I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in light of the social distancing being observed, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members who are participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members who are present in the Chamber must do this by rising in their place or by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly.
I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. This is not a debate, and long introductions should not be used. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the question period after it.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. With your permission, I wish to make a statement to the Assembly regarding Northern Ireland’s first overarching environment strategy.
It is no exaggeration to say that never before have we faced such environmental challenges as those that confront us today. On a global scale, our world is under unprecedented pressure from population growth, the impact of fossil fuels and unsustainable living. The impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels, droughts and wildfires, pose a real risk to our communities and livelihoods across the world. Locally, our environment is under threat from pollution in its many forms. Action is required if we are to realistically respond to the challenges of climate change, the destruction of habitats, the loss of biodiversity and the impacts of pollution on land and at sea, including plastic pollution.
Meeting and dealing with those challenges can be achieved only through global cooperation in tandem with local grassroots initiatives. We all have a responsibility to meet the challenges, and it is incumbent on all of us to protect and preserve our local environment as we strive to protect and preserve our planet for future generations.
Against that background, I am delighted say that, following Executive endorsement, I will launch a formal public consultation on a draft environment strategy for Northern Ireland on Thursday 11 November. The strategy sets out a vision for the future of Northern Ireland's environment and the Executive's role in dealing with the challenges that we face. I intend to adopt the final version of the strategy as Northern Ireland's first environmental improvement plan (EIP) under the UK Environment Bill. As I will outline to Members shortly, DAERA, on behalf of the Executive, is leading on developing the overarching, multi-decade green growth strategy. The environment strategy is intended to be a key document setting out Northern Ireland's environmental priorities for the coming decades, and it will be a key pillar in the delivery of green growth.
I also plan to consult shortly on a future agriculture policy framework that will have environmental sustainability as one of its key outcomes. Furthermore, subject to Executive approval, the Minister for the Economy plans to launch a new energy strategy before the end of 2021 that will outline the path to achieving net zero carbon energy in a way that is clean, secure and affordable. Taken together, the key strategies show my and my Executive colleagues' commitment to a future that addresses our significant climate and nature challenges whilst facilitating sustainable economic progress.
The environment strategy includes a mix of existing and new environmental targets and objectives for all Northern Ireland Departments that have a role in improving the environment. The strategy links into the longer-term strategic objectives in our developing Programme for Government and aims to build on work that has been done across a wide range of policy areas, taking as its starting point the commitment in the draft outcome:
"We live and work sustainably – protecting the environment".
Key aspects that we will want to include are clean air, clean water, healthy soil and beautiful places to visit and enjoy, which benefit our physical and mental health.
The strategy will provide a coherent response to the global challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss to be addressed by the COP15 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in 2022 and the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, which, as we are all aware, is bringing international parties together to accelerate action on climate change.
My time at COP26 confirmed to me that climate change and biodiversity loss are inextricably linked. The evidence is clear that the state of our natural environment and its capacity to sustain us have been compromised. We are part of the natural environment and have a significant vested interest in accelerating policy and action to safeguard and restore our nature and biodiversity for the health and prosperity of current and future generations. As shown at COP26, our reliance on Northern Ireland's natural capital and ecosystems to provide nature-based solutions cannot be overstated. We need to protect and invest in nature now to start reaping the benefits and avoid the much higher costs of habitat loss and restoration if we leave it until later to act. We need to act now.
I am committed to delivering for nature and climate, and I recognise the importance of meeting COP26 commitments and those emerging from next year's COP15 on biodiversity. Northern Ireland faces a range of local environmental challenges, including habitat and species loss, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, waste management, the development of a circular economy, soil quality, air quality and waste crime. In addition, the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union has provided new environmental opportunities. As environmental degradation poses an increasing challenge to all parts of the globe, there is a clear impetus for the first long-term, overarching environment strategy for Northern Ireland.
In the past decade we have made some notable advances in tackling local environmental issues. Perhaps foremost in the public's mind are the successful introduction of the carrier bag levy and the remarkable rise in our household recycling rates to 50% in 2019-2020. However, it is clear to everyone, not least to me, that more needs to be done — and with urgency. Northern Ireland’s first environment strategy will form the basis of a coherent and effective set of interventions that can deliver real improvements to the quality of our environment and thereby improve the health and well-being of all who live and work here, create opportunities to develop our economy, elevate Northern Ireland to be an environmental leader and enable us to play our part in protecting the global environment for many decades to come.
The strategy sets out six strategic environmental outcomes that encompass all the main environmental challenges that we will face in the coming decades. The six outcomes are: excellent air, water, land and neighbourhood quality; a healthy and accessible environment and landscapes that everyone can connect with and enjoy; thriving, resilient and connected nature and wildlife; sustainable production and consumption on land and at sea; zero waste and a highly developed circular economy; and a fair contribution to UK net zero greenhouse gas emissions and improved climate resilience and adaptability
Those outcomes will form the basis of how Northern Ireland faces up to the challenges of improving our environment and our ability to connect with, understand and enjoy that environment in a responsible way. They provide us with a framework to foster environmental awareness and engagement through education and to live in harmony with our environment, which provides us with a home, a livelihood and somewhere to relax. In short, the strategy is a guide to how we can preserve, protect and improve our environment for our children and our grandchildren.
The framework of the six key outcomes of the strategy includes many concrete actions. The following examples give just a flavour of those actions: protecting 30% of our land and water for nature by 2030; conserving or restoring all of our semi-natural peatlands to healthy, functioning ecosystems by 2040; publishing the final river basin management plans next year; increasing the highly successful carrier bag levy to 25p; increasing the maximum fine for littering to £200; and applying for DAERA to become the world’s first eco-Department.
The strategy will be an open-ended, living document that will be supported by a series of action plans. There will, of course, be costs associated with many of the proposed actions to achieve the critical outcomes, which will require adequate funding through a variety of mechanisms. My Executive colleagues and I will work to ensure that Northern Ireland has the necessary resources to tackle the significant environmental challenges that we face.
It is a truism that we cannot make the necessary urgent progress on the environment alone. My officials have been working with key stakeholders, including other Departments and external bodies, to develop the premise that a better environment can provide great economic, social and health benefits for individuals and society and to outline a pathway to realising those benefits. I look forward to that engagement continuing during the course of the consultation and beyond as we move to implement the final strategy.
The launch of the draft strategy will not be the first public engagement in relation to an environment strategy. My Department previously launched a call for evidence in September 2019 by way of a public discussion document. The level of public interest in the environment was evidenced by the fact that, at the end of the extended discussion period, in February 2020, no fewer than 2,500 stakeholder responses had been received.
As I mentioned at the start of my statement, my Executive colleagues have approved my intention to designate the final version of the strategy as Northern Ireland’s first environmental improvement plan under the UK's Environment Bill. The Bill defines an EIP as:
"a plan for significantly improving the natural environment", and, subject to Assembly approval, it will require DAERA and other NI Departments to set out the steps that they intend to take to improve the natural environment. Adopting the strategy as Northern Ireland’s first EIP will give it legal underpinning, meaning that there will be a statutory requirement for ongoing reporting and monitoring against the targets and objectives on an annual basis.
As we emerge into the post-COVID-19 world, outside the European Union, we need, more than ever, to be prepared to face the environmental challenges of tomorrow. Every one of us, collectively and individually, has an important role in how we manage, preserve and protect our local environment. If we all play our part and are ambitious with our plans, we can make a thriving and sustainable environment a reality and demonstrate leadership on this crucial issue.
The environment strategy aims to focus on ambitious outcomes for the big environmental issues that face us, which will make a difference to the lives and well-being of current and future generations.
The strategy that I am consulting on is ambitious in its breadth and depth. It contains about 50 key actions and targets, with timescales between 2022 and 2050.
Our environment affects every aspect of our existence. It is central to all life: what we do, what we eat, how we work, and where we live and play. It is, unquestionably, our most precious asset. The strategy sets out plans for protecting our local environment by making sustainable living central to every aspect of our lives in the coming decades. As I said at the outset, the environment strategy will be a key pillar of green growth. I commend it to you.
I thank the Minister for his statement this morning. Minister, you made reference to waste crime and waste management. Regardless of the fact that we have two jurisdictions on this island, we live on one single epidemiological island. We know that other elements of our environment, such as water and air, know no boundaries. Will the Minister outline to us what all-island aspects have been incorporated in the strategy?
It is incredibly important that people work together in how they manage things and to ensure that they crack down on people who engage in criminality. During my period as Environment Minister from 2009 to 2011, I worked with ministerial colleagues in the Irish Republic to, for example, ensure that the waste that came to Northern Ireland via criminals was repatriated. It was something of a shock when I came back to the Department and found that that had not been progressed; a number of the illegal landfill sites had been cleared, but a lot of the waste had not been repatriated. I have raised that issue on quite a number of occasions with my colleagues in the Republic of Ireland, but it still has not been resolved. The Member is absolutely right: we need to see a better spirit of cooperation on these issues. I encourage colleagues across the border to engage in that spirit of cooperation.
I thank the Minister for his statement. An issue that is prevalent in my constituency is ensuring that the waterways are clean and clear. I am sure that the Minister agrees that it is important that we protect the ecosystems that exist in the likes of Lough Erne. Minister, given that water quality is one of the six strategic outcomes in the document, do you agree that more needs to be done to stop untreated sewage entering our waterways and causing pollution?
The Member is right. Of course, she represents a particularly beautiful part of Northern Ireland. The two loughs — Upper Lough Erne and Lower Lough Erne — are very precious assets to not just County Fermanagh but all of us. The protection of facilities such as, although not exclusively, the water bodies in Fermanagh is critical.
Our sewerage infrastructure has been challenged because, in many areas, much of the waste infrastructure is linked to storm infrastructure. The consequence is that, when we get heavy rain, storm water goes into the sewage, and that ends up, untreated, in a water body somewhere. It is incumbent on Northern Ireland Water to continue with a programme that will deal with those areas. Of course, the sensitive areas should be dealt with first. It is a critical issue that requires investment. We will require significant capital investment for our environment over the next number of years. The Member identified something that will not be led by my Department, but it will certainly be monitored by it. We, as a Department, will seek to ensure that Northern Ireland Water takes the actions that are necessary to avoid the circumstances described by the Member.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Paragraph 17 states that within:
"the six key outcomes the Strategy includes many concrete actions."
The bullet points that follow are not specifically actions but more suggested directions. I ask the Minister for an example of what is meant by:
"Protecting 30% of our land and water for nature by 2030".
What does that mean specifically and how is it likely to be done?
We have a very long series of actions. For example, to connect to the environment, landscapes, seascapes and natural beauty by 2025, we will want 110 internationally awarded green and blue sites. We want to develop, by 2027, long-term strategic ways for the management, planning, enhancement and protection of our landscapes and seascapes. On water, marine and coastal water resources, we want to publish, by 2022, the final river basin management plans. The Member will know how important that is because of all the rivers that feed into Lough Neagh in his constituency. By 2027, we want 70% of water bodies to have "good" status, and, by 2031, we aim to reduce the nutrient surplus in soils and to achieve sustainable management of water and soils. I could go on, as there is a very long list of areas that we want to tackle that flow from this strategy. This is not something to gather dust; there is a whole series of action plans flowing from it.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement. In paragraph 13, you refer to the:
"remarkable rise in our household recycling rates to over 50% in 2019/20."
In paragraph 15, under the six strategic environmental outcomes, you speak of:
"Zero waste and a highly developed circular economy".
What communication have you had with our councils to try to get their recycling rates above 50% and nearer to 100%?
I thank the Member for the question. The councils have played a key role in getting our waste recycling rates up there, and their cooperation is essential. We set a target of 50% by 2020 and achieved it ahead of time. I set the target when I was Environment Minister, and, at the time, people said that we would not meet it, but we did. There is a new target of 65%, which is a UK-wide target. I would prefer the target to be 70% recycling and for the rest of the waste to be dealt with as energy from waste. Decisions have to be taken on energy from waste. For example, we have a gasification facility in Belfast in the Harbour estate, but we will need an expansion of that or the creation of further facilities to ensure that we continue to tackle the waste that is not recyclable.
The most important element with waste is not producing it in the first instance. A lot of the work that we are doing is on producer-packaging responsibility. People must take responsibility for the packaging that they produce and know that there will be a cost associated to them for producing the waste in the first instance. Regarding all the waste that is coming from virgin goods, recycling is a good thing, but it would be better if we had less packaging and waste to recycle. Every company and business needs to take that on board and to recognise that they have do what they can to reduce waste. Jeff Bezos from Amazon was at COP26, and perhaps he can take actions, other than flying into space, to really help the environment. As one of the biggest suppliers of virgin packaging in the world, he could massively reduce such packaging.
I thank the Minister for his statement. With all the mentions of a circular economy and pledges for zero waste, is it not a fact that, without a green new deal, the UK Government and the Departments represented in the Assembly will seriously struggle to meet their carbon emission target reductions under the Paris agreement? Therefore, how can the pledge in the statement be taken seriously and credibly if there are no specific targets and action plans associated with that?
I agree with the Member that they are struggling and will struggle. We need to look at how we set things that are achievable and deliver on them. Therefore, I am opposed to making aspirational commitments without having any scientific backing.
I am also very clear that, right across the UK and in Northern Ireland, if we are to deliver on the environment, as opposed to just saying nice things about the environment and how committed we are to having a better environment, that will involve real and significant investment. That real and significant investment will also involve decisions that displace investment from other places in which we currently invest. That is the challenge that faces the Executive and that will face a new Executive in 2022. If they are genuinely and truly committed to doing that, they will have to make tough decisions to bring it forward.
There is a cost to the public, so we need to be honest with them. If we are going to live in this consumptive society, we need to reduce our consumption of things that we do not need, and the things that we do need must be produced in an environmentally sustainable way.
I was intrigued to read the line in paragraph 12 of the Minister's statement:
"withdrawal from the European Union has provided new environmental opportunities".
Most people would argue, in fact, that, in Britain, for example, there has been an immediate rollback on environmental practices. Just a couple of weeks ago, we all witnessed the disgusting and shocking sight of English water companies dumping raw sewage into their rivers and seas. Will the Minister give a commitment today that, in his strategy, there will be no regression from environmental standards and practices that we are used to in the EU?
Nobody has ever proposed regression, so I am not sure from where the Member is introducing regression. We have the opportunity to apply environmental practices that are bespoke to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We are not in Finland, almost on the Arctic Circle, and nor are we in the southern Mediterranean in Greece or Sicily. We are Northern Ireland, and we have our own peculiar environmental aspects that they do not have, and they have their own peculiar environmental aspects that we do not have. Therefore, EU-wide policy is not the best fit to manage things at a local level.
We have the opportunity to develop bespoke arrangements to protect our environment, to support our agriculture community and for a range of other things. We now have the freedom. We are the lawmakers. We are responsible to the people who elect us here, for which I am very grateful. We can be much more responsive to the needs of the community in Northern Ireland than an unelected European Commission and a Parliament of around 800 people — I may be wrong about that number — in which we have only three elected members. We can directly respond to the needs of Northern Ireland in a much better way, and I am pleased to have that democratic deficit restored to Northern Ireland.
Given the need to protect and enhance our peatlands for carbon storage, improved water quality, flood mitigation and biodiversity, what steps could Departments take to ensure that those outcomes are achieved?
As with all these things, it will not always be the responsibility of one Department. DAERA's peatland strategy is well developed, and it will be published soon.
We are looking at the Scottish experience. Uplands play a key role. Spending money to deliver those better natural defences will be beneficial to the likes of DFI. If we manage peatlands better, DFI will spend less money on cleaning water because less peaty soil will get into it as a consequence.
Therefore, peatlands require better management. The first element of that is the wetting of the peatlands. That is responsible for over 50% of the degradation that takes place. In Northern Ireland, we have not seen the significant harvesting of peatland that we have seen in the Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland talks about 100% net zero, and I am interested to see what it will do about peatlands, because it has devastated its peatlands, and a huge amount of carbon will have been released from that. It will be interesting to watch how it undoes the damage there.
In other parts of the UK and Great Britain, there will be higher levels of peatland erosion, which is a bigger challenge. Raised bogs here certainly need to be rewetted. We need to ensure that they become, basically, big basins of water that will support the peatland activity. We also need to continue to reduce ammonia. Therefore, I have taken steps, for example, that will take 25% of the ammonia out of the system, such as low-emission spreading equipment etc. We need to take further steps to reduce ammonia. We have been talking to other people about appropriate tree planting close to farms and so forth, which can absorb huge amounts of that material. We need to take those steps to restore peatlands. They are a particularly important part of our landscape. We need to ensure that there is appropriate strip burning in peatland areas, so that we do not lose hundreds of hectares at one time. Appropriate strip burning will help to ensure that, in drier periods, we do not have accidental fires. Peatlands are a particularly important element, and there is much to do on them; not so much on the sequestration of carbon but in reducing the carbon that they emit currently because they store a lot of it.
I hope that it will be very soon. I have said that before, mind you, but I genuinely hope that it will be very soon. It is a difficult and tricky one to finalise. However, we are getting there. The vast majority of ammonia emissions come from agricultural sources. I think that around 15% is from the pig and poultry sector. I am hugely interested in the capacity to capture that ammonia. Pig houses have air conditioning and fan systems. If we can filtrate that ammonia into one source and capture it, could it then be put into a cracker that produces hydrogen? It is believed that farm ammonia would be a particularly heavy form of ammonia and would therefore be useful for the shipping sector.
It is about how we look at things differently. Ammonia should be looked at as a potential opportunity. Where we can capture it, we should capture it. Where we cannot, we should look to nature-based solutions, like appropriate tree planting adjacent to dairy farms, where a lot of the ammonia would be absorbed into the local environment. There are ways to tackle these things, and we need to adapt those ways to our particular circumstances in Northern Ireland. We produce a lot of food and want to continue to do so.
I thank the Minister for his statement, in which he referred to the plastic bag levy being increased and to the maximum fine for littering. This is also an urban issue, but when you go around the rural roads, you see a shocking amount of litter. The situation was particularly poor during COVID. What more can the Minister do to put pressure on councils to emphasise and deal with the issue? Some councils are good at it, while some are very poor. To be honest, my council does not issue enough fines, but it is not about issuing fines to everyone. Rather, it is about getting out the message and getting people to improve their habits.
It is a difficult one. When I am out walking on my road, which is a rural road, I come across chip papers, paper from fast-food outlets, Red Bull cans and all those things deposited at the side of the road. I literally do not understand it. We have an education process, and young people are taught from their schooldays, as they have been since my schooldays, about the importance of not throwing litter, yet people still engage in the practice as if it means nothing. They leave the responsibility to some other person, who goes out with a bag and a litter picker to collect it. It is entirely wrong that people do that.
We cannot have council officers driving around in vans, pursuing every car to see whether litter will be thrown out. Therein lies the difficulty, and a lot of it comes back to producer responsibility and ensuring that a lot of the stuff that they produce is biodegradable. We need to reduce massively the amount of plastic that is involved in production processes. We need our councils to continue to be strong on litter waste, because it is an unacceptable trait of our society, Most of all, we all need to engage with people. We need to support those who collect waste and ensure that the message continues to be hammered out.
A hard core of people just do not seem to care about our environment, and they will deposit litter willy-nilly rather than leave it in their car until they get back home, where they can put it into the appropriate bin.
I thank the Minister for his statement. The North has the lowest density of woodland in Europe, with just 8% of our land being forest. You have committed to the Forests for Our Future initiative. Will you give an update on it?
At my recent visit to COP26, I noted the importance of planting seagrass to help reduce carbon. Are the Minister and his Department exploring its use?
In the first year of Forests for Our Future, in aiming for 1·8 million trees every year on average over 10 years, we planted 1·2 million or 1·3 million trees, so we did not hit the 1.8 million target, but, from a standing start, that is still very good. For some reason, up until around 2007, we were planting considerably more trees, and the number then dropped off fairly significantly for a period. We have put a lot of resource, support and additional money into the Forest Service, which grant-aids landowners to plant trees. Ultimately, I believe that it will be a successful project. I commend the Forest Service, which is working extremely hard to ensure its success.
The issue that the Member raises about seagrass is important. Identifying suitable sites will be hugely beneficial, because seagrass needs to be planted in fairly shallow water, and how it impacts on those who are out on our water needs to be considered. It has been suggested that, for the equivalent space covered, seagrass can be 35 times better than forest at capturing carbon, so we certainly need to look at it. We will never be able to stop all carbon production, and its sequestration is therefore critical in the battle to get to net zero.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and, on behalf of my party, I welcome the environment strategy.
Minister, I noted that you talked about the move towards waste management and the proof of recycling and getting towards the 100% mark. When I was at COP26 last week, I had the opportunity to talk to some of the many councils that are having significant problems with waste management, particularly the long-term incineration contracts that they are tied into. They are trying to get out of those contracts. When the Minister has talked to his Executive colleagues, has he had a chance to ask the Infrastructure Minister to make a decision about the Hightown incinerator and get that moving now? That has a detrimental effect on our push to improve recycling across Northern Ireland.
I thank the Member for the question. There will not always be easy decisions to make in managing our environment. Sometimes there will be more difficult decisions. I have corresponded with the Infrastructure Minister and have clearly identified to her that we need additional capacity to deal with waste that is not recyclable. Therefore, a decision needs to be made on energy from waste. It is for the Infrastructure Minister to make those decisions, because they are planning decisions. I will not interfere in her decision-making process and her responsibility, but I will seek to facilitate her in every way to identify the need that exists — we have done that — and demonstrate to her the importance of an infrastructure that will remove waste from landfill.
Going forward, the longer those decisions do not happen, the more waste goes to landfill and the more methane is produced from landfill. As those sites already exist, it is not difficult because you do not have to make that decision. There are already landfill sites capable of taking that waste, and the easiest thing is to put the decision off. We need to stop putting off decisions and make decisions, face the public on them, face the scrutiny of courts on them — all of the decisions are likely to be judicially reviewed — and move the country forward on that basis. We cannot move forward on the basis of paralysis. That just leads to nothing.
I thank the Minister for his statement. To be honest, I am rather underwhelmed by its contents. Stuff like renaming the Department as an eco-Department does not really inspire me, but there is a consultation ahead. One of the key things that are meant to relate to this is the commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach' to establish an independent environmental protection agency. Why has that not been established yet?
We are not renaming the Department an "eco-Department"; we are applying to be an eco-Department and to be the first Department in the world to achieve that. We should not denigrate the hard work that people put into developing such things to ensure that Northern Ireland can be at the forefront and at the cutting edge.
The independent environmental agency is something that we could not move forward in the period from January 2020 to now, particularly given the background of the COVID crisis, to make the changes that would be required. That will be for a new Assembly and a new Executive to take forward on the basis of all the information that is available to them. It will be a choice for the new Assembly and Executive to make.
Minister, I welcome the fact that the statement is happening, but part of the problem in Northern Ireland is that we have had many positive strategies on climate mitigation and the environment over the years but, frankly, abysmal delivery. We have a terrible record. We are a laggard not just on these islands but globally. As I said yesterday, 83% of the targets in our previous biodiversity strategy were missed. Of course, we still do not have binding climate change legislation or, as has been mentioned, an environmental protection agency. In the spirit of getting our actual intentions on the record, do you accept the recommendation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to limit temperature rises to 1·5°C? Do you personally agree with that target and with Northern Ireland having binding targets to deliver on that?
The Member said nine words before his "but", and then he made a series of criticisms of Northern Ireland that run his country down, but that is up to the Member.
Not only am I saying that I want to see the 1·5°C limit but I have committed to the Under2 Coalition, which was established in 2016 and is now going to rename itself, as the target, which was under 2°C at that time, will now be less than that. It represents 57% of regional governments from across Europe, North America, Asia — all parts of the world, basically. They are committed to reducing our carbon and greenhouse gases and to making the environment a better place.
Thank you, Minister, for the statement and for the impetus for the statement. We all need to play our part in creating a new green society.
The statement lacks vision, big-ticket items and blue-sky thinking. I will make a suggestion: how about opening the canal between Newry and Lough Neagh? How about reopening, reconstructing, refurbishing, revitalising, rewilding and restocking the Newry canal, involving Infrastructure, Economy, Education and Health? Let us do something brilliant and imaginative and rewild that artery through our land. How about that for an idea?
I would be entirely supportive of reopening the Newry canal, the Ulster canal and Lagan navigation. They would be good investments for the future of our country, tourism and North/South linkages. They would all be hugely beneficial. Unfortunately, it is not my Department that drives that, so the question is to the wrong Minister. If the Minister who has responsibility brings that forward, I would certainly support it.
The Member also mentioned rewilding. I have already recommended and encouraged Members to do this, but, if they want to see good practice, they should go to Glenwherry, where they have engaged in qualitative management. Work is being done on re-wetting the peatlands, and the number of ground-nesting birds has been raised and the biodiversity improved. That has not been done by allowing things to grow wild, because, when you let things grow wild, the like of briars, thistles, dockens, fern and so forth take over. Good management will ensure that you have a higher level of biodiversity. That is where we need to aim. You cannot have rewilding and biodiversity together because you will end up losing loads of species if you just abandon things.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I also welcome his comments on reopening Newry canal, as, last night, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council agreed to open up conversations with Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council (ABC) on the matter, as it has responsibility for the canal. I look forward to that conversation.
Only six concrete actions are mentioned in the statement. Will you outline when we will see the rest of the actions?
It is deliberate that there are six. When we looked at it initially, there were potentially 20, but we decided to become much more focused. That is why we have the six, which are key areas that we need to tackle. Air quality, water quality, carbon emissions and waste are all key actions that will come from the environment strategy. Other strategies will pick up other issues. The environment strategy should not be looked at on its own; it should be looked at in the context of green growth, which we will speak about shortly. It needs to be looked at in the context of a biodiversity strategy, a peatland strategy and an ammonia strategy. All those strategies, which we are pulling together, will give us an overarching set of strategies that will encompass all the issues relating to the environment.
I thank the Minister for his statement. The statement rightly recognises the good work that has been done in increasing recycling rates, yet it acknowledges that much more must be done on the road to zero waste. Will the strategy consider the merits of creating a single waste authority for Northern Ireland?
This strategy does not. I am not opposed to that. However, we established three waste organisations. Two of those have pretty much fallen by the wayside, and one still exists. When I reflect on that, I do not think that it was the greatest success story ever. In going forward, we need to set clear targets for councils and fully assist them to meet those. We now have 11 councils. They are larger councils, they are more capable of entering into contracts and they can collaborate with one another. Perhaps it is something that we do not need to force and the organisations themselves will recognise that they can move forward with through good collaboration.
I know that, at this time, as Dr Aiken pointed out, some councils are in Arc21, for example, and feel tied to Arc21 in relation to what it does and, therefore, have been held back by a lack of decisions on what Arc21 wants to do. Others may prefer to move on to do something else but feel that they cannot. It is for councils, which have the responsibility for that side of waste, to do what is right for their ratepayers and the wider community at the same time.
We have engaged with the Bill sponsor. My officials have engaged extensively, but we are not finding common ground. That is unfortunate, because it is critical that we find a way through this and move forward together as an Assembly.
I do not think that there is a huge disparity across the House in what people want to achieve. People want to see a huge reduction in our greenhouse gases and carbon emissions. They want to see us developing means of sequestrating carbon. Some people want to do it very quickly, and others say, "If we do it that quickly, there will be a huge cost associated with it, and we need to absorb that a little more slowly". Those are all challenges for the House to decide on. I trust that it will be a rounded decision that is based on qualitative science and will deliver on what people promise. As a politician, I have never been the type to overpromise. I prefer to underpromise and overdeliver than to overpromise and underdeliver. I have been around since 1998, and, over the years, the politicians who have come in here and overpromised seem to have had a shorter shelf life than those who tended to be more measured.
I expect that many Members saw the recent BBC 'Spotlight' programme on the ongoing devastation caused by gold-mining in the Sperrin mountains. I think that I quote Professor Steven Emerman, who claimed:
"I have never interacted with a regulatory agency that is so incompetent as the NIEA".
That is a man who has worked with regulatory agencies across the world, in Ecuador, Columbia, Madagascar, Indonesia, but has:
"never interacted with a regulatory agency that is so incompetent as the NIEA".
Minister, how can any of us have any faith in the delivery of the strategy and the direction of travel to get what is expected of it?
It is pretty mean of a politician to denigrate all 900 people who work in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and to have no trust in them. There are a lot of very good people in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. As a body, it could work better. At the moment, it is too silo-based. People specialise in particular areas and sometimes do not see the wider benefit and the necessity for having a bit of give in the area that they are in. However, all in all, I have to say that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency is made up of people who have specialisms and a lot of knowledge in their field of expertise. If we ultimately develop an independent environment agency, who will populate that? Where do you think the people who are currently in the NIEA will go? It will be the same people, the people whom you have just been running down.
Environmental responsibility is indisputably good. However, I am intrigued by paragraph 11 of the statement, in which Minister Poots states:
"I am committed to delivering for nature and climate".
Does the Minister now think that he and, indeed, we can change the climate?
We can certainly alter our environment. When God made this place and looked on it, he said, "It's very good". He did not look on oceans that were full of plastic, rivers that were polluted and air that was full of particles that it should not have. I would like to try to make the environment very good. It would be good for all of us to commit to that.