Thank you again, Mr Speaker. With your permission, I wish to make a statement on 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, there is 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 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 respond realistically to the challenges of climate change, the deterioration of habitats, the loss of biodiversity and the impacts of pollution on land and at sea, including plastic pollution. Meeting and dealing with these challenges can be achieved only through global cooperation in tandem with local grassroots initiatives. We all have a responsibility in meeting these 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, on 11 November 2021, I launched a formal consultation on a draft environment strategy for Northern Ireland during my visit to COP26 in Glasgow. The draft strategy set 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 also advised Members of my intention to adopt the final version of the strategy as Northern Ireland’s first environmental improvement plan under the Environment Act 2021.
When the consultation closed on 18 January, 336 responses had been received from a variety of stakeholders, organisations and members of the public. After reviewing those responses and considering helpful comments from members of the AERA Committee, my officials revisited and strengthened many of the key actions and targets in the strategy. I have approved the final version of the strategy, and, as the environment strategy will be an Executive-endorsed document, I have written to ministerial colleagues, enclosing a final version of the document.
My Department is in the process of producing a number of other key strategies and policies on significant matters such as clean air, peatlands, biodiversity and future agricultural policy. Those policy-specific strategies will deliver more detail on the key targets and actions, which, in turn, will be reflected in future revisions of the environment strategy as we seek to enable everyone to play their part in the global efforts to urgently address the substantial climate and biodiversity crises. My officials are considering the best means of ensuring effective governance and oversight of the delivery of the actions that are set out in the strategy and the necessary resources to achieve that.
Members will be aware of the overarching, multi-decade green growth strategy, which DAERA is leading the development of on behalf of the Executive. It is intended that the environment strategy will be a key document that sets out Northern Ireland’s environmental priorities for the coming decades and that it will be a key pillar in the delivery of the green growth strategy.
Members have just heard my statement on the future agricultural policy framework, which has environmental sustainability as one of its key outcomes. Furthermore, the Minister for the Economy launched a new energy strategy late last year, which outlines the path to achieving net zero carbon energy in a way that is clean, secure and affordable. Taken together, those key strategies show the commitment of me and my ministerial colleagues to a future in which we can address our significant climate and nature challenges while facilitating sustainable economic progress.
The environment strategy includes a mix of existing and new environmental targets and objectives for all Departments with a role in improving the environment. It links into the longer-term strategic objectives in our developing Programme for Government, and it 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 all want include 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 that will be addressed at the convention on biological diversity conference, or COP15, in 2022 and that were addressed at the successful COP26 climate change summit that I touched on a moment ago.
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 has been compromised. We are part of the natural environment, and we 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 the COP26 commitments and the biodiversity commitments that emerge from COP15.
The environment strategy is a response to our environmental challenges. 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 provided new environmental opportunities, and as environmental degradation poses an increasing challenge to all parts of our globe, there is a clear impetus for the first long-term, overarching environment strategy for Northern Ireland.
In the last decade, we have made some notable advances in tackling local environmental issues — perhaps foremost in the public’s mind would be the successful introduction of the carrier bag levy and the remarkable rise in our household recycling rates to over 50% in 2019-20.
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 in 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 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 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.
Within the framework of the six key outcomes, the strategy includes many concrete actions. The following examples give just a flavour of them: protecting 30% of our land and water for nature by 2030; conserving or restoring all our semi-natural peatlands to healthy, functioning ecosystems by 2040; publishing the final river basin management plans this year; 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. All Northern Ireland Ministers 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, and my officials have been working with key stakeholders, including other Departments and external bodies, to develop the premise that a better environment can provide greater economic, social and health benefits for individuals and for society and to outline a pathway to realising those benefits. I look forward to that engagement continuing as we revise the strategy in the months and years ahead.
As I mentioned at the start of my statement, my ministerial colleagues have approved my intention to designate the first version of the strategy as Northern Ireland's first environmental improvement plan (EIP) under the Environment Act 2021. The Act defines an EIP as:
"a plan for significantly improving the natural environment".
It will require DAERA and other Northern Ireland 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 a 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 today. 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, sustainable environment a reality here and demonstrate leadership on this crucial issue.
The environment strategy aims to focus on ambitious outcomes for the big environmental issues facing us, which will make a difference to the lives and well-being of current and future generations. I believe that the strategy that I have approved today is ambitious in both its breadth and depth. It contains over 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 our 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 of my statement, the environment strategy will be a key pillar of green growth, and I commend it to the House.
There is a series of things to help biodiversity loss. Re-wetting peatlands is one, and the peatland strategy is a key element of that. Encouraging the planting of more trees and hedgerows and discouraging the cutting of hedgerows so often will improve biodiversity, as will reducing the amount of nutrients that go into our soils. Yesterday, we launched a soil health action plan that will see all of our soils tested and lidar mapping taking place across Northern Ireland. That will be hugely beneficial in knowing what is going on under the ground and, as a consequence, will help to regenerate soils, and those soils will be of even greater use for farms in the future.
We can also do much to improve the quality of our rivers and water by reducing the amount of phosphates that enter our waterways and waterbodies. There is much that we can do, when we pull all of our plans together, that will ensure that we make a significant difference and improve biodiversity. The good management of our heathlands, particularly the work to achieve the reintroduction of species and the growth of species under threat, such as snipe, red grouse and many of those ground-nesting birds, is a course of work that has already commenced. It is work that needs to be expanded in other areas.
Ultimately, the green growth strategy will lead to substantial environmental improvements as a result doing things differently and ensuring that future growth is closely linked to the environment. That will help us to deal with animal nutrients, in particular, which will be hugely beneficial to waterbodies. The peatland strategy will see the re-wetting of peatlands, which will make them greater stores of carbon and will increase their biodiversity. The future agricultural policy will assist us in seeing more work, such as the further growing out of hedges, being done on an environmental basis on farms. The Forests for Our Future policy sets out that 1·8 million new trees will be planted each year, and the soil nutrient health policy will ensure that our soils have the best health of any soils in the world, because we will know exactly what is going on and will respond to that.
The suite of actions that we have taken over the past two years and that is in place to happen over the coming years will ensure that Northern Ireland's improvement to its environmental footprint will be massive. That will be a result of the steps and actions that have been taken, which will make a real and tangible difference.
I thank the Minister for his statement. He mentioned the green growth strategy. Which Department will drive that strategy — will it be his? — to ensure that it is cross-departmental and includes all relevant public agencies, arm's-length bodies, local authorities and all of the bodies charged with government and its extended lengths and that it will be inclusive in drawing in community and voluntary groups to ensure that the maximum effect and benefit is derived from it in a coherent and cohesive manner?
I entirely agree with the Member. The Executive need to lead on those issues, and Ministers need to cooperate with one another. I look forward to a future Executive when other issues have been dealt with appropriately.
The green growth strategy is an Executive strategy and is therefore cross-departmental. We have a cross-departmental working group for it. The Member is right to say that we need cooperation. Belfast City Council has an aspiration to plant a million trees, which is great. I received a letter from another council telling us that we needed to plant more trees but not identifying how it was going to do so. People need to realise that this is not something for somebody else to do but something for every one of us to do, be it personally by reducing the amount of waste that we put into the black bin and recycling more or be it companies not sending us products wrapped repeatedly in plastic and so forth. Everybody has to take responsibility, so we will ensure that everybody does. One of the things that we are looking at is extending to producers the responsibility for packaging. Work has also been done on single-use plastics. There are so many areas in which every one of us has to take responsibility, but the Government have to take the lead, and we will demonstrate that by working with one another. I fully agree with the Member's remarks.
My question leads on from Mr McGlone's. You talked about responsibility for the environment, but everybody has to take responsibility for their local environment, and that is the aspect at which I want to look. What conversations have you had with councils about how they will be able to help you meet the strategy's challenges?
Councils are responsible for waste collection, and we have been working with them on improving it. We need to get to a point at which we are not sending waste to landfill sites. People who repeatedly object to proposals to remove waste from landfill sites are ensuring that more methane goes into the air. Landfills are one of the biggest emitters of methane in Northern Ireland. Those who say, "No, we do not want this to happen" or, "We are going to object to that because we think that there are a few votes in it" need to recognise that waste needs to be dealt with in a way that is different from landfill.
Many councils are leading on issues. We have seen what they are doing on tree planting. I have to say that Northern Ireland Water's response on tree planting and on renewable energy has been amazing, and I wish it every success as it continues to lead in the way in which it has been leading. Translink is taking significant steps to move to buses that do not use fossil fuels. A lot of groups, organisations and public bodies are making a difference, and I hope that all councils will take that to heart and ensure that they get fully on board to make a real difference to the environment in their area. Everybody doing their bit will help build the jigsaw, which, when concluded, will leave us with a beautiful environment and landscape.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I genuinely wish DAERA well with the strategy, just as I did — also, I hope, genuinely — when the green growth strategy was announced, but there are some problems. The business plan update presented to the AERA Committee just two weeks ago today showed that, in this mandate, there was not the required interdepartmental collaboration on green growth. It also showed that there would not be the promised second iteration of the marine plan and that DAERA was off target with its afforestation plans. What is the Minister doing in his final days in office to rectify or turn around those red-flagged issues so that the new strategy and the existing green growth strategy will have some chance of success?
In just over two years of office, with the issue of COVID-19 predominant for well over half of that period, we have managed to introduce Forests for Our Future. That was never going to achieve the 1·8 million in the first year, but we have funding set aside that will assist us greatly in doing that. Organisations such as Belfast City Council and Northern Ireland Water intend to plant millions of trees, which will be of great assistance when that gets into full swing. I encourage other Departments to ensure that that happens in their areas. It is for every Department and every arm's-length body to help us to do that, as well as the farming community, landowners and others.
We fought hard to get a financial package to deliver on green growth, and unfortunately the Department of Finance, when it had the Executive behind it, did not come forward with proposals that would have ensured that we could make the environmental changes that are needed. The party that held that office gives lip service to the environment and everything that needs to be done, but, when it came to putting money where its mouth was, it was shy about doing that. Let us be clear: Sinn Féin did not bring forward a budget proposal that demonstrated that it was serious about the environment.
Yes, there is further work to do on other strategies such as the marine strategy, but, in the previous month, the environment strategy and the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill have come forward, and the green growth strategy has been further developed. We have made tremendous progress over that time. If Members reflect on the progress that was made in the midst of a global pandemic, they will find that what has been achieved in the past two years has been remarkable.
The environment strategy is primarily concerned with the protection and enhancement of the natural environment. The green growth strategy provides more of the actions on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. However, we are all aware that climate change and biodiversity loss are aligned and must be tackled together. That is why I was delighted to visit COP26 on "Nature and Land Use Day" to highlight my commitment to deliver much-needed nature recovery and nature-based solutions and to endorse the 'Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use'. With that focus on nature, it will give Northern Ireland a unique opportunity to showcase to the rest of the world the positive action being taken to restore nature, as set out in the recent UK 'Nature Positive 2030' report, and our commitment to deliver for biodiversity and implement nature-based solutions to tackle climate change. We need to build on and accelerate those actions to ensure that they build a low-carbon, high-nature future for all.
I thank the Minister for his statement. It will be noted that there are those who cry much about the environment and purport to be the champions of the environment who did not have the courtesy to come to the House and be present when the statement was being made.
I declare an interest, as I have a brother-in-law who farms near the Garry Bog in my North Antrim constituency. Will the Minister outline how the peatland strategy will contribute to reaching our carbon targets and allow our farmers to produce food? It is not a case of either/or. The Minister visited the Garry Bog with me some time ago and saw the challenges. I commend the farmers in that area, who, despite many of the challenges, have produced some of the best outcomes in farming.
I thank the Member for the question. The environment strategy will reference the Northern Ireland peatland strategy, which is currently under development. It will provide a framework for conserving our intact semi-natural peatlands and restoring degraded semi-natural peatlands. In Northern Ireland, our semi-natural peatlands are of enormous importance to the stability and general well-being of our environment. In addition to the ecosystem services that they provide, semi-natural peatlands can provide a nature-based solution to climate change. They can store and sequester carbon, with implications for the regulation of our climate. To provide those services, however, semi-natural peatlands need to be in a healthy state. Currently, most of our semi-natural peatlands have been degraded or are in poor condition and act as carbon sources as opposed to capturing carbon.
The peatland strategy is being taken forward under the auspices of the UK peatland strategy. A public consultation was carried out from June to September last year. We will be in a position to publish an agreed peatland strategy in 2022. That will set the direction of travel for the next two decades. The work that we did to support low emission slurry spreading equipment (LESSE) will reduce the amount of ammonia in our atmosphere by around 25%. That will be hugely beneficial to peatlands, which are overburdened with ammonia. That work, in conjunction with wetting peatlands, will be of considerable benefit. We have other steps to take that can reduce the ammonia burden by closer to 50%. That work needs to continue to ensure that we continue to restore our peatland habitats to where we want them to be. There will be great benefits from those peatlands capturing carbon. We will work with local landowners and farmers to ensure that we have their cooperation in delivering on that.
Minister, you mentioned the success of the plastic bag levy. However, it has been three months since the EU single-use plastics directive was due to come into law here, and there is still no sign of it. You previously told us that you had repeatedly contacted the British Government about that. Do you have an update for us, or are those British Ministers ignoring you?
I do not need the European Union to tell us what to do about plastics. We in the House are capable of making our own decisions. I was not elected to be answerable to Brussels; I was elected to be answerable to the people of Northern Ireland. We are doing work on single-use plastics, extended producer responsibility and single-use bags, the fee for which will be raised, as Members know. Those things are all happening without Big Brother telling us what to do or looking over our shoulder. We are quite capable of protecting the environment here, thankfully.