Belfast Telegraph

David Small: If we don't act, the land we walk on, air we breathe and water we drink are all at risk

Fish are threatened by pollution
Fish are threatened by pollution

By David Small

It is not an exaggeration to say that here in Northern Ireland our environment - our most precious natural resource - is endangered.

If we don't take essential action now, every aspect of it is threatened - the land we walk on, the air we breathe and the water we drink.

That is why we are igniting a public debate, asking for big ideas and the public's help to draft our first ever Northern Ireland Environment Strategy.

New environmental champions are emerging. Alongside long established voices of figures like Sir David Attenborough, new influencers such as climate change activist Greta Thunberg are inspiring a new generation of 'environmentalists', calling for action on some of the most pressing environmental issues which pose a threat to our world.

Threats from industrial, agricultural and domestic pollution, waste, plastic pollution and climate change.

It's all too easy to brush it off as a global problem that needs solutions that are often too big and too complex for us to make any kind of meaningful difference. However, nothing could be further from the truth. It is actually a very real and overwhelming local problem which calls for fundamental, home-grown solutions.

We all have a duty to protect, enhance and treasure our priceless landscape, which is an essential part of our economy.

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In Northern Ireland, the environment supports many of our industries, from food and farming to fishing, forestry, tourism and energy. It's part of our global marketing strategies.

It's part of our culture and identity. It's part of our DNA.

We must work now to bring to an end the behaviours and activities which are compromising the environment.

An environment that we rely on for outdoor recreation which contributes to our physical and mental health and an environment which promotes economic development, tourism, education and opportunities to socialise, not forgetting a sense of connection to nature.

In truth, our environmental performance is something of a mixed bag. We have already achieved much progress in protecting our environment, with the introduction of Prosperity Agreements with businesses and industry, the success of the carrier bag levy and the increased rates of household waste recycling. But other areas have been more challenging, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving water quality and addressing ammonia emissions.

We hope the public will respond to this discussion document and help us to identify solutions to protect, preserve and enhance our environment - so, give us your big ideas.

Northern Ireland has never had an all-encompassing environmental strategy, so we are very keen to ensure our plans accurately reflect what it is we all want to achieve for this and future generations.

We already have a patchwork of existing environmental policies covering issues such as water quality, air quality, biodiversity and climate change. This new strategy will be the thread that ties them all together. It will direct and champion these policies to ensure they complement and deliver our overall strategic goals.

The strategy has four themes:

Environmental Engagement - this is about connection, such as how the public, business and industry connect and engage with the environment and DAERA. It will include education, public awareness and technology.

Environmental Prosperity - this is about the value of the environment in economic terms, both directly and indirectly and extends to topics such as tourism, leisure activities and agri-food.

Environmental Efficiency - this looks at closely related "big picture" issues such as climate action, resource efficiency, and the circular economy idea, with the aim of achieving sustainable production and consumption.

Environmental Quality - the protection and enhancement of all aspects of our environment, including air, water, biodiversity, noise and land. This theme is intended to focus on the benefits that a healthy environment can provide - health and well-being, environmental justice, and economic prosperity.

It's a big challenge and it needs huge, innovative and new ideas, so we're asking the public to really engage with us on it. We must all be persuaded by the urgency to act now.

The public discussion is open for 14 weeks and will close on December 23, 2019.

You can take part online at https://consultations.nidirect.gov.uk/daera-neq/esni

David Small is Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and Head of Environment, Marine and Fisheries Group, DAERA

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