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Joint Committee on Climate Action debate -
Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Reduction of Carbon Emissions of 51% by 2030: Discussion

With us are Dr. Liam Lysaght of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, Professor Jane Stout of Trinity College Dublin and Mr. Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust. On behalf of the committee, I welcome them to the meeting and thank them for coming to share their expertise.

I remind witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction. For witnesses attending remotely from outside the Leinster House campus, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege and as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity to legal proceedings as a witness physically present does.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located on the Leinster House complex. In this regard, I ask all members, prior to making their contribution to the meeting, that they confirm that they are indeed on the grounds of the Leinster House campus. For those who are watching online, Oireachtas Members and witnesses are accessing this meeting remotely. Only I, as Chair, and the necessary staff essential to the running of the meeting are physically present in the committee room. Due to these unprecedented circumstances and the large number of people attending the meeting remotely, I ask that everyone bear with us should any technical issues arise.

I call Dr. Lysaght to make his opening statement.

Dr. Liam Lysaght

Biodiversity and biodiversity policy are very much evidence-based issues. Biodiversity quality is either being maintained and enhanced, or biodiversity is suffering loss. The only effective way to measure success or failure of biodiversity policy is against this trend. Biodiversity is measured by how well ecosystems function and how efficiently they deliver the ecosystem services that we all benefit from, such as pollination, nutrient cycling, soil fertility, water purification, etc.

The volume is quite low. I am not sure if it is an issue on Dr. Lysaght's end.

Dr. Liam Lysaght

Can the Chairman hear me now?

We can hear Dr. Lysaght, but barely. We will see what we can do. Bear with us for one moment. We will get some technical assistance and suspend the meeting for a few minutes.

Sitting suspended at 12.37 p.m. and resumed at 12.39 p.m.

Dr. Lysaght might want to go back to the start of his statement and we will go from there.

Dr. Liam Lysaght

I will try to be as clear as possible and will start again if that is okay.

Biodiversity and biodiversity policy are very much evidence-based issues. Biodiversity quality is either being maintained and enhanced, or biodiversity is suffering loss. The only effective way to measure success or failure of biodiversity policy is against this trend. Biodiversity is measured by how well ecosystems function and how efficiently they deliver the ecosystem services that we all benefit from, such as pollination, nutrient cycling, soil fertility, water purification, etc. Measurement of ecosystem services is complex but generally the number and diversity of species in an area is a relatively good measure of environmental and ecosystem health.

Our understanding of biodiversity and biodiversity loss in this country is still quite poor.

Although there are well known losses of iconic species such as corncrake, Atlantic salmon and European eel, the bulk of biological diversity and ecosystem services are provided by lesser-known taxonomic groups about which we know very little. For example, just under 32,000 different species have been documented for Ireland yet we estimate there are another 8,000 or so yet to be described.

The majority of our biodiversity and the functions it provides are delivered by smaller creatures - the invertebrates, lichens, algae and fungi which account for 86% of all species in Ireland. Other than the Irish butterfly monitoring scheme which shows a 1.3% decline in butterfly populations since 2008 and the all-Ireland bumblebee monitoring scheme which shows a 4.8% decline each year in bumblebee populations since 2012, we know very little about how these less conspicuous elements of biodiversity and biodiversity function are performing. This is an impediment to the prioritisation, implementation, tracking and reviewing of the effectiveness of biodiversity policy in Ireland.

We know quite a bit about the other more easily recognisable species. Red lists are an internationally recognised method of doing conservation assessments of the risk of species going extinct. It compares the known distribution of species from two different time periods. Red lists have been completed for 12 broad taxonomic groups and have found that on average about 20%, or one in five, of all species assessed in Ireland are threatened with extinction. For bees and fish the figure is an alarming 30% of the species.

Birds are assessed separately through the birds of conservation concern process, the results of which we only published recently. It found that 63% of regularly occurring bird species in Ireland are of conservation concern, with the number of highest conservation concern increasing by 46% since 2013. The species of most concern include the species with which we are familiar, such as corncrake, curlew, lapwing and barn owl, and now includes widespread species like meadow pipit, snipe and kestrel.

From the monitoring schemes that are in place, we know that Ireland is not immune from the well-documented global biodiversity crisis. Biodiversity loss is happening right here in Ireland, too, and is happening right now. For clarity, whereas a small number of species are increasing in abundance and some new species are arriving to Ireland, the overall trend is towards increasing biodiversity loss and associated reduction in the quality of ecosystem services. This is occurring countrywide.

There is one other big caveat to the state of knowledge on biodiversity in Ireland that must be acknowledged. There are no long-term monitoring schemes that extend back more than about 20 years, so none of the big declines in biodiversity loss that Ireland experience during the 1970s and 1980s has been captured. Government policy must avoid the pitfall of falling into the shifting baseline syndrome.

Finally, there must be a twin-track approach to addressing biodiversity loss. We need to make space for biodiversity in all parts of the countryside. I am not separating farm land from other aspects. We must make sure that the approach is countrywide. Everyone taking voluntary actions, big and small, for biodiversity can have a huge, positive cumulative impact. This is likely to create favourable conditions to tackle the declines of the common and widespread species. However, against that, if we want to tackle decline in species that require more specialised conditions, it will require a much vigorous and strategic approach as it is likely to require landscape-scale or catchment-scale interventions. I must note that this has already begun for species such as freshwater pearl mussel, hen harrier and curlew, but it has to be cranked up a lot and a great deal more needs to be done. We must become much more ambitious in our objectives.

I thank Dr. Lysaght for his statement. I ask Professor Stout to make her opening remarks.

Professor Jane Stout

I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak its members about biodiversity. Biodiversity, which is the variety of life, is fundamental to humanity. Without a variety of different creatures in soils, hedgerows, woodlands, bogs and heaths, we would not be able to produce the food, timber and other raw materials that we produce. Without a variety of different creatures and habitats in the landscape, we would not have protection against natural hazards, such as sea-surges, floods and droughts. Without a rich and diverse landscape, our culture and recreational opportunities would be diminished. With the loss of that biodiversity, I cannot over-state the problems that will face human societies.

Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic has been caused by a disease that spread from other animals to humans. Our destruction of biodiversity, deforestation and simplification of habitat, as well as the trade and handling of animals by people, has brought humans and wild animals into closer contact, facilitating this disease transfer. In fact, 75% of all new diseases in humans in the past ten years have come from animals, and more will come in the future.

However, with restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems, solutions to global challenges are all around us. In terms of climate change, biodiversity is key to both mitigation and adaptation strategies. First, in respect of climate change mitigation, slowing climate change, biodiversity can help slow carbon release. In Ireland, we hold a trump card - healthy peatlands are fantastic carbon sinks. Peatlands cover only around 3% of the earth's land surface, but store about double the amount of carbon in all forests which cover ten times that area. Peatlands retain carbon and prevent it from being lost to the atmosphere, as well as acting like giant sponges, holding rainwater and releasing it slowly, preventing flooding. They also provide habitats for plants and animals, like birds, that need these wild open spaces. In respect of climate change adaptation, urban trees and other green spaces can help towns and cities cope with higher summer temperatures, cooling them down; coastal wetlands can protect against storm surges; wooded floodlands and peatlands attenuate flood water; and patches of scrub hold soil together and prevent erosion and soil loss.

By restoring biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, nature can provide solutions to the climate crisis. We need diversity. Diversity in ecosystems gives them resilience. If there are more species, then an ecosystem is more adaptable in the face of change and can bounce back from severe events more effectively. Studies have shown that with more species in grasslands, they are more resistant to a broad range of climate events, including wet or dry, moderate or extreme and brief or prolonged events. Diversity is going to be very important in adapting to a climate-changed future, for example, in our agricultural systems.

However, we do need to restore ecosystems back to health and ensure that biodiversity is there. Most of our ecosystems are not in good health. Peatlands have been converted to grassland, planted with forestry and harvested for fuel, and most of them are emitting carbon rather than storing it. Intensive agriculture and chemical inputs from farmland are polluting soils and waterways. Well-intentioned, but wrongly sited, installations to address greenhouse gas emissions can cause instability to entire habitats.

Restoration of biodiversity is urgent, but there has never been a better time. It is the UN decade on ecosystem restoration, we will have legally binding targets as part of the EU biodiversity strategy to 2030 and the public has got back in touch with nature during lockdown. This is good, because to restore ecosystems back to health, we need action. We actively have to work with nature to restore biodiversity and create these nature-based solutions. We have to work with local communities and empower them to restore their own patches. We need to ditch the perverse policies and make people proud of being stewards of nature. Let us not penalise farmers for having uncultivatable land and pay them for actions that have no positive effect. We must work with them and pay them to restore biodiversity on all parts of their farms. We must look to the success of initiatives like the all-Ireland pollinator plan, which has brought together local communities, local authorities, schools and businesses. Working together for pollinators has brought additional benefits for other wildlife. It has got commercial companies investing in nature and has brought people together with a common purpose.

We have immediate access to nature-based solutions. The restoration of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems is a solution to the climate crisis, and fundamental to all of our well-being. Nature is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Investing in nature now will not just affect the next five to ten years, but the next 100 to 200 years. It does not cost the earth, but it gives us and the earth a chance.

I thank the professor for her statement. I call on Mr. Fogarty to make his opening statement.

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

I sincerely thank members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action for the invitation to address them. It is nearly two years since the Dáil declared a climate and biodiversity emergency and my message to the committee today is that the collapse of our biodiversity is real, that it is happening and that it matters. While many of us looked on in horror at the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in 2019, we can sometimes forget that Ireland is perhaps the most deforested country in the world. Having once been 80% deciduous oak woodland, our native forests have been reduced to sorry fragments that extend to no more than 2% of our land area. What was not forest was wetlands and bogs but these too have been remorselessly exploited so that today fewer than 1% of the midlands' bogs are still growing while across the uplands and the west of Ireland, fewer than one third of these peatlands remain what is termed "suitable for conservation". Even these areas have been largely denuded of their wildlife due to fires and overgrazing.

Our farmland has been utterly transformed in recent decades such that most fields are practically devoid of life while even the ancient system of hedgerows is vanishing due to neglect and outright destruction. Last month, BirdWatch Ireland and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Northern Ireland reported that an incredible two thirds of all our bird species are heading toward extinction. This is a frightening figure. Our waterways are mostly polluted by farm run-off and under-treated human sewage. In fact, we continue to pour completely untreated sewage into our surroundings from 35 towns and villages in Ireland. At sea, Ireland has a lamentable reputation for overfishing marine life while we continue to lose biodiversity in the mere 2% of our seas that currently fall within protected areas. It is a dire state of affairs when the majority of the fishing boats around Ireland scarcely even catch fish any more and must make do with crabs and lobsters due to the collapse of the ocean ecosystem. Healthy ecosystems are not just nice to have, they are central to the production of food, the availability of clean water, the stability of our climate as well as our mental and physical health. Healthy, functioning ecosystems are essential to our very survival yet we have destroyed them. We should be doing better.

Successive Governments have signed up to a raft of legislation to protect biodiversity and water quality yet a recent report from the National Biodiversity Forum lambasted the State as "The biggest transgressor of environmental law". As legislators, member play a key role in addressing this crisis. The good news is that the solutions are to hand, namely, farming in a way that is close to nature, ending overfishing and creating well-protected marine protected areas, investing in wastewater infrastructure, reintroducing species we have driven to extinction and rewilding our rivers and uplands so forests and peatlands are restored. We must remove perverse subsidies which promote the destruction of nature and reform laws that are no longer fit for addressing the challenges we face. For instance, the Arterial Drainage Act 1945, which results in so much damage to our river systems, must be looked at. We need a new biodiversity Act that will put our biodiversity action plan on a legal footing. Nature restoration is climate action. Healthy bogs, farmland and oceans all store and sequester carbon. It is also people action as it creates employment, diversifies economic opportunity strengthening communities and reducing inequalities.

The challenge before us is daunting. Quite frankly, our children face a frightening future. As legislators right now, members are making key decisions that will shape that future. I urge them to act with the level of urgency this crisis requires. We have no excuses. I firmly believe restoring nature to our island could be the most wonderful project for bringing our communities together. We are, after all, a part of nature but the time for action is now.

I thank Mr. Fogarty. This meeting is confined to a maximum of two hours and I propose each member be given two minutes to address their questions to the witnesses in the order in which they have raised their hands. I notice a number have done so already. I ask witnesses to be as succinct as they can so we can get through as many questions as possible. We would appreciate it. I call Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan.

I thank the Chairman. For some reason, I thought we had five minutes. I will get straight into the questions as opposed to making the big, broad statement I had intended. I will just say that I am delighted we are having this session specifically focused on biodiversity. This session needed to happen, regardless of which committee dealt with it, because of the dire state of biodiversity right across the world but specifically here in Europe. I am delighted, therefore, that we are having this session and thank the speakers for coming before us. Maybe there will be a second round where I can comment further on the state of biodiversity in Ireland.

I want to bring things back to where we are at the moment. We were putting together our climate action plan during the summer. Much of what we were hoping to focus on in these sessions, besides learning about biodiversity and the mainly negative impact we are having on it, was how, in our climate action plan we can both address and improve biodiversity but also link that into our goal of reducing emissions by 51% by 2030, or the overall goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050. To that end, I might direct this question to Dr. Stout. Where rewilding projects are concerned, are there any international examples we can look to, be they in Europe or the UK, where rewilding has successfully happened and what form it has taken? She mentioned, for example, how peatland restoration can increase carbon capture but I have also read papers about salt marshes and wetlands. Dr. Stout mentioned how they will protect against coastal surges. However, I have read papers which state that, per hectare, there is 40% more carbon captured in wetlands and salt marshes than there is in the same area of Amazon rainforest, for example. Are there examples like that we can look to so when we are putting together our climate action plan they can be included? Thus, they would not just be increasing biodiversity and having lavish ecosystems but also helping to capture carbon. She also mentioned farmers being penalised for having habitat on their farms. Does she have any faith in the upcoming Farm to Fork strategy and the intention, by the beginning of 2023, to have a proper, funded agri-environment scheme that no longer penalises farmers for having habitats on their land but incentivises them to have it?

That is two and a half minutes. I ask that the Deputy wrap up his questions and we will move to the witnesses.

I have two more very brief questions because I want to get to Dr. Lysaght as well. Can he outline what type of resources are needed for the National Biodiversity Data Centre to function properly? As he said, there is a lack of knowledge out there.

Turning to Mr. Fogarty, which Department does the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, belong with, in his opinion?

Professor Jane Stout

I am sure there are international examples of rewilding but I cannot come up with them off the top of my head but I can look them up and forward them. In terms of improving biodiversity and carbon capture, the point I make is that there must be a diversity of habitats. We cannot think about just restoring peatlands, establishing woodlands or protecting wetlands - it is all of those different habitat systems which must be restored, both for biodiversity and carbon benefits. It is something I can look into and come back to the Deputy on.

On the Farm to Fork strategy and the 2023 results-based agri-environment schemes, I would like to have faith in them. There are mechanisms for results-based payments that have been established and tested whereby farmers are subsidised based on the condition of their land rather than the actions they take.

There are really good examples to be seen in some projects that have been conducted here in Ireland. Some of these are world-leading with regard to the way in which they have got communities and farmers on board and made real positive change. There is hope but the devil is in the detail.

Dr. Liam Lysaght

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan. The data centre is trying to build the evidence base on biodiversity and how it is changing. It is essential for us to track biodiversity if we want to measure how we are doing with regard to policy implementation. One of the difficulties with many of the agri-environment schemes in recent times is that they have not been underpinned by ecological monitoring which would allow their effectiveness to be assessed. The Deputy asked about the resources the centre requires. There is a need to do more monitoring of the countryside and to extend the breadth of monitoring to different types of biodiversity. The resources needed for that are staff and an infrastructure on which we can build.

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

I thank the Deputy for his question. The National Parks and Wildlife Service is probably the most important piece of the jigsaw in terms of pulling all of the different strands together, getting it right and setting us up for the next decade. The National Parks and Wildlife Service has never once been under the same governance structure for ten consecutive years. It has been sent from one Department to another and has come under the remit of various Ministers. It has therefore been subject to the varying levels of interest of those Ministers. A review of the NPWS is under way at the moment. It should be made an independent agency so that it can build itself up again, communicate the science, tell Departments what needs to be done in Government plans and programmes and perform an educational function, all in the knowledge that its structure is not going to be shifted, moved or undermined after the next election cycle. For us, a model like that of the Environmental Protection Agency would be ideal. That is crucial if we are going to get a handle on these issues and reap the benefits of the opportunities available for the next decade.

I thank the witnesses for their answers. I hope to come in again.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations, which were really interesting. I have two questions. It is very clear that there are great co-benefits to dealing with climate and biodiversity issues, but where there are trade-offs, that is to say, where there must be change in areas in which people are making a living, when dealing with climate you can talk about greenhouse gases and put a price on the associated costs, and they are talking about a carbon tax of €100 per tonne by 2030 and €250 per tonne by 2050, so you can get a sense of the scale of subsidy that must be built into policy to achieve climate action-related reductions, so can something similar be done in respect of biodiversity?

Can a given farm be benchmarked against wider statistics with regard to its carbon and biodiversity footprints so that some sort of payment to farmers for improving their biodiversity and carbon profiles could be calculated? To drive policy forward, we have to be able to put some sort of a price on what is to be paid to farmers relative to what we get back from them, which would have to be verified. I suppose the two questions are two sides of the one question.

Does Deputy Bruton wish all witnesses to respond?

No, I am happy to hear from whoever is best placed to answer. I am not an expert. Dr. Lysaght did speak about measurement so perhaps he is the natural choice to respond, but Professor Stout spoke about the wrong decisions being taken in pursuing climate goals, which can then do damage. Perhaps one or both of them could answer.

Dr. Liam Lysaght

I thank the Deputy. I believe it can be done. There have already been successful results-based agricultural schemes in which the output is a defined benefit or the desired outcome from an ecological perspective. If you accept that certain farming practices deliver benefits for biodiversity, there is no reason that could not be identified and a value put on it. It must be ensured the results are delivered. If public subsidies are given to agriculture, it must be ensured that some are directed towards that desired outcome, which must be measured effectively.

Professor Jane Stout

There is a system for systematising environmental data and for producing ecosystem accounts. This is something we are developing through the Natural Capital Ireland forum. This allows all of the biodiversity and ecosystem functions and the benefits derived from those ecosystems to be identified and recognised. That includes biodiversity itself as a benefit but also the co-benefits with regard to production, the provision of food and water, and the regulation of climate, pollination and pest control. These benefits accrue to society and to landowners. This system of accounting for biodiversity is already established and can be used to look for those trade-offs. Through the system, you can look at the knock-on impacts of changing the management of a particular area on these regulating services, including the regulation of climate, on the production of food and on biodiversity itself. There is a system. It is the UN system for environmental economic accounting and ecosystem accounting. We are testing this in a research project with the EPA at the moment.

With regard to the second part of the Deputy's question, which related to benchmarking where farms are with regard to climate and biodiversity footprints, this can also definitely be done. Again, we are currently carrying out a research project in this area which aims to bring this issue of carbon footprints and the issue of biodiversity on farms together, to look at the trade-offs and to quantify the benefits so that a results-based payment such as Dr. Lysaght mentioned can be made possible.

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

I will address a matter which has not already been addressed. It relates to the opportunities and the trade-offs. Nearly every form of biodiversity restoration also results in climate benefits. This restoration may relate to peatland restoration, protecting the ocean, regenerating farm soils or native forests. Where the trade-offs come in most starkly is in the area of renewable energy. We have seen a number of examples in Ireland, even in recent times, of renewable energy infrastructure - wind farms - having been put in the wrong place. This has resulted in, for example, the devastation of peatland habitats in Donegal. We are, unfortunately, now looking at something similar coming down the line. Renewable energy projects are going to be sited in marine environments without marine protected areas having been identified. The co-benefits are very real and very substantial but these projects do require careful planning. Climate and biodiversity must be put on more of a par with one another rather than being seen as different issues.

I thank everyone for sharing their expertise with us today. The focus of this committee is climate, so it is a real pleasure to bring biodiversity into that discussion as well. I agree with some of what Mr. Fogarty said about things moving from Department to Department. I would like to see the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine having an interest in this area also as it is of great importance.

On the climate perspective, our witnesses mentioned the co-benefits of investing in biodiversity. I wonder also about the impacts of climate change on biodiversity. Usually we look at it the other way around where we say that if we invest in a different type of land-use in respect of biodiversity that will have an impact on climate. I would like to hear our witnesses views on the impact of climate on biodiversity.

One of the things that has been quite stressful for farmers is the idea that we have the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 going through the Dáil and Seanad which would see reductions of 51% in emissions by 2030 and being climate neutral by 2050. If other sectors play their part and do more, then there would not be as much pressure on agriculture. It is important to say that there is still that pressure there and that investing in biodiversity can be the thing that very much eases the pressure on farmers. Can our witnesses speak a little bit more about the effects of agriculture, particularly on soil health, which has an impact on biodiversity?

Finally, on local action on biodiversity, Dr. Lysaght spoke about voluntary actions and systemic support. One of the things I see is a lack of support within councils for biodiversity. We have the all-Ireland pollinator plan but would Professor Stout, in particular, think that having biodiversity officers on every council would not only help to bring the public on board but would also ensure that we have the work done at a local level?

There are a great deal more questions and I fully agree that we need to ensure we have marine protected areas, which is key to the programme for Government. Could I have some responses to those issues from our witnesses? I am happy to submit further questions afterwards.

I believe those questions are directed at all of our witnesses, so I will ask Mr. Fogarty to respond first this time.

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

I thank Senator O’Reilly for her questions. I will deal with two of those questions that I may be able to answer. One is to do with the climate impacts on diversity. Climate change is very much pulling the rug from under ecosystems. We already have all of these pressures from habitat loss to over-exploitation, invasive species and pollution. We then have climate on top of that. We do not know the effect that will have on our peatlands. We know that prolonged droughts can turn peatlands from carbon sinks to carbon emitters. Perhaps this is most significantly felt in the ocean, where climate change is acidifying, warming and contributing to the pollution of it where it is running out of oxygen. These are very significant challenges for ecosystems in respect of climate change.

On farming and soil, the biodiversity of our soil is something that is widely unrecognised and under-studied. We do not know a great deal about it. We know that worms, for instance, are essential to the health of soil in the recycling of nutrients. A study from England in recent years showed that nearly half of the fields in England did not even have worms, or had very few of them. This aspect of soil is very much under-studied. Our view of fertility on farm soils has heretofore focused on the chemistry of the soil and not on its biology. There are farmers in Ireland who are practising what is called regenerative farming, which is about bringing the life back to the soil and enhancing the natural fertility of it. That is producing enormous benefits for farmers as well as drawing carbon out of the air and storing it in the soil. There are many co-benefits to that.

I call Dr. Lysaght.

Dr. Liam Lysaght

I thank Senator O’Reilly. I will pick up on the farming and biodiversity issue. I see this as being one of the potentially major win-win situations, if we can change the narrative a little bit around biodiversity and farming. Sadly, nature conservation policy in Ireland since the 1990s has been predicated in a negative way in terms of restrictions and regulations. There are opportunities to communicate better at the landscape level and to look at those aspects of farming which may be described as low hanging fruit. In some of the areas where one has very wet grasslands, for example, great efforts have been made to keep those in a more improved condition through the use of perennial ryegrass. Great efforts, resources and inputs have been invested into farming marginal agricultural landscapes. If we could even start by trying to retain these, cut back on productivity and inputs at this level, that is an area in which we could have a quick win that could help to integrate the biodiversity benefits without impacting too much on farm productivity and it could also help in respect of greenhouse gas emissions. If we could change the narrative, there are big wins to be gained around the farming and biodiversity side.

Can I have a response on the biodiversity officers suggestion, perhaps from Professor Stout?

Professor Jane Stout

I agree with the Senator. Biodiversity officers in every council, and more than one, would be desirable. If one looks at the decisions that are made at that level in planning, the expertise is not necessarily there for planning, education, public outreach and for all of the different facets that are needed. I would advocate for at least one for each council.

I thank Professor Stout and I call Senator Higgins.

I thank all our witnesses and I apologise for the printing sounds in the background. I was listening to the pieces and had an idea in my head from the novel The Dispossessed where a person was returning to a dry planet hoping for just a picture of an animal. The natural diversity that we have is such an incredible and miraculous thing. What strikes me is the case that has been made about the many threads that connect us to nature and which are very visible to those youth climate campaigners who very much see the issues of biodiversity and climate as being deeply connected. There are also the many threads that connect nature to each other. Some of the webs which these threads were balanced on are the ones that have been broken. I was very much struck by that and by the very small creatures mentioned by Dr. Lysaght.

As to the large steps we can take, Ireland has been called out by the Court of Justice of the European Union as to the designation of special areas of conservation. Can our witnesses comment on that because we have not fulfilled our previous commitment and we now know that at European level there is a push for the designation of 30% of terrestrial areas for conservation and 30% of areas for marine protection? Can our witnesses comment on the importance of that? Perhaps that is a question is for Mr. Fogarty. Can Professor Stout also comment on the climate purposes of those marine protected areas and the benefits that they have as special areas of conservation?

We have spoken about the impact of climate and biodiversity and the benefits of tackling climate for biodiversity but if we do not protect biodiversity, do we risk accelerating climate change?

On Natura 2000 sites, and this may also be a question for Professor Stout, we know that there are appropriate assessments done but environmental impact assessments are often not carried out in respect of forestry. Can any of our witnesses comment on how we could do more in our use of environmental impact assessments as a tool to connect thinking about climate and biodiversity in large planning projects?

I will comment on the joined-up piece on wildlife corridors and pollinator pathways not just in protected areas but in connecting the landscape in a wider way. I was very struck by the comments on the urban environment. Can Dr. Lysaght or Professor Stout comment on sustainable development goal 11 on sustainable cities and communities, how we can have urban ecosystems and on the role they might play in connecting things up in terms of species loss?

Thank you, Senator.

My very last question is about the Heritage Act-----

I expect we will have a second round of questions.

I ask the witnesses to comment on the loss of hedgerows due to the changes in the Heritage Act, given that that is one of the key factors leading to the devastating bird loss of which we probably all felt the effects in the broadcasting of the dawn chorus on the weekend.

As number of members have to leave, there should be time for a second round of questions for those who wish to come back in.

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

I thank the Senator for those points. On protected areas, since nature conservation was invented - more or less - in the 1970s, nature reserves and protected areas have been one of the principal tools used. They identify important areas and basically put a ring around them. Unfortunately, that has not worked in Ireland. There are some success stories but the model we have used to identify protected areas and manage them simply has not produced results. In some instances biodiversity is worse inside the reserves than outside them. At the moment about 13% of the land area in Ireland and a little over 2% of the sea is designated. The European Union wants to designate 30% of land and sea by the end of this decade. There is a huge challenge ahead and we are not even getting what we had already committed to right. We have to recognise the mistakes that have been made around nature conservation up to now. Ireland in particular should sign up to protecting 30% of our land by 2030 and strictly protecting 10% of it, which is another goal, but we have to do it differently. We have to use public land to achieve many of these aims. We have to incentivise local communities to create their own nature reserves. We have to recognise that a lot of farmers feel dispossessed by the current system and we have to try to rebuild trust with those farming communities. That will require a lot of hard work and investment, in both human capital and money.

Thank you, Mr. Fogarty. I believe the Senator's second question was for Professor Stout.

Professor Jane Stout

The Senator asked about the climate benefits of protected areas and whether there is a risk of accelerating climate change if we do not protect biodiversity. Quite simply, the answer to that is "Yes". We need to protect biodiversity and start to restore it. It is not just about protection, as I said in my opening statement. We cannot just leave our biodiversity as it is because it is in such poor condition it needs active restoration. We need to restore biodiversity, as well as protecting the little we have left. As Mr. Fogarty said, protection of biodiversity usually has climate benefits and so that would be a win-win situation.

I also asked about urban areas.

Professor Jane Stout

This comes back to the issue of biodiversity. Often when we think about biodiversity we just think about species but we have to remember that biodiversity also means habitats, and so when looking to restore biodiversity across Ireland we need to be restoring all those different types of habitats. One of the problems with the intensification of farming has been this homogenisation of landscape. We need landscapes to be diverse and to have lots of different kinds of biodiversity in them. Urban areas can be great reservoirs for some urban-adapted species and species that can cope with urban conditions. They are important for biodiversity, for the connectivity the Senator spoke about, and for connecting people with nature. Most people live in urban areas so there is an incredible opportunity there as well.

Will one of the witnesses respond as to whether we could be using environmental impact assessments more effectively?

Dr. Liam Lysaght

I will comment on that as it is related tangentially to what I was going to say. Natura 2000 sites are very important because they are national priorities. However, they are a very rigid structure and they set the tone as regards how nature conservation is perceived by the public. Of course there have to be strong regulations enforcing them and the appropriate assessments and environmental impact statements, EISs, are necessary but they set the tone and they take the involvement of local people away from conservation. Professor Stout mentioned the all-Ireland pollinator plan, which has been transformative in how this has been approached. It presented evidence-based solutions that we know are important and we know work. It asked people to help solve problems on a voluntary basis and the buy-in has been tremendous in how it has changed the focus. There are many people out there who want to change and want to do things well.

Senator Higgins mentioned large steps. We have to retain what is there but there are over 600,000 km of hedgerows in Ireland. We still have them and a lot are still there, though they are of very poor quality. Why we cannot manage those 600,000 km of hedgerows in a manner that is more beneficial for wildlife is beyond me. It would save money and would be beneficial for biodiversity. They could be the biodiversity arteries that would make sure biodiversity creeps back into the wider countryside.

I thank the witnesses for coming in today. I also thank them for being a voice for biodiversity over quite a number of years. Biodiversity does not get the coverage it should get or the discussion it needs. The witnesses have all been very active in this area so I thank them and acknowledge that.

My first question is primarily for Dr. Lysaght. He spoke about the red lists of species that are at risk of extinction. Yet when a species is identified and included on a red list, we do not seem to have any emergency measures that are set in train to actually address that crisis for that particular species, which I find very concerning. I am doing some work on the basking shark at the moment and that is not even protected under Irish legislation, even though it is an endangered species. What should happen when a species is included on these red lists? What actions should the State take to make sure there is a concerted emergency effort to deal with that crisis?

My next question is for Professor Stout and Mr. Fogarty and relates to peatlands. We have identified nature-based and climate benefits to restoring our peatlands and there is some work happening in the midlands in that regard. It was interesting to see reports over the weekend that a species of bird could be about to breed on these sites for the first time in 300 years. That is exciting because it shows what can potentially be achieved in these areas if we put some work into them and just give them the space to return to their natural state. Would now be a good time to look at creating a national park in that area, with the appropriate model? Mr. Fogarty said the model we use has not produced biodiversity benefits but that is because biodiversity has not been specified as the ultimate objective. Is there potential for a national park in the midlands with biodiversity at its heart, and is now a good time to start that off? When it comes to the damage and impact we can have on biodiversity, a lot of the time when a species or habitat is destroyed or so negatively impacted that its biodiversity potential is ruined, we have this mindset that it has happened and there is nothing we can do, or that it is unfortunate it has happened but we have to move on. Should we be looking at something along the lines of an ecocide law that would hold Governments to account? For many years we have had targets and legislation that we have failed to meet and our biodiversity is in a worse state now than it ever has been.

While we need the incentives and the carrot approach, do we need major legislative oversight as well? Would that be useful?

Dr. Liam Lysaght

Briefly, on the red list process, this is an objective way to confer a label on a species, whether it is at risk of extinction or not. It is also an objective way of doing that. All that really should do is be the starting point for the basis of a prioritised action plan for that group. Sadly, while efforts are being put into doing the red list, the follow-up in Ireland is very poor. We must have many more prioritised species action plans as a result of the red list.

I thank Dr. Lysaght.

I ask Professor Stout to take the question on the national parks.

Professor Jane Stout

Absolutely, now is a good time, in the context of crises in the areas of biodiversity, climate and health and well-being, for a national park in the midlands, as long as the appropriate model and structures, as the Deputy remarked, are put in place. In that case, it would produce these win-win-win solutions and it is definitely possible.

I thank Professor Stout.

Mr. Fogarty might want to address the last aspect of the ecocide law suggestion, but he can feel free to comment on the other questions as well. He is on mute at the moment.

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

I apologise for muting my microphone, there was a hailstorm here. I thank Deputy Whitmore for those questions. On the national parks, the idea of a national park for the Shannon region has been around for some time. It was proposed for the cut-away bogs. The problem with national parks, however, as I am sure the Deputy is aware, is that we do not have national parks' legislation. Apart from being an internationally recognised label, there is little substance behind it. We saw how a fire devastated Killarney National Park last week a. Fires regularly devastate the Wicklow Mountains National Park. People think that the idea behind national parks is to prioritise nature and conservation, but that is not what we see on the ground. A national park is a good tool for engaging local people, if the structures are right. Really, however, it is not a great way of restoring biodiversity.

Turning to the ecocide law, this is an interesting development. Several countries are now giving legal rights to nature. Rivers, for instance, may have the same power of prosecution as corporations in a court of law. The idea of ecocide is overdue, although I think much of the damage has already been done. Nevertheless, it would set down a marker that these crimes are simply unacceptable. In Ireland, I would particularly love to see an amendment to our Constitution to recognise the right of nature to exist and also the right we have as people to a healthy natural environment. If we were to couple those things with a massive education programme on the importance of nature to our lives and why we need to restore it, that is where we might unlock the real potential for addressing this crisis.

I thank Mr. Fogarty.

I thank Mr. Fogarty and Deputy Whitmore. I call Senator Boylan.

I thank the Chair and the witnesses. I have three questions, and the first is for Dr. Lysaght and it relates to the National Biodiversity Data Centre. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked about the resources and Dr. Lysaght said it is important that the centre is properly resourced. I would like to tease out that point in the context of the legislative footing the centre is on, and whether it should be a fully functioning centre as opposed to a service level agreement. I raise this issue as well out of respect for the vital work being done by the National Biodiversity Data Centre and in the context of maintaining the existing expertise by moving from short-term contracts to a situation of having multi-annual funding to enable the centre to know where it is going and be properly resourced in future.

Turning to Mr. Fogarty to tease out the question of the Arterial Drainage Act 1945, we know that nature-based solutions are very effective at addressing climate change, but particularly flooding. I mean that type of flooding referred to more as "nuisance floods", namely, the smaller events rather than the bigger ones. I ask Mr. Fogarty to expand on why he thinks the Arterial Drainage Act 1945 needs reform. I refer to aspects such as the Act hampering us in using nature-based solutions in addressing flooding, as well the impact on biodiversity.

My final question arises from the horrific fire in Killarney National Park. Mr. Fogarty remarked that the canopy of the old native woodlands, which are not only important as carbon sinks but also for biodiversity, seemed to offer some sort of protection. What needs to happen in the national parks, especially regarding invasive weeds, such as rhododendron? Funding was announced to address that aspect. Is there going to be a science-based approach to rhododendron clearance that will enable us to protect those native woodlands and help them regenerate?

I thank Senator Boylan. The first question is for Dr. Lysaght.

Dr. Liam Lysaght

The staff of the National Biodiversity Data Centre have a short-term perspective. We are on contract until the end of next year. The data centre is a programme of the Heritage Council. The good news is that the Heritage Council has established a task force to try to identify the most appropriate model to allow the data centre to become more secure regarding its outlook. I have nothing more to say on that point. It is a very positive step. It is an insecure time for the staff of the data centre and we hope that by the end of next year there will be a more positive and secure future for us.

I thank Dr. Lysaght and ask Mr. Fogarty to address the question of the Arterial Drainage Act 1945.

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

I thank Senator Boylan for her questions. The Arterial Drainage Act 1945 was put in place in order to reclaim farmland from river floodplains and that function of the Act has not changed since. Some 11,500 km of rivers are routinely altered and have their trees and vegetation removed, regardless of whether there is any need for that. This is an enormous undertaking by the Office of Public Works, OPW, at huge public expense for no good reason any more, other than to maintain that farmland. This activity is exacerbating flooding problems downstream in towns and villages and impeding the ability of the landscape to adapt to extreme weather events. That is one of the main problems with the Arterial Drainage Act 1945.

The other problem, as the Senator pointed out, is that the Act does not recognise the importance of nature-based solutions to flooding. Much of what we have done to the land in the past 50 years has served to exacerbate flooding. I refer to compacting soils, draining land and bogs and making sure that water travels as fast as possible from any given location. That contributes to flooding throughout entire catchment areas. The corollary of that, of course, is that blocking drains and re-establishing native woodlands and regenerative farming systems would increase the ability of the land to absorb water and take the peaks and troughs out of flooding. That aspect is also not recognised in the Arterial Drainage Act 1945. Those are the two main issues I see in that regard.

Turning to Killarney National Park, it was devastating to see the damage done. Fires occur in the park nearly every year, but this was a particularly large one. Hundreds of fires occur all over our country during the bird nesting season and that results in enormous damage. As the Senator pointed out, however, the footage from Killarney National Park showed that where we have our native woodland intact, it is not flammable. It did not burn, so this is telling us that the land wants to be a native woodland and we must restore our native woodlands across our hillsides. That is possible, but it will require a lot of work. We have rhododendrons, as the Senator mentioned, and we also have a possible overpopulation of deer that may prevent the regeneration of the oak woodlands.

These are certainly things we can do if we have the right vision in place and the right incentives for landowners. Recreating beautiful oak forests could be an amazing national project. Indeed, it could be an all-island project that we could all get behind. It would be an amazing legacy to leave for the next generation.

I thank Mr. Fogarty. I do not think there were any questions addressed to Professor Stout.

If the professor wishes to come in on the issues I raised, I am happy for her to do so. I was not excluding her.

Professor Jane Stout

I will briefly pick up on two points in terms of how much more we understand now and how the science has moved on in the past 50 or 60 years. We now know that things like clearing or using flood plains in order to facilitate farming or development are a really bad idea. We need to pay attention to the latest science and research that is showing what not to do. Coming back to the issue of rhododendron and Killarney national park, Ireland is not a place where wildfires are natural. We do not have fire-adapted ecosystems but rhododendron survives fire. We need an approach that tackles the rhododendron problem, allows the native woodlands to regenerate and could also protect against fire in the future. It is important to listen to the science and to learn from elsewhere as well.

Many of the issues I wished to raise have already been clarified. I thank our guests. I wish to refine one or two points. Professor Stout is absolutely right regarding the way in which some of the schemes have penalised farmers for keeping land that was ultimately a benefit to the environment, biodiversity and nature generally. If a farmer allows certain scrubland to remain in that state, the land is not considered to be arable and, therefore, unfortunately falls outside the schemes. I and many of my Oireachtas colleagues spend time arguing with Departments and trying to ensure that farmers get their payment. Sadly, the rules and conditions have been so rigidly applied or were so rigidly designed in the first instance that it is about productivity. If there is anything to be learned from this discussion, it is that it should be clearly recognisable that farmers are providing a benefit by leaving lands to be less arable and more in concert with nature. At this stage, many of them do not even want to be paid for it; they just want to avoid being penalised for what they are doing. I would argue, as would other members, I am sure, that far from seeing a cut in their payment for doing what is right by nature, they should be receiving a top-up for it. That is something on which the committee can work with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in terms of the design of schemes.

I ask Dr. Lysaght or Mr. Fogarty to comment more broadly on what happened in Killarney national park. It is a huge wake-up call for all present and maybe for society generally. People who previously did not talk about biodiversity or its loss have seen vast swathes of nature being destroyed in one fell swoop and they are discussing it. Can the witnesses give some indication of the scale of the loss, based on what they know to date of what has happened, and its negative impact on the environment? Perhaps we can build on what happened there by trying to convince people who say they are not climate change deniers but have been rather silent on this particular situation in the past couple of weeks.

I thank the Senator. Are his questions for Dr. Lysaght or Mr. Fogarty?

They are for Dr. Lysaght and Mr. Fogarty.

Dr. Liam Lysaght

I thank the Senator. What happened in Killarney is a real tragedy. It is an amazing habitat and landscape and an asset to the locality, as well as an amazing national asset. The scale of damage is phenomenal. It will take years to recover, if it ever recovers. It is kind of symptomatic of how we deal with natural areas. It is a fantastic asset and on one level the local community and tourism is dependent on it, but the resources and proper effective management that the area deserves have not been put into the woodlands. A kind of dual approach has been taken to it. We like to have the picture postcard scene with the associated tourism benefits, but the harsh reality is that we actually have to invest it in as an asset and it needs to be managed properly. It is kind of symptomatic of how poorly we treat the natural environment and do not invest in it for society.

Does Mr. Fogarty or Professor Stout wish to comment?

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

I will come in there if the Chairman does not mind. I thank the Senator. I totally echo what Dr. Lysaght said. As regards the impact this has had, one must remember that these fires are widespread and occur every year. In the ten or more years I have been working in this area, we have been dealing with these fires every year. There is also the issue of erosion caused by too many farm animals being on the hills. There are conifer plantations that were planted in the 1950s and 1960s and are still there. Basically, from a policy point of view, the uplands have been completely abandoned.

From an ecological point of view, these ecosystems are in collapse. Many of the birds that lived on and were synonymous with the uplands are literally hanging on by their toenails, if they still exist. Some bird species are literally down to one or two populations whereas 30 or 40 years ago they were everywhere. The uplands as a whole have been ignored and neglected. The flip side is that although we should value the uplands for their heritage and nature, they are also of benefit in terms of carbon storage and much of our water comes from them, so they do all these things for us. However, as Dr. Lysaght said, they have not been invested in but, rather, pretty much ignored. I firmly believe the opportunity is still there but we need a radical rethink about what we want from these landscapes. If we can agree on that, we could really get something special in the decade to come.

I thank Mr. Fogarty. Does Professor Stout wish to respond?

Professor Jane Stout

I thank the Senator. As regards his comment in terms of farmland and farmland payments being based on productivity, I absolutely agree that we need to shift that idea of agricultural output being the only product that is produced. There are multiple benefits coming from farmland and recognising those is absolutely key. As he said, the farming community knows it is providing multiple benefits. We just need to find a way to ensure that is recognised and properly rewarded.

I am always taken by land that has been left unutilised in a productive sector being termed wasteland. If we have learned anything from the contributions of the witnesses today, such land is anything but wasteland. It is highly productive in terms of the protection of species and assisting in biodiversity.

Well said, Senator. I call Deputy Cronin.

I thank our guests for their excellent presentations. I note that an issue that is so evidence-based, as Dr. Lysaght pointed out, actually requires a real emotional response to effect the changes that are needed. It is about science with feeling. I note how critical smaller creatures are to our well-being. I suppose there is a lesson in that for us all. Dr. Lysaght said that we have to be much more ambitious around planting and rewilding and so forth. Does he think that politicians and Governments actually understand what is ahead and the grand changes of living that are needed, rather than just quick fixes? Will it take a significant amount of people pressure to convince them of that? Is it necessary for the people to lead the politicians?

What I liked most about Professor Stout's presentation was how she made us feel that saving biodiversity is within our grasp and ability and that nature is there to do it for us if we only let it.

I was struck by her observations on the negative impact of installations on emissions. I have made that point with regard to north Kildare and the number of concrete trucks going up and down bog roads. Will she talk a bit about the holistic thinking that we will need to encourage in people with regard to the changes to the way in which we live that are needed to prevent further loss and to restore what we have already lost as opposed to just applying fixes that let us carry on regardless? I am thinking about expensive vegan handbags. We think they are good but they actually take decades to break down.

Mr. Fogarty's presentation really illustrates a watershed. We need a national campaign on this matter. I have a question for him regarding something which goes to the heart of the issue of how we have been, and are, living. It relates to the difference between the individualism of the past and present and the community-based way we in which will need to live in the future. Big finance and big business have turned us into loyal customers and consumers as opposed to citizens. To tackle this issue, we will need a shift. Citizenship is critical in addressing climate emissions and the biodiversity issue. I am interested in Mr. Fogarty's views as to how that might be done. The biodiversity Act he has mentioned could be a great help in that.

Professor Jane Stout

I thank Deputy Cronin. I believe biodiversity restoration is within our grasp but it needs to be tackled across Departments. It cannot be the responsibility of a single Department. It needs to be tackled across all sectors, all walks of life, all elements of society and all businesses and industries and it needs to be tackled on all scales. We need to be thinking about it on a national scale but also right down on the local scale, that is, the behaviour of individuals in their own daily lives on the patch of land they manage.

Dr. Liam Lysaght

I thank Deputy Cronin. Yes, it is evidence-based. There are big declines and we definitely need an emotional response. There is really no appreciation of the great loss of biodiversity which we have suffered. Anyone aged 50 or older will remember clouds of insect life at night in fields and hundreds of acres of species-rich meadows. The countryside has transformed. That is why I mentioned in my opening remarks that we have to be conscious of this shifting baseline syndrome. We have to be much more ambitious. The one thing missing in all of this is that we really need to have an ambassador or champion of biodiversity at a very high level within the public sector. This person would engage with the emotional response that is needed. That is missing. We are talking about regulations, plans and action plans but what about having a champion? Anyone of my generation would fondly remember the late Éamon de Buitléar and the way in which he was able to engage with people. We need a figure like him within the public sector to knock heads together and, while not forgetting about the plans, to come at the matter in a different way, to win people's hearts and minds and their support for what we are trying to do, and to present the matter in a more positive way.

I remember him too.

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

I thank Deputy Cronin for the points she raised. She raised the issue of holistic thinking. One of the big problems we face at the moment is that Government policy in one area is directly at odds with laws and biodiversity policies in other areas. For instance, there is currently a draft of an agrifood strategy that will be in place until 2030. This foresees more growth, more productivity and getting more out of the land when we know that nature is already suffering as a result of our current levels of productivity.

The Deputy mentioned communities. I get emails and phone calls from people around the country nearly every day. I frequently get calls from people who are next to tears because their local beauty spot or nature area is being destroyed or is under threat from some quarter or other. There is an enormous sense of powerlessness over that. People do not know how the State works. They do not know how to stop things happening. That leads to an awful sense of disenfranchisement in the countryside and in cities with regard to trees and unwanted industrial developments.

On the other hand, we know that communities are ready and willing to engage on this issue. There is a great example in Abbeyleix in County Laois where a local community has basically taken over the conservation of the local bog. In contrast with many of our bogs, since this community went in, the bog has been growing. It is now healthier than it was 20 years ago. The group is removing invasive species. There is an enormous sense of ownership of that project among the local community. We know we can do this - the template is there - but we need to get Government on side. We need all of the policies to align and we need to make it easy for communities to create their own nature reserves or to raise concerns over the quality of their water, their local trees or whatever it happens to be.

I thank the witnesses for the information they have provided today. Their statements have been very engaging. I will start with Dr. Lysaght. He provided statistics regarding impacts on biodiversity and the loss of biodiversity. I note that, in his opening statement, he included statistics regarding decreases in the numbers of fish and birds. If he has any further information in that regard, I ask him to forward it to the committee after today's meeting. I am sure it would be of great interest to members.

I represent an urban area in south Dublin and I homed in on an issue Professor Stout raised. She mentioned street trees and other green spaces being encouraged in urban areas. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is one of the local authorities in the country that has a biodiversity officer, which it has had for quite some time now. That is probably one of the reasons it was one of the first councils to have a pollination plan. It is very important that we see more biodiversity officers at a local level. With regard to Professor Stout's vision of more trees and open spaces being retrofitted into the urban landscape, will she elaborate further as to how she sees this being done? Would it be through the development plan process, local area plans or some other method? How would it be achieved?

Mr. Fogarty mentioned the climate and biodiversity crisis and highlighted the issue of untreated sewage in our rivers, lakes and streams. I have previously raised issues regarding the misconnections that frequently occur. Is Mr. Fogarty of the view that the waste polluting our waters primarily derives from agriculture or is part of it residential, industrial or commercial? I am not saying that it is only a matter of misconnections. Some of this issue is the result of run-off from land use. Does Mr. Fogarty know the percentage that arises from misconnections or does he have any detail as to the number of these misconnections that are impacting on our biodiversity? With regard to the biodiversity Act Mr. Fogarty mentioned, if such an Act were to be introduced, who would he see policing it and how?

Dr. Liam Lysaght

I believe all that was requested of me was that I supply more detailed information on species decline, which I will be happy to do after the meeting.

I thank Dr. Lysaght.

Was there also a question on local development plans?

Yes. The question was directed to Professor Stout.

Professor Jane Stout

I thank Deputy Devlin. It would be a matter for both development plans and local area plans, in addition to any other tools that are available.

This sort of nature first thinking needs to come into all urban developments. There is the huge increase in housing developments on a lot of greenfield sites and the loss of hedgerows. As Dr. Lysaght mentioned earlier, hedgerows are not only important as arteries for biodiversity they also capture and store carbon. So we are removing these elements that can be positive for biodiversity and climate yet they do not seem to be given the consideration in these plans. Whatever mechanisms that can be used to bring a nature first thinking into development are really important, especially in urban areas as they expand.

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

On the pollution issue, it is the Environmental Protection Agency that tells us that the main sources of pollution in Ireland are agricultural run-off and urban wastewater treatment. Agriculture is the biggest pressure on our water quality. It is also much harder to deal with because is a diffuse source. It is not coming out of a pipe and it runs off land in many different locations.

On the percentage of misconnections, I do not have those figures to hand and have never seen them. We did have an initiative to identify priority areas in need of restoration because we do have a legal obligation to restore water quality across the country. We have not seen much follow through on that in terms of identifying what are the actual sources of pollution within any given catchment, at any one time.

On a biodiversity Act, I would love to see an equivalent to the climate Act that we are about to see this year. We have produced biodiversity action plans since the Rio Earth Summit nearly 30 years ago. We are about to head into our fourth biodiversity action plan and action plans numbers 1, 2 and 3 never really got off the ground so we must look at how we can do things differently. I think that a biodiversity Act would bring up to date an awful lot of our national wildlife legislation, which is showing its age, as well as bring together the European obligations that we have made, and creating lines of responsibility. At the moment, we do not seem to have anybody in particular responsible for implementing the measures that we see in the biodiversity action plan. As I have stated, an awful lot of the time headline Government policy, whether it is on food, in particular, oceans and farmland, are completely at odds with the targets in the biodiversity plan so putting it on a legal footing would be a very significant development.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. A lot of what I was going to raise has been raised. It is interesting to hear the level of agreement on the analysis, the diagnosis, and the range of perverse incentives and contradictions within schemes. I share the opinion of many of the contributors. In my experience of communities, and working with communities, they are far ahead of the Government and certainly policy when it comes to these issues. If anything, local government and policy can be an impediment to what communities want to deliver and achieve in terms of the type of environment they want to live in whether that is urban or rural.

Dr. Lysaght, in his opening statement, commented on roadside policy. I am the transport spokesperson for my party. Does he think there is an opportunity in terms of the motorway network for the likes of Transport Infrastructure Ireland, and other national and local roads authorities, to improve biodiversity along roadsides?

How would the three witnesses like to see the overwhelming public goodwill towards biodiversity harnessed and mobilised in support of policy? Do they think there are platforms outside of the institutions that we have here such as the Citizens' Assembly, local citizen juries and community groups? How do they think we can mobilise the popular support that we see in schools and Tidy Towns groups right across the board?

Dr. Liam Lysaght

The Deputy has hit on an area that has real potential. The roads network in Ireland is enormous. In particular, the motorway network has huge margins that have the potential to be good for biodiversity. Already, through the all-Ireland pollinator plan, there are guidelines for transport corridors in terms of how to manage them more effectively and some local authorities are doing really good work in this regard. Again, it would be a case of high-level commitment by Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the local authorities to strategically consider the network and say these are aspects, features and elements that are good for biodiversity, and to manage those positively. Although there are issues, particularly for the smaller roads network where hedgerows must be cut for road safety, there are other areas that would be beneficial for biodiversity. It is really about getting high level buy-in from these organisations to do this work. The tools are there and it is just a matter of commitment.

On the final point, we obviously have two Ministers who are responsible for heritage and biodiversity. Within the public sector what is missing is a figurehead behind whom we could all rally. As I have mentioned before, he or she could be an ambassador maybe from biodiversity whose job would be to raise the profile, identify what is possible and link together the different policies to make sure that they are compatible, and consistent, with one another. That is an action that I would like to see happen.

Professor Jane Stout

I thank Deputy O'Rourke. We have a fantastic opportunity at the moment. The last year, with people being confined to their local areas and appreciating nature more, has shown that there is enthusiasm for doing positive things for nature. My experience on the all-Ireland pollinator plan has been that people are keen but that we need to keep the messaging positive. As we mentioned earlier, there has been a lot of negative messaging around nature and seeing nature as an impediment. We need to think about nature as a solution, consider the win-win benefits, change the narrative and work together. There is huge opportunity for lots of groups, individuals, organisations, businesses and the Government to work together towards a common goal, which is something that can be very positive.

Finally, in terms of mobilising goodwill, we need to provide tools and guidelines based in science and evidence for what people can actually do to help. Having something like the Citizens' Assembly can raise an awful lot of ideas and generate a lot of inspiration. Then it is the implementation or the actions that are really important after that.

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

I will give two concrete responses. The Deputy asked how can we maximise citizen engagement. One really glaring thing that we could do is recognise that the State is the biggest landowner in the country.

Between them, Coillte and Bord na Móna could own over 10% of the country. There is a lot of land out there that really needs to be rewilded and given over for nature for very practical carbon and biodiversity benefits. Communities should be allowed to basically become custodians of these areas, which they know better than anybody. They can come up with management plans and do the monitoring, and the State can facilitate that. That can also work in marine protected areas.

Another area in which work is already up and running relates to biodiversity action plans. Many local authorities have biodiversity plans. However, we have seen that these plans are frequently not funded or particularly prioritised within the wider work of the local council, so many of the actions do not get very far. People are willing to engage and know what needs to be done. If dedicated funding streams for biodiversity action plans were to be created, much more than what we have at the moment, local authorities would spend that money wisely.

I thank Mr. Fogarty. We have about 20 minutes left. Before we go into a second round, I will ask some questions.

Most of the witnesses alluded to the challenge in agriculture. It has been said that it is perhaps the biggest challenge to biodiversity on land that we have at the moment. Deputy O'Sullivan and Senator Dooley mentioned that many farmers want to be custodians and guardians of the land and want to do things differently. In that respect, can the witnesses recommend concrete measures that could be applied to the agriculture sector and would improve land biodiversity?

The programme for Government includes a commitment to establish a citizens' assembly on biodiversity and its terms of reference should be ready by the end of the year. Do the witnesses have suggestions for what should be included in those terms of reference?

Dr. Lysaght mentioned that a biodiversity champion is needed in the public sector. I do not know who that might be but I have an idea, partly because as a committee, we have struggled a little with our own remit. Biodiversity falls partly within our remit, which also includes climate action, but it is also an area that fall between many stools. It struck me that perhaps we should have a joint Oireachtas committee on biodiversity, while also acknowledging that we do not necessarily want biodiversity to be siloed. Obviously, it has to be interwoven with the work of all committees. I would be interested in hearing the thoughts of the witnesses on that point.

Dr. Liam Lysaght

The Chairman mentioned the challenges in agriculture. How it is done is a different question, but what needs to be done is that each farmer should identify what resources or aspects of his or her farm and farming practice are beneficial to biodiversity. Many farmers do not have the training on biodiversity to be able to do that. As an absolute minimum, we should look at current resources and what good practices are taking place, and ensure we retain them. They should not get worse. That should be an absolute requirement.

We must look at what policies and incentives can be put in place to achieve that and make it happen. A good case in point, to which I keep coming back, and one that is symptomatic of how poorly we manage our biodiversity is hedgerows across the countryside. They are often managed as poorly as they can be in respect of biodiversity. They are the types of things in respect of which, if we just eased back with a small bit of management and did something more sympathetic, the benefits would be enormous. It is soul-destroying that we cannot even achieve that. The same applies for roadside hedges.

When talking about the champion for biodiversity within the public sector, it is important to state that climate action is going to benefit biodiversity. There is no doubt about that. However, if we do not take action specifically for biodivesity, all the climate action in the world may not actually benefit biodiversity. It is quite a nuanced issue. The reason I am talking about a champion for biodiversity within the public sector is that it is cross-sectorial. All sectors and aspects of society have to at least do a small bit to help benefit biodiversity. It is a cross-cutting initiative. We need someone at a high level to try to bring it up the political ladder and play an overarching co-ordination role. That is perhaps what is missing. This committee could be extended or there could be a committee on biodiversity. Many of the discussions we had today have shown that there are plenty of solutions to this. We know what the solutions are; the issue is how we achieve them and make them happen.

Does Mr. Fogarty or Professor Stout want to comment?

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

Ladies first.

Professor Jane Stout

I agree with Dr. Lysaght on farmland challenges. One of the challenges is to protect existing biodiversity, recognise what is valuable from a biodiversity point of view and protect it. An easy start is to focus on non-cultivated areas. There are small actions that can make big impacts for biodiversity without negatively impacting on the farming enterprise.

There are good examples of where farmers have become engaged as custodians of biodiversity, for example, in the Burren programme. The results-based payments for farmers could be an important way to enable them to become custodians of the landscape.

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

Farming is obviously contentious and also very diverse. If I could think of one thing we could do to relieve the pressures, it would be to let go of the idea of growth. We are still locked in a mentality whereby we are determined to believe that we can continue to get more and more out of the sea and land. That is quite the delusion. We only have one planet, one island and one ocean. Nature is collapsing. We have to let go of growth and decide that, for the benefit of everybody, we can get back within the limits of nature. The footprint of farming and fishing needs to be reduced. We should not be trying to farm and fish absolutely everywhere. There are areas that are good for farming and fishing and others that are simply not good for them. The question then becomes how can we do that to reward farmers and fishers properly so that we can have farming and fishing while protecting nature at the same time. It is not an insurmountable challenge, but this growth delusion is probably the biggest barrier to it.

Does Mr. Fogarty have any thoughts on a joint Oireachtas committee on biodiversity?

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

That would be a wonderful thing. Greater scrutiny and analysis needs to be undertaken and more questions need to be asked, so I am all in favour of that. The proposed citizens' assembly is a wonderful opportunity to engage people in the wider issues that are coming down the track. The Chairman asked about terms of reference. Perhaps that is an issue on which I can get back to the committee. I really look forward to the citizens' assembly as an opportunity to appraise where we are at. It is not just about biodiversity. It is about the countryside and the sea that we all love. It is the places we grew up. Our children are inheriting a country that is much diminished from the one we inherited. We really need to be talking about what we can give back and how we can restore it. The citizens' assembly is a wonderful opportunity to ask those questions.

We would appreciate if Mr. Fogarty, Professor Stout or Dr. Lysaght would share any thoughts they may have on the terms of reference for the citizens' assembly. Members would love to hear them.

I have four members indicating so I will take two at a time and we will try to do questions and answers for each pair within five minutes. I call Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan, who will be followed by Senator Boylan before we go back to the witnesses.

To facilitate members who want to come back in, I do not mind if witnesses want to give written answers to the questions I have. They might take note of my questions and send in written submissions. Those submissions will form part of the different work we are involved in.

What we have done to biodiversity and nature across the world and in this country is shameful. When I say "we" I mean us as humans. It is clearly largely due to human activity and we have to acknowledge, accept and address that.

Dr. Lysaght mentioned that 20% of all Irish species are threatened with extinction and 63% of bird species are a conservation concern. These are species we are all familiar with. We all know the kestrel that hovers over the roadsides hunting. To think that will be a thing of the past is frightening. Another great example of a bird species is the puffin. We use it on our postcards and literature and it is an iconic bird that breeds off the coast of Ireland. To think that is something that would be consigned to history is scary.

That is the reality and we needed to hear that bleak truth but there are positives to be taken from today's meeting. It is incredible that we have a like-minded committee, whose members all seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet and who want to take action and do something. That is positive. The other positive that has already been touched on is that because of lockdown and the pandemic people have been getting in touch with nature. That has led to the outrage we saw over the wildfires in Killarney and the persecution of birds of prey. That public outrage is something we were not seeing before and we are seeing now. That is evidence to me that change is happening. There is the odd positive in the area of climate change if we look at it. We have had more regular occurrences of humpback whales off the Irish coast. There is no doubt about that. Only five years ago, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, IWDG, catalogue was at 33 animals and that is well over 100 now so that is something we could look at. Little egrets have colonised large parts of Ireland since the 1970s. There is something to grasp onto there.

I want to ask Professor Stout about the ecosystems, biodiversity and the potential socioeconomic benefits. We mentioned the crane breeding in the boglands, the white-tailed eagle in Glengarriff that has attracted numbers and whale watching. Could Professor Stout come back to me on that? It is something we can feed into with the different projects we are involved in.

We should give Senator Boylan a chance to come in as well.

I will ask the other two guests to come back to me on the rewilding question I had for Professor Stout. How can we lead on that? That can feed into our national biodiversity action plan and the Citizens' Assembly terms of reference.

As I have said already, we are happy to receive further written submissions from any witnesses who wish to make them. If members would like witnesses to send in written submissions I ask them to mention that.

I have a specific question that has been raised a number of times on the native Irish black bee and the level of protection it has. Are our guests concerned about the impact of the importation of non-native bees on hybridisation as well as the importation of the small hive beetle?

I would appreciate it if the witnesses want to respond in writing to my other question. We have heard how people became closer to nature during the pandemic but we also saw that in America at the time of the new deal as people had more leisure time from their work. Huge mistakes were made around indigenous communities but it saw the creation of wildlife parks and trails and that sort of reconnection with nature. Should the Citizens' Assembly, when it is looking at biodiversity, be looking at that type of project and green new deal that is not in the extractive industries but that will create alternative jobs for rural communities? Should that be part of its terms of reference?

I have a number of questions and I am happy to get written answers. Soil biodiversity was discussed briefly, as was the question of inputs. There were comments around pesticides and fertiliser and I am thinking of the nitrates, which will be a key climate and biodiversity issue. There are also all-Ireland questions because we are looking at the potential legalisation of certain pesticides in the UK. I am interested in forestry and it has been touched on and has come in and out of the discussion. There is a question of how we transform our forestry policy so that it delivers for both climate and biodiversity. A lot has been said about local engagement and tools and there are positive things there. However, we have also seen that it is often people on a local level and environmental groups that have been using some of the international tools such as the birds, habitat and water directives. How can we do more so that the State makes better use and has better positive consideration of those directives so that it does not fall to individuals to have to raise those big international issues? I mention public-public partnerships and, for example, so many of our species are migratory. Is there potential for better public-public co-operation in our biodiversity protection? That will also be a part of our climate connection.

If my microphone was not on mute Mr. Fogarty might have heard me giving him a little clap because I believe that our addiction to growth is a huge problem and it will kill us. That addiction and the capitalist model as it is are the real inconvenient truth in how we will face this. The manner in which economies - and I say economies rather than countries - handled the Covid pandemic was a disaster. It could have been contained if we had thought a little bit more about people rather than economies.

I refer to the loss of species, including birds. We keep hearing about how we are losing species and the impact the economy has on biodiversity. Too much responsibility is put on the individual sometimes and not enough is taken by the Government. I am thinking about fast fashion and I mentioned the vegan handbag earlier, which is made out of man-made materials. Could the Government work more to make sure all this plastic is not getting into the environment from things like fast fashion?

There were a lot questions there and we only have a few minutes. I ask the witnesses to answer what they feel are the most important or highest priority questions. I would love to continue for another two hours but unfortunately we cannot do so because of the Covid restrictions. I call Dr. Lysaght.

Dr. Liam Lysaght

Mention was made of community action. There is an awful lot of community action taking place out there. It is astonishing how committed people are to doing the right thing, often facilitated by the local authorities. There are some really good examples of what is happening. What is missing is an approach to try to link these matters at a strategic level so that the cumulative benefits of all of this are apparent. That is one of the strengths of the all-Ireland pollinator plan. I know it keeps being mentioned but it is quite transformative in that the framework it provides allows people to carry out evidence-based actions. We can report on those actions and know what the benefit is. The State has a role to play with a light touch in facilitating community engagement. Even in terms of public-public relationships in things such as migratory species from other countries, the State could provide some light touch support to facilitate and make that kind of engagement easier.

That is all I will say. A lot of questions have been asked.

A lot of questions have been asked and if Dr. Lysaght sends in written responses we certainly would appreciate them.

Professor Jane Stout

I will pick up on the issue of our addiction to growth in the economy. We need to remember that the economy is part of nature and not the other way around. Our economic approaches were developed at a time when there were far fewer people on the planet and resources were seen to be infinite. Now that we know this is not the case we need to adapt our economic systems. We need to remember that nature facilitates and underpins all of our economic activity, so if we diminish nature, ultimately we diminish that economic activity. It makes sense in terms of nature itself, people and our economies to protect and restore nature because it does underpin everything else. All of the other developments we want to achieve are underpinned by nature.

Mr. Pádraic Fogarty

I will address the rewilding issue raised by Deputy O'Sullivan. Rewilding is being implemented and practised in a number of locations around the world, including in Europe. It is proving its worth. It is enormously successful where it is tried. It has frightened the horses in some regards but it has also stirred us up in a way that we needed to be stirred up. For my money, rewilding certainly offers the quickest, cheapest and most effective way of addressing the climate and biodiversity crises at the same time. I sincerely hope it can enter mainstream policy debates so that we can unleash the power that nature has to heal itself. We heard the news this week that cranes are nesting in Ireland for the first time in 300 years, which really shows us we do not have to do an awful lot. We just have to give nature the space to get on with it. I thank the committee for allowing me to make these points today.

I thank Mr. Fogarty for finishing on the upbeat note that there is a lot we can do and there is hope there. I thank all of the witnesses for attending today. The evidence they have supplied to us will help us produce a report in the coming weeks. I thank members for their contributions. This is an issue in which all members of the committee are invested and we will return to it in the coming sessions. I expect we will come back to biodiversity in future because of the serious issue that it is.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.33 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Tuesday, 11 May 2021.