fund nature-based solutions while setting carbon budgets which will apply to agriculture, pollution from which urgently needs to be addressed (more on this later). Although not directly related to biodiversity, the new Act will set us up to finally face up to our climate obligations and will have knock-on impacts for land use more broadly.
Here are the principle nature-related promises in order of appearance in the PfG:
“Progress the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity”
There has been no progress on this head. Climate Case Ireland recently wrote an open letter to the government calling for the Citizens’ Assembly to be prioritised and for the Constitution to be amended to include the right to a healthy environment.
“Review the remit, status and funding of the NPWS”
Earlier this year the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, under Minister Malcolm Noonan, carried out this review which included a period of public consultation. I hear there were around 3,500 submissions which is a very healthy number for an exercise like this. The review has been completed as far as I know, and it was due to be published in June. This hasn’t happened for reasons which are unclear. Reforming the dysfunctional NPWS is probably the most important thing that needs to be done to address the biodiversity crisis (imagine dealing with Covid-19 without NPHET). If we don’t get this right, we’ll be on the back foot for another decade.
“Seek reforms to the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] to reward farmers for sequestering carbon, restoring biodiversity, improving water and air quality, producing clean energy, and developing schemes that support results-based outcomes.”
The CAP negotiations concluded only in the last week. Minister for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue, was particularly unimpressive in his public statements in the run up the final deal, not once (that I heard of) acknowledging the climate and biodiversity crisis. Repeated use of the phrase ‘maximum flexibility’ can be read as keeping as much of the money for doing as little as possible and so that is a concern in the run-up to Ireland development its own CAP plan. BirdLife, a Brussels-based eNGO, described the new CAP as a “giant step towards killing nature” so the omens are not good.
There has been some progress towards a new results-based programme for Irish farmers to replace the Green Low-carbon Agri-environment Scheme (GLAS) with the Results Based Environment Agri Pilot Programme (REAP). The scheme was over-subscribed which shows that farmers are keen to do their part. A separate results-based initiate was launched for farmers with peat soils and that is positive. A new soil survey has been launched which is very welcome but a proposed national hedgerow surveys and a “baseline biodiversity survey of every farm” have not progressed.
Farming is obviously the hot potato when it comes to land use in Ireland and there is huge resistance to change. Having said that, what ‘change’ means for farmers has not been explained so the fear is understandable. The government needs to do a better job of mapping out what the future holds for farmers.
Changes to eligibility rules (which encourage the removal of wildlife habitat on farms) are also referred to in the PfG and my sense is that we will see this change once Ireland finalises its CAP plan. How far this will go we don’t know but one suggestion is that it will apply to only 30% of a farm area. It needs to be a lot higher and, in some circumstances, 100%, although likely this would mean moving out of CAP and into another scheme such as forestry or peatland restoration.
The new agri-food policy to 2030 has yet to be signed off by the government but it is evidently not compatible with meeting climate and biodiversity targets. It envisages yet more growth in output when we need to be doing the opposite.
So, so far, the government seems to be set on pulling in opposing directions when it comes to farming. The row over An Taisce and the cheese factory in Kilkenny shows clearly that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have no interest or ideas when it comes to how farming is to adapt to the coming changes.
“The government will undertake a national land use review”
Where should we rewild, where should we promote forestry, high nature value farming or peatland restoration? Up to now these goals have been in competition with one another and increasingly the need for land use planning is seen as a way to resolve these potential conflicts. A new mapping exercise from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ordnance Survey Ireland will provide a level of detail that we have never before seen, something that will be invaluable. However, although Eamon Ryan has referred to this goal on a number of occasions, there has been no obvious progress on a plan itself. We don’t know what it will look like, how it will work or how it might influence policy.
“Publish a successor forestry programme to deliver an ambitious afforestation plan”
The forestry sector is in an acute crisis largely because it has not been in compliance with environmental law. There are no short-cuts to addressing the immediate issues of licencing and it may take another few years to sort this out fully. Minister Pippa Hackett has established ‘Project Woodland’ (IWT has a seat on this) and it has brought the various parties together. There has been a lot of taking but the outcome is far from clear. There have been no obvious changes to the cycle of monoculture planting and clear-felling for those operations that can get through the licencing system and communities will live with these decisions for another four or five decades. A successor forestry programme is probably a year off and it remains unclear how radical a change a new regime will bring. Nevertheless, my sense is that a radically transformed forestry sector is on the cards.
The PfG says that state forestry company Coillte’s remit should “support the delivery of climate change commitments and the protection of biodiversity”. There is so far no indication that this is being addressed. Coillte Nature is being expanded to include legacy plantations in the west of Ireland, which is great, but if the potential scale of this is to be achieved the government needs to step in.
“Extend the badger vaccination programme nationwide and end badger culling as soon as possible”
Badger vaccination is being rolled out, albeit slowly, and the numbers of badgers being killed is coming down but remains around 5,000 per annum. I represent the IWT on the TB Forum and there’s no indication that pressure is coming from the government to accelerate this to the point where culling will end any time soon.
“We are fully committed to the environmental objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy”
Somebody please tell Charlie McConalogue. The fishing industry is in a tailspin due to Brexit and allegations of illegal fishing resulting in changes to rules on how fish can be landed. There’s a lot of money swishing around and talk of using this to tie up boats. However, there is no talk that this should be done to help end overfishing and stop dumping unwanted marine life, as stipulated in the CFP. If anything the level of overfishing is getting worse and there is no indication that the government is planning anything but business as usual.
“We will realise our outstanding target of 10% under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive as soon as is practical and aim for 30% of marine protected areas [MPAs] by 2030.”
There has been a lot of talk about MPAs in recent weeks, but so far that’s all it has been. While a new planning framework for development in the maritime area has been rushed though, there is no such urgency in protecting our precious marine biodiversity. An expert report on MPAs (initiated under the last government) was not published until early this year, and an exceptionally long (five months!) public consultation will conclude only at the end of July. Who knows when we’ll see the outcome of this consultation while new legislation to define an MPA in law is at best a year away. Existing MPAs remain woefully mismanaged while we don’t even have criteria for deciding where MPAs should go. In the marine area in general, there has been no meaningful action from the government since its formation.
Like I say, a year is not a long time to deal with the issues left by the previous government. It is also fair to say that a lot has changed in the past 12 months and we have to hope that this momentum will be maintained. Based on the work that has been done it is not unreasonable to believe that by the summer of 2022 we will have a new nature conservation agency, a Climate Act with legally binding emissions reductions targets for agriculture, a CAP plan that rewards nature-friendly farming and rewildling, and an ambitious forestry programme that is close to nature. All this still requires a leap of faith. Meanwhile, the lack of urgency in protecting the marine environment is a big worry; at this rate it could be years before we see any meaningful action. And that’s the thing. We don’t have forever. This week Greta Thunberg eviscerated political leaders for acting on the climate and ecological crises – not real action of course; performance action. I’m looking forward to the real action phase of this government programme.