Independent EPA required to tackle crisis

The status of Northern Ireland as one of the most-nature depleted regions on Earth underpins the need for an independent environmental protection agency, argues John Blair MLA, the Alliance Party’s agriculture and environment spokesperson.

Our basic human needs, such as access to food, shelter, and clean air, are threatened as the climate struggles to cope with our strain. We have just witnessed a season full of intensive heatwaves, floods, and wildfires across the globe. November 2023, too, started with prolonged periods of rain and extreme flooding in many areas across Northern Ireland.

In addition, we have been, and continue to be, tackling our own ecological crisis at Lough Neagh and across other areas within Northern Ireland, as blue-green algal blooms threaten species, the lives of those who live on the loughshore, trading, and recreational opportunities.

The lough’s poor ecological condition means it is less resilient to environmental changes such as increased water temperatures and it will now take 20 years for the phosphorous sediment in the bed of Lough Neagh to rectify itself naturally.

That is, of course, if we manage to reduce the harmful pollution levels entering the waterways.

As if our local blue-green algae crisis was not a sharp enough wake-up call, the launch of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ (RSPB) State of Nature report in September 2023 highlights, yet again, the devastating condition of our local environment.

The report has highlighted that in Northern Ireland, 12 per cent of species are being threatened with extinction, the certified woodland area continues to decrease, and around half of our protected areas are in an unfavourable condition.

“The Office for Environmental Protection has no enforcement powers over private businesses and citizens; a point made more significant given the current government stalemate within Northern Ireland.”

These failures, alongside many more, have resulted in Northern Ireland being ranked as the 12th worst out of 240 countries and regions for biodiversity loss, making it one of the most nature-depleted regions on Earth.

These local examples most certainly show that we must do things better and differently. The environmental crisis is no longer something we can brush under the carpet for future consideration, as the consequences of our inaction are being felt now and will only continue to escalate. Every policy and practice must be viewed directly – and, in some cases, reassessed – through a nature and climate lens.

We know what needs to be done, and there are many opportunities for restoration and recovery, but we must act more fervently.

It remains evident that a vital part of tackling the climate crisis is the creation of an independent environmental protection agency. This is something that Alliance has long since been calling for and has been previously committed to by all parties in the 2020 New Decade, New Approach agreement.

This body would govern the protection of the natural environment, clearly demonstrating a no-tolerance stance against polluters. It would also increase cross-border cooperation, as we are fighting to protect one single biogeographical unit unconcerned with borders.

To date, Northern Ireland remains the only region in Europe without an independent environmental protection agency in place. In 2022, the Office for Environmental Protection’s remit was extended to include Northern Ireland, meaning it can now hold our government and public bodies to account when implementing environmental law. However, whilst the Office for Environmental Protection goes some way in filling the oversight role which the European Commission previously held, it lacks the intensive vigour required.

The Office for Environmental Protection has no enforcement powers over private businesses and citizens; a point made more significant given the current government stalemate within Northern Ireland.

A further point highlighting the need for a dedicated independent environmental protection agency is that Northern Ireland still urgently requires robust environmental and biodiversity strategies.

An independent environmental protection agency is one of the many policies and practices proposed in the Alliance’s Green New Deal. This document outlines how we can seriously tackle the climate emergency, including methods to support nature recovery and a more sustainable agriculture model through nature-friendly farming practices. The document demands urgent and radical change for long-term security and collective prosperity beyond mere environmental policy tweaks.

Alliance remains committed to championing environmental issues by ensuring that focused action continues at every level of government to introduce a green new deal for each council area. This can be seen most recently within Alliance’s local government manifesto, which concentrated on reducing the use of plastics and a circular economy and went on to secure the party’s highest proportion of councillors ever.

What is clear, however, is that these localised actions need to be driven by and backed up by a functioning government. Indeed, the lack of government and, subsequently, governance in Northern Ireland has only made delivering environmental protection initiatives more difficult.

If we are to secure meaningful action, we must work together to protect our natural environment better and drive the restoration of species and habitats.

We must not see tackling the climate emergency as inter-sector condemnation or competition but as an opportunity to build the future we want, including preserving our planet for future generations and obtaining economic and social transformation.

Alliance will continue to fight for its vision of an inclusive, dynamic, prosperous, and sustainable Northern Ireland.

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