The great mistake of our species is to think that we are somehow separate from nature and to believe we can continually hollow out our natural systems without consequence for our wellbeing, according to Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
“Nature provides the essentials for human life but it must be treated with the respect that it deserves. The time has come for a new era of stewardship of our natural world,” he told delegates on Thursday in Dublin Castle on the second day of the national biodiversity conference.
In the past, the messages of the impact of biodiversity loss were not always heeded both globally and closer to home, he acknowledged. “As a species we allowed ourselves to forget that nature underpins so much that is fundamental to our existence — clean water, food and a stable climate all depend on functioning natural systems,” he added.
“But I do sense a deepening acceptance, a growing realisation now that our fortunes as a species and a society are inseparable from the fortunes of the natural world of which we are a part. What is good for nature is ultimately good for society and the economy,” Mr Martin said.
Mentioning some of the progress in restoration of peatlands, plans to create a network of marine protected areas and a new approach to forestry, he said there was a “long path to travel yet” that would only be successfully tackled with “an all-of-government and all of society” approach.
“This will require vigilance of planners, local authorities, agricultural advisers and all manifestations of the State who have a hand in regulating interventions in our land, rivers, lakes, seas and air,” he said.
Shared Island funds totalling €1 billion were already in place for an all-island approach to biodiversity protection and the conservation of cross-Border peatlands, with plans for a new shared island community climate action scheme later in 2022. He cautioned, however, that while national targets and sectoral emissions ceilings can be set for climate action, biodiversity indicators were more complex.
“The action is at the level of the field and that field is usually owned and worked by somebody which is why communities need to be at the heart of biodiversity action,” he said.
Acknowledging how many people turned to the natural world for comfort during the Covid pandemic, he said nature was a constant source of wonder and solace to him personally and that it gave him great joy. “Whether walking on Courtmacsherry or on a visit to the old oak woodland in Wood Point, there is something inside that resonates deeply with these natural surroundings and a feeling of wellbeing that cannot be replicated in other settings.”
In a discussion on financing restoration and the creation of biodiversity credits as well as carbon credits, Paul Chatterton from the Landscape Finance Lab in Vienna suggested the creation of a “financial instrument” to deliver peatland restoration would be a game-changer. “Peatland is the most concentrated form of carbon on the planet, and Ireland has some of the best concentrations of peatland in Europe. If we could restore 700,000 hectares of peatland, that would be 10 per cent of land in Ireland,” he added.
Speakers at a session on biodiversity and planning stressed the importance of having ecologists involved at all stages of planning to support biodiversity. Planning consultant Hendrik van der Kamp said fragmentation — the breaking up of habitats — was one of the key causes of biodiversity loss caused by development. “To prevent this, we need to create stepping stones [for species] with green roofs, green corridors, parks, rivers, railway lines and abandoned areas and we need to decide what an area can take in terms of noise, development, traffic and visitors rather than what we need,” he said.
In the final session on the role of NGOs in combating biodiversity loss, Dublin City University lecturer Sadhbh O’Neill called for ecological literacy. “We have to respect the planetary boundaries and set aside land for nature so that other species can thrive,” she suggested. There needed to be rights to a healthy environment and the rights of nature too. “I don’t think we have the right to drive other species into extinction,” she said.
Other speakers suggested the forthcoming fourth National Biodiversity Action Plan (NBAP) needed to have a legal basis. “The State is the biggest transgressor of EU law in Ireland, so there needs to be ways to hold government departments to account — and this will be very important for the next NBAP,” said Oonagh Duggan from Birdwatch Ireland.