Tuesday, 26 June 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions
National Risk Assessment
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 7 together.
As previously indicated, the national risk assessment is an annual exercise, which aims to ensure a broad-based and inclusive debate on the strategic risks facing the country. It focuses on the identification of risks and is not intended to replicate or displace the detailed risk management and mitigation that happens across Departments and agencies in respect of individual risks.
As in previous years, my Department, working with a cross-departmental steering group, prepared the initial draft of this year’s report. The draft also reflects feedback from the open policy debate in April where representatives from business, media, research and education institutions, civil society groups and the public sector were invited to discuss a draft list of risks. Following approval by the Government on 22 May, the draft was laid before the Oireachtas and published for public consultation. The draft report is published and available to read on my Department’s website. The public consultation period closed last week.
The draft report includes some new risks this year, including the impact of social media on public debate and the risk of overheating the economy. Existing risks have also evolved. For example, the risks arising from Brexit have developed significantly and remain prominent. Other risks include international uncertainties around tax and trade, increasing expectations for higher public expenditure, infrastructure constraints, housing supply and affordability problems which persist. As in previous years, risks around climate change and the need for a secure and diverse energy supply present significant challenges for Ireland. They do so in terms of achieving national and international targets, mitigating our emissions and adapting to the effects of a changing climate. The cost of delayed action is discussed as a major factor in this risk.
While biodiversity is not listed as a separate risk in its own right, the potential impact of climate change on our ecosystems is recognised in the climate change section of the draft report. In particular, this section highlights the potential of climate change to cause changes in the distribution and time of lifecycle events of plant and animal species on land and in the oceans. Actions to tackle climate change will help maintain the integrity of our ecosystems and, therefore, ensure the natural biodiversity present in these ecosystems is protected. The draft report also highlights the need to invest in new economic opportunities in the bioeconomy, which recognises environmental sustainability, including biodiversity, as a core principle.
Finally, the report also notes the need to decouple economic growth from adding to environmental pressures such as climate change and declining biodiversity. Following the conclusion of the public consultation stage last week, the list of strategic risks and the 2018 report will be finalised and published in July. The purpose of the consultation is to encourage debate on strategic risks, and the views of Oireachtas Members are a welcome input to that discussion.
I asked that the risk to biodiversity be included in our debate on this issue last year. I asked that it be included again this year, and I made a submission through the consultation process to that end. In my lifetime we have lost half of the mass of wildlife, including invertebrates, on this planet. Half of the wildlife in the world has disappeared. We are at risk of losing 37 bird species, one third of our bumblebee species, salmon, eel and the freshwater pearl mussel, among other species, in this country. We tend not to notice these because they are small or hidden or take place over time. However, some day we will wake up and realise that all the other risks were minute compared to the risk of humanity inhabiting a planet where the natural world has been destroyed, frayed and torn apart.
Biodiversity is connected to climate, given the loss of habitat due to climate change. Loss of biodiversity will give us an indicator as to how we are doing on climate change. We need to take loss of biodiversity seriously, not for economic reasons but for reasons of our very sanity and of our sense of the world we are living in. We need a national land use plan. We need to stop burning the hills and cutting the hedgerows, which is what the Government is trying to pass legislation on at the moment. Such a move will destroy habitats unnecessarily.
There was a debate earlier about cutting hay, and it was suggested that we bend the rules slightly because the weather is good at the moment. However, the RTÉ "Prime Time" programme last week showed what happens when the rules are bent on matters concerning nature. A risk to biodiversity should be included in the risk assessment. It is one of the big risks we face. Its inclusion might change what Government does and convince it to take the loss of biodiversity seriously.
Words such as "biodiversity" confuse people because they are technical. We are talking about the birds, bees, trees and fish that sustain the ecosystem on which we depend for our survival. That ecosystem is under threat. It is an economic threat in the sense that the depletion of biodiversity means that, among other things, we potentially face huge fines. A diverse environment acts as a carbon sink. Monoculture forestry, for example, is not a good carbon sink compared to forestry made up of native broadleaf species. Deforestation has been a feature of reports over the past five or six years. Despite targets to increase afforestation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, there is significant evidence of deforestation.
Kelp is an example of where a commitment to biodiversity is not matched by action. BioAtlantis will start cutting down 1,900 hectares of trees of the sea in Bantry Bay, which will destroy biodiversity there. Another example is the fact that the Heritage Bill will extend the cutting season so that hedgerows can be cut down, which will deplete biodiversity as well. The Government is allowing that to happen. All the commitments to deal with climate change are not followed through. In reality, the Government is implementing measures which significantly degrade biodiversity.
I agree with the Green Party. It is correct that the issue of biodiversity should be explicitly addressed in the national risk assessment following the consultation period. The biggest reason for this is that existing commitments under the national biodiversity plan have not been implemented, and the greatest failings are linked directly to a lack of Government co-ordination and inaction. The latest biodiversity plan was published five years ago by the previous Government. Only one quarter of the specific recommendations and commitments in the plan have been implemented. For the 10% of commitments in which no progress has been made, the main issue is a failure of co-ordination in government and to communicate with the public.
The communications failure is interesting, particularly as the objective was public education but the reality was Government brand-building and promotion. The latter is very similar to the approach the Taoiseach has been imposing across Government.
Given the failures in the previous plan, can the Taoiseach indicate if he has taken any steps to ensure that this new plan will be implemented with urgency? I agree with the comments that have been made. We are reliant on non-governmental organisations, NGOs. For example, in the area of beekeeping and preservation of our bees, it is the NGOs that are developing action programmes and plans. In the context of what Deputy Boyd Barrett said regarding broadleaf trees, etc., there is similarly a lack of Government co-ordination and action on that front.
I have often wondered what inspired the Heritage Bill 2016. Who was behind it? In view of the Department from which it originated, it was, from any perspective, quite absurd in the context of its provisions hedge-cutting and so on. What inspired the Minister? Who lobbied? Who was behind it and for what reason? It jars with our overall objectives and agenda in preserving our national biodiversity, which is at risk. We have been warned about this for years and decades. It should be explicitly part of a national risk assessment.
Coming from a rural constituency, the issue of biodiversity is something of which I am very conscious. One of the issues mentioned by Deputy Boyd Barrett, monoculture forestry, is a very clear problem. It is not afforestation for carbon sequestration or anything else. It is basically about the timber industry making maximum profit and being supported in that regard by Government and public policy. We need to see how public policy can be used to enhance biodiversity. One of the examples of that is through the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, which was mentioned earlier.
With respect, I disagree slightly with the Green Party in respect of bending the rules a little. Everything that happens in nature happens when weather changes. By and large, we have to work with the weather we are given. That is what farmers have to do and what they have always traditionally done. However, the intensification of agriculture has brought us in a different direction, and that has caused problems. We need to recognise and work with that. In fairness to most people in the farming community, they want to work with that and come up with solutions, but they need assistance in that respect.
The issue facing us at the moment with the very warm weather is going to be around fodder and whether farmers will be able to get enough. Next winter people will be saying that we had a hot summer and that is the reason we do not have fodder. We will be facing a crisis. Then it will be a wet winter and then it will be something else. I acknowledge it is not something about which the Government can do anything. However, Government policy and public policy have roles to play. The seaweed harvesting that we see going on in Bantry Bay is the equivalent of pouring Roundup into the ocean. That needs to be acknowledged. Again, Government policy is at the root of that problem.
This is a really important matter. One of our problems is that we debate issues such as biodiversity in isolation because they do not run across everything else we do. We do not have joined-up thinking on biodiversity. The national biodiversity action plan, published last year, should have been a wake-up call. It said that 90% of our habitats were in a bad or inadequate position. I refer to our peatlands. We are losing species, bees are under threat and yet we plough on with action plans in other areas without actual joined-up thinking in respect of them. We need to do that.
Deputy Martin Kenny is right to say that we will have another fodder shortage. We import fodder because we have a developmental strategy for agriculture that is not sustainable. We have to decide what the island can sustain - for example, in regard to herd numbers - and what biodiversity we want. We must not set growth as the overarching objective that trumps all else. We need to think long and hard about what the island of Ireland will look like, what species we are determined to protect and what sort of joined-up thinking - running across economic policy, agricultural policy, transport policy and so on - is required to achieve those objectives.
I am glad to see the Minister with responsibility for communications and, I suppose, climate change beside the Taoiseach. I raised a Topical Issue matter last week in which I noted that Ireland came second last - just ahead of Poland - in a Climate Action Network, CAN, report on how countries are meeting their climate change obligations. Ireland came second last out of 28 countries. That is not a good place to be. Of course, climate change enormously affects species, the types and growth of trees and so on. We are nowhere near ready. We are drinking in the last chance saloon as regards our response. It is extremely disappointing that this Government really seems to have long-fingered it in a way that frankly is depressing. Climate change is leading to the enormous variations in the weather and is leading to the increase in the number of storms. Notwithstanding the fact that the Government has sought to respond to the storms and the orange and red warnings, we are nonetheless falling considerably behind. The other risk factor in being so poor on climate change is that in a couple of years we potentially face enormous fines for not addressing the issue. That financial risk to the country has not really been factored in or costed in the way that other such risks are.
I may have to disappoint the Deputies a little. The latest weather forecast indicates that it is going to rain on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. It may well be the case that the anticipated drought and dry weather-related fodder crisis may not materialise on this occasion.
Damage to biodiversity is not a stand-alone strategic risk in its own right in the current draft. It is covered under the issue of climate change. I am certainly open to including it but a line has to be drawn somewhere. What I will have to do is examine the submissions with my officials . I suspect that when we examine them, we will see 20, 30, 40 or 50 other risks that people think should be included. One does need to draw the line somewhere. However, I am certainly not hostile to including additional risks if the submissions indicate that there is a consensus in favour of adding additional risks, like the risk to biodiversity. I will take account of what was said here today and consider it for the final iteration before it goes to Cabinet.
Regarding biodiversity more generally, the action plan recognises that there is an increased need for funding. That was set out at the launch of the national development plan by the Ministers for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Finance, Deputies Madigan and Donohoe, and the Minister of State with responsibility for Gaeilge, the Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy McHugh, as well as the State agencies which have been asked to contribute to the drafting of the plan. The plan's main aims are built around the need for all sectors of society to participate if we as a society are to conserve nature. The aims are: to mainstream biodiversity across decision-making in the State; strengthen the knowledge base underpinning work on biodiversity issues; increase public awareness and participation; ensure conservation of biodiversity in the wider countryside; ensure conservation in the marine environment; and expand and improve on the management of protected areas such as national parks, special areas of conservation, SACs, and protected species.
The actions that the Government is taking include: legislation, for example, a Bill on national parks and the introduction of requirements that public bodies consider biodiversity policy in decision-making; actions involving forestry and agriculture, which account for 70% of total land use in the State; measures to reduce the impact of invasive alien species; and commitment to integrating biodiversity in our overseas aid programme.
We recognise that biodiversity and healthy ecosystems have a role to play in underpinning many of the sustainable development goals and stronger partnerships are required in the area of sustainable development and climate finance to ensure that we protect our biodiversity. We are also investing in farmer-led, results-based payment schemes in the Burren, which have been a huge success over many years, and new schemes to protect the endangered hen harrier and the freshwater pearl mussel. Farmers are also paid both for work undertaken and for the delivery of defined environmental objectives, including sustainable management and restoration of high-nature farmland and improvements in water quality and water use efficiency.
Continued investment in farmer-led results-based payment schemes will certainly benefit biodiversity and provide an excellent model for future agri-environmental supports in Ireland and in other countries. We are also investing in research into natural capital accounting and biodiversity financing to inform policy on the management and restoration of our natural capital stocks in Ireland and options for mobilisation of funding to address key biodiversity concerns.
With regard to Bantry, which was raised earlier today, I am told it is a misconception that the licensee would be harvesting vast quantities of kelp from within the bay. Not all of the seaweed in the bay will be harvested. In fact, the total area licensed is 750 ha. This accounts for 0.7% of the bay and is split into five distinct zones. The licence provides for a four-year rotation of the zones with a stand-by zone only to be harvested if the weather is adverse. On average, 175 ha will be subject to harvest annually. The rotation will ensure that only a portion of the bay is harvested each year to strengthen the sustainability of the harvesting plan for the licensed areas in the bay. The harvesting is also subject to strict monitoring, which is required by the approval baseline study. The monitoring programme includes comparisons between harvested and non-harvested areas in each zone for density and height of kelp, together with a quantitative measure of flora and fauna.
It has been suggested there has not been a public consultation on this issue. This is incorrect. The licence originally applied for back in 2009 was processed in the same way as other foreshore lease and licence applications and the normal public consultation procedures were followed but there were no submissions from the public. The public notice was published in the Southern Starand the application documents were on display in Bantry Garda station in December 2009 and January 2010.
It has also been suggested that kelp will not grow back. There are, in fact, 21 peer-reviewed papers on kelp harvesting. They all prove that kelp grows back after harvesting. No paper shows that kelp does not grow back. Indeed, as kelp generates three to six years after harvesting, suggesting, for example, that it is akin to cutting down ancient woodland is not correct. Kelp maturity is reached after six years and on average kelp lives for eight years. There is no root system and it is easily lifted from the sea floor during storms. This is evidenced by the fact that 20% of Ireland's kelp is washed up on our beaches every year.
I thank the leader of Fianna Fáil for that courtesy. We need a land use plan that sets out how we will protect and develop diversity. Critically, if we get it right it will champion human diversity and life in rural Ireland. There was a meeting on Friday night in Leitrim, where communities are utterly despondent and do not see a future. They see their area covered in tree plantations or land being abandoned. We need to stop this and change it. We can do it best by setting ourselves a goal of creating a massive national park, not just in pockets but taking the whole Wild Atlantic way and seeing it as a national park where we protect biodiversity, and in doing that, create tens of thousands of jobs in forestry, tourism, clean energy and high-quality high-value food production where animal welfare comes first. What we need is a quantum leap and not just a tweak in the existing system. We should start with a tenfold increase in the budget for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which is a Cinderella in the Irish public service. It does not have the resources we need. Put this into the plan and scale up the thinking on biodiversity because that is the answer to rural Ireland's future as much as anything else.
I also thank Deputy Micheál Martin. The people in west Cork will say very differently, in that the boxes were ticked but it was not a real consultation as very few people actually knew what was happening and what was proposed. We do not know what the impact of the cutting down of kelp may be, but it is certainly a spawning ground for many marine species and we do not know what the damage could be to those marine species of fish that spawn in those kelp fields. This is why people are very opposed to the harvesting commencing, particularly in advance of the judicial review.
The Taoiseach did not respond on the Heritage Bill 2016, which runs completely against our commitment to maintaining biodiversity. It allows the cutting down of hedgerows, which are critical for sustaining biodiversity. Scrub, hedgerows and wild growth are absolutely critical from a climate change point of view and a biodiversity point of view. The Heritage Bill cuts very much against it.
I will do my best, as always. A land use plan is a good idea and we will certainly give it some consideration. The Government and its Departments only have a certain amount of bandwidth to produce any number of plans in any given year but it is certainly something to which I am happy to give consideration. To an extent, the national planning framework does this but certainly not to the extent I know Deputy Eamon Ryan would like.
I have to disagree on the suggestion we make the entire Wild Atlantic Way and entire western seaboard into a national park stretching along the entire coast through to Kerry. I really do not think people living in those counties would like their entire counties turned into national parks. People often criticise planning in Ireland that treats the west of Ireland as if it is an national park and does not bring to it or the western seaboard road infrastructure, broadband and all the things that allow people to participate in economic and social life.
The Burren is a beautiful place, but I am not sure we should turn the entire western seaboard and all of the counties along it into a national park like the Burren. I really do not think that would be welcomed in those counties for obvious reasons. People want to protect their environment but they also want economic opportunities, they want jobs, they want their children to be able to stay living in those areas and they want more people to be able to move into those areas and sustain the schools and all of the social infrastructure.