Environmental priorities: Minister Edwin Poots MLA

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots MLA offers a synopsis of the key environmental initiatives underway in his Department, including the delivery of an Environment Strategy for Northern Ireland.

In June, Agriculture and Environment Minister Edwin Poots announced plans to deliver a co-designed Green Growth Strategy in response to Covid-19. Announcing a target of Spring 2021 for a draft Strategy and delivery framework launch for consultation, Poots says: “The Green Growth Strategy is a key priority area for the Northern Ireland Executive. The strategy and delivery framework will focus on economic development and renewal, yet will also recognise the importance of our environment and advocate a pathway to a sustainable future as part of our recovery from the Covid-19.”

Describing a need to address a holistic approach to recovery in the context of unprecedented transformation of the global economy linked to Covid-19 and public concerns around climate change, the Minister explains: “We have been presented with the opportunity to renew our thinking and to stimulate and support new approaches, including alternative sustainable business models. We must seize the opportunity presented by the Covid-19 crisis to ensure the recovery plans have a greener, more sustainable focus, building on the many gains made and lessons learned in recent months.”

Setting out that officials in his Department are currently developing a plan to engage with key partners in the coming months, to ensure meaningful stakeholder engagement and that “the principles of co-design and delivery are both implemented and central to this strategy”, the DUP Minister adds that the outcome will be a framework of programmes to help deliver “a resilient recovery through greener, low carbon and circular economy for Northern Ireland”.

Environmental Justice

In January 2020, the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) agreement set out that “the Executive will establish an Independent Environmental Protection Agency to oversee this work and ensure targets are met” but shortly after the deal, Poots, the new Environment Minister gave an indication that setting one up was not a priority for his Department.

Poots confirms that his preference, for now, lies in the extension of the remit of the Office of Environmental protection, the UK’s new post-Brexit independent agency, to Northern Ireland.

“Environmental justice is vital for each and every citizen of Northern Ireland and as minister I recognise that access to it is an essential principle which must be maintained as we leave the EU and its associated oversight structures,” he states.

“I am therefore keen to see an independent environmental oversight in Northern Ireland and, while the decision on whether it operates in Northern Ireland rests with the Assembly, I believe the Office of the Environmental Protection proposed in the UK Government’s Environment Bill is the best option that we have at the current time.”

Poots confirms an Environment Strategy for Northern Ireland, as part of the Green Growth framework, will be a key part of the Department’s commitment to the continued protection and improvement of the environment.

“As Northern Ireland’s first environmental strategy, it will establish an over-arching framework for our environment for decades to come and provide an enormous opportunity for all of us,” he outlines.

The Department are currently reviewing responses to the public discussion document on the strategy, which closed in February 2020, and Poots says that his officials will continue to engage with stakeholders and other departments in the coming months with the aim to publish a draft Environmental Strategy for consultation in spring 2021.

“I believe the Office of the Environmental Protection proposed in the UK Government’s Environment Bill is the best option that we have at the current time.”

Poots is keen to stress that while a focus remain on future delivery, much work is already ongoing in the Department to address known environmental challenges. To this end he points to the NDNA’s commitment to “prepare a plan to eliminate plastic pollution”.

Outlining an ambition to “keep plastic in the economy but out of the environment”, Poots urges caution “not to demonise all plastic” in the necessity of addressing the throwaway culture around plastic.

Poots says that he continues to work with ministerial colleagues across the UK to introduce an extended producer responsibility scheme that will place responsibility on producers for the full net cost of managing their products once they reach the end of their life. Additionally, he says, officials in his department are working towards a plastic packaging tax, meaning that from April 2022, a tax will be levied on all plastic with less that 30 per cent recycled content.

Poots believes that the tax will stimulate greater demand for recycled plastics and help build a circular economy for plastics.

A green recovery

In early 2020, the Minister wrote to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) seeking advice on Northern Ireland’s equitable contribution to the UK’s net zero emissions target and asking, “how we can improve our evidence base on both greenhouse gas emissions and the associated economic and financial impacts”.

Speaking just days before the CCC advised that Northern Ireland’s carbon emissions be cut by at least 82 per cent by 2050, the Minister outlined a future pathway: “I will bring my conclusions to the Executive to agree a way forward on climate change. It will of course require the support of the Executive to introduce any new cross-cutting approaches on climate change. I’ve noted the Committee on Climate Change advice to the Prime Minister and it provides the analysis of how UK climate policy can become a core element of the Government’s approach to rebuilding the economy after the Covid-19 crisis.

“I am committed to building a green recovery from Covid-19. I will consider how the committee’s recommendations, which highlights their clear economic, social and environmental benefits from immediate expansion measures such as tree planting, peatland restoration, green spaces and other green low carbon climate resilient infrastructure.”

Air quality

Turning to air quality, Poots highlights the recent launch of a discussion document in advance of developing the first Clean Air Strategy for Northern Ireland, which will remain open until the 15 February 2021.

“This is a tremendous step forward in the development of the first Clean Air Strategy for Northern Ireland and I welcome all opinions and encourage the exchange of ideas on air quality issues and mitigation measures.”

Referencing progress to date in this area, including the launch in May 2020 of the NI Air Quality app, he adds: “I recognise the importance of clean air to each and every one of us and I’m glad to see how new technology is being used to promote this.”

Concluding, Poots highlights his recognition of farming’s environmental impact in Northern Ireland, stating: “Farming is a fundamental part of the fabric of Northern Irish life and as such, is an essential and important contributor to our economy. Any activity which takes place over such a large geographical scale is bound to have impacts on the environment, both positive and negative.

“I recognise that by reducing emissions from our farms it is necessary to ensure that future sustainability of Northern Ireland’s agri-food sector goes hand in hand. I want to work with farmers and indeed other stakeholders to design a series of emission reduction measures, which will achieve positive outcomes both for our farms and our precious environment.”

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