Could this be a super year?

May 15

Could this be a super year?

Yesterday (May 14th) marked the first full day of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, nearly three years since the idea was first mooted on the very same day the Dáil declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. Hardly an emergency response but a welcome development all the same. 100 citizens have been chosen as a cross section of Irish society to deliberate over the coming six months on appropriate measures the government should take in response to the ecological crisis.

The proceedings are well worth a watch, particularly for anyone new to the issue and included overviews of Ireland’s rich natural heritage and the international context of collapsing climate and natural ecosystems. After watching a mesmerising video of some of our finest natural spectacles, one lady asked the expert panel: “I know we’re talking about biodiversity loss here and everything, but aren’t we starting from a good baseline in Ireland?.. I mean, shouldn’t we be talking about enhancing what we have? It’s not all bad news… like we have fantastic nature, and there’s a huge amount of biodiversity in Ireland… isn’t there?”

Her question hit on a central paradox that campaigners have faced for decades. Nature is beautiful and inspires wonder and it is all around us if we care to pay attention. And yet the ecosystems upon which it depends are unravelling, indeed natural ecosystems in Ireland have already collapsed. Beautiful video footage of animals in their natural habitat has, perversely, an anesthetising impact upon the viewer. Footage of the pollution and destruction that we have wrought on our land and seas, on the other hand, are an instant turn off. Like watching animals being slaughtered in an abattoir, it is too painful for many to engage with, even though we all know what’s going on.

Over the coming months the participants on the Citizens’ Assembly will no doubt grapple with these conflicting emotions. It will be painful for many but we must hope they stay engaged and use their emotional response to craft recommendations that ultimately turbo charge the government response. Because some kind of a turbo charge is what’s needed.

The launch of the Citizens’ Assembly comes just over a week after Minister Malcolm Noonan finally published the independent review of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the action plan for reform. This is something the Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) has been campaigning for since the runup to the 2020 election and the recommendations are very close to what we’ve been asking for.

There will be a new, semi-autonomous agency with its own identity. Finally, we will have an appointment of a single chief executive to lead the agency and this, we hope, will be a fresh face. The new leader must inspire confidence in the staff as well as the wider public and we trust that Minister Noonan will choose wisely. At a meeting with NGOs after the announcement, he told us that there would be 60 urgent appointees while there would also be an immediate review of the future staffing needs. A new name for the agency hasn’t been decided but this will be an important part of its new identity.

After the long delay in getting cabinet approval for the reform, the minister and his team seem determined to get on with the task and, while there is an enormous amount of work to be done, I felt a sense of optimism that I haven’t felt in some time. In fact, this reform is a lot more significant than perhaps is widely appreciated. Certainly, the media didn’t know what to make of it and it would have been nice to see more analysis of what this means for the future of nature conservation in Ireland.

In fact, the Citizens’ Assembly and the reform of the NPWS are not the only reasons for cheer. In recent weeks we have seen the launch of important projects, co-funded with the EU’s LIFE fund, for the protection of blanket bog and coastal machair habitats. In fact, the NPWS reform will have a multiplier effect as greater capacity leads to greater ability to tap into various funding streams so that we see more of these types of projects.

And change in other areas, however agonised, is underway.

The coming months will see the finalisation of Ireland’s CAP Strategic Plan. Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has come under pressure from the EU after the plan they submitted was lambasted by the Commission for lacking ambition and targets for addressing environmental issues. Even Minister McConalogue, who has been repeating ad nauseum how Ireland’s ‘sustainable’ agricultural policy is the ‘envy of the world’ must be realising that we are nearing the end game. Scarcely a week goes by without a bailout for or one sector or another while it looks like taxpayers will once again be asked to cough up to fund emissions reductions in the diary herd. How close to collapse is our farming system?

Another industry with its best days behind it is fishing. The IWT (along with Coastwatch) represents the Environmental Pillar on a review group of the Common Fisheries Policy. This will report to Minister McConalogue in June. Like agriculture, the fishing industry is facing multiple stressors that it is facing with a combination of denial and defiance. While the review is unlikely to result in the radical change to how we manage our seas that we need, it may highlight how, like agriculture, the current system is on the verge of collapse. It’s a shame this can’t be done in an ordered way but, like peat extraction, a disorderly, messy unravelling is now the mostly likely outcome.

A system that has already collapsed is forestry and this summer will see the publication of the new Forest Strategy. The IWT sits on Minister Pippa Hackett’s ‘Project Woodland’ and, within that, a working group established to draft a new vision and strategy out to 2050. A lot of work has gone into this and despite the fact that bad practices, such as replanting of conifers on peat, continues, there is reason for hope. There is broad support for an ambitious increase in forest cover while a draft survey of attitudes by Irish Rural Link recommends that we find a forest model that doesn’t include clear-felling. In fact, it is hard to see how we can have a credible strategy that doesn’t include a combination of rewilding and a phase out of clear-felling. While industry leaders continue to put the minister under pressure to find a quick fix for the licencing backlog, in reality they know that such a fix doesn’t exist. A detailed review of the licencing system by Philip Lee Solicitors has only emphasised the need to comply with environmental law, particularly the Birds and Habitats Directives and the Water Framework Directive. Their attempt to present this issue as one of excessive ‘red tape’ will go nowhere.

The coming 6-7 months will bring clarity to a lot of these issues. June will see a national biodiversity conference and the launch of a consultation on the fourth (yes, fourth!) National Biodiversity Action Plan. It has already been an incredibly busy time for environmental groups trying to keep up with developments but it is essential that we do so. People who are already worn out making submissions to public consultations that are paid little heed will, once again be asked for their views. Yes, there’s a temptation to succumb to cynicism but we cannot afford to disengage at this crucial time.

2022 could we prove to be a super year for nature if the policy planets come into alignment. The reform of the NPWS is a significant win for the environmental movement and there is momentum on our side. Now is no time to slow down!

15th May 2022