Growing up in rural Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s a person would be deafened by the sound of birdsong, now the countryside is significantly quieter. In the 1980s and 1990s a summer drive would see the car windscreen covered in insects, not anymore. Today it is getting harder to tell the seasons apart and the warmth of this autumn has been unsettling.
On May 9th, 2019, Dáil Éireann declared a climate and a biodiversity emergency, a historic moment and the result of many years of campaigning and debate inside and outside the chamber. The stark predictions of devastating consequences for humanity posed by climate change were repeatedly laid out by the scientists of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and finally proved impossible to ignore.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is the biodiversity equivalent of the IPCC and in 2019 it issued its own stark warning, that “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world”.
The drivers of biodiversity loss are listed in descending order: changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution and invasive alien species. The biodiversity and climate crises are thus interlinked, broadly caused by the same processes (human activity) and interacting with and amplifying the effects of each other, which will have severe negative impacts on human wellbeing.
It is this interlinkage that requires the biodiversity and climate crises are addressed in tandem, a fact acknowledged by the 2019 Dáil declaration, and which now underpins joint work by the IPCC and IPBES.
As Cop27 draws to a conclusion, the message to Government should be loud and clear, Ireland must do its fair share in reducing greenhouse gas emissions urgently; anything less is inexcusable. We believe solutions exist for a just and environmentally sustainable transition that saves our biodiversity for future generations.
Scale of biodiversity loss
The scale of Ireland’s biodiversity loss has been captured in many reports, including the 2019 report by the National Parks and Wildlife Service outlining the state of Ireland’s EU-protected habitats and species. It showed that 85 per cent of these habitats have “bad” or “inadequate” status including peatlands. We know less about the condition of habitats outside of this protected area network due to inadequate research but we can learn a lot about the state of nature through monitoring birds; they are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine.
BirdWatch Ireland and the RSPB Northern Ireland publish the Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland assessment every six years. The most recent assessment in 2021 shows the status of 63 per cent of Ireland’s 211 regularly occurring wild bird species are categorised as red or amber due to moderate to severe declines.
This was the worst assessment since they began in 1998. Upland and lowland farmland birds, wading birds and seabirds have the worst status. Drivers of losses in Ireland mirror the drivers in the IPBES global assessment. Sectoral policies in agriculture, afforestation, peat cutting, infrastructure development and inappropriate fishing, are making land and sea more inhospitable for these species to survive.
Climate action and biodiversity loss – interlinked ecological crises
As with climate change, decades of failure by the Irish state to address biodiversity loss has left us with little time to reverse it. Failure to comply with EU law, which Ireland helped to write, inadequate research, poor consultation, lack of sufficient institutional structures and poorly conducted environmental assessments has brought us to a situation where many species are on the brink of extinction.
There has been a renewed and sustained focus on climate action in Ireland over the past few years, which is critical and welcome. Climate change is projected to adversely impact genetic variability, species richness and populations, and ecosystems.
The loss of biodiversity through the loss of peatlands and wetlands will in turn increase emissions from the land use sector; demonstrating the need to put biodiversity at the heart of climate action.
Afforestation, onshore and offshore wind farms and greenways are essential actions on climate mitigation and Ireland has ambitious targets in these areas. Done properly these much-needed developments present a win-win for communities and the environment. Done badly and they risk worsening biodiversity loss and alienating local communities.
Increasing our dismal rates of afforestation, for example, is a good thing as we need more trees for carbon sequestration, wood products and, depending on the type of forest, the habitats they can provide.
Tree planting, whether conifers or broadleaves, targeted on high nature value (HNV) farmland, however, obliterates seminatural grasslands that can be very rich in biodiversity from lichens, fungi, bryophytes, vascular plants such as sedges, grasses, wildflowers and all the insects they support including bees and butterflies, and ground nesting bird species and mammals.
Tree plantations not only wipe out the HNV habitats of these species such as the curlew and the corncrake, but the additional tree cover in the landscape attracts foxes and crows which prey on eggs and chicks of threatened species putting population restoration at risk as already depleted numbers are decimated further.
Development of offshore wind energy has become more urgent for both climate and energy security reasons with long-term proposals to strategically plan wind farms in Irish waters within the context of developing a network of marine protected areas (MPAs).
However, in the short term several wind farms may get planning permission in the Irish Sea before the MPA network or marine Special Protected Areas are identified and designated. Some wind farm proposals indirectly threaten globally important seabird colonies like that of the Roseate Tern on Rockabill island and could cause significant adverse impacts. Twenty-three of Ireland’s 24 breeding seabirds are red or amber-listed birds of conservation concern.
Following the science
It is important to state that challenges to biodiversity presented by planned climate actions can be overcome by following the science. There are solutions, including: sensitivity mapping (understanding the optimal locations for wind developments and forestry); improving quality of surveying; better collection and sharing of data and more ecologists working at all levels of decision-making bodies. To date the Forest Service has declined to use sensitivity mapping, though this approach is promoted by the European Commission.
Just Transition for farmers, nature and communities
It is misleading to frame a trade-off between urgent climate action and biodiversity protection as necessary and inevitable. The real trade-off is between climate and biodiversity policies that deliver for farmers, communities and nature or those that prioritise short-term, narrowly-defined economic interests.
For example, concentrating afforestation in areas where HNV farming is practised but where incomes are lower is simply shifting the burden for emissions reductions in the land-use sector from the richest to the poorest farmers.
This will exacerbate inequality and lead to poor environmental outcomes and resentment. Addressing legacy issues such as the drainage of our peatlands and wetlands and tackling pollution from excessive agriculture nutrient use should be a priority in climate action. Afforestation should be undertaken not merely where farm incomes are marginal but where it is most suitable, as designated by the science.
In our marine area, allowing a developer-led rollout of offshore wind without the requisite marine spatial planning, research and data on marine life or zoning for potential MPAs will lead to poor planning and negative impacts on marine biodiversity.
Time to protect and restore nature
The Irish Government bravely led the way in Europe on targeted, results-based agri-environmental schemes to support farmers to farm for threatened wildlife and habitats. We now call on Government to lead the way on the EU’s nature restoration law. By adopting legally binding targets in Irish law, the Government would be compelled to restore habitats at scale, particularly habitats that can help us mitigate climate change such as peatlands and grasslands, and adapt to sea level rise and extreme weather events such as floodplains, dune habitats and coastal wetlands. Early engagement with farmers, ecologists and the rural community in this will be key.
We also call on the Government to follow the science on biodiversity, to utilise approaches such as sensitivity mapping for planning and focus on climate action measures in the land-use sector that enhance our environment rather than threaten it.
Wild birds in Ireland are an important part of our cultural heritage, celebrated in poetry and song but we could be the first country to see the extinction of the curlew. Through our short-sighted actions we are denying future generations the joy of experiencing the full diversity of Irish nature and of hearing the birdsong we were privileged to have grown up with.
Oonagh Duggan is head of advocacy, Birdwatch Ireland; Oisín Coghlan is director of Friends of the Earth Ireland and Fintan Kelly is agriculture and land use policy officer with Irish Environmental Network