A government body tasked with promoting the environment has come under fire after racking up hundreds of expensive and polluting flights.
The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), which promotes green issues, has engaged in a huge level of air travel — the largest individual contributor to global warming.
Documents obtained by the Belfast Telegraph stated NIEA staff have travelled on nearly 800 flights to meetings and conferences since September 2009.
Ironically, most trips were to events aimed at promoting the environment, sparking criticism from environmental campaigners, with Green Party MLA Steven Agnew branding the details as “unacceptable”.
Details of NIEA’s air travel were disclosed following a Freedom of Information request.
Between September 2009 and March 2012, staff travelled on 793 flights. The cost of the trips — mostly within the UK — came to £113,460.
On its website, NIEA states that it seeks to “safeguard the quality of the environment” through effective regulation of activities.
“We aim to be recognised as the leading body responsible for protecting, conserving and promoting the environment and heritage in Northern Ireland and are working towards four long-term environmental outcomes,” it says.
However, air travel is the world’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which cause climate change.
Declan Allison from Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland said: “It seems odd that the department responsible for action on climate change should have such a high carbon footprint.
“The Department of the Environment should be leading by example and cutting its greenhouse gas emissions.
“Most of these flights are for meetings. Couldn’t many of these meetings be conducted by telephone or video-conference?”
Some organisations have a carbon offset scheme to compensate for high carbon usage.
It is understood the DoE — which has responsibility for NIEA — is considering introducing it.
Mr Agnew, MLA for North Down, questioned whether all the flights were really necessary.
“Obviously, given that Northern Ireland is part of an island separate from mainland UK and mainland Europe, some air travel will be necessary,” he added.
“However, the world is becoming a smaller place with improvements in technology. Teleconferencing must be the option of first choice.”
A DoE spokeswoman said the number of flights has decreased by 55% since 2007/08, when 702 were made in one year.
“The minister has put in place a process where he receives routine updates of spend throughout the year which allows him to interrogate and challenge costs to ensure they are kept to a minimum and as much funding as possible is directed to the frontline,” she said.
She confirmed most flights related to environmental meetings, conferences and training courses.
“NIEA has a diverse range of regulatory responsibilities to deliver and needs to ensure that it is acting consistently with other regions of the UK,” she added. “This involves regular meetings with counterparts in the other UK administrations and occasionally with EU institutions.
“That said, the agency is concerned about the environmental impact of flying and has taken steps to minimise flights.
“Full use is made of tele or video-conference facilities and staff only attend meetings outside of Northern Ireland when the use of these is either not available or not practical.”