According to MLAs, the draft of an environmental strategy for Northern Ireland is lacking in ambition and should set specific targets.
Stormont’s sub-committee quizzed a range of Department for Agriculture, Environmental and Rural Affairs leaders on Thursday, January 13.
The committee members raised issues such as oversight, afforestation goals, legal requirements, and whether the plan meets the legal requirements.
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John Blair, South Antrim Alliance MLA, lashed out at the lack of information on agriculture – NI’s largest emitting sector – due to its close relationship to the environment and biodiversity protection.
Dave Foster, DAERA’s director of regulatory policy and natural resources policy, said to him that while the details are limited at this stage, we are still developing a number important strategies.
Sinn Feins North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan also criticised the strategy for its lack of ambition.
He stated: There is a consensus among us on the committee, media, environmental sector and NGOs that the strategy isn’t as ambitious or as ambitious as we would wish it to be.
It is certainly not ambitious when you compare it with other jurisdictions on these island and what they are trying to do.
Foster responded to the plan again, saying that there was a balance between being ambitious as well as being realistic. We are being ambitious as we can.
However, he acknowledged that there should be a clear distinction between this strategy and other strategies that focus on issues that have been overlooked.
Rosemary Barton, Fermanagh and Co Tyrone UUP Member of Parliament, questioned whether the 12% tree coverage for Northern Ireland by 2050 in the Forestry Strategy would also include native plants.
Richard Schaible, chief of Forestry, stated that the plan will include all types forestry.
We follow the principle of planting the correct tree in the right spot for the right reasons. If native species are suitable, biodiversity is our primary objective.
Other primary goals include the timber industry.
William Irwin, DUPs, described tree cover targets in a very big challenge. Patsy McGlone, SDLPs asked what the strategy meant about NIs peatlands as many rural families rely upon turf for heat.
The Mid Ulster MLA was informed that we will be moving away from bog cutting if we achieve our overall environmental targets.
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Clare Bailey, Green Party leader, and South Belfast MLA, lashed out at the document’s lackluster target setting. Bailey wondered if it was intentional to obscure the outcomes.
She said that there were no measurable targets set within the overall environment strategy. We are now hearing that Northern Ireland has its own EIP.
How can this strategy meet the basic legal requirements of the UK environment strategy that significantly improves environment?
I think the targets for air pollution seem so vague that you could not meet them all and still see no improvement in air quality.
There are no numbers that can be used to measure improvement.
She also stated that the part on water quality is not up to current standards. She asked who would measure progress of NIs on the overall strategy, and what sanctions would be imposed if they fail to meet the Water Framework Directive targets.
DAERAs Mr Foster stated that it would ultimately be up to the OEP (UK Office for Environmental Potection), to determine if we have met the legal requirement under the Environment Bill for significant improvement to the environment… and if not, what sanctions should be taken.
He also said that the draft plan would be finalized based on the views of the stakeholders, committee members, and the public.
The public consultation for the strategy will close on January 18.
You can respond to the consultation online.
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