T2. Miss Woods asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, given that he will be aware of the devastating biodiversity loss arising from ammonia pollution levels exceeding critical nitrogen thresholds across our special areas of conservation (SACs) and protected habitats, to detail how his Department is working to prevent any further ecological damage and to reverse the declines that are evident in native species. (AQT 412/17-22)
Yes, we can. I would like a wide and potentially all-embracing means of addressing those issues, and ammonia is a key part of that. We believe that we can reduce ammonia emissions by, for example, stopping slurry spreading that uses the traditional splash plate in most instances and moving to a low-emissions spreading operation by 2025. We are giving people some time to acquire the appropriate equipment. That is a course of work that will help.
Covering open tanks would also reduce the amount of ammonia, and there are opportunities from having more separation of slurry because it is when the urine and the faeces mix that you get the greatest release of ammonia. So, if we can have more separation in the slats that are provided for animals to lie on, that will be part of a range of work that will proactively reduce ammonia levels.
We can probably get a reduction of 15% to 20% quite quickly, which is significant in and of itself, but getting much further than that will require significant investment. The capacity to make that investment does not exist in agriculture, and it will therefore require support from the Government if we are serious about it.
I have asked my officials to bring forward proposals that would look at how we can get to net zero in agriculture. Those proposals will include ways for us to deal with the ammonia issue at the same time. That will involve a capital infrastructure programme, which will mean that we, as an Executive, will need to support it financially.
I thank the Minister for his answer. The fact that 86% of our special areas of conservation exceed critical nitrogen levels by over 200%, and in some cases by over 300%, raises serious questions over how that was allowed to happen. Will the Minister outline what failures in monitoring and enforcement have been identified by his Department and how they will be addressed?
Northern Ireland has seen a lot of growth in agriculture over that period. The Member must remember that Northern Ireland, as small a country as it is, produces around 10% of the food for the needs of the United Kingdom. So, we are punching well above our weight in agriculture. We can also punch above our weight in delivering our agriculture in an environmentally responsible way. That is something that we can work on with the farming community. Going into a circumstance and starting to direct people on what they should be doing generally does not get the best response. Going in with a spirit of cooperation, assisting and helping where possible, will deliver real results. That is what I am about: results.
We can make a really big impact for good on a lot of the reductions, and not just in agriculture. We can do a lot to become carbon neutral in Northern Ireland over the next 20 or 30 years. For example, over 40% of our power comes from renewable sources, which is way above the proportion in any other part of the UK. We can go much further than that. If you want to make big savings in terms of environmental benefits, agriculture, the energy that we use and transportation are the three key areas. We can tackle all three areas and make this one of the greenest places to live in the world over the course of the next generation.