NI's environment strategy: have your say

18 Sep 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 18 Sep 2019

Pic: Unsplash
Work has started on developing an environmental strategy for Northern Ireland, at long last.

Whilst there is no prospect of it being implemented without a government in place, it at least gives us all a chance to express our views on the most pressing policy matter of all: how we combat climate change and create a sustainable future for the generations to come.

The Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has just opened a consultation which can be accessed here. There is also an online form to give feedback.

Many will find the report strong on vision and what it would like to achieve. Sadly it is not so clear on how that might be delivered. It wants a “living, working, active landscape valued by everyone” and points out that this contributes to pretty much every aspect of our Programme for Government: “Ultimately, health and prosperity depend on our natural environment. Achieving economic growth at the cost of its degradation through over-exploitation or pollution is not sustainable.”

It goes on to explain how progress will be measured, as follows:

• Greenhouse gas emissions;

 • % household waste that is reused, recycled or composted;

 • nitrogen dioxide concentration at monitored urban roadside locations;

•  Levels of soluble reactive phosphorus in our rivers and levels of dissolved inorganic nitrogen in our marine waters (run off from farming);

• Biodiversity.

The report describes progress to date on these as a “mixed bag”. That is being generous.

In terms of greenhouse gas the latest figures show Northern Ireland is currently responsible for 4% of the UK total. The UK Climate Change Act commits the UK to at least an 80% reduction by 2050 (from 1990 levels). Our emissions decreased by 17.9% from 24.3 to 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent between 1990 and 2017. The biggest two sources are agriculture at 27% and transport at 23%.

Agriculture happens to be at once a vital driver of the economy and our biggest source of pollution. Two greenhouse gases it produces are  methane which is produced by cows and their manure and nitrous oxide which comes from fertiliser, urine and dung.

There is a solution. If we aligned farming to health priorities: eating less and better meat and more locally grown fruit and vegetables then we would see a reduction. But this would require a new partnership between farmers, the retail industry and shoppers to ensure that producing more plant based and healthier food is profitable. That will require incentives from government but there is a potential for simultaneously improving health and well-being and the sustainability of a profitable, less polluting industry. Farmers must be paid a fair price for their produce. It is a massive challenge.

Transport is an equally difficult nut to crack. It will involve significant attitudinal change, a transformation of public transport. The statistics compiled by the Department for Infrastructure on how we travel to work and school show little room for optimism.

This is also played out in nitrogen dioxide statistics from roadsides. This gas is produced from car emissions and sadly there’s been little sign of progress. Eventually emerging technology should take care of that – but in the meantime the resulting pollution poses a significant health threat, especially in urban areas.

Household waste and recycling is one area where progress has been made. The household waste recycling rate was 48.1% in 2017/18, an increase from 44.3% the previous year. The tonnage sent for recycling recorded a new high of over 420,000 tonnes. The next step will be to make more progress on creating a circular economy, whereby we start to use and exploit what we currently see as waste as an asset, analysed here.

River pollution from soluble reactive phosphorus which emanates from fertiliser is rising rather than falling, endangering fish and other water life. This should be a grave concern and a combination of robust enforcement action and education is required to reduce run off from farming.

These are all complex challenges. They cannot be solved by DAERA alone – but require concerted action across all government. They will also need the support of the public – and this is crucial.

We have seen a significant rise in public awareness and activisim over single use plastic. There are signs of growing awareness of the impacts of climate change and the absolute imperative to act.

These problems are the responsibility of all of us – they affect what we eat, how we travel, what we wear, every aspect of our lifestyles.

What will be necessary for government will be to increase understanding.

A big positive in this respect is that every school in Northern Ireland takes part in the international Eco-Schools initiative – the first region in the world to achieve this. Young people are leading the way in understanding and becoming active in protecting the environment. It is their future and the appetite for change amongst that generation is inspiring.

However this yet to be  mirrored by adults, and it needs to be. So therefore there needs to be investment in education for older generations as well.

The report states: “The purpose of this document is to give you, the people who will be affected by the decisions taken in the future, an opportunity to express your views on what our environment should look like in the future, what our environmental priorities and objectives should be, and how we should achieve them.”

Yet governments, both national and regional need to lead the way. That means providing incentives to change, not just regulation to stop harmful activity. Sustainability needs to be worthwhile.

One example from elsewhere. The Amazon rain forests are being destroyed in order to provide land to grow crops. This is because those responsible can turn a profit from a field of soya beans but not from a mature tree. Similar devastation is happening in West Africa. Yet the long term damage is severe – not just in terms of global climate change but locally too. When rain forests come down the local climate gets drier and hotter and the land less and less productive. So therefore incentives need to be provided to preserve them. There is already than enough food for everyone in the world to eat well. It’s just that it is inefficiently produced, there are extraordinary levels of waste and it is unfairly distributed.

Nurturing the environment is a global problem and every region needs to play its part. The strategy consultation is an important step for Northern Ireland. Yet it will not be worth the paper it is written on unless it is followed up by bold action and a concerted attempt across government to build partnerships with business, farmers and the general public.

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