Loss of Biodiversity and Extinction of Species: Statements (Resumed)

The destruction of species, wildlife, flora, fauna, ecosystems and the natural world is a greater threat to our planet and humanity than any we have faced ever before. Last month, Dáil Éireann declared a national biodiversity crisis. It is up to us, as legislators, to act and to live up to the scale of action needed to tackle the crisis we are facing and it is up to the Government to change tack, take the protection and preservation of our natural world seriously and tackle this biodiversity crisis head on.

On 8 May 2019, the National Parks and Wildlife Service released Ireland's sixth national report to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. There is currently no mention of this report on the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht's website. The report shows that we are still failing to halt the loss of our nature. It states that In Ireland, 91% of protected habitats are in poor or inadequate condition and more than 50% are declining. In addition, 14% of species assessed are considered to be endangered. The report states unequivocally that a "transformational change is required" to achieve the vision set out in the National Biodiversity Action Plan 2017-2021 that "biodiversity and ecosystems in Ireland are conserved and restored, delivering benefits essential for all sectors of society". It continues:

Although better conservation designations have been put in place and improved environmental management has been adopted, the mainstreaming of biodiversity has yet to amount to a fully integrated approach. It is unclear if the greater consideration being given to sustainability and biodiversity in sectoral policy is sufficient to turn around the continuing degradation of habitat and species populations, and the threats to key ecosystem services.

It is clear from reading this that the Government is simply not doing enough. This is damning stuff from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. It is basically saying business as usual is killing off wildlife.

Ireland was among 130 members represented at the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IPBES, plenary meeting, which took place in Paris recently, and at which the IPBES global assessment was approved. Compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries in the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impact on nature. It also offers a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades. Based on the systematic review of approximately 15,000 scientific and government sources, the report also draws, for the first time ever on this scale, on indigenous and local knowledge, and addresses in particular issues relevant to indigenous peoples and local communities. According to the IPBES report, three quarters of the land-based environment and approximately 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average, these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by indigenous peoples and local communities.

In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels. Some 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished. Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, with between 300 million and 400 million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities being dumped annually into the world’s waters. Fertilisers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean dead zones, totalling more than 245,000 sq. km, a combined area greater than the United Kingdom.

The entire natural world is in crisis, yet last year the Government passed the slash and burn Heritage Act, which will have devastating impacts on wildlife on uplands and in hedgerows. The wildlife in our seas is in great danger too. The Irish Wildlife Trust’s 2018 report shows that 48 species indigenous to Irish waters are facing extinction. The Government’s INFOMAR and ObSERVE programmes have found even more of a wealth of species off our coasts. The ObSERVE programme found a dolphin population off Ireland’s coast in winter that is larger than the entire known population of dolphins in the world. Recently, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group tracked a humpback whale from County Kerry feeding near the Porcupine Basin to Cape Verde in north-west Africa. It took the group 16 years to do so. Ireland is a feeding ground for dolphins, blue whales and humpback whales and many more species from all over the globe. We do not know where their breeding grounds are. This information highlights that we know next to nothing about what we are destroying off our coasts.

That brings me to the dangers of seismic testing to explore for oil and gas off the Irish coast. To map the seabed for fossil fuel deposits, sonic cannons, also known as seismic airguns, are towed behind boats creating dynamite-like blasts, repeated every ten seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks and months at a time, at acoustic levels 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine. Seismic airgun testing increased dramatically from 2013 onwards. Noise from a single seismic airgun survey, used to discover oil and gas deposits hundreds of kilometres under the sea floor, can blanket an area of more than 300,000 sq. km, raising background noise levels by 100 times continuously for weeks or months. Seismic airgun surveys are loud enough to penetrate hundreds of kilometres into the ocean floor, even after going through thousands of metres of ocean. Seismic blasts can have damaging effects for up to 4,000 km. There is a wealth of peer reviewed evidence to show that these surveys do damage to wildlife. As highlighted by the Irish documentary, "Ireland’s Deep Atlantic", and the film, "Atlantic", seismic testing blasts are essentially waves of death that cause disorientation and internal bleeding in cetaceans for distances of up to 100 miles. This is why Dingle fishermen find deep sea beings such as giant squid in their nets after rounds of seismic testing in the Porcupine Basin.

Oil and gas exploration, apart from its effect on the climate, destroys fundamental aspects of the ocean's fabric. Despite this, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has repeatedly told this House that it will not ban exploration from areas in which these deep sea coral reefs are found or dolphins or blue whales are feeding. The Minister confirmed this again this week when he went back on his previous statements and attempted to stop the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill by calling for a money message before the Bill proceeds to Committee Stage.

I ask the Government to draw on indigenous and local knowledge in Ireland. Irish fishermen are reporting drops in fish populations in the Porcupine Basin. They are banned from fishing in the area over months of seismic testing and return to find whiting, cod, tuna and general wildlife populations reduced. The Government is damaging fish populations and wildlife for a privatised, speculative industry that provides no jobs, long-term income for the State or energy security as we do not have oil refineries that would meet demand. Things must change. The Government's business as usual strategy spells disaster not just for human existence but for the future of all life on this planet.

When I was growing up in rural Ireland as a young boy, I do not think I ever heard the words biodiversity or climate change. Times have changed and it saddens me when I hear that animals and plants are disappearing faster than at any other time in human history. It is happening in Ireland too. A biodiversity report published earlier this month gave a grim account of the significant dangers facing plants and animals across the globe. The report shows that species loss on the planet is accelerating at a rate often tens or thousands of times faster than in the past. A decline in biodiversity on the planet is bad, not only due to the loss of certain animals and plant species but also because of the danger that it poses to human survival. Plants and animals are the building blocks on which human life depends. Sadly, Ireland is not immune from the losses to plant and animal life that are occurring across the planet. Of the 3,000 or so plant and animal species in Ireland that are subject to a conservation assessment, approximately one quarter are facing extinction.

We have 1,200 plants in Ireland, and of those, 100 are threatened with extinction and 20 are critically endangered. It is not only our plants that are in danger but also several species of the country's wildlife are under strain. The curlew, which is the largest European wading bird, has declined in Ireland by 96% since the 1970s. More than a third of Ireland's 99 bee species are threatened with extinction. Those are scary statistics.

Ireland has one of the worst records for responding to climate change in the EU and among developed nations. Ireland is certain to miss its 2020 targets for reducing harmful emissions, as set under the 2016 Paris Agreement. A tipping point has been reached and we now need to put climate change and biodiversity at the top of the agenda.

In the programme for Government the Government promised that it would invest in the better energy programme. It was stated in the programme that it would provide grants to 170,000 households, but we hear that the entire budget for 2019 will have been committed by the end of May for insulation grants, the retrofitting of homes and the warmer homes scheme. The Government must ensure the lack of funds will not affect the insulation grants and renewable energy grants for people who badly need such work on their homes. I urge the Government to examine the grants and increase them, given that, for example, the installation of a heat pump in a private house can cost between €5,000 and €10,000, yet the maximum grant is €3,700, which leaves a large amount for homeowners to pay. The grant available for cavity wall insulation is only €400, as is the grant for attic insulation. All the grants must be examined and increased. We must encourage people to insulate their homes and thus reduce their energy needs. Will the Government investigate the possibility of reducing or entirely removing VAT on material used to insulate houses? That would be a major incentive to people and would encourage them to insulate their homes to the maximum and thus reduce the use of fossil fuels.

With regard to electric cars, the Government stated in the programme for Government that it wants Ireland to become a leader in the take-up of electric vehicles, but talk is very cheap. If the VAT and VRT were reduced or entirely removed on all electric vehicles it could greatly increase their sales. We must also find ways to reduce the number of cars on the roads. Many of my constituents in west Cork have said to me that if there was a park-and-ride service available to them that connected with the city, they would definitely avail of the service. I already raised the matter with the Taoiseach in the Dáil and he promised he would get back to me, but I am still waiting for his response. Now that the elections are over he might have a little more time to study what needs to be done. I previously called for a park-and-ride system for west Cork. Buses from Skibbereen, Mizen, Sheep's Head, Bantry and the Beara Peninsula, Drimoleague and Dunmanway would feed into Clonakilty and there would be a park-and-ride system to take people from there into the city. We have no interconnecting transport service from west Cork to the rail system, and we have no rail system in west Cork, which means people are totally and utterly dependent on the car. Many families have told me they would not need a second car if some form of proper transport service was available. The Government is standing idly by and will not even put something in place that might resolve the situation. We need proper access from west Cork. We would not need to use cars if there was a service in place. If such a service was reasonably priced and wheelchair accessible it would have the potential to replace thousands of cars on the roads, especially at peak times.

There is no doubt that we need to make a positive shift in Ireland's attitudes to biodiversity loss and climate change. The Government must create incentives to encourage businesses and the general public, such as the incentives I have already mentioned. The Government could have pulled the plug on the outrageous scandal of the harvesting of kelp off Bantry Bay. As a case on the matter is before the courts, I will not interfere in it. I have spoken many times in the House about the damage it will cause to the environment and to the livelihood of inshore fishermen. Planning application after planning application has been submitted for fish farms in west Cork in recent months, in Union Hall, Castlehaven, Kinsale, Urhan and Bantry. Companies from France and all over the country are looking to set up fish farms off the west Cork coast. That will do untold damage to the environment and the underwater species. In every other country there is a planning system in place and strict planning laws that we do not apply; therefore, it is open season here; one can just apply anywhere one wants, and one will get it. I have asked the Minister to make sure that proper planning regulations are in place and that we can at least protect people's livelihood and the species we have. It is time to wake up. The people of the country spoke last week and they made it very clear that the Government is not doing its job correctly regarding the environment. As politicians, we must do everything in our power to make sure that it does so in the future.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate, although I might not use the full ten minutes allocated to me, and to give my thoughts and ideas. I thank Deputy Niamh Smyth who made a very important presentation to the Dáil yesterday evening, as did all the speakers - Deputy Catherine Martin, Deputy Michael Collins and everybody else. The debate must include everybody. I appeal for it not to become a debate that pits urban against rural or one group against another. We all clearly recognise that there is a major issue at stake. Biodiversity loss is a major problem for us all. We all have a responsibility to work together to make the improvements that are necessary. When talking about biodiversity and different types of pollution people ask about China, Russia, America and India. Despite the fact that we are a small nation, we must also ask, what about Ireland?

We should acknowledge one point in this debate. The past generations in this country were outstanding people who looked after the environment. I accept the times were different and they did not have the same challenges of industrialisation and the current threats we face. I was brought up on a small farm in the west. I can speak for all my neighbours, both urban and rural. Nobody would touch a bird's nest, no matter where it was built. A hedgerow would never be cut down. No ordinary man or woman would ever touch an historic building. In fact, it would be preserved. We must include in this debate the men and women of previous generations who went before us.

Those who are involved in Tidy Towns groups are so environmentally friendly and aware. There is a lot of goodwill and many good people. We must all work together to ensure that we make progress in this area and perhaps become a world leader. Ireland has become a world leader and champion of so many causes; let us become the champions of the world in that regard. We talk proudly about our green image and the beautiful green island we have, which attracts a lot of people here, but if things keep going the way they are, we will not be able to talk in those terms.

Deputy Catherine Martin referred to pollution from plastics. My mother who is 83 years of age is disgusted at the amount of plastic wrapping on everything when she brings her shopping home from town. That must be tackled. Incentives must be introduced to deal with the issue. We all talk about it, but not enough is happening to make sure we get rid of the scourge of plastic wrapping, which in some cases is double plastic wrapping and a box. Another scourge is tinfoil packaging. Everywhere I go now everything is in a tinfoil tray. I see all the tinfoil trays in my home, my mother's home and other homes I go into.

This is another scourge. All this tinfoil cannot be good but perhaps that is a debate for another day.

There will be impacts on health, the environment and the economy if we do not deal with this issue. However, I am very confident that our young people will insist that we, as legislators, work very closely with them to bring about major change in society. There is widespread support for their demands. They are not asking but rather demanding that we deal with this issue. They can see a major threat to our planet. However, some people still have to meet their heating needs through turf, and we must take them into account. We can control that to a degree. We can stop the turf machines from getting bigger and from doing more damage or limit turf-cutting to smaller machines to ensure that as little damage as possible is done. I do not believe we can completely remove the need for turf but things are changing rapidly. While fewer people are now cutting turf, we must recognise that it is needed because it is all some people can afford.

Fertiliser use is another issue. In a former life I was a horticulturist, which is what I trained to do in college. I like to think that I have a good understanding of this area. We have to deal with the issue of fertiliser use, particularly near our lakes and rivers. While there are some restrictions in that regard at the moment, we are going to have to tackle it properly.

I can remember a time when virtually every farmer produced an acre or half-acre of barley, wheat or oats. There were fantastic occasions when crops were sown and saved. We should encourage that again. In recent years, one has to go through a licensing system and seek permission to grow a bit of grain on the farm. Why not encourage farmers to do that again, with financial support if necessary, and have them grow an acre or two of grain, barley, wheat or oats. This is an interesting idea, which stemmed from the smaller farms. Expansion occurred and every farm got bigger, with more livestock and bigger crops. We can organise ourselves and much of this can happen on a smaller scale without people incurring a financial loss. The bigger our farms got and the more they expanded, the more difficult people found it to survive.

I acknowledge that things are happening in the area of rural transport. We have the Local Link bus service, which is a tremendous help for many communities. However, it must be expanded. I am confident that if we had a better rural transport system, many of our people would leave their cars at home to go to their local town. It might be a small measure but it would be good for biodiversity.

We have to achieve results in the area of retrofitting houses. I have spoken to Deputy Niamh Smyth about this and it is a must. We need more investment in retrofitting, which must be done on a large scale. It is crucial to feed into all of this and to ensure that we as a nation are playing our part. We must restore the budgets for bodies such as the National Parks and Wildlife Service. That area of work is becoming so important and will be important in terms of biodiversity and showing that we are really serious about this situation.

Some people might disagree with me but it is very important that we make some of these smaller changes, which I believe could have a major bearing on all of this. We must remember that the bigger companies which are doing damage will have to play their part in remedying the situation. I am talking about factory farming and that kind of thing. Bigger companies are causing more pollution and this has to be tackled. More incentives will have to be provided for electric cars as well. It is good that we are having a serious debate about this issue. We have to address these issues together and work with each other to make real progress. The younger generation will not forgive any of us if we do not do this together.

I will address some of the points raised by the Deputies present, namely, Deputies Smyth, Eugene Murphy and Ó Snodaigh. I thank the speakers who contributed last night, namely, Deputies Burton and Connolly. Deputy Catherine Martin also spoke earlier.

I welcome Fianna Fáil's commitment to the biodiversity agenda. It is something that we need to tackle collaboratively if it is to be done in any kind of effective way. We have clarity on the rates of extinction now and this should be a clarion call for immediate and effective action. We have taken action. This is not just about fine words. I have a biodiversity action plan. I have increased resources for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, designated 250 special areas of conservation and secured Government approval for a biodiversity duty. I have also published climate action plans for the natural and built heritage. The Government has acted even in the teeth of a downturn. My Department is also working across Government on the sustainable development goals. I want to be constructive but I must remind Deputy Smyth that when her party was in government it severely cut the National Parks and Wildlife Service budget. I am restoring that budget. We prefer actions rather than words, but I was very pleased to hear the Deputy repeat many of my points about what has to happen in her conclusions. I thank her for that. Consensus is ultimately the key challenge in which all parties ultimately have a stake. We are not hiding behind this issue. Nature is the web of our lives and we are not prepared to sit back or fail to act on the imperative for immediate and effective responses.

I thank Deputy Ó Snodaigh for his comments. Is fearr déanach na go brách - better sooner than later. The reality of extinction is that we are the first generation to have the hard facts about it and the last that can take action and is in a position to act. That bell is tolling loudly and we all need to hear it. The Deputy is correct in his summation of the causes and I hear what he is saying. Many of his ideas certainly merit further thought from my Department and the Government and I thank him for acknowledging the valuable contribution of the farming communities and NGOs with which we partner on many different initiatives. We spent thousands of days and millions of euro on tackling invasive species, such as the rhododendron, as was mentioned.

I agree with Deputy Eugene Murphy that biodiversity loss is a matter for us all. It is a shared responsibility. Action, as the Deputy said, begins at home. There must be a profound change in how we interact with nature and in our patterns of consumption. I agree that the response has to be a whole of society response. I am working hard to restore the National Parks and Wildlife Service budget to pre-crisis levels. I agree that biodiversity loss is a problem for all of us and that we have to work together.

Deputy Murphy also made a point about bogs. My Department has worked hard to reach agreement with landowners and turf cutters and we are restoring 12 raised bogs. He also mentioned the idea of growing small areas of grain. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's GLAS scheme includes an option for small-scale tillage which benefits many birds, including the Yellowhammer.

We have made meaningful progress on many fronts and there is much to commend. We still have a natural environment which offers us significant resources and advantages. I recognise that there is a need to do more, however. It was helpful to hear the different contributions from the various parties as to what the Government, despite the progress made to date, should be doing. I recognise that and I am committed to moving forward.