Ammonia Emissions

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 Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green 3:00 pm, 22nd September 2020

5. Miss Woods asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on his Department’s work to reduce ammonia emissions. (AQO 728/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

My Department is developing a comprehensive strategy to address the ammonia challenge. The draft strategy will propose a series of farm measures to reduce ammonia, conservation actions to improve the condition of habitats, and a revised operational protocol for the assessment of air pollution effects. We intend to publish these proposals for consultation soon.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank the Minister for his answer. The Minister stated in AQW 256/17-22:

"The Department’s current operational protocol for the assessment of impacts of ammonia emissions" was based on

"best practice guidelines ... rather than on specific legal advice."

Is the Minister confident that the policy in question and his instruction to Shared Environmental Services (SES) on how to assess ammonia from any potential development are lawful under the EU habitats directive?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I believe that they are, yes, particularly in the light of the fact that we are working extremely hard to bring forward proposals that will, in actual fact, reduce ammonia. In instances where ammonia could actually be reduced because a new building was replacing an older building and better practices were in place, SES was arriving at decisions and refusing those proposals. That was entirely illogical, because you were getting an investment in a business and reducing the ammonia coming out of that business but the business was still getting a refusal. That type of thing has to be knocked on the head. We are working to ensure that, over the next number of years, we will see real reduction in ammonia. Why continue with a planning procedure that is not working when you have the opportunity to put in place something that will work? I would have thought that the Member from the Green Party would want to ensure that we have a better environment and would be supportive of what we are doing in this instance, because we are working to ensure that we get a significant reduction in ammonia.

I should add one other thing in reference to our peatlands and bogs. A bigger issue than ammonia in our bogs is the dryness, on many occasions, of our bogs, and the wetting of peatlands would achieve more in capturing carbon than what was being proposed on ammonia, what was being done on ammonia and even what we would do on ammonia.

Therefore, a series of tools has to be used to reduce the carbon footprint and protect the environment.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 3:15 pm, 22nd September 2020

I thank the Minister for his response. He will be aware that any proposal that is brought forward to reduce ammonia could have a disproportionate impact on smaller hill farms. As the Department begins to assess the impact of proposals, does the Minister have any mitigations in mind to avoid a disproportionate impact on those small farms?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I am happy to work with the farming community and other parties on how we bring this forward. Doing nothing is not an option. We need to reduce the amount of ammonia that is currently going into the environment in Northern Ireland. We also want to encourage people to be able to have a business that will support their families. I believe that both are achievable. I will work with the hill-farming community and other members of the community to deliver on that.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I call Justin McNulty for a quick question.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

In the '80s, there were 5,000 breeding pairs of curlews. Now, there are 130. That is a 97% reduction. Many other species are also threatened. The disproportionately high level of ammonia production on this part of these islands is having an adverse impact on the environment. Given the destructive impact of ammonia on the environment, and the threat that it presents to many species, is the Department exploring any innovations to ensure that that destructive agricultural by-product is utilised in an environmentally safe way? I know that reduction is probably less difficult —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I had asked for a brief question, or we will have a very brief answer. I ask the Member to finish his question.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Reduction is probably less difficult than utilising a different approach.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I encourage the Member to visit Glenwherry hill farm, where there has been a massive increase in the number of curlew, hen harrier, snipe and all the other species. That has been done on the basis of good management. I would like to see that spread out right across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

That is the end of the period for listed questions. We will now turn to topical questions.