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  • Writer's picturePippa Hackett

CIEEM Conference 2024

Minister Hackett's speech CIEEM Conference 2024


The Age of Ecology


Good morning everyone, and thank you to the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) for the invitation to speak today.

 

The conference theme, “Examining the practical impacts of environmental policy and legislation on Ireland’s ecology” is particularly relevant to my position as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with responsibility for Land Use and Biodiversity.

 

Agriculture and forestry activity together form Ireland’s dominant land use. These sectors, combined, cover about three quarters of Ireland’s land area, so the policies and legislation relevant to the sectors have an enormous impact on our natural environment.

 

The Institute’s vision is one “of a healthy natural environment for the benefit of current and future generations.”  That is a vision I share.

 

3 people stand, posed, facing camera in an indoor setting. There is an banner sign behind them with CIEEM logo, an image of countryside and some text.
With Richard Handley, CIEEM President and Aebhín Cawley, CEO Scott Cawley at CIEEM Conference, April 2024

As a member of Government, I am acutely aware of my responsibility - and indeed the State’s responsibility - to strive to ensure that that vision becomes reality through environmental policy and legislation.

 

I was delighted to receive the invitation to speak here this morning, as I think it’s extremely important to keep open dialogue between politicians and sector specific practitioners, who have the expertise and the practical day-to-day experience to inform policy and legislation; and to keep us in Government informed of the capacity and the limitations of policy options, and the practical impacts of those policy options once implemented and legislated for.

 

Equally, it’s important for any professional body not to become siloed, and to be cognisant of the political context in which it operates.  And that political context itself will – with the ebb and flow of political opinion – offer opportunities for increased ambition at certain times, but may also prove to be a constraint to ambition at other times.


Both at home and abroad, there are signs now that we are at such an inflection point.  We saw in 2019 the focus of the then-incoming College of Commissioners and European Parliament on ambitious, progressive environmental policy: the promise of the European Green Deal, and the ambitious legislative programme that followed.

 

Contrast that ambition with the list of EU leaders’ priorities for the next five years that was leaked last week, where climate barely merits a mention, and nature and biodiversity don’t feature at all.

 

Robust legislation, and indeed access to the Courts, are critical to environmental protection, especially in those times when short-term political thinking risks taking us off course in our efforts to realise our shared vision of a healthy natural environment for the benefit of current and future generations.

 

Certainly, the approach of this Government has been to bake in legislative and policy change that will set the State on an irreversible course to delivering on that vision, no matter the political makeup of the next executive.

 

Our population is growing, and without wanting to get into a hierarchy of the existential challenges facing our social democracy, two of the most pressing and difficult challenges – and two in which the role of ecologists and environmental managers is absolutely critical - are the transition to a net zero society and economy, and the adequate provision of housing.

 

These are infrastructural challenges, and the policies we deploy to overcome those challenges – deciding where best to locate renewable energy infrastructure, where to plant forests, which areas of bogland to restore, where and how dense our future urban centres will be, how we will travel to and from work – will dictate whether the State can deliver on the vision of a healthy natural environment.

 

One of my Department Officials who has teenage daughters approaching the end of secondary school, and who are starting to look at potential third level and career options, jokes that he has told his girls they will never be short of work as long as they study either ecology or environmental law.

 

He’s right. As a country, as much as we need teachers, nurses, Gardaí, doctors and carers, we desperately need more ecologists, planners, environmental scientists, farm advisers, farmers and foresters. And yes, while no politician has ever won an election campaigning for more lawyers, we are going to need good environmental lawyers too!

 

I’ve no doubt Mr Justice Humphreys – as an eminent environmental lawyer himself - would agree with me in that regard, and I look forward to his update on the workings of our recently established Planning and Environment division of the High Court.

 

I know another of Ireland’s top environmental lawyers, Alice Whittaker, is also presenting later today on renewables.

 

The Commercial Court has been an enormous success since its establishment 20 years ago as a standalone division of the High Court, and I think all of us here would hope to see the Planning and Environment division enjoy a similar level of success over the next 20 years, and really play a significant role in the State’s response to those key infrastructural challenges: Of the transition to net zero by 2050, and a level of residential development that meets the needs of our growing population.

 

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The work of Government as policymakers and legislators is not straightforward, and we have to do our best to balance competing aims and outcomes, even though at many times those conflicting aims are each legitimate in their own right.

 

An example from my own brief is the process of designing a forestry programme that can make a meaningful contribution to our carbon sequestration and wood production aims, that protects particularly sensitive and important habitats, that enhances rather than degrades water quality, and that delivers an amenity value for society.

 

These interests don’t always align, and the input of ecologists is critical to the decision-making process – both at a macro level in designing a programme that gets an appropriate balance between those sometimes competing aims, and also at the micro level in assessing potential sites as part of the consent process, and possibly ruling different parts of a site in or out.

 

Add to that the legislative guardrails within which we are working – between the Birds and Habitats and the Water Framework Directives, and our own Forestry Act – and we can see how in twenty or thirty years’ time, all going well, we will be looking at a landscape with a far greater degree of forestry.

 

And we can also point out the areas that won’t be impacted, be it through designation as an SPA or SAC, or due to the particular peat depth, or proximity for example to sensitive bird nesting sites.

 

This level of specificity and sophistication in our forestry policy design and implementation would not be possible without the input of scores of ecologists.

 

The challenge now is to ramp up that capacity of environmental expertise across other sectors in our drive to meet our infrastructural challenges, so that not only do we have sound decision making from an ecological and environmental point of view, but we also have applications for consent that are similarly sound and well informed.

 

We hear a huge amount about the need for sound and speedy decision making when it comes to consent processes for all manners of development, but equally to aid and smoothen decision making processes, we need environmentally sound and well-informed applications coming in.  

 

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Within agriculture, on the other side of my brief, it’s clear that farmers and food producers have a vital role to play in our national response to the biodiversity crisis.

 

The primary guiding legislative instrument for the agricultural sector in Ireland and indeed across Europe is the Common Agricultural Policy.

 

I am deeply committed to supporting Irish farmers to be profitable in their work - and as a farmer and political representative of rural Ireland myself, I want it to be attractive as a profession and way of life.

 

But to be bluntly honest, I am extremely uncomfortable with the idea that we would be rolling back on the environmental ambition under the CAP.  And I feel the same way about the direction of travel at Council level when it comes to the Nature Restoration Law. 

 

It’s still to play for with the Nature Restoration Law, but if it does fall at the final hurdle, which is a big risk, it shows the importance of driving on here in Ireland with the implementation of our own National Biodiversity Action Plan and the delivery of a national restoration plan.

 

Ireland’s 4th National Biodiversity Action Plan, which I know will be a big topic of discussion today, is the first to be backed by legislation, with legal requirements for public bodies. Also backed by legislation is the €3.15bn Climate and Nature Fund, which will be available for drawdown from 2026 and will support projects that further the aims of the National Biodiversity Action Plan and our Climate Action Plan.

 

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Another key policy priority of mine within the Department of Agriculture, when it comes to realising the vision we share of a healthy natural environment that benefits current and future generations, is the protection of hedgerows. 

 

On the policy side we are already seeing the benefits across our landscape of the decision to change the definition of an “eligible hectare”, by allowing up to 50% of a parcel remain ‘unproductive’ for agricultural purposes while retaining 100% of the CAP payment. 

 

Similarly in the current CAP we have introduced changes in conditionality requirements regarding hedgerow removal, and payments under the Eco-Scheme for “space for nature”.

 

But on the legislative side, we have a gaping hole in our ability to protect nature on farmland in the form of the 2011 EIA (Agriculture) Regulations in their current state.

 

My Department has reviewed the existing Regulations, and a public consultation on the Regulations received 64 submissions, from statutory agencies, NGOs, farming organisations, farmers, and members of the public.

 

An updated set of EIA Agriculture Regulations, fit for purpose in a time of biodiversity crisis, will have an enormously positive practical impact on our landscape. This and cannot come soon enough – and we as a coalition Government need to show political leadership in this regard.

 

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The final point I want to make is to highlight the critical importance of accurate, scientifically-based data to underpin our decisions when designing and implementing the environmental policy and legislation that will have a practical impact on our landscape.

 

This is something we’re acutely aware of in my Department, and there is some really exciting work taking off at the moment.

 

I’ve mentioned the Common Agricultural Policy, or the CAP, and the Department of Agriculture has recently awarded a tender to a consortium of environmental and data analysis scientists for a nine-year project that will assess the practical impact that Ireland’s CAP Strategic Plan has on habitats and biodiversity in Ireland.

 

The project will focus on assessing and monitoring habitat quantity, quality, connectivity and change on agricultural lands, including forestry. And, over the lifetime of the project, it will involve four elements:

  • the development of a detailed spatial habitats map,

  • desk-based habitat quantity assessments, including assessments of habitat connectivity and change, field-based habitat quality assessments, and

  • the production of three reports, including a baseline report in 2024 and two additional reports in 2028.

 

We have also recently announced our support for a new €34 million LIFE Strategic Nature Project, which too will run for nine years, and will be co-ordinated by NPWS and supported by my Department and Coillte Nature.

 

This LIFE project will bring together data from multiple sources, and together with the CAP monitoring project, this work will give us invaluable insights into the impact of existing agriculture and forestry policy on the environment.

 

And crucially, it will inform the improvement of future policy and legislation in the sector. 


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To conclude, you as ecologists and environmental managers are at the vanguard of a hugely challenging but hugely exciting time in our State’s development and maturation:  We have challenges on an environmental and infrastructural scale that we haven’t had to contend with since achieving Independence.

 


We have big decisions to make if we are to succeed in meeting those challenges in a way that realises CIEEM’s vision of a healthy natural environment for the benefit of current and future generations.

 

And the experience and expertise of the people in this room, and your colleagues around the country, will be pivotal in helping us to make the right decisions. Welcome to the Age of Ecology.

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