Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

'Green bible' used in fight to protect environment

A wide-ranging new report spells out the huge task ahead for people across Northern Ireland when it comes to protecting the environment. Linda McKee, environment correspondent reports

Anyone working within the environmental field in Northern Ireland is probably wondering how to squeeze the latest tome into an already overloaded filing cabinet.

But few of us will be considering binning it to save space — sorry, recycling it — as the 2008 State of the Environment report, launched last week by Environment Minister Arlene Minister, is set to become a much-consulted 'bible'.

For the first time ever, we have a comprehensive health report on Northern Ireland's environment. The compilers have chosen 30 indicators of the health report — pared down from an initial list of more than 100 and covering everything from air quality to river plants to greenhouse gas emissions.

And the diagnosis? Green campaigners are delighted that the report was ever produced in the first place.

How can you even start to look after your surroundings, they ask, unless you have any idea of what's there? The notion of producing a good solid baseline report was one of the major recommendations to come out of the Review of Environmental Governance and its publication has been roundly welcomed by Northern Ireland's green campaigners.

But when it comes to the content, that's a different matter.

While Environment Minister Arlene Foster admitted the shortcomings revealed in the protection of Northern Ireland's environment, she was keen to highlight places where things are going well, such as ongoing improvements in air quality.

Yet, what shocked people was how little information we have on many of the indicators used, such as the condition of our historic buildings.

The minister also admitted there were "considerable challenges" for our rivers and lakes because of the level of nutrient pollution caused by sewage and farmland runoff, and noted declines in habitats such as lowland meadows and hedgerows.

Meanwhile, green group WWF noted that there was very little about the marine environment.

Director Geoff Nuttall said: "Given that over half of our biodiversity is found in the seas, it's something that we would hope to see a lot more of in future reports."

He also commented that ecological footprint needs to be included as an indicator — showing how severely we are consuming our natural resources and affecting the planet. Targets are needed for improvement, particularly regarding Northern Ireland's contribution to climate change — and there also needs to be intermediate 'milestone' targets.

"It's good to have the strategy report, but how are we going to use it and what action will be taken on the back of what's in this report?" he asked.

Friends of the Earth said the only viable solution to the problem uncovered by the report was the creation of an independent Environmental Protection Agency, something which the minister is to rule on this summer.

"The state of Northern Ireland's waters in particular, leave a lot to be desired. Pollution levels from unmonitored sewage overflows and poorly maintained septic tanks are unacceptable, FOE said.

The RSPB added its voice to the calls for an independent EPA, warning that the system that permits this level of underperformance needs a major overhaul.

"Less than 30% of Special Protection Areas were in favourable condition. It will take a huge amount of work to get those into favourable condition," director Aidan Lonergan said.

He also warned that the state of the environment will need to be reassessed more frequently than every 10 or 15 years.

But the Ulster Farmers Union remains adamant in its opposition to an independent EPA. Once the farmers have put in the slurry storage needed to keep run-off from reaching rivers as required in the Nitrates Action Plans, water quality will improve, spokesman Joe McDonald said.

"Farmers are doing a huge amount of work to improve the environment in Northern Ireland — they've put over £100 million of their own money to upgrade facilities to improve water quality," he said.

The UFU says an independent EPA would be a costly and ineffective body that means more red tape for farmers — and the green groups fear the Environment Minister may already in agreement.

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