Stormont environment body slammed over its 869 flights
A Stormont body whose job it is to promote the environment has been criticised after taking hundreds of flights - including some within Ireland.
Since 2014/15, staff at the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) have taken 869 air journeys at what has been described as an "eye-watering cost" of almost £120,000.
Last year the number of flights increased by 46%, figures seen by this newspaper reveal. This included four flights within Ireland.
Green Party MLA Rachel Woods said the NIEA had serious questions to answer.
"The number of flights taken by NIEA staff seems to be excessive. Indeed, four flights within the island of Ireland appears to be totally unnecessary," she said.
"Air travel makes a huge contribution to climate breakdown. Around the world, aviation emits about 860 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year.
"I would expect that the NIEA would appreciate this given their statutory remit to promote environmentally sustainable development and infrastructure."
NIEA has around 490 full-time staff, and states its primary purpose "is to protect and enhance Northern Ireland's environment, and in doing so, deliver health and well-being benefits and support economic growth".
Over the last five years, the 869 flights cost a total of £119,108. Most flights (804) were taken within the UK. Sixty-one others were outside the UK and Ireland.
The busiest year for flights was 2018/19, with 255 taken in total at a cost of £36,174.
Ms Woods added: "I also have concerns about the costs of these flights. The public is picking up the bill at a time when many people are curbing their own trips because of the rising cost of living.
"I appreciate that some air travel may be needed for NIEA staff. But the number of flights and costs of these flights are eye-watering.
"People are beginning to think about the climate emergency and changing their habits and way of life.
"Except, it seems staff at the NIEA - some serious questions must be asked around that."
A Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs spokesman said: "We fully understand and accept that there is a carbon cost associated with flying and want to do all we can to not only reduce our carbon footprint but encourage others to do the same.
"There is no doubt that carbon is damaging to the environment and NIEA is keen to reduce its carbon emissions and, where possible, make every use of video and conferencing technology to avoid additional flights."
He added: "Flights taken require justification on business need priorities, value for money and the most appropriate mode of transport."
Declan Allison, a campaigner from Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, called on NIEA to show leadership.
"The devastating bush fires in Australia have put climate breakdown in the headlines. It is now clearer than ever that global warming is having a catastrophic impact around the world, and those impacts will only get worse unless immediate action is taken to break our fossil fuel addiction," he said.
"It is disappointing, therefore, that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency continues to take such a large number of flights, contributing to the problem they are supposed to be solving. There are many viable options for meeting and working together that don't require climate-wrecking flights. NIEA has a responsibility to show leadership by promoting low-carbon practices."
Victoria College pupil Anna Kernahan (17) helped to organise the Youth Strike 4 Climate in Belfast last September.
Speaking on behalf of the Northern Ireland Students Climate Network (NISCN), she said the number of flights taken by NIEA staff was "unacceptable".
"They should be leading the way in decarbonisation and instead they are setting most horrific of examples," she said.
"If there’s a reasonable explanation for these horrific statistics I’d love to know more. As a young person who cannot vote I am relying on the adults to take responsibility for mine and my children’s future which they have failed to do.
"Currently, we at NISCN are acting like the mature adults and sacrificing our education to do so. These statistics prove why we are still doing this."