This is the first article of our Eco Centenary series, exploring how Northern Ireland can think more ambitiously about sustainability over the next 100 years and highlighting the importance of collaboration, public engagement and trust in science to achieve this.
Northern Ireland’s impending centenary has, for the most part, been contextualised through a political lens. However, by stripping back the politics of the moment, as challenging as that can be, there is a valuable opportunity to reflect.
We have a chance to consider our changing place in the world, the manner in which we are contributing toward global sustainability and how we can find ways of improving. Regardless of how the geopolitical landscape of this land will look in another 100 years, the policy decisions made today in relation to farming and food production, transport, energy usage, ecological conservation and land development will define the very nature of our existence.
Changing how we Talk and Act on Climate
The need to protect, restore and enhance the natural environment has never been more urgent. Recent reports have illustrated just how vast nature’s decline has been in Northern Ireland. As much as 11% of species here are threatened by extinction — higher than in England, Scotland or Wales — while only 1 in 21 lakes are measured as having ‘good’ water quality. These aren’t just environmental problems, of course. They have harmful social and economic consequences too. For instance, air pollution is linked to around 500 premature deaths a year in NI, while rising sea levels are leaving coastal areas at grave risk of flooding and erosion.
We are also in the midst of a regulatory shift. The majority of NI’s regulatory frameworks are based upon European Union legislation, now at risk of change. Although Brexit does offer the opportunity for NI to create new laws and to go beyond previous sustainability and emissions targets, lack of confirmation on any pathway forward is concerning.
NI’s climate inaction was symbolised by the refusal of Edwin Poots, until recently Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, to accept terminology such as ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ when dealing with environmental change. Whilst the Executive launched a consultation on its first ever Climate Change Bill late in 2020, there is little to suggest this will be enough to truly revolutionise how climate change is managed here.
We have heard how Executive departments are ‘prioritising’ sustainability in their decision-making and how innovation will help in the fight against climate change, yet there has been little practical change to support such rhetoric. Creative solutions, such as the development of an all-island renewable support mechanism or the introduction of nature-friendly farming systems, have too often been constrained by a lack of political drive and are commonly rejected in favour of short-term opportunities to extract economic value from natural resources.
To address these failures, we’ve seen academics, charity organisations and politicians, led by the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly, come together to table a Private Member’s Bill on Environment and Nature Restoration at Stormont. As one of the only regions in Europe without an Independent Environmental Protection Agency, this could be a gamechanger for NI. Currently, the Bill remains in its early stages.
Combining Structural and Individual Changes
By any measure, Northern Ireland is not performing well on sustainability. “From an environmental perspective things are really poor, we’re one of the most nature depleted countries in the world,” says Phil Carson, Policy Officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. This isn’t just the result of mistakes or oversights, but a systematic failure to fully understand how every one of us benefits from the natural environment.
“Nature isn’t valued the way it should be [in NI], not just from an economic point of view, but spiritually and culturally too. There needs to be a major shift in how we view land and what it’s for,” Phil adds
The potential implementation of a legislative act for the environment offers hope, not a silver bullet. Sally Stewart-Moore, Marine Data Officer at the Centre for Environmental Data and Recording, is well aware of this. Climate change, she says, “is not ahead of us, it is upon us, and we cannot, and should not, wait for a bill to be enacted before we do something. Action is needed now.”
Whilst there is a multitude of solutions available, Sally notes how multi-sector collaboration is key: “Businesses, communities and members of the public all have a role to play, through sharing evidence in the form of science, knowledge and viewpoints, as well as influencing change within both our work and personal lives.” It’s clear that structural change and better individual choices and actions must go hand in hand.
Looking to the next 100 years
We’ve known for some time that a changing environment will drastically impact our everyday lives. Increasing floods, droughts and extreme storms have rung alarm bells ever louder. Yet NI’s position on climate change has barely shifted and our local contribution to global sustainability is worryingly low.
In spite of a considerable increase in the desire of individuals to engage with environmental issues, NI has been badly let down by a government failing to address the climate emergency with the seriousness it deserves. In the year of Northern Ireland’s centenary we must continue to push for systematic change and together take our own individual steps to make NI more sustainable.