Looking back on 2022

Dec 30

Looking back on 2022

December 30th 2022

Are we turning a corner? Or are we stuck in a dead end? Here’s a round up of what happened, and what didn’t, in 2022.

February saw the launch of ‘Fair Seas’, a coalition of groups, including the Irish Wildlife Trust, dedicated to the protection of 30% of our marine waters by 2030. Ireland has globally important ocean habitat yet this enjoys miserably low levels of protection. Fair Seas marks a significant increase in focus on the sea and, in their report ‘Revitalising Our Seas’, they have identified where the best current scientific data suggests our Marine Protected Areas (MPA) should be, a first for Ireland.

The government meanwhile is on track for passing legislation that would allow for the designation of MPAs and they published their draft law just before Christmas. We started 2022 with a shade over 2% of our seas within designated areas (Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas which do not provide the full level of protection a proper MPA would) but ended with a substantial increase, to approximately 8.3%, and, according to Minister for State Malcolm Noonan, we’re on track to exceed 10% in 2023.

These are hugely welcome developments but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that designation does not mean protection. We have yet to properly protect even the few marine areas we have designated so much remains to be done. In some good news, EU countries and the UK agreed this year to actual protection measures within MPAs in the North Sea which has seen a 98% reduction in bottom trawling on the Dogger Bank. Also, in October, the basking shark became the first marine fish to enjoy protected species status in Irish waters. Hopefully it will be the first of many.

In fisheries, the member states of the EU continue to show little inclination to abide by the environmental targets of the Common Fisheries Policy, which mandated that all overfishing was to end in 2020. In March, environmental group Client Earth announced that it was bringing legal proceedings against the EU for allowing overfishing to persist. It seems that politicians are content for the fishing industry to be abruptly shutdown (should this case be successful) rather than abide by the law and transition to low-impact fisheries.

The long-awaited reform of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) was announced in May. Change has been underway since 2021 with increases in funding and staff as well as internal restructuring. Minister Noonan also announced that six local authorities will be hiring biodiversity officers with more to follow. However, despite a welcome slew of successful prosecutions from the NPWS, there is still no sign of the much-needed Wildlife Crime Unit. The Office of Public Works seems to have dodged prosecution for unlicenced works to a nationally important bat roost at Emo Court, Co. Laois, showing that public bodies are held to a different standard to private individuals. The independent reviewers of the NPWS recommended that the NPWS should become new, semi-independent agency with a dedicated CEO, however progress on this has stalled.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss got underway in April but was unable to conclude its work due to the high number of recommendations which need to be voted on. It will meet again in January but has already shown that a strong desire exists among people to see radical action in this area. The assembly has already recommended that the Constitution be amended to include reference to biodiversity, opening the door to including rights to a healthy environment, or even rights for nature itself.

Radical action was also a hallmark of a cross-party Oireachtas committee on biodiversity which reported in November and included calls to end monoculture forestry, curtail bottom trawling, reform the Arterial Drainage Act and more. This report should feed into the creation of our forthcoming, and fourth, National Biodiversity Action Plan, which needs to also incorporate the recommendations from the Citizens’ Assembly.

At the National Biodiversity Conference in June, the IWT protested with Extinction Rebellion, calling for the creation of a Biodiversity Act which would put this plan on a legal footing, on a par with our Climate Act. In December, Minister Noonan announced that such a Bill would be brought forward in 2023. This is a vital step to break the cycle of publishing pointless plans that never get implemented.

On the ground however, the same old battles are being fought. April saw the reignition of ‘turf wars’ with proposals to limit the sale of turf. It ended in a meek compromise among the government parties that will probably do little to address the issues of pollution and habitat destruction at a time when we need to be keeping turf in the ground.

The long-overdue reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) proved to be a missed opportunity for transitioning agriculture to a nature and climate-friendly model. Environmental groups estimate that only 2-5% of the €9.8 billion of taxpayers money going to Irish farmers for the 2023-2028 period will actually result in positive impacts for the environment. The new ACRES agri-environmental scheme is still mostly ‘action based’ rather than ‘result-based’ although the areas where ‘results-based’ schemes will apply are a lot bigger than previously. On the plus side, from January 2023, a farmer can claim payments for up to half their land which has ‘non-productive features’ (e.g. wetlands, ponds, scrub or trees), thereby removing a significant driver of habitat destruction.

Water quality continued to deteriorate in 2022, largely driven by dairy expansion in the south and east, something that is not being tackled by the CAP. In June, An Taisce said it would take legal action against the proposed new Nitrates Action Plan while the third River Basin Management Plan, supposed to be the roadmap to get all of our waters to ‘good status’ by 2027 was not published as expected and is now due early in 2023.

A lot of work went into ‘Project Woodland’ in 2022, an initiative from Minister Pippa Hackett to address current problems in forestry as well as forging a path for a new scheme that will actually see tree cover increase over the coming decade. In November, she announced a significant boost in payments for those switching to forestry but, with the focus still firmly on monocultures and clear-felling, there is little sign that that major change is afoot. Extensive public consultation throughout 2022 showed people want their money to be spent on native forests, or nature-friendly commercial forestry, but despite 100% public funding, industry is showing no signs of reform. A new strategy from state-forester Coillte will deliver some rewilding but overall is not up to the task ahead.

Change is coming however. 2022 saw some of the worst extremes of climate collapse and a growing sense among the scientific community that the goal of keeping global increases in temperature below 1.5 degrees is lost.

With greenhouse gas emissions still increasing, we are on track for up to 2.6 degrees of warming by the end of the century.

The EU wants greater ambition and in June it proposed a new Nature Restoration Law which would place a legal obligation on member states to restore 20% of habitats by the end of the decade. The block has also adopted a new regulation to ban the importation of products arising from illegal deforestation.

Assertiveness from the EU can be viewed alongside the defeat of climate-criminal governments in Brazil and Australia in 2022, the loss of the far-right in France, and the passing in the US of the Inflation Reduction Act which proposes massive spending on clean energy.

December saw the global community agree on a new framework to protect and restore biodiversity. The COP15 ‘Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework’ was hailed an equivalent to the Paris Climate Agreement and sets some clear (and some not-so-clear) aims, most notably protecting 30% of land and sea by 2030. Substantial increases in funding from rich countries indicates the deal has some chance of success. Ireland has not signed up to protecting 30% of land while it is likely even our goal of protecting 30% of our sea falls short of what is actually needed.

Nevertheless, it was a high point upon which to end 2022. ‘The Environment’ is now a mainstream element of political discussion, even if the media is 5-10 years behind on its coverage of biodiversity issues (RTÉ barely covered the COP15 event despite its huge importance). Even so, the link between climate and biodiversity is ever more established.

2022 saw some important movement on the nature agenda both in Ireland and internationally. Yet, on the big issues of farming, forestry, peat and fisheries – the movement is not so much on the political side but the increasing evidence that these industries are losing their social contract to operate (commercial peat extraction has already fallen; forestry and fishing are crippled; dairying is looking increasingly precarious).

For those looking for hope, look at the shift in public opinion. The Citizens’ Assembly shows that people are now far ahead of politicians in seeing the need for action.

Pádraic Fogarty