Instead of thinking of nature as a problem or "an infinite resource to be exploited", it should be viewed as "the fundamental stock underpinning every transaction and every decision" taken by government and wider society, ecologist Prof Jane Stout has suggested.
This long-term failure to incorporate nature into decision-making had led to over exploitation of the natural environment and under investment in maintaining biodiversity, she told the first ever National Biodiversity Conference, which is being staged at Dublin Castle.
Undervaluing nature had led to its destruction, she said. In Ireland, this had resulted in "loss of habitats, loss of species – plummeting populations of birds, mammals, fish, and insects". But this was a loss for both nature and for people, added Prof Stout, who is director of the Irish Forum for Natural Capital.
Factoring in nature to the decision-making was not putting a price tag on it, she stressed.
“Can anyone say that this dolphin is worth ‘X’ euros? What aspect of the dolphin is worth that – is it one dolphin, or one population or the entire species?”
What could be valued were the benefits to the local economy of people coming to see the dolphin; the boat trips they take, the cameras they buy, the coffee, tea and biscuits from the local shop.
“These are quantifiable benefits flowing from the biodiversity asset. Without the dolphins, none of these other economic benefits occur.”
Many saw nature, however, as “a luxury that we can’t afford”, Prof Stout said. “As someone emailed us the other day, ‘No one gives a damn about the environment when we are enduring another round of austerity’.”
In managing biodiversity and climate change, and seeking to decarbonise Ireland by 2050, there was potential for conflict to arise, which would need to be carefully managed, Prof John FitzGerald said.
As Ireland was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, returning to 19th century standards of living just would not happen. There was “a need to find a way to have the kind of society we want”, while meeting climate change and biodiversity objectives, he said. This was against a backdrop of the Irish population set to rise by a third in the next 30 years.
There was a need to “shut down peat [production]immediately”, which would bring climate and biodiversity benefits, and for example to deploy more renewable electricity, which would create the need for solar panels in fields. While many actions brought crossover benefits, some could cause conflict.
There was a need to change agriculture and have fewer animals on the land by mid century, though possibly there may be more dairy cows, which was profitable for farmers. Agricultural practices and land use would have to change, including a shift from pasture to forestry and biomass crops.
Prof FitzGerald stressed this was not going to work unless farmers were better off” as a consequence.
“If we are to succeed. We need to get buy-in from everybody. Through compromise we can move forward. But those compromises must reflect the changes that are occurring in society. It is how we make those changes, which protect the environment is all its forms.”
Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan announced a range of measures aimed at helping to protect biodiversity, address species decline and protect habitats, while making nature more resilient in the face of climate change.
She said the announcement was a “sign of this Government’s commitment to protecting and restoring nature”. While she accepted the need for leadership and greater urgency, collaboration across all sectors was also necessary.
“Success will only come through collaboration with farmers, foresters, fishers, local authorities, businesses and communities. I’m asking everyone to lead within their own sphere of influence for a new horizon for nature in Ireland. Our rivers, our kingfishers, our woodlands, our salmon, our pollinators, our meadows, our eagles, our whales and dolphins, will not thrive without it.”