Ireland finds common cause in biodiversity

Michael Viney: Plenty of talk about ramification and refinement, but nature has grown short of time

I resisted the word in 1992, the year of the Rio Convention on Biodiversity. It was coined originally as shorthand in an American scientist’s notes but I thought it was being given too big a job to do. Slowly, however, the crisis of the natural world was made clear, together with what it meant for the planet’s human species. When, last November, Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly called for constitutional protection of the Republic’s biodiversity, restoration of nature had become a common cause.

In the many years of Another Life, biodiversity prompted a good many columns, mostly those of reproach and dismay.

“You’d think,” I hazarded in the autumn of 2005, “that just one of the successive ‘ministers for nature’ would have wanted to get behind the UN convention that we eventually signed in 1996 — really understand what it was about, why protecting species and their ecosystems mattered to people on this green island as much as to the rest of a ravaged world. But the story has been one of a grudging, politically blank-eyed compliance with ‘obligations’ imposed by the Convention and the EU Habitats Directive.”

Those were the days when talk of extinction applied to big elephants and rhinos in far-off Africa. Then taoiseach Bertie Ahern could mock the idea of holding up a new bypass to keep the water level right in a protected tiny snail’s fen in Co Kildare. In the 20th century, in an island culture shaped largely by farming, what nature was “good for” had yet to extend to the essential value of pollinating insects, let alone the beneficial existence of beetles, spiders, snails and other invertebrates But biodiversity has served human survival and comfort. And the denser the web of life, as we learn now, the more CO2 it locks away.


Such a spread of enlightenment has been urged by conservationists for decades

After long delays, Ireland’s first national biodiversity plan was published in 2002 without any public launch or promotion. It set out 91 “actions” but gave no prioritised time scales, no co-ordinating unit, no dedicated funding and no incentives to co-operate. A well-developed fourth plan is promised this year, with public consultation. Last November also brought a document that seemed to exemplify Ireland’s change of mood.

A report on biodiversity came from the cross-party, 14-member Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action, chaired by a Green TD Brian Leddin. Conferring with a whole raft of relevant NGOs, expert academics and farmers, it quoted their key opinions in the report and came up with no fewer than 75 recommendations.

Prominent was urgent action for Marine Protected Areas and for forests mixed and managed for continuous cover. Government plans and policies should be “biodiversity proofed” systematically, and a Biodiversity Officer installed in every government department and public body. Such a spread of enlightenment has been urged by conservationists for decades. But, as the committee made clear the job of such brave officers will need more legal authority than simply a name on a door.

The administrative lifestyle of Ireland — of much of the western world, indeed — was not designed for urgent action. Webbed in qualification, shaped by sectoral competition and political interests, it creeps towards compromise that gives the least offence. Democracy, in all its twists, takes its time. As I write, in the icy calm before Christmas, Green Party Minister of State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan was heading off to the crucial Cop15 in Canada, hoping for great new moves for global biodiversity. “It’s time for ambition,” he wrote, “for leadership and bold action. There isn’t a moment to waste.”

Other grand aspirations were to ‘halt species extinctions caused by humans’ and ‘address unsustainable agriculture, forestry and fisheries’

Noonan means well, running a newly reinvigorated National Parks and Wildlife Service. In 2021 he signed up to the High Ambition Coalition for Nature, a joint initiative “for nature and people”. Chaired by France and Costa Rica , it enlisted more than 100 nations to mobilise the will for agreement in Montreal. Its chief ambition was to “protect at least 30 per cent of land and oceans by 2030”. Other grand aspirations were to “halt species extinctions caused by humans” and “address unsustainable agriculture, forestry and fisheries”.

Absolutely, who could argue? But it will all need nursing through the administrative labyrinths of nations across the world, not least in Ireland.

The recent consensus of the Citizens’ Assembly was to protect biodiversity and nature in the Constitution and to recognise nature as a holder of legal rights. This brought sympathetic but cautious concern. “An absolute priority to biodiversity,” wrote economist John Fitzgerald, “ignores the trade-offs that are necessary to balance competing objectives, where the best judges are those we elect.”

How might such constitutional provisions conflict with priorities of human demand, such as housing, new roads and industry? The potential ramification and refinement are good for years of discussion, dispute and deskwork. But nature, for once, has grown rather short of time.