With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, and in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make the following report on the sixteenth British-Irish Council (BIC) ministerial meeting in environment sector format, which was held in virtual format on Wednesday 4 November 2020. Declan Kearney MLA, junior Minister in the Executive Office, and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at the meeting. This report has been endorsed by junior Minister Kearney, and he has agreed that I make the statement on behalf of both of us.
The British-Irish Council, established in 1999, is a forum for its members to discuss, consult and use best endeavours to reach agreement on cooperation on matters of mutual interest within the competence of its member Administrations. The BIC environment work sector is led by the UK Government and has proved a constructive and unique forum for facilitating evidence exchange and practical collaboration since the Council was established. The meeting held on 4 November focused on how the Administrations can work together on climate adaptation, to tackle invasive non-native species and to approach the issues connected with the marine environment.
The meeting was chaired by Lord Gardiner of Kimble, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The Irish Government were represented by Mr Eamon Ryan TD, Minister for Transport and Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. The Scottish Government were represented by Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform. The Welsh Government were represented by Lesley Griffiths MS, Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs. The Isle of Man Government were represented by Geoffrey Boot MHK, Minister for Environment, Food and Agriculture. The Government of Jersey were represented by Deputy John Young, Minister of the Environment. The Government of Guernsey were represented by Deputy Lindsay de Sausmarez, president of the Committee for the Environment and Infrastructure.
Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to conserve and sustainably use the ocean, seas and marine resources in accordance with UN sustainable development goal 14. The BIC environment work sector has two subgroups to cover the areas of marine litter and marine environment, including biodiversity, marine protected areas and ocean acidification. Ministers discussed priority areas where the two subgroups have been focusing their work and noted progress to date, including on commitments agreed at the BIC marine litter symposium in February 2019. Those commitments are to develop options to help to support sustainable end-of-life fishing gear disposal, support the reduction of plastic pellet loss and raise awareness of marine litter with young people and fishing professionals. Noting the challenges faced by the marine environment in our shared seas, we agreed to continue the ambitious programme of collaborative work, aligned with macro-regional and international obligations. Ministers discussed key aspects of the work being undertaken by the BIC climate adaptation subgroup, including to identify and share adaptation research and evidence and examine mechanisms to improve linkages between adaptation researchers across the BIC region; to foster cooperation and promote shared learning on measuring progress to minimise climate risks to critical infrastructure across the BIC region; and to identify and share information on best practice regarding community and private-sector engagement on climate adaptation, adaptation governance models and monitoring and evaluation of adaptation.
Ministers noted that the subgroup had delivered a virtual climate adaptation symposium on 20 October 2020, which focused on the topic of critical infrastructure and was hosted by the Irish Government. The symposium was attended by 80 delegates from the BIC member Administrations. It was agreed that further collaboration and engagement would continue via the BIC Environment work sector and its subgroup on climate adaptation.
Ministers were asked to note that BIC invasive non-native species (INNS) officials have been meeting biannually since 2013 to explore and agree areas of cooperation on INNS. The fourth BIC INNS workshop was held in Cardiff on 20 - 21 January 2020 hosted by the BIC secretariat and the Welsh Government. Ministers committed to an ambitious programme of collaboration, including on the Be Plant Wise and Check, Clean, Dry communications campaigns and on marine invasives such as the carpet sea squirt, as well as establishing an Asian hornet task force.
Ministers agreed that the 17th Ministerial meeting will be hosted in 2022 and that the BIC environment work sector would continue its focus on the marine environment, climate adaptation and invasive non-native species.
I thank the Minister for his statement. The Minister referred, in paragraphs five and six, to the topic of plastics. He will know that the fishing industry is greatly concerned about that and is prepared to play its part in helping to resolve the issue and protect the marine environment. Will the Minister elaborate on what options are being considered by his Department for the sustainable end of life for fishing gear?
A decent conversation was held by the Ministers, and it was agreed that we would work with industry to develop solutions for collection and recycling of end-of-life fishing gear from the main fishing ports. There will be engagement with the fishing community to identify the best way forward in each of our areas, but there is a commitment to assisting in ensuring that that end-of-life fishing gear is appropriately and properly disposed of in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way.
Minister, I see from your statement that two subgroups have been set up: I assume that they are an Irish subgroup and a British subgroup. What practical work has been carried out to date by the subgroups?
On another point, I see that you are not due to meet again until 2022: would more frequent meetings be beneficial?
It is for BIC members to decide the frequency of meetings. There are a lot of busy people involved in it.
A series of pieces of work have been done by the subgroups. Developing the issue of plastics and its impact on marine life is a key area: how we better educate the public on the use of plastics and indeed how we respond as individual Administrations in how we deal with plastics to ensure that there is less plastic around to enter the marine system. That is critical. Considerable work has also been done on the issue of invasive species, whether they are plant species or other living organisms. Those issues are of significant concern to us because those things can have a serious detrimental impact on us. There was considerable discussion of the Asian hornet as a consequence of its recent arrival.
Minister, the British-Irish Council is an important forum that brings together some of the smaller jurisdictions — even smaller than Northern Ireland. Did you discuss the climate action plans of the Isle of Man, which has a population slightly larger than Lisburn? The Isle of Man published a climate change Bill earlier this year. Did you discuss how it, a small jurisdiction, managed to do that? Did you raise with Deputy de Sausmarez from Guernsey, which has a smaller population than Lisburn, their intention to put climate change reduction into law. What I am trying to get at is whether the Minister discussed with those very small jurisdictions how they were able to put climate change plans into legislation so quickly.
That was not on the agenda. One of the downsides of a virtual meeting is that we do not have the opportunity to have discussions afterwards, so I did not have that discussion. However, I am having discussions with my officials about climate change legislation, and that is something that I hope to go out to consult on very soon. That is entirely appropriate, because you do not legislate without going through a public consultation process first. That is how it is set out legally. I will seek the permission of the Executive to move forward on these matters quite soon.
Thank you for your statement, Minister. You referred to fostering cooperation, promoting shared learning and measuring progress to minimise climate risks. Have you given any thought to the various rules and regulations in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland? For example, the two jurisdictions have different planning rules and regulations for ammonia.
Knowledge sharing is critical to all of us. Therefore, where people have engaged in good practice that has delivered better outcomes than we have, we have to learn and develop from that. Education is not a matter of us seeking to educate the public; education is us learning from people who, in certain circumstances, have moved ahead of us. We may be ahead of others in certain circumstances, and they can learn from us. However, education is something that we should all engage in every day.
I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the work being done by the environment work sector in setting up the subgroups on marine litter and marine environment. More specifically, is any work being done or being planned to deal with the environmental risk posed by end-of-life or abandoned vessels?
Abandoned vessels have been less of an issue in recent years than they were some time ago when part of the fishing fleet was scuttled. No grant has been available to cease fishing, so it has been less desirable, with older boats sometimes being kept in harbours for too long. It certainly is a challenge, and I acknowledge that. Because of the poor incomes, there has not been the replenishment of the fleet that should have taken place, and you can see that in our harbours. Consequently, we have a lot of boats that are up to 50 years of age, and we have a lot of wooden boats, which are less safe than the steel boats. I would like to see, as the fishing fleet can actually catch more fish, the fleet being redeveloped. In that event, what happens to the older, end-of-life, boats will become an issue for us to look at. However, it was not an issue discussed at this meeting.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Important meetings are taking place on the environment and climate change. In that respect, I know that the Minister is leading on the afforestation programme in Northern Ireland, and I commend him for it. He will know of a project in his constituency led by Lisburn scouts, seeking to acquire land for young people to appreciate. Did the Minister share any of the best practice that he is doing in Northern Ireland with the other jurisdictions?
Afforestation was not part of the agenda, but I know that there are organisations that are dedicated to ensuring that land that is currently in a forest remains that way. That is certainly something that we should support; if tree planting is taking place and we have created woodland, it should not be taken away. There are those who grow trees to be harvested, which is fair enough because those trees will continue to capture carbon, but we want to encourage the retention of forests with more traditional trees and native species.
Minister, you outlined how Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to UN sustainable development goal 5, one of the key aims of which is an end to destructive fishing practices. Was the issue of super-trawlers in Irish or British waters, and, specifically, in marine protected areas, raised at the meeting?
It was not raised at the meeting, but the Member has raised a very important issue. We know that there are large trawlers with multiple nets, which harvest large quantities of fish. A lot of those emanate from France and Spain. Of course, they will not be in our waters if we have the right conclusion to the negotiations that are taking place this week.
I thank the Minister for his statement and answers thus far. Minister, you talked in your statement about climate change, and reference was made to best practice for the private sector and the community sector in that regard. What learning did you take from the meeting on that?
We considered climate change issues particularly around the seas and the impact that they have on the marine side. There is the issue of warmer waters and the consequences that come from that. There was also a strong focus on the pollution of the marine sector. A particular issue that was discussed at length was that of plastics and the beads that can get into our waterways. There is so much more that can be done to ensure that our waterways and marine life are protected from that. There is a course of work for us, as government, to drive forward in terms of plastics. I have already introduced an initiative to remove single-use plastics from the government system. I want to move forward on single-use plastic bags and reconsider what we are charging at the minute. It is only 5p; I think that that needs to be raised. There are courses of work that we can do to ensure that, in the first instance, considerably less plastic is used and, consequently, less plastic gets into our waters.
I thank the Minister for his statement. It is fantastic that the Council is meeting to address climate change and to protect our marine environment. There are wonderful aspirations and ambitions. Minister, can you tell me about anything that has actually been achieved to date? It does not fill me with confidence that the next meeting is not scheduled until 2022. Does that tell us that you understand the urgency of the issue?
My Department is undertaking a study on end-of-life fishing gear and recycling and waste disposal. That evidence will be provided to the group. DAERA continues to input into the pilot project that is being led by Scotland into a supply chain approach to reducing plastic pellet loss. Northern Ireland continues to have high levels of participation in Eco-Schools, which is something that we were working on. That is about encouraging our young people and educating them on the threat to the marine environment, in particular.
In Northern Ireland, we are developing marine protection areas, looking at ocean acidification and my officials have participated in blue carbon workshops and in sharing examples of cross-border cooperation and work to identify other effective conservation measures. Quite a series of actions are taking place as a result. We do not need to meet all the time to do that. Actions are decided, subgroups are set up and officials are set tasks. I think that you can see from that that many tasks are being fulfilled.
On managing the environment, one only has to look at what happened in Donegal this week. Something certainly went wrong there, which has implications. Those who were seeking to create renewable energy caused that, so how we do things can have an important impact on our infrastructure.
On our carbon infrastructure, one of the things that was done in previous years was to install drainage in our uplands. We have now discovered that much of that drainage work has led to a drying out of peatlands, which has the consequence of reducing our carbon storage.
It is critical that we do the right things to ensure that we mitigate climate change, reduce greenhouse gases and store more carbon. Those are all courses of work on which my officials are engaged, and I will liaise with the Assembly and the Committee as and when we get qualitative information on that.
We have a significant problem in a number of areas with invasive species, and we need to meet that challenge head-on. In Northern Ireland, there have been considerable problems over the years with invasive species such as Japanese knotweed. Muntjac deer have also been a problem, although they are becoming less so. Of course, one of the very common invasive species is the grey squirrel, which has led to there being considerably less red squirrels.
More recently, the Asian hornet has developed into a problem and there are issues with the various barnacles that can be picked up by the boats on Lough Erne that travel up and down the Shannon and so forth. Those invasive species do not recognise borders. Therefore, it is very useful to have conversations with colleagues in other areas about how they have identified invasive species and can help to deal with them.
We are looking at issues such as hull fouling, horticultural escapes, contaminants of ornamental plants, ballast water, stowaways on fishing equipment and zoo or botanic garden escapes. All those things pose a threat to us. In addition to assisting GB plans, we are working on a Northern Ireland recreational boating pathway action plan, which will be followed by a horticultural plan. All those final plans have gone through consultation processes and will eventually be published.
We also see a benefit in having a joint approach with the Republic of Ireland in dealing with invasive species, and the joint development of the pathway action plan with Ireland is a two-strand approach.
As well as working with GB on a UK-wide basis, it would be beneficial to manage invasive species collectively. At this point, there is no formal agreement. However, that is, of course, the work that we are doing.
Everyone here will be aware that many provisions in the UK Environment Bill do not extend to Northern Ireland. As my South Belfast colleague Mr O'Toole has already mentioned, other regions that are represented on the Council have their own specific climate legislation, with different targets and deadlines. What challenges have been identified that relate to divergence in environmental law and its impact on future cooperation?
For example, the UK legislation that is coming in sets a recycling target of 65%. I believe that we, in Northern Ireland, can achieve that and more. Whilst the law is set at 65%, and we have to agree to that, my preference is for a recycling target of 70%. I am giving that only as an example. We can all identify what is achievable. We have achieved much higher rates of renewable energy than any other part of the UK. Going forward, it is for the Department for the Economy to drive that.
Ultimately, I would like to see us get to the point of using and producing entirely renewable energy. However, I believe that 70% is achievable in the not-too-distant future. That is a course of work that we can engage in. We will set the targets for all those issues.
We are keen to progress our own climate change legislation. We will want to consult on that appropriately. I would like the consultation process to be shortened a bit in order to give the House and the Office of the Legislative Counsel time to do the work that they need to do. We know that there is public demand for it. Therefore, we will want to consult and see what public expectations are. At the same time, it is necessary for legislation.