Will the Citizens’ Assembly change anything?

Apr 08

Will the Citizens’ Assembly change anything?

Pádraic Fogarty 8th April 2023

This week’s publication of the Citizens’ Assembly report on Biodiversity Loss is a vindicating moment for environmental NGOs. Over the past year, 100 randomly selected citizens were given the task of making comprehensive recommendations on how we can reverse biodiversity loss, even though many of those at the first gathering may only have had the vaguest idea of what this was. Even the chair, Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin admitted that she was reluctant to take on the role as she knew too little about it.

It has been fascinating to watch the work of the Assembly, guided by the (all voluntary) expert group, as they followed an arc of realisation on the state of nature in Ireland via the litany of State failures to act on its own laws and policies. Ní Shúilleabháin described this as a “fundamental disappointment”.

Many of the subsequent recommendations are changes that NGOs have long been calling for while the report itself acknowledges the “critical role” our sector plays in the biodiversity crisis. One recommendation, for the State to increase its support for NGOs and community groups, was supported by 95% of the citizens. Given the attacks that NGOs have come under in recent years from politicians and sectoral lobbyists, this is a welcome endorsement for our work.

The Citizens’ Assembly report complements the publication last November of a similar report from the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Climate Action on the same topic, and which came up with broadly similar recommendations.

Every avenue for further analysis or report writing has now be thoroughly exhausted. Actually doing the things that need to be done continues to be the hard part and indeed much of the Assembly’s report has not been suggestions for radical transformation but reminding the government of the many things it has already said it would do.

So what hope is there that meaningful action will come out of this exercise? Five years ago, April 2018 to be precise, saw the publication of the Citizens’ Assembly report on Climate Change, and this may give us a clue.

This was tasked with “making Ireland a leader” in tackling climate change and revealed broad support for strong action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, reading these recommendations today shows that implementation has been mixed and many would feel that there is a way to go before we could consider Ireland a leader in this field.

Specifically, those recommendations in relation to land use, including incentivising diversification away from meat and dairy and imposing a tax on emissions from agriculture have made little headway. Indeed, such are the sensitivities around land use that sectoral ceilings for this sector have not even been published by the government.

The Assembly’s report on Biodiversity Loss similarly recommends levies on agricultural exports and retailers, to be ring-fenced for investment in biodiversity, something that is perfectly compatible with the principle that the polluter should pay. But Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney, chief architect of the agricultural expansion that has resulted in so much pollution and biodiversity loss over the last decade has already said he would be opposed to such a move. A suggestion that people “must be encouraged to consume a plant-based diet” will likely fall on deaf ears.

The low-hanging fruit are the recommendations to do things that the government has already agreed to, such as protecting 30% of the ocean in Marine Protected Areas by 2030 (in fact, the report is rather weak on the marine, with no mention of aquaculture or overfishing) or adequately funding Irish Water to upgrade wastewater treatment infrastrucutre.

One thing the government could do straight way is the suggestion to review all government departments and their role in implementing environmental law, and to identify why laws are being broken and who is responsible. A recommendation for there to be a senior minister with responsibility for biodiversity will likely not happen until the next election.

Legislative change will be needed to reform the Arterial Drainage Act and the Forestry Act and to review the functions of the Office of Public Works, Coillte and Bord na Móna. This requires strong political commitment, even the gap between saying that a law needs to change and actually changing it can be dragged out for years. But it can also happen quickly if the will is there.

As for the prospect of a referendum to change the Constitution to provide a right to a healthy environment as well as rights for nature, this is something that is not likely during the lifetime of this government.

In the very short term, the government could instruct Coillte to stop replanting conifer monocultures, especially on peatlands. Plans for a wind farm on the Shannon Wilderness Park should be scrapped. Fines for environmental crimes should be increased while crimes committed by State agencies can no longer be tolerated. Ending bottom trawling in existing marine protected areas would not be that hard (given how small they are) while the government, particularly Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue must stop his equivocation around the EU’s Nature Restoration Law. Instead, he should be actively looking for new sources of funding so that it would be seen as a significant investment in rural Ireland as well as ‘merely’ restoring biodiversity.

The report of the Citizens’ Assembly has given us something we haven’t had before: a strong mandate to prioritise biodiversity as an issue of national importance. The members of the Assembly have done themselves proud in their commitment to a complex issue and for the bravery in their recommendations. But there is no magic wand to make all of these things happen.

I believe this report accurately reflects the desire of Irish people to address biodiversity loss, but this on its own won’t be enough. We all need to engage more with the climate and biodiversity crisis in a way that makes it a personal issue and not only a national, or global one. That means supporting the politicians who will champion the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly.

We can all play our part, but the report this week couldn’t be clearer – we can’t address biodiversity loss until the State steps up.