Nature and the services that natural systems provide are essential for human life and for people's quality of life. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IPBES, provides governments and countries across the globe, including Ireland, with scientific assessments on the state of the planet’s biodiversity and ecosystems, as well as the contributions they make to people and society. We are all familiar with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which provides strong science-based assessments of climate change. The IPBES does similar scientific assessments on biodiversity and the services it provides. It also provides information on tools and methods to protect and sustainably use biodiversity and natural resources - our natural capital.
Like 130 other countries, Ireland is a member of the IPBES. At the latter's recent meeting in Paris, members received disturbing news. There is stark scientific evidence on the health of the natural environment which highlighted an alarming decline in nature and a critical risk for humanity in the 21st century. The evidence was presented in the IPBES global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services. This report is the most comprehensive assessment of its kind yet produced. The message from this assessment is clear. Nature, biodiversity, the life that we share on this planet and the contributions they make to human existence are in trouble. The scientific evidence is clear and unequivocal that the primary causes of this are human-driven. Current patterns of production and consumption globally are unsustainable. Climate change resilience depends greatly on biodiversity and looking after our natural capital. Most of nature’s contributions to people are not fully replaceable while some are irreplaceable. Existing policies are not halting the global declines across biodiversity.
The report indicates that, globally, we are losing biodiversity at a rate unprecedented in human history. The number of plants, insects, mammals and birds threatened or endangered is growing year on year. The report assesses changes over the past 50 years and presents a clear picture of the relationship between economic development and how it affects biodiversity. The land, ocean, atmosphere and biosphere are being altered to an unparalleled degree. Land and sea-use changes, direct exploitation of animals and plants, climate change, pollution and invasive species are the main drivers of biodiversity loss globally on the land.
In the context of marine ecosystems, direct exploitation, mainly fishing, has had the largest relative impact, followed by land and sea-use change. The report makes it clear that the current response from the international community to biodiversity loss is insufficient and that transformative changes are needed to restore and protect nature, along with the benefits and essential services derived from it. It advises us that only if transformative change is taken globally to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss will these trends be halted. If this does not occur, there will be a further acceleration in the global rate of species extinction which is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.
The report highlights that a biodiversity crisis has knock-on effects on all of society’s life-support system and our well-being. For example, it states that the current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystem services will undermine progress towards 80% of the assessed targets of the sustainable development goals. Those goals relate to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land. Loss of biodiversity is, therefore, shown to be not only an environmental issue but also developmental, economic, security, social and moral issue. The report highlights indirect drivers of biodiversity loss, which include increased population and per capita consumption, technological innovation, which may reduce or increase damage to nature, as well as governance and accountability issues. Ireland is part of the global system. We consume food and raw materials from many other parts of the world, from countries far from us which are suffering huge losses of biodiversity.
These global messages on the state of biodiversity are mirrored in my Department’s reports on the status of Ireland’s biodiversity. Similar to the declines being experienced at a global level, biodiversity in Ireland is also demonstrating worrying and ongoing declines. Draft results from the 2019 habitats directive report tell us the conservation status of over 50% of protected habitats show a declining trend. Of particular note are declines in peatlands, grasslands and some of the marine habitats. Several months ago, the National Biodiversity Data Centre published results from its butterfly and bumble bee recording schemes. These surveys have revealed rates of decline in these important insects which must concern us. Recorders detected average declines of common bumble bees of 3.7% per annum over the past six years across 100 sites. This is markedly above the 1.0% global average.
The situation is urgent but solutions are possible. Biodiversity decline and loss of habitats does not happen in isolation. Other societal and economic issues are also relevant. Sustainable measures to protect biodiversity can also have a positive impact on other societal challenges. For example, sustainable agricultural practices to protect biodiversity can at the same time meet food production needs. Agriculture, fisheries and forestry are key parts of the economy. However, we need to look hard at how to increase their environmental sustainability. Relatively simple changes to policy and incentives for these sectors can yield significant benefits for nature and provide necessary trade-offs if we are to safeguard the well-being of future generations.
If Ireland is going to contribute to the reversal of these trends, we must look again at some of our policies to promote more sustainable production of food, timber and the use of natural resources of fish, water and air. Unless transformative change occurs at global and national levels, as well as regional and local, to address the damage to biodiversity while actions to conserve biodiversity are intensified, these figures will continue to worsen. Further extinctions and declines will occur with subsequent effects on our well-being and economy.
This is all the more pressing in the face of climate change. A healthy and resilient environment is necessary to help us mitigate and adapt to its effects. There are, however, many positives. The national efforts, led by the Government, in response to the biodiversity crisis to conserve biodiversity are bearing fruit. One such initiative is the national pollinator plan relating to our 100 species of wild and managed bees. This was developed by a wide range of organisations led by the National Biodiversity Data Centre and Trinity College Dublin. It has engaged people all around the country and stimulated a large number of locally based conservation projects.
As I stated yesterday, the national biodiversity action plan is the key national overarching policy for our work. Ireland’s third national biodiversity action plan runs from 2017 to 2021. It sets out actions that a range of government, civil and private sectors will undertake to achieve Ireland’s vision for biodiversity which I listed yesterday evening. My Department has just launched a round of consultations with all relevant Departments, agencies and State-owned companies, as well as farmers, landowners, NGOs and other sectors, to set out our priorities for action in the plan, focusing more specifically on the habitats and species protected under EU directives, in the special areas of conservation, SACs, and the special protection areas, SPAs, designated under those directives.
Other concrete actions we have taken in recent years include placing approximately 17% of the terrestrial area within the protected area network. We have accelerated the designation process, investing €650 million since 2011 on a major restoration effort on our raised bogs.
There is also the National Parks and Wildlife Service’s farm plan scheme. We established the national curlew task force and the curlew conservation programme. We are also recruiting specialist ecology staff and rangers for our parks and reserves. We have the EU LIFE programme, the KerryLIFE project, the AranLIFE project and the Raptor Life project. I outlined all of these initiatives yesterday. There is also our very first biodiversity sectoral climate change adaptation plan. At the conference we held earlier this year, we encouraged sectors to contribute towards the Seeds for Nature campaign in an effort to step up and accelerate progress towards achieving the objectives of the national biodiversity action plan.
The Government is taking a co-ordinated approach and working across Departments in order to protect our biodiversity. My colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, has also achieved much through work in his Department. Even with all this good work, however, we have to raise our game and we intend to do so. I appreciate the contributions that will be made to the debate from all the Deputies present.