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CIEEM Conference 2021: Full text of Minister's opening speech

Minister Noonan opened the 2021 Conference for the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, which was on the theme of nature-based solutions. Read the full text of his speech below.

I was delighted to receive the invitation from the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management to address your conference on the important topic of nature-based solutions. The concept of nature-based solutions is a powerful one that has inspired policy makers, planners, engineers and scientists to look to nature to solve some of the biggest challenges society faces – in cities, where they can offer a range of benefits from sustainable urban drainage to air purification to urban cooling; and in rural areas, where they can support flood mitigation, carbon sequestration and storage and water purification.

Ireland signed up to a global Nature-Based Solutions Coalition in 2019 and since then, the idea has continued to gain traction and further support our understanding around the many ways that nature provides for us, and how we can harness these benefits for people in innovative ways that enhance our quality of life.

This is a great thing – particularly as we adapt to a climate changed future.

But I’m also mindful that we make every effort to ensure that nature-based solutions are also solutions for nature. Looking at the line-up of speakers for this event, I’ve no doubt that nature and biodiversity will be central to your discussions, and in this context, I’d like to take a few moments to update you all on the work of my Department, which covers a broad section of policy areas that relate directly to the conservation, protection, restoration and management of nature and biodiversity.

But first, I’d like to begin by taking a moment to thank you for dedicating your lives to this work.

For many professionals, ecology and environmental management are vocations that are driven by passion and love for the natural world. Your passion, together with your expertise – honed in many cases over years and years of dedicated scientific study – are among the most important tools this nation has to address the climate and biodiversity emergency. We simply can’t do it without you.

In my role as Minister for Heritage, I’m committed to listening to, learning from and collaborating with you all as we chart a way forward through this crisis. Expertise matters. Specialism matters. Science matters. I believe that by working together to enhance our knowledge and respond to the evidence, we can design policies that generate real change on the ground. And let’s face it, that’s where it’s needed.

We have a serious task on our hands. My own Department is working on a broad range of initiatives that connect to the nature-based solutions agenda, which I’d like to outline.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 highlights that the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis are intrinsically linked. Climate change accelerates the destruction of the natural world, and the loss and unsustainable use of nature are in turn key drivers of climate change. Nature-based solutions, such as protecting and restoring wetlands, peatlands and coastal ecosystems, the sustainable management of marine areas, forests, grasslands and agricultural soils, are essential for emission reduction and climate adaptation.

The Biodiversity Strategy is positioned as a central element of the EU's overall recovery plan, crucial to preventing and building resilience to future outbreaks / pandemics. The strategy brings forward concrete steps to put Europe's biodiversity on the path to recovery by 2030, including:

  • transforming at least 30% of Europe's lands and seas into effectively managed protected areas, with 10% under “strict protection”

  • and bringing back at least 10% of agricultural area under high-diversity landscape features.

The Strategy foresees that these actions in nature protection, sustainable use and restoration will bring real economic benefits to local communities, creating sustainable jobs and growth. The implications of these proposals for Ireland will be far-reaching as the Strategy proposes actions and targets that will help undertake a process of transformative change with regard to how nature and biodiversity is protected and restored. It proposes a central role for nature in the lives of citizens and communities, businesses and governments

One of the principal targets set out in the EU Biodiversity Strategy is that 30% of the land and 30% of the sea should be under legal protection by 2030 (the 30/30 target), and this should be reached by completing the Natura 2000 network and by new designations under national protection schemes.

The European Commission is also working on overarching restoration targets under the EU Biodiversity Strategy, which would be legally binding for all Member States. My Department is currently discussing this issue with the Commission, other departments and stakeholders with a view to refining our position on its implementation.

The proposals for binding targets to help halt biodiversity loss echo the proposals in the Zero Draft post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which is being developed in advance of the next Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15). The post-2020 framework envisages that nature-based solutions have an important role to play in contributing to climate change mitigation and the protection of biodiversity. The linkages between these twin crises is already understood.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy and the post-2020 Framework will be key considerations in the development of Ireland’s next National Biodiversity Action Plan later this year. Work is also underway on other key aspects of tackling biodiversity loss, namely the implementation of the EU Invasive Alien Species Regulation through new consolidated national legislation that will update and strengthen existing provisions around invasive alien species as well as give effect to the EU Regulation.

I have also provided increased resources this year to help tackle invasive alien species, including:

  • €350k for local authorities to tackle IAS in their areas as part of the local authority biodiversity grants scheme announced last month;

  • Funding has also been provided to develop a comprehensive IAS management plan.

My Department is also working on implementation of the Nagoya Protocol and the EU ABS Regulation on the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from utilisation of genetic resources. This is a key pillar of the CBD and is an important element of a just transition and responsible implementation of measures for biodiversity on a global level, which aims to bring legal certainty to the process of sharing benefits between user (usually more developed) and provider countries (often LDCs).

Another area of focus within my own Department is water, including both the marine and freshwater environments. In February, I along with my colleague the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien, launched a public consultation on the process of expanding Ireland’s network of marine protected areas (MPAs). This will run until 30 July 2021. MPAs are geographically defined maritime areas with certain protections for conservation purposes. The Government aims to expand Ireland’s MPA network to 30% of Ireland’s maritime area by 2030, including SACs and SPAs designated under the Nature Directives.

This work is urgent, important and ambitious: Ireland currently has a relatively small proportion of the total maritime area designated under the Birds and Habitats Directives, including in comparison to other Member States. Existing SACs and SPAs in the marine currently cover approximately 10,000km2, or 2.13% of Ireland’s maritime area (total: 488,472km2). While these are mostly coastal in nature, they include 6 large offshore SACs.

With respect to additional Special Areas of Conservation in the offshore, we are currently planning two further large designations to protect deep sea reef, at depths between 500m and 3000m. These will include a variety of geological features including sea mounds, canyons and extensive escarpments and cliff features, with a rich and wide variety of deep sea biodiversity.

While final details and boundaries are still being worked out, it is hoped that these will increase the marine area protected to about 10%. We are also currently undertaking a range of scientific surveys and analyses to identify areas that should be designated as Special Protection Areas in the marine for marine birds, as we are currently below what is required there.

While the SPAs are likely to have implications for the development of offshore renewable energy developments, we are committed to ensuring our biodiversity and climate change targets can be met in a mutually beneficial way, rather than in conflict with each other. Similarly, while the designation of further SACs may affect fisheries and other sectoral interests, they will also afford protection to, for example, nursery areas for certain fish species, and can be expected to have consequent benefits- though these have not yet been fully assessed or quantified.

By expanding Ireland’s Marine Protected Area network, we will give vital protection to vulnerable marine species and habitats, and also maintain and strengthen the resilience of these ecosystems to provide us with a whole host of benefits including climate change mitigation and enhanced resilience for fisheries into the future.

Realising this vision to expand our MPA network will also see Ireland play an exemplary role in global efforts to protect marine ecosystems, the extraordinary species and habitats they hold, and the benefits they provide to people. Creating an MPA regime will constitute a major change in marine environmental protection in Ireland. At present, there is no definition of an MPA in Irish law. Environmental protections under the Wildlife Acts only apply to the foreshore. Protection in marine areas beyond 12 nautical miles is limited, both in terms of space and species.

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) requires that a coherent and representative network of spatial protection measures, including MPAs, be created, where appropriate. These measures are to form part of Ireland’s programme of measures to achieve or maintain the Good Environmental Status of our national and shared maritime area. MPAs can take a variety of forms ranging from exclusive marine reserves to areas allowing sustainable use or restricting specific activities. Ireland's future network of MPAs may include the incorporation of existing Special Protection Areas and/or Special Areas of Conservation under the Birds and Habitats Directives. It may also incorporate protection measures established under the EU Common Fisheries Policy for example, and other area-based conservation and protection measures.

MPAs can allow natural processes to take place that allow species and habitats recover and to reach good environmental status; they can also provide nature based solutions to the effects of climate change including natural carbon sequestration process in marine habitats and sediments. If well planned, resourced and managed, an expanded MPA network would make an invaluable contribution to the stewardship of Ireland’s wealth of marine life, culture and heritage, helping to underpin the long-term conservation and sustainable management of thriving marine ecosystems to the benefit of this and future generations.

In addition to conserving marine species and habitats, MPAs can support maritime economic activity and reduce the effects of climate change and ocean acidification. The latest economic data shows that Ireland’s ocean economy has a turnover of €6.2 billion and provides stable, sustainable work for 34,132 full-time equivalent employees.

In the Freshwater environment meanwhile, despite decades of success in addressing industrial pollution and major urban discharges, we are now experiencing declines in water body status - mainly due to diffuse pollution. The third cycle River Basin Management Plan – which is currently being drafted in advance of public consultation and publication later this year – will seek to reverse this trend.

Building on the new governance structures implemented under the second plan and adopting a cross-Department, multi-agency approach, the new Plan will set out the environmental objectives to be achieved up to 2027, and identify the measures needed to achieve these objectives. It will include strong additional measures, including new rules around the protection of drinking water sources; the limitation or mitigation of agricultural inputs; the management of Ireland’s 500,000 septic tanks; careful afforestation practices; controls on the abstraction of water; and actions to prevent soil run-off, among other responses. Ireland’s water environment legal code also needs substantial attention to give coherent effect to relevant EU Directives.

The Department is also working on a new Nitrates Action Programme that will look at how we can implement tighter controls on nitrogen inputs using targeted load reductions, examine the establishment of a chemical fertiliser register and improve enforcement and compliance of the regulations. We’re working with our colleagues in the Department for Agriculture to progress the implementation of the new CAP green architecture to refocus on rewarding the delivery of environmental outcomes.

Our focus is on supporting delivery of the ‘right measure in the right place’ and maximising the multiple benefits of targeted measures, which could be supported through a move towards a Results Based Payment Scheme. We conducted a provisional gap analysis to estimate what’s needed to reduce phosphorus, nitrate and sediment losses to freshwater: 2,500km of riverside (3%) interception measures (e.g. 12,500 Hectares of native woodlands), and a minimum of 20,000 Hectares of organic soil rewetting (water, climate and biodiversity benefits), and are exploring opportunities to advance these findings.

We’re also exploring a Nature-Based Sustainable Urban Drainage Implementation Strategy, with initial scoping led by Local Authorities. The strategy will consider policies, legislation, leadership, governance, technical guidance, training, local government capacity and funding; leading to enhanced support for Local Authorities. In addition, we’re coordinating the €20 million Waters of LIFE programme, which aims to support the implementation of measures to protect and enhance high-status waters. The project will act as a catchment scale (120-130km2) demonstration project to test and validate the implementation of locally-tailored ‘best practice’ measures.

It’s clear that we need transformative action and my Department is working hard to deliver on the ambition set out in the programme for Government. For us to protect and restore biodiversity on land, freshwater and the marine, we need a collaborative and integrated approach between the sectors. The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management has a crucial role to play in bridging the gaps between government, industry, business and nature conservation by providing its training and upskilling to members, continuing to promote high standards in the profession and by imparting the need for meaningful conservation to the clients and employers of their membership.

I’d like to thank you all for this opportunity to address you this morning and wish you every success with your conversations over the coming days.


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