Later this year, June to be precise, will mark the 30th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit. It was a landmark event in the history of the environmental movement which resulted in the international treaties to end biodiversity loss and limit greenhouse gas emissions that remain the centrepieces of the global response to those issues.
The month before the gathering, Ireland’s then minister for the environment, Michael Smith (Fianna Fáil), opened a Dáil debate on the event proclaiming that “Ireland places a high value on its natural environment. Our clean and green environment is rightly perceived as sustaining the quality of life in this country” and that “despite the many difficulties involved, there are some grounds for optimism about the political willingness to address the challenges”.
His optimism was ill-placed. The intervening decades have seen levels of abuse of our lands and waters that would be best described as enthusiastic. Last month, in a speech to the Environment Ireland conference, an increasingly exasperated European Commission poured boiling scorn on Ireland for its abject failures to protect water and nature while striving to make our country increasingly hostile to environmental defenders.
Perhaps these words reached the ears of the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, who responded to his party colleague, West Cork TD Christopher O’Sullivan this week on the topic of a citizens’ assembly on biodiversity loss saying that it was “absolutely critical” that the government move on that matter with “speed and conviction”.
In May, it will be three years since the Dáil declared a climate and a biodiversity emergency. However, the response since then has been less “speed and conviction” and more inaction and breezy apathy. There’s no question that the arrival of the Greens in key positions has had an impact and that they have some significant wins to show for their time in office so far. But we cannot pretend that progress on the restoration of biodiversity, or even halting its destruction, is proceeding at anything but a snail’s pace.
For instance, the review and reform of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is the most important task we face in addressing the biodiversity crisis. This action was listed in the Programme for Government (PfG) but it took over six months for the start of this review to be announced. At the time we were told that this would be complete by June 2021 and indeed the independent reviewers completed their task on time. However, by the end of the summer there was still no sign of the report being published. We were told then it would be October, then the end of the year. Environmental groups met with Minister Malcolm Noonan in January when he assured us that the independent report, along with an action plan to implement its recommendations, will be published in “the second or third week in February”. If he sticks to his word, this will mark the end of an important phase (assuming the report that is published is unadulterated from the original) but there will then be a lengthy process of structural reform. The minister should be applauded for restoring funding for the NPWS to 2008 levels, but it is widely acknowledged that significant additional funding will be needed in the years to come. Will this transpire? At the pace we are moving it will be many years yet before we can say that we have a functioning and well-resourced nature conservation agency in this country.
In the marine sphere, it is not an exaggeration to say that nothing is being progressed on conservation objectives. Despite laudable commitments in the PfG to uphold the environmental aspects of the Common Fisheries Policy, agreed in 2013 – nearly a decade ago, there is no sense that Minister Charlie McConalogue or his officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) are interested in ending overfishing in our waters or ending the dumping of unwanted catches, both of which were to have ended in 2020 (in fairness, few of the national EU ministers are enthusiastic about these aims despite Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius trying to jolt them into action).
The legislation to allow for the creation of Marine Protected Areas was committed to by then minister at DAFM Simon Coveney in 2017 (he told us that a new law would be before the Dáil by the end of that year). We have been informed now that we might get to see ‘heads of bill’ of this legislation (that is, the draft of the new law), by Christmas. In reality that means some time in 2023, if we’re lucky, and that will only then mark the beginning of a process to actually identify MPAs and design appropriate management regimes. The results of an extensive public consultation which was carried out last year on MPAs was due to be published in October but there’s still no sign of it.
And this is just a flavour of the procrastination. A ‘threat response plan’ for endangered Hen Harriers is in preparation for nearly a decade with no sign of a publication date. Draft plans for the protection of Freshwater Pearl Mussels are awaiting finalisation since way back in 2009, while recommendations from an ‘emergency’ task force set up in 2017 to prevent the complete extinction of breeding Curlews from Ireland are still sitting on the minister’s desk. A Peatlands Strategy was published in 2015 claiming to finally resolve the myriad conflicts surrounding peat mining but remains largely unimplemented; a review was carried out last summer but has not been published. I could go on.
In September 2020 Micheál Martin signed the ‘leaders pledge for nature’ at the UN General Assembly committing Ireland “to undertake urgent action to halt biodiversity loss and put nature on a path to recovery by 2030”. In January 2021, Malcolm Noonan signed us up to the ‘high ambition coalition’ of nations “championing a global deal for nature and people with the central goal of protecting at least 30 percent of world’s land and ocean by 2030”. But we have no idea of what these pronouncements mean and the minister has refused to comment on whether the 30 per cent target on land will be implemented here (the marine target is in the PfG).
When the Taoiseach this week was committing to moving with “speed and conviction” he must surely have been aware that the idea for a citizens’ assembly on biodiversity loss was originally made nearly three years ago. Meanwhile, at the end of the year the role of Taoiseach will transfer to Leo Varadkar who will no doubt bring to the office his suffocating apathy for the environmental agenda that is such a signature of the Fine Gael party.
Way back in May 1992, Minister Smith told the Dáil that “Principles alone will not achieve results. Concrete measures are also necessary”. Above all else we are waiting for concrete measures.