In March 2008, the Environment & Heritage Service (EHS) of the NI Department of the Environment issued the first State of the Environment Report for Northern Ireland entitled, “Our Environment, Our Heritage, Our Future.” While there was a great deal of interest in having the devolved NI government create an independent environmental agency, instead the government converted the EHS to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) in July 2008. The State of the Environment Report acknowledged that there are significant gaps in data that hinders the understanding of present conditions for certain aspects of the NI environment. The government committed to gathering more data, over a period of time, to provide a fuller assessment of the state of the NI environment. The NI Environmental Statistics Report, issued by the NIEA, is part of that process.
The Report provides a very brief summary of the main issues, but the value of the Report is the collection of current data on significant factors affecting the NI environment, and the ability through future reports to track any changes. It is hoped that such a database will serve as a sound scientific basis for developing policies to protect the NI environment. What follows is a summary of the data and what it reflects about the current state of the NI environment.
Demographics & Public Opinion
Between 1971 and 2001, the number of households increased by 47%, reflecting a trend of fewer people per house. This trend presents challenges for sustainable growth, especially housing construction in the countryside, the so-called one-off housing controversy. Also putting pressure on the NI environment, car travel continues to dominate the way people travel, with 70% of journeys made by car. Finally, the Report indicates that since 1998, airport passenger numbers have almost doubled in Northern Ireland. This increased air traffic poses more challenges as control over emissions from air travel is soon to become part of the larger efforts to address greenhouse gases (GHG) and climate change. A recent report by the tourist industry in the Republic of Ireland (RoI) has raised concerns about the affect on tourism of any economic costs imposed on air travel. (1) It remains to be seen what, if any, action will be taken by the devolved government to address the transportation impacts on GHG emissions, a difficult challenge everywhere.
While everyone is driving and flying everywhere, at least 81% said in 2007/08 that they were very or fairly concerned about the environment, especially about climate change (39%), household waste disposal (34%) and traffic exhaust fumes and urban smog (31%).
Air & Climate
Northern Ireland’s air quality has shown substantial improvement in recent years, with most measures well within the national air quality objectives. In particular, levels of pollutants associated with coal and oil combustion have reduced over the past decade.
Several air contaminants remain of concern. The annual mean background concentration of nitrogen dioxide (NO2 ) for Northern Ireland has been below 25ug/m3 [micrograms per cubic meter] since the year 2000. While this average is well within the National Air Quality objective for NO2 of 40ug/m3, the roadside levels, which have been monitored since 2002, have been more variable and in 2003 reached 39ug/m3. (2) Another contaminant associated with road transport and fossil fuel combustion is particulate matter in the atmosphere with a diameter of less than or equal to 10 microns (PM10). While all the readings in the last 10 years have been well below the 40ug/ m3 level that has been set out as the UK Air Quality objective for the protection of human health for PM10, the concentrations in urban areas generally have been close to double the levels in rural areas. (3) Finally, levels of ozone in Northern Ireland do not appear to be decreasing, but remain variable from year to year, depending on weather conditions. In fact, ozone levels have been exceeded in Derry in four of the last ten years.
In May 2006, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) published the Sustainable Development (SD) Strategy which set a target for a 25% decrease in Northern Ireland’s total greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. Since 1990, Northern Ireland’s total greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by 5.8%. This is less than the reduction seen for the UK as a whole, which has seen a decrease of 15.7% on 1990 levels. The Sustainable Development strategy also set a target of a 30% decrease (on 1990 levels) on the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) by 2030. In 2006, Northern Ireland emissions of CO2 amounted to a decrease of 1.5% on 1990 emissions. That rate of reduction— 1.5% over 16 years — will make it very difficult for NI to meet its target of an additional 28.5% decrease over the 24 years from 2006 to 2030.
One obstacle to achieving that target is that energy supply, transport and agriculture were the most significant contributors to GHG emissions, including 68% of all the CO2 produced in Northern Ireland in 2006. The transport and agricultural sectors have remained challenging areas for reducing GHG emissions because of the central role of farming in the socio-economic structure, the individual reliance on personal transport, and commercial transport by trucks. The borderline levels of nitrogen oxide and PM10 and elevated levels of ozone related to transportation also raise health concerns.
An area for improving these conditions could be the development of renewable energy sources. However, even here there is a lot more to be done. The Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation, published in October 2004, sets a target of 12% of all electricity consumed in Northern Ireland by 2012 generated from indigenous renewable sources, for example wind farms. By 2007/08, 5% of total electricity was produced from renewable sources, an increase from 2000/01 when 1.4% of total electricity consumed was renewable, but well short of the obligation. Over the next several years NI is obligated to more than double the electricity generated from renewable sources.
One encouraging sign is that the number of applications for environmental installation (wind turbines, solar water heating panels, wood pelletising plants and solar panels) increased from 46 planning applications in 2002/03 to 190 applications in 2007/08. The higher upfront costs for these installations, even with long-term savings on energy costs, may be more difficult for people and businesses to afford in tight financial times without significant financial incentives (e.g., grants, tax credits).
There are over 15,000km of rivers and streams in Northern Ireland, of which approximately one third is monitored annually. Monitoring is carried out routinely against national standards for the General Quality Assessment (GQA) classification scheme.
Based on assessment of chemical criteria, 75% of river length monitored was classified as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in 2005-07. In 2007, 59% of river length sampled was classified as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ according to biological monitoring. In 2007, 14% of salmonid river length and 27% of cyprinid river length failed to meet the standards set by the EU Freshwater Fish Directive.
The UK guidance for identifying rivers which may be sensitive to eutrophication sets a level of >0.1mg SRP/l, where SRP represents the annual mean soluble reactive phosphorus, as indicative of enrichment. In 2007, 16% of monitored river length in Northern Ireland had an annual mean of phosphorus greater than 0.1mg/l, a decline from 27% in 2001. This decrease coincides with a decline in the purchase and rate of application of phosphorus fertilisers.
All of the Northern Ireland lakes of area greater than 50 hectares, primarily Lough Neagh and Upper and Lower Erne, are sampled each month for total phosphorous (TP) and the annual mean TP is used to classify these lakes according to their trophic (or nutrition) status, from high quality, or ultra oligotrophic, lakes to bad quality, or hypertrophic lakes. (4) The data shows that most of NI’s largest lakes show excessive nutrient enrichment (i.e. annual lake phosphorus > 35 ugP/l). The number of lakes in the eutrophic (poor) and hypertrophic (bad) classes has increased from 11 in 2004 to 15 in 2007. Since there are only 20 such lakes in NI, and none are classed as high or good, the status of NI larger lakes is not encouraging.
In contrast, the groundwater in NI seems protected. One of the requirements of the EC Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) is to identify all surface freshwaters and groundwaters that contain ‘elevated’ levels of nitrate i.e. nitrate concentrations in excess of, or trending towards, 50mg NO3/l. In the period of 2000 to 2006, approximately 95% of sites had an annual average concentration of less than 50mg NO3/l. In addition, drinking water in over 99% of taps in NI meets standards.
In 2007, only two beaches (out of 23 monitored) in Northern Ireland failed to meet the mandatory standards, and eleven achieved the higher guideline standards under the EU Bathing Waters Directive. While the marine environment is fairly healthy for people swimming it seems less hospitable for fish. Marine survival rates for Atlantic salmon saw an increase to 14% in 2006, reversing a downward trend that had existed for the 10 years previous. However, survival rates are still well below the high and relatively stable levels that were common prior to 1997 that averaged over 30% across a 10 year period.
At the end of 2007, 448,000 hectares (approximately 40%) of land in Northern Ireland were under agri-environment scheme management, with a further 6,000 hectares managed by the organic farming scheme. An expression of the improvement of farming practices is the finding that soils excessively enriched with phosphorus (P-index > 3) declined from 37% in 2004/05 to 21% in 2007/08. This indicates better phosphorus management on the farm and may be a consequence of the recent reduction in the use of chemical phosphorus fertilisers in Northern Ireland.
Unsurprising, the number of new dwellings has slowly increased over the last number of years, with housing completions in 2006/07 increasing by 11% on 2000/01 figures. These are broken down in terms of those completed within the urban footprints of settlements and those completed on greenfield sites, which are outside of urban footprints but within settlement limits. Housing completions in greenfield areas have almost doubled since 2000/01, up from 1,182 completions in 2000/01 to 2,306 in 2006/07. The current economic recession may well slow down such developments.
Habitats and species in Northern Ireland are protected by a series of statutory designations. These include Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI), Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Areas (SPA), Ramsar sites (areas of wetland and waterfowl conservation), National Nature Reserves, Marine Nature Reserves, and Local Nature Reserves. Protection is also afforded by non-statutory Sites of Local Nature Conservation Importance (SLNCI). At 31 March 2008, a total of 94,200 hectares had been declared as ASSIs, 66,400 hectares as SACs, 108,800 hectares as SPAs and 77,500 hectares as Ramsar sites. The first survey revealed that 31% of features within the ASSIs are in an unfavourable condition.
Northern Ireland’s wild bird population is monitored as part of the UK Breeding Bird Survey, which is undertaken annually at nearly 3,000 sites across the UK. In Northern Ireland, information on trends is only available for the 28 most common species and this population increased by 17% in the last 10 years.
Trees provide a valuable habitat to a wide variety of species, and therefore the number of tree preservation orders (TPO), used by Planning Service to protect trees from being cut down or damaged, issued each year is regarded by NIEA as an indicator of one method of maintaining biodiversity. Between 2003 and 2007, Planning Service have imposed a total of 441 TPOs. Of those, 112 were imposed in 2007.
The Report covers only municipal waste which is defined as all of the waste from households and commercial premises that comes under the control or possession of each of the 26 district councils. It is predominantly made up of waste collected from households, but also includes waste collected from civic amenity sites and some commercial waste. In Northern Ireland, the amount of municipal waste produced has remained fairly constant since 2004/05.
71% of municipal waste in 2007/08 was landfilled. There has been a steady increase in the amount of municipal waste sent for recycling or composting since 2004/05. The proportion of municipal waste recycled or composted has increased from 18% in 2004/05 to 29% in 2007/08 which approaches the Northern Ireland Waste Management Strategy (2006) target that 35% of household waste should be recycled or composted by 2010.
The amount of waste produced per household has remained fairly constant at1.29 tonnes per year, which equates to approximately 25kg per week.
The 2008 State of the Environment report, and this 2009 update, represent a significant step forward in understanding the current conditions that apply to various environmental conditions in NI, and set the stage for a long-term ability to measure changes that occur. What remains is the commitment, political and monetary, to do something about those conditions that need attention.
1. Submission on April 17, 2008 by Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (ITIC) to the RoI Department of Transport’s consultation document “2020 Vision- Sustainable Travel and Transport,” as part of the Programme for Government and National Climate Change Strategy 2007-2012. www.itic.ie
2. The US EPA has proposed to strengthen the US nitrogen dioxide (NO2) standards. The proposed revisions would establish, for the first time, a one-hour NO2 standard, at a level between 80 and 100 parts per billion (ppb) and would retain the current annual standard of 53 ppb. According to the US EPA, the proposed changes reflect the latest science on the health effects of exposure to NO2, which is formed by emissions from cars, trucks, buses, power plants, and industrial facilities and can lead to respiratory disease.
3. See ie/irish environment/iePEDIA entry for “Particulate Matter” for more information on this issue.
4. An oligotrophic ecosystem or environment is one that offers little to sustain life. The term is commonly utilised to describe bodies of water or soils with very low nutrient levels. It derives etymologically from the Greek oligo (small, little, few) and trophe (nutrients, food). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oligotrophic “Hypertrophic” refers to water bodies that have excessive levels of nutrients.