Protection of biodiversity was advanced considerably by the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992, ratified by Ireland and the United Kingdom. Under the Convention each country is required to formulate a biodiversity strategy that has taken the form of the National Biodiversity Plan in the Republic of Ireland (RoI) and the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Strategy (NI). Within the European Union (EU) the Habitats and Birds Directives carry out the plans for biodiversity protection, in part through designation and protection of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), Special Protection Areas (SPAs), and Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs). The EU committed to halting the decline of biodiversity by 2010, a goal that remains elusive.
The annual joint conference of the Irish Biodiversity Forum and the NI Biodiversity Group, in November 2009, focused on biodiversity and planning and policy making, on the grounds that planning on the island has failed to protect biodiversity. The conference was particularly timely as there are currently pending a Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill and revision to the National Biodiversity Plan in the RoI. The conference included a number of presentations on Green Infrastructure, and Biodiversity and Planning, as well as workshops on Coastal Zone Management, the EU Water Framework Directive, and Natura 2000.
Gerry Sheeran, President of the Irish Planning Institute, provided an exposition of the need for clear and enforceable guidelines that include specific direction on protecting biodiversity. Sheeran pointed out that the existing Landscape Character Assessments need to be supplemented by detailed habitat mapping (See the entry on “Landscape Character Assessment” in the iePEDIA section of irish environment for an introduction to this concept). Unfortunately, most local authorities have neither the funds nor expertise to do the mapping. But where such mapping is done, with precise locations of specific habitats, the data can be integrated in local planning practices and policies to ensure “a connectivity of habitats and the creation of wildlife corridors.”
A particular way of protecting biodiversity, and countering planning deficiencies, was explored through presentations and discussions on Green Infrastructure (See the entry on “Green Infrastructure” in the iePEDIA section of irish environment for an introduction to this concept). One of the presentations offered the definition of Green Infrastructure, in the context of planning, as ‘a strategically planned and managed network featuring areas with high quality biodiversity (uplands, wetlands, peatlands, rivers and coast), farmed and wooded lands and other green spaces that conserves ecosystem values which provide essential services to society.” The emphasis is on connecting networks or corridors of public/open spaces that individually protect biodiversity to some extent but remain threatened by development and unsustainable planning practices. Connecting these green spaces furthers the protection of each. The presentations offered numerous examples and case studies of applying Green Infrastructure to a variety of land uses.
Andrew Cooper from the University of Ulster spoke about “Coastal management in a changing climate,” referring of course to climate change. Cooper focused on the emerging, converging forces unleashed by population growth and sea level rise. Specifically, the population growth is that in coastal areas where there has been between a 10% and 50% growth over much of the island between 1991 and 2001. The sea rise has been estimated at 3.2 to 3.5 mm per year and the expectation is that sea rise could reach one meter. Put those two conditions together and something has to give, and it won’t be the sea. Cooper notes, rightly so, that an eroding coastline and cliffs can be quite dramatic, even beautiful. But not if you build, or allow building, on the edge. There are a lot of disasters along coasts waiting to happen.
The conference discussion suggested that the British Irish Council and North South Ministerial Council (see Notes) were existing forums where all-island approaches to these problems could be developed.
An EPA staff member and representative of Sustainable Water Action Network (SWAN) reviewed the workings of the Water Framework Directive (WFD), including the implementation on an all-island basis. Discussion focused on several topics, including the need for better coordination between various organizations and agencies each with responsibility for protecting water resources, the need for more effective communication with the wider public, and the need for enforcement (see “Water Pollution Enforcement in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland” in the Reports section of irish environment).
The final workshop, with John Coll of NUI Maynooth, covered Natura 2000 and spatial planning. Coll reported on the weak protection accorded the Natura network across the EU and the island with less than 50% of the species and habitat types of European interest in favourable conservation status in the different biogeographic regions and marine regions in Europe. Coll outlined various barriers to progress on protecting Natura 2000 sites, including the lack of spatial planning policy, little cross-sectoral integration of planning, habitat fragmentation, and insufficient communication between sectors and with stakeholders.
Coll included in his presentation a discussion of the agri-environment sector, as well as others. Not raised in the presentation but an area that requires further assessment is the application of EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funds, in RoI and NI, and how the implementation of the CAP tends to reward more intensive farming systems and practices as opposed to low-intensity High Nature Value (HNV) farmland which is generally more protective of biodiversity. After the conference under review, the EU issued a report on Distribution and targeting of the CAP budget from a biodiversity perspective.
During the discussion following Coll’s presentation, it was noted that the economy works in short-term time scales while nature works in longer-time scales. It can be added that politicians work in even shorter time scales. Again, the lack of communication and little enforcement were pointed out.
Several themes run through the presentations and discussions. There is a need for more and better data to identify and assess biodiversity on the island. Participants called for an integration of efforts, or a cross-sector approach, where all those agencies and organizations responsible for or involved in biodiversity come together to develop policies and plans to protect the island’s biodiversity. Better communication is needed between sectors and with communities if planning is to fully take into account biodiversity. Enforcement against breaches of biodiversity protections needs to be expanded. And there needs to be more funding and development of expertise in local authorities if the island’s biodiversity is to be preserved.
The recent, and continuing recession, has slowed down some of the abuses of planning and development of land but there remains the danger of a resumption of these practices with any economic recovery. Even now Minister Gormley in the RoI has to intervene in actions by local councils that ignore applicable planning and environmental regulations. See “Gormley set to amend Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown plan” in “News” section of irish environment (Monday, March 22, 2010).
Experience in the US suggests that business-as-usual will regain a strong foothold with any recovery. With the oil crisis in the early 1970s, the federal government passed standards for requiring better gas mileage and smaller fuel-efficient cars prospered. But within a short time of the recovery from the crisis, when gas prices dropped, people started to buy bigger cars and by the 1990s we had SUVs and Hummers dominating the imagination and the market.
We might hope that such a relapse in abuse of the land and attendant loss of biodiversity does not occur, but hope is not enough. We have to work hard to make sure it does not happen again and we have to communicate more and better with each other and to insist on adequate and effective enforcement as a safeguard against any relapses.
Comhar Sustainable Development Council established the Irish Biodiversity Forum in April 2006 as part of its commitment to provide input to the government’s development of the National Biodiversity Plan.
In Northern Ireland, a strategy analysing the status and issues relating to biodiversity, and making recommendations for action, was developed by the NI Biodiversity Group of stakeholders. The NI Executive ratified the Strategy in 2002, and in 2004 reconstituted the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Group, an independent organisation to co-ordinate and monitor the implementation of the Biodiversity Strategy.
See also “Biodiversity” entry in the iePEDIA section of irish environment electronic magazine.
The North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) was established under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (1998), to develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland – including through implementation on an all-island and cross-border basis – on matters of mutual interest and within the competence of the Administrations, North and South. The “Environment” is one of the six areas of Co-Operation subject to consideration by the NSMC. Several North-South Implementation Bodies have been created by the NSMC, including Waterways Ireland that manages the island’s inland navigable waterway system.
NI-EA, “Conserving Biodiversity.”
EPA announced its Biodiversity Action Plan on February 2, 2010, with links to the Plan and other documents. www.epa.ie/news/pr/2010/name,27694,en.html
European Environment Agency, Distribution and targeting of the CAP budget from a biodiversity perspective (EEA Technical report No 12/2009).
European Environment Agency www.eea.europa.eu/themes/biodiversity