I propose to take Questions Nos. 196 and 197 together.
In implementing and applying measures for the protection of our natural environment, I am very much aware of Ireland's economic needs. In accordance with the principles of sustainable development and our EU legal obligations, my aim is to ensure that parameters are set by which economic development can take place, whilst safeguarding those ecological resources, which underpin thousands of existing and potential jobs in a number of sectors. The 2008 report —The Economic and Social Aspects of Biodiversity — Benefits and Costs of Biodiversity in Ireland— considered a number of key sectors, including agriculture, forestry, infrastructure development, and climate change. The report established a marginal value of biodiversity to Ireland of at least €2.6 billion per annum, with the true value likely to be much higher if other areas such as the benefits to human health are taken into consideration. Ireland’s ecological capital is fundamental to the agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism sectors and is vital for sustaining societal services such as clean water, productive soil and clean air. Rather than seeing ecological protection as a burden which impedes economic growth, it should be looked at as a prerequisite to maintaining and growing key economic sectors.
The foundation of much of the legislation to protect our natural environment is found in EU Law. Directives on Environmental Impact Assessment, Strategic Environmental Assessment, Nitrates, Shellfish Waters, Water Framework and Environmental Liability, to name a few, all play their part in ensuring that the benefits that we derive from our ecological resources, and sometimes undervalue or fail to recognise, are considered and safeguarded in our decision making processes. As Minister, I have particular responsibilities for the implementation of the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive in Ireland. Under these Directives, all EU Member States have agreed to contribute to the conservation of the EU's most threatened birds, natural habitats and species. This includes a requirement to designate and protect Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for birds and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for endangered habitats and species. An area corresponding to approximately 14% of the land area of the State has been put forward for designation as SACs or SPAs. For EU 27, the figure is approximately 18%.
All Member States have similar obligations under these Directives and must operate within the same parameters of EU law. It is, therefore, unlikely that adherence to the requirements of the Directives will result in competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis other Member States. There are mechanisms within the framework of the Directives for derogations to general protective provisions to be applied, where necessary, if certain conditions can be met. In this context, it is possible to take economic considerations into account. Ireland has also designated a further number of sites under the Wildlife Acts as Natural Heritage Areas. While the protection of these sites is largely governed through national legislation, the requirements of the Habitats Directive and the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive also have implications in their conservation and management. It is not unusual among Member States to protect some sites under national legislation, and others as SACs or SPAs under EU law. I am not aware of any evidence that such designations are the source of economic or competitive disadvantage.