My Department is committed to the continued protection and improvement of the environment as we move into this new decade. I agree that initiatives are required to address climate change and the promotion of natural habitats. I have already initiated a number of measures to address these matters. In March, I announced the Forests for our Future programme, which will involve the planting of 18 million trees over the next 10 years. I also recently outlined in the Assembly my concept to transform and grow the Northern Ireland economy whilst protecting our natural assets and reducing our carbon emissions through use of a green growth approach. I have committed resources in my Department to progress this approach. A delivery framework will be developed that will consist of a range of programmes that together will contribute to the key environmental and climate change targets and commitments in the Programme for Government and 'New Decade, New Approach' by transforming to a greener, low-carbon economy. Some, like Forests for our Future, are already in motion. We will also seek to continue to deliver measures to conserve and restore our natural habitats such as those delivered through the Department’s environment fund. I look forward to obtaining support from Executive colleagues to enable further implementation of these measures.
We can also use sustainable farming practices to promote the restoration of natural habitats. I know that companies such as Jordans have good initiatives. What is the Minister doing to promote sustainable farming practices to help restore our natural habitats?
We are working closely with the farming community to identify how we can deliver carbon-neutral farming. Carbon-neutral farming is entirely achievable because a lot of farming practice in Northern Ireland is already very environmentally friendly. In Northern Ireland, there is a considerable amount of carbon sequestration, which does not take place in many parts of the continent. Where there are feedlots et cetera or ground is ploughed continuously and machinery is cutting and drawing that material in, that is not as environmentally friendly a way of farming as would be the case in Northern Ireland, where we have animals outdoors in our green fields.
We need to identify what we are doing in carbon sequestration. We need to identify what we can do to reduce the amount of nutrients that go into our soil and the amount of ammonia and greenhouse gases that go into our atmosphere. There is a lot that we can do. There is low-hanging fruit that we want to identify quickly. There are things that will be a little trickier, but, nonetheless, we can work together and overcome those issues.
I commend the Minister on the work that he is doing to drive forward this agenda and, in particular, the forestation plans that he has announced. In the schemes and initiatives that his Department is considering, will the Minister undertake to look at what potential there is to capitalise on the many outdoor opportunities that exist with organisations that need capital support to bring those into realisation in light of the past number of months, when increasing numbers of people have enjoyed the outdoors? Capital schemes need to be put in place so that these can be developed and organisations supported.
As someone who had the privilege of being brought up in the countryside, I am delighted to see people who live in cities and towns have the opportunity to come out and enjoy the countryside. As a body, through our Forest Service, we have been working with councils to develop and enhance a lot of our forest parks. I know that there are a lot of urban-based organisations that bring young people who live in urban areas into rural and forest settings. The young people get a better appreciation of our countryside. They get a better appreciation of habitats and of the good that they do. It is important that we look at that to see how we can encourage and support organisations that bring young people into rural settings.
Minister, thank you very much for answers so far. Do you accept that agricultural development has been restricted significantly in recent years, particularly in County Fermanagh, due to policy implementation of Shared Environmental Services (SES) and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency? Have these directives been based on Northern Ireland, UK or EU legislation?
I do accept that that is the case, Mrs Barton. It is EU policy; let us put it out there. EU policy has restricted a lot of farm development over the last number of years. It has restricted growth in the economy. It has restricted job growth. Let us be very frank about it. However, these are laws that we will continue to live with for some time and, consequently, it is important that we seek to mitigate where we can. That is why I am looking at how we can reduce a lot of the emissions that come from farms and manage a lot of the nutrients in a better way so that we can develop a win-win situation where we do not restrict the growth that needs to happen in agriculture — otherwise it will die — whilst not doing environmental damage. That is achievable. It will require investment and it will require commitment; you will get both those things from me. I will take those issues to the Executive at an appropriate point to drive forward.
The Minister will be aware from his own departmental figures that, in most areas of special conservation in Northern Ireland, we have unacceptable breaches of ammonia levels; in some of those areas, it is up to 300%. Will the Minister give us some detail of what he will do to address this critical issue?
In the past, we have had SES, for example, recommending refusal to applications where people wanted to demolish older buildings to replace them with newer buildings. That would have reduced the ammonia but they were still recommending refusals, which is entirely unacceptable and illogical. A lot of the newer developments, particularly for pigs and poultry, can be done in a way that will reduce the ammonia levels that are produced. We need to be rational as to how we do this. In doing so, we can ensure that we protect the environment — it is critically important that we do that — but, at the same time, allow people who want to invest and grow their farm to do so and, consequently, create jobs and produce precious food to be put on people's tables right across this country and beyond. We can allow both to happen simultaneously; that should be the goal of all of us in the House, not just me.