Dáil debates

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Covid-19 (Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht): Statements


8:30 pm

Malcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)

This is national biodiversity week and the Minister will agree that the pandemic has slowed our pace of life, narrowed our scope of travel and silenced much of the noise around us. It has done so to a point where awareness of the living world around us has never been more acute. It is not just the big stuff, but insects, flowering plants and what is in rockpools. Incidentally, on entering Leinster House last week, I found a popular hawk moth on the ground and picked him up and put him somewhere safe. It is everywhere; it is in our cities, including here in the heart of Dublin.

We cannot say with certainty that the shutting down of economic and social life in Ireland has had a positive impact on biodiversity. Noticing nature more does not necessarily mean there is more of it about. What we do know, however, is that despite the best and vastly under-resourced efforts of conservationists, we are losing our wild plants, fish, insects, birds and mammals at an alarming rate. Last year, the House declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. At that time, the sixth report to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity painted a disturbing picture on the fate of global wildlife. In Ireland, a third of all bee species could be extinct by 2030, our butterfly populations have declined by 12% in a decade and more than half of our fresh waters are polluted. More than 90% of our protected habitats are classified as being of unfavourable conservation status, including our marine environment.

It is not all bad news, however. As a member of a local authority heritage forum for 16 years, I took part in some amazing work at local government level to raise awareness of our biodiversity. Our heritage officer network is, in my view, one of our great assets in promoting community engagement and participation in natural heritage. Heritage week is the culmination of that success in engagement. For a very modest outlay on the heritage officer programme, a great deal has been achieved.

In Kilkenny, we adopted Bombus hortorum, the garden bumblebee, as our county insect. Perhaps it was an obvious choice given that it is black and amber but it was not just a symbolic gesture, there was very real intent behind it. We also became the first local authority in Ireland to adopt the all-Ireland pollinator plan, a hugely successful initiative that needs to be expanded and adequately funded.

The National Biodiversity Data Centre is doing incredible work in promoting and mapping wild Ireland. I was fortunate to have been involved in several projects supported by the data centre; from Daubenton's bat surveys to the mapping of invasive species on the river Nore and her tributaries. An expansion of this citizen and science-led approach will have the dual benefit of filling in the gaps in data on species and increasing awareness and appreciation of our natural world. The void in our lives created by Covid can be filled and fulfilled by quieter time spent closer to nature.

I welcome the announcement yesterday by the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, that he will allocate funding for Tidy Towns groups throughout the country despite the cancellation of the 2020 competition. We are all aware of the amazing work being done by Tidy Towns groups throughout the country, particularly in the context of biodiversity, promoting no-mow areas, eliminating herbicide use and creating bug hotels and habitats for birds and bats. Tidy Towns, along with the green schools programme, is one of the great community-based environmental successes of recent years.

My colleague, Dr. Cathy Fitzgerald, an eco-social art practitioner based in Carlow, has stated:

Across the Irish Art Sector, we must urgently promote why independent cultural responses are vital alongside science in sustainability initiatives. Creativity has a key, if yet under-acknowledged role to inspire relevant Earthcaring values and practices to our communities, for all our futures.

She is referring to the role the arts community can play in encouraging a deeper awareness and consciousness of our natural heritage. Exploring such a notion within local authorities and within the Arts Council could help transform our relationship with nature and provide sustainable employment through arts practice development on ecological issues.

I hope that this can be explored further with whoever forms the next Government.

The national biodiversity expenditure review carried out by the NPWS found that there remains a historic underspend on biodiversity as a percentage of total Government expenditure. Within that spend, 80% is through agricultural subsidies, 10% operational costs and 6% on salaries. The disparity of spend between the State and local government is quite telling. Some 96.6% of all spend on biodiversity is by central government, with only 1.2% spent by local government. However, it is through local government actions that people and communities engage most on awareness and conservation. Even a modest increase in funding to local government and to the National Biodiversity Data Centre could be transformative. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, whose chief executive spoke at the national biodiversity conference at Dublin Castle just last year, recommends that countries spend at least 0.3% of GDP on biodiversity. We are way below that minimum. Agriculture accounts for 75% of Ireland's expenditure on biodiversity, through agri-environmental measures in subsidies. Some 90% of the spend was linked to terrestrial ecosystems, a shameful neglect of our marine ecosystems which are many times greater in extent. The scariest thing is that only 2% to 4% was linked to actual capital investment in nature. Capital investment in nature is what is needed to reverse biodiversity loss

When do we actually decide to take nature seriously and spend accordingly? When do we decide that nature, the web of life on which all humans depend, is a need to have, not just a nice to have? Do we need to wait for our pollinators to be threatened with extinction? Do we need to wait for the entire country to be a monoculture of rye grass and Sitka spruce? Can we say that now, in Biodiversity Week 2020, one year after the declaration in this House of a biodiversity and climate emergency, that we will transform how we fund and support through policy our biodiversity? I understand that the NPWS is working on a financial needs assessment to determine the level of expenditure that is needed to deliver the national biodiversity action plan. Funding to environmental NGOs must be increased through this.

Access to nature can be a refuge of healing and calm during these dark days. I would like to think we all value it more through this pandemic and would want our policy makers to invest in conservation and restoration. I do not doubt the commitment of the Minister towards nature but we need a renewed commitment in this House that we will not only halt biodiversity loss but enhance, conserve and protect our natural world with leadership and a shared vision.


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