Air Pollution: Impact of Homeworking

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 22nd September 2020.

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Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance 3:00 pm, 22nd September 2020

4. Mr Carroll asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs whether his Department has carried out an assessment of the impact that homeworking has had on air pollution in our towns and cities. (AQO 727/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker. I like to look at the person who I am responding to.

My Department continually monitors the quality of air across Northern Ireland. That includes monitoring pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. Given the respiratory nature of COVID-19, my officials continue to monitor air quality levels across Northern Ireland on a daily — and, if necessary, hourly — basis. Where necessary to protect public health, a high air pollution alert is issued.

Throughout the lockdown period, officials provided weekly updates to the departmental operations centre and to the Committee, as required. Officials are working with external contractors to look more closely at the trends in pollutants during lockdown to consider the relevant atmospheric chemistry and reactions that occur between pollutants, and to assess the extent to which any changes brought about as a result of lockdown, such as an increase in homeworking, have had any influence on trends in air quality.

My officials will continue to monitor the data collected. I encourage everyone to download the new Northern Ireland Air app to receive the most up-to-date information on the quality of air across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Minister for his answer. I hope he agrees that homeworking, although forced upon us because of the pandemic, is, potentially, hugely beneficial in dealing with transport and associated air pollution problems, which kill too many people in my constituency, and in other constituencies, every year, especially when it comes to those who are able to work from home and prefer to do so. Will the Minister, with his Executive colleagues, commit to exploring the benefits of allowing people to work from home in the long term if they so wish?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

What has been forced upon us, in terms of people working from home, has demonstrated that there was a much greater opportunity to work from home than was recognised before COVID-19. It is important, however, that people are brought back to their places of work, where is it possible to do that safely. Even in the Departments, by not having as many people in our offices, we are not fulfilling our roles just as well as we otherwise would. At the same time, there are massive opportunities for people to be at home for two, three or four days a week. That will, obviously, have significant benefits in reducing travel, pressures on the roads and all of that.

I am totally with you on people working from home but not to the detriment of the service that they are providing. Government and, indeed, others need to reflect on that.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

Although the pandemic has been an international tragedy, one side effect has been a brief reprieve for the environment. Global carbon emissions fell by as much as 17% at the height of lockdown. Greenhouse gas emissions are predicted to be down by as much as 8% over the year. What steps are you taking, with your Executive colleagues, to ensure that we do not lose some of those gains as we restart the economy?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

As part of my green growth strategy, we will look at all opportunities where we can support businesses and agriculture to continue to grow but in a more sustainable way. I want to see growth on the one side and a reduction in emissions on the other, so that we are reducing greenhouse gases and the carbon that goes into the atmosphere whilst allowing growth to take place. That is essential for our economy and it is essential for our young people as they go out looking for jobs. We cannot go backwards and be regressive when it comes to creating opportunities for our young people to get jobs here. It is important that, on the one hand, we get that growth but, on the other hand, seek to challenge issues around the environment.

As part of the green growth strategy, we will be setting up — I will certainly be requesting that it is set up — an inter-ministerial group that will oversee that. Through that group, we will work appropriately with the other Departments to ensure that we have a cleaner and greener Northern Ireland going forward. We should all aspire to that.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have seen this at first hand because my children have been lucky enough to be able to work at home. Does the Minister intend to encourage and support working from home as we try to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Government's instruction remains that people should work from home if they can, and many people across the Province continue to do that. On the one hand, I am very supportive of people working from home, but I also want to ensure that we get 100% productivity, and, for many people, that will be case. However, in some areas, it is a little more difficult if we do not have people in offices. With some of the services that we provide — for example, DAERA Direct offices — we need people in offices to provide that face-to-face service, with social distancing and all of that. That is critical going forward.