Ireland’s natural environment facing ‘devastating’ biodiversity loss, TDs told

Citizens’ assembly chair Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin says learning about damage to forests and waters ‘surprising and depressing’

Ireland has a wealth of natural environment but “is facing a devastating and enormous problem of biodiversity loss”, according to the chair of the recent Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss.

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin said it was “surprising and depressing” to learn about the “poor state of our freshwater, our marine environment, our grasslands, our peatlands, our forestry, our hedgerows and our wildlife” during the assembly’s meetings.

She told the Oireachtas Committee on Environment and Climate Action on Tuesday there had been a sea change in how people were valuing and looking after the environment around them.

She said TDs and Senators now have a unique opportunity to transform Ireland’s relationship with nature by implementing the 159 recommendations made in the assembly’s final report. She was joined at the committee by assembly members and those who provided advice through its expert advisory group.


Asked by Fine Gael TD Richard Bruton what were the key priorities in the final report, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said the most important was “full implementation and resourcing of laws, regulations and policies that already exist but are not being enforced”.

“Nature can, at times, seem inconvenient to us. But, fundamentally, we as humans are only one part of nature and we rely solely on it to provide for us and protect us,” she said.

She added that “at the heart of the work of this citizens’ assembly is a realisation that a breakdown between humanity and the natural world puts us all at risk”.

Dr Ní Shúilleabháin noted that more than 60 per cent of the assembly’s membership was from rural Ireland. “While we hear much rhetoric on the ‘urban/rural’ divide in terms of care of the environment, I am glad that no such divide was apparent in the room.”

This, she said, mirrored research findings indicating people young and old and from rural and urban areas were worried about Ireland’s environment and want more to be done.

The assembly called on the State to acknowledge and reward farmers for their vital work in protecting nature. Farming, however, had been governed by policies of production, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said, “with subsidies and incentives promoting intense agriculture, resulting in the damage we now see in the statistics around our environment, water quality and biodiversity”.

“The work of the assembly points towards the fact that we can no longer focus on maximising outputs from farming, but optimising farm practices within environmental limits.”

Farmers had told the assembly they would respond to policy changes “but these need to be meaningful, widely available and of sufficient duration to make it worthwhile to significantly realign” their practices.

“Our dependence on farmers for both food production and ecosystem services requires this,” she said.

The EU nature restoration law was supported by the assembly, policymakers and states but had come under siege by lobbyists and vested interests, she added. “We are reminded, however, that there are no thriving industries or economies on a planet where nature has gone beyond a point of repair.”

The assembly recommended that Ireland adopt the UN human right to a clean, healthy, safe environment as a fundamental part of the Constitution.

“This is, perhaps, something we have taken for granted in this beautiful country of ours but, unfortunately, we can no longer presume it will be here for us to enjoy without protecting it,” Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said.

“As elected representatives, the cathedral thinking required for us to build structures and policies for future generations to enjoy, respect and be in gratitude of lies in your hands. The people are behind you on this.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times