Forests can make an important contribution to climate action through the sequestration and storage of carbon dioxide and by supplying sustainable and renewable materials that support the decarbonisation of our economy.
The Government's Climate Action Plan 2019 recognises this key role which afforestation has to play in climate change mitigation particularly through carbon sequestration. Under current rules, agreed as part of the EU Effort Sharing Regulation, forestry can contribute some 2 million tonnes of CO2 per annum of carbon towards Ireland’s emissions targets under the next climate mitigation period 2021-2030.
Planting achieved under successive afforestation programmes will be the basis for this emissions reductions figure. The Climate Action Plan now sets a target of an average of 8,000 hectares of new planting per year. While this will mostly yield benefits in the longer term post-2030, it will also contribute to our 2030 target through carbon sequestration.
Issues concerning the designation of Special Protection Areas (or SPAs) and the setting of conservation objectives are a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. As previously outlined by Minister Madigan, the issue of afforestation within SPAs important to breeding hen harrier, is an ongoing issue and a previous protocol on the issue was discontinued as the European Commission considered it non-compliant with the EU Birds Directive.
The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has prepared a draft Hen Harrier Threat Response Plan in co-operation with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, and with my own Department. The draft Threat Response Plan must also undergo public consultation.
Regarding the issuing of afforestation licences, the Deputy will be aware that, under the European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011, any Minister considering a plan or project in a SPA or a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) shall give consent for such a plan or project only after having determined that the plan or project shall not adversely affect the integrity of any SPA or SAC. In addition, under the European Union guidelines for State aid in the agricultural and forestry sectors and in rural areas, within SPAs and SACs, only afforestation consistent with the management objectives of the Natura sites concerned, and agreed with the Member State’s authority in charge of implementing Natura 2000 (in Ireland’s case, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht), shall be allowed.