Environment Strategy for Northern Ireland

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Closes 5 Feb 2020


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1. Do you agree that the Environment Strategy for Northern Ireland should sit alongside existing Executive-endorsed strategies, such as the Sustainable Development, Public Health and Economic Strategies?

Other Strategies - More Information

Given the all-encompassing nature of “the environment”, it is clear that a new Environment Strategy cannot be developed in isolation. Looking at the bigger picture, across the Northern Ireland policy landscape there already exist a number of high-level, Executive-endorsed strategies that affect the environment and/or are influenced by it. Examples include the: Sustainable Development Strategy; Public Health Strategy; draft Industrial Strategy; Economic Strategy; Regional Development Strategy.

The attached graphic shows a range of existing strategies that are endorsed by the NI Executive and a range of existing DAERA strategies with the proposed Environment Strategy in between (neither range is exhaustive). The question is should the Environment Strategy sit amongst: the Executive-endorsed strategies; the DAERA strategies; or between these two groups? The environment is so important to our future prosperity and health and wellbeing that it is our view that the new Environment Strategy must sit in that upper tier with at least equivalent status and influence.

Other Strategies Graphic

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2. Do you agree that these broad environmental areas are appropriate for the Environment Strategy for Northern Ireland?

Key Environmental Areas - More Information

Climate Change (mitigation and adaptation)

Mitigation refers to addressing the root cause of climate change by reducing or preventing greenhouse gas emissions.

Adaptation, on the other hand, means anticipating the impacts of climate change and taking appropriate action to:

  • prevent or minimise the damage they can cause; or
  • take advantage of opportunities that may arise.


Natural Environment and Landscapes

The natural environment essentially includes everything that is not man-made, from biodiversity (all living things) to geological features such as mountains, caves and cliffs. It also refers to ecosystems, which can be defined as:  “a community of living organisms in conjunction with the non-living components of their environment, interacting as a system”. Landscape is an area, perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors.

Resource Efficiency

Usually defined as: “using the Earth's limited resources in a sustainable manner while minimising impacts on the environment”, there are potentially significant environmental, economic and social benefits to be obtained from following this approach. Key elements in efforts to achieve resource efficiency include the appropriate application of the ‘waste hierarchy’ and the development of a circular economy, to ensure that the value of resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible and waste is minimised as a result.

Marine Environment

Northern Ireland’s marine area is 6855km2, around a third of Northern Ireland’s natural environment. The coast, and the seas around it, include highly productive and biologically diverse ecosystems, with features which serve as critical natural defences against storms, floods and erosion. This area supports tourism, recreation, aquaculture, fisheries, industry, commercial harbours and quays, as well as being used for power generation and the disposal of effluents from waste water treatment. DAERA has consulted on a draft Marine Plan for NI that will seek to provide a framework for the balanced and sustainable development of these activities.


Environmental Quality (Air, Water and Neighbourhood)

Environmental quality can be thought of as a set of properties or characteristics of the environment as they impinge on human beings and other organisms. For the purposes of this exercise, we are talking about a range of specific policy areas, including air, water and neighbourhood environmental quality. Neighbourhood environmental quality includes issues such as litter and dog fouling but also the quality of the built environment – dilapidation and neglect, for example.


Fisheries (Inland and Sea) and Aquaculture

Fisheries is a very broad policy area that includes inland, inshore and sea fishing, along with aquaculture, the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, molluscs and aquatic plants. Inshore and sea fishing, and aquaculture are largely commercial activities, important to the Northern Ireland economy, while inland fishing activities are generally for sport or recreation, but also economically important. DAERA also has an important role in the conservation and protection of fish stocks.


Built Environment

The term ‘built environment’ refers to aspects of our surroundings that are built by humans – i.e. distinguished from the natural environment. It includes not only buildings, but the human-made spaces between buildings, such as parks, and the infrastructure that supports human activity such as transportation networks, utilities networks, flood defences, telecommunications etc. It includes heritage buildings and monuments and encompasses policy areas such as planning, housing and regeneration.

3. Do you agree that these are appropriate strategic themes for the Environment Strategy for Northern Ireland?

We are keen to present a broad range of environmental policy areas through a number of themes that will properly highlight the importance of the environment, not just in terms of its intrinsic value but also to a wide range of social and economic issues to which it brings significant benefits.

At this stage the Department has developed 4 potential themes, which overlap to some extent:

Environmental Engagement

Environmental Prosperity

Environmental Efficiency

Environmental Quality

Further information on these themes is provided under Questions 5 - 8 below.

4. Do you have any comments on what specific issues should be included under a proposed Environmental Engagement strategic theme?

Environmental Engagement - More Information

Environmental Engagementwe are an integral part of nature, and reliant on nature to sustain life. We can positively impact nature as we engage with it, protecting, maintaining and enhancing a clean and healthy environment as we live, work and play. However we can cause harm to the environment, and this negative engagement is increasingly causing impacts to health, well-being and future sustainability.

Engagement or connection with the environment occurs on a number of levels and we are keen to identify these interactions and analyse how they can be best managed to maximise benefit to the environment, the public and business/industry.

This theme also encompasses issues such as:

  • education;
  • general public awareness;
  • the use of technology; and
  • DAERA’s Knowledge Advisory Service.

To their great credit, many younger people around the world are leading the way with their understanding of, and desire to protect, the environment. Programmes such as the international Eco-Schools initiative, which is part-funded by the department, have undoubtedly contributed to this positive attitude. The similar Eco-Campus programme is also now gaining traction at tertiary level. In developing the Environment Strategy we hope to offer continued support to existing initiatives but also to explore other ways in which environmental issues can be further integrated into the educational system.

However, having a focus on initiatives within the educational system and/or aimed at young people doesn’t mean we can ignore those in older generations. It is important to raise awareness of global, national and local environmental issues across all age groups as part of a behavioural science approach to achieving change across all parts of society.

Existing initiatives such as the Live Here, Love Here campaign and Best Kept Awards have played, and continue to play, an important role in engendering a sense of civic pride in communities and modifying attitudes and behaviours towards the environment, particularly at a local level.

5. Do you have any comments on what specific issues should be included under a proposed Environmental Prosperity strategic theme?

Environmental Prosperity - More Information

Environmental Prosperity – there is ample research evidence that most people see the natural environment as having intrinsic value. However, often a more effective argument for environmental protection and enhancement is the instrumental or economic value of the environment – i.e.  what it can provide or what further value can be gained from it.

A clean and healthy environment is hugely important to the economy in many ways – for example:

  • one of our largest industries, tourism, generated a spend of £939m in the local economy in 2017-18 and supports around 60,000 full and part-time jobs[1]. Not all of that spend can be attributed directly to the environment but it is a major factor in people deciding to spend time here, whether they are from here, the Republic of Ireland, Britain or further afield;
  • the agri-food sector is of huge importance to the Northern Ireland economy, far more so than in other parts of the UK, with agriculture contributing £644m to GVA figures in 2017 and food and drinks processing £827m[2]. There is a tremendously close, some would say symbiotic, relationship between the environment and the agri-food sector, each with the potential to significantly impact the other (both positively and negatively). The challenge, of course, is to ensure that both continue to thrive without detriment to the other.  The future strategic direction of agricultural and fisheries policy will be a significant factor to be taken into account when developing the NI Strategy, and vice versa;
  • the “Green Economy” is a term which means different things to different people but here we are talking about the economic opportunities afforded by the environment and the need to address environmental challenges, often in innovative ways. Renewable energy, eco-tourism, energy efficiency, recycling etc. are just some of the areas creating opportunities and challenges as we seek to improve our environmental performance and sustainability;
  • those pursuing leisure activities on land, water or in the air are heavily influenced by the state of our environment. These include such activities as: angling; cycling; walking; climbing; watersports; paragliding and many more. There are direct economic benefits from such activities (and costs too, in terms of environmental damage etc.) but also indirect economic benefits through, for example, increased levels of health and wellbeing, potentially leading to reduced healthcare costs.

Much of this proposed theme can be captured under the umbrella of ecosystem services, where the ecosystem provides a benefit (or benefits) just by existing in a clean and healthy state. In addition to those already mentioned above, other common examples of these ecosystem services include: carbon capture in soils and trees; healthy fish stocks; water filtration; and agricultural activities such as pollination and natural pest control.

Associated with ecosystem services is the concept of “natural capital”, our natural assets including forests, rivers, land, air, minerals and oceans. The value of our natural capital has traditionally been understated but the idea of placing a more accurate economic value on our natural resources is gaining traction and now features prominently in the UK Environmental Accounts although it is not yet possible to easily disaggregate the relevant local figures.

6. Do you have any comments on what specific issues should be included under a proposed Environmental Efficiency strategic theme?

Environmental Efficiency - More Information

Environmental Efficiency – there are a number of closely related ‘big picture’ issues to be considered under this theme. These include:

Climate Change – this is, of course, a global issue, requiring action at a number of levels. There is significant acceptance of the desirability of shifting towards a low-carbon economy.

There are particular challenges facing us in this regard as a result of the make-up of our economy, our geographical position and our reliance on fossil fuels, creating pressures from the agricultural, transport and energy supply sectors in particular. This is clearly reflected in the relative reductions in greenhouse gas emissions across the UK, where we fall well behind England and Scotland but compare with Wales.

Although not formally part of the recent UK Committee on Climate Change report, Net Zero: The UK's contribution to stopping global warming[1], Northern Ireland will have a contribution to make to overall UK targets. 

Of course, climate change is not just about the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. There is also a need to address the issue of adapting to the impacts of climate change and, to this end, DAERA is currently developing the 2nd Northern Ireland Climate Change Adaptation Programme, setting out its strategic direction and objectives and establishing a range of adaptation actions for the next five years. 

Resource Efficiency – is commonly defined as: “Using the Earth's limited resources in a sustainable manner while minimising impacts on the environment”. This is something that applies across all sectors and touches on the remits of other departments – energy, planning, built environment etc.

We depend on natural resources, such as metals, minerals, fuel, water, land, clean air and biodiversity to survive. All of these things, and more, keep our economy functioning. Increasing resource efficiency brings economic opportunities and boosts competitiveness, thereby helping to secure growth and jobs. Continuing our current pattern of resource use is not an option[2] and maintaining a focus on the Waste Hierarchy as a key policy driver is essential to maintain progress on our journey towards minimising waste.

Circular Economy – supporting the shift to a low carbon economy and improved resource efficiency is the development of what is described in the EU action plan for the circular economy[3] as a system “…where the value of products, materials, and resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible, and the generation of waste is minimised…”.

There are six important elements that are common to both resource efficiency and the circular economy:

  • Raw inputs into the economy. These usually include raw materials and may also include land and water.
  • Wealth or wellbeing are the results of the exploitation of natural resources, often measured through economic output metrics.
  • Environmental impacts range from toxic air emissions and water pollution to forest degradation and climate change.
  • Finite natural environment describes ecosystems and their limited capacity to deliver their services under increasing pressures.
  • Inefficiencies (losses) occur between raw inputs and economic outputs across the value chain and lead to waste.
  • Loops between inputs and outputs reflect circulation of materials back into the value chain or, for some organic materials, back to their origin instead of being lost as waste[4].
There are very real challenges for policymakers with regard to unintended consequences and the potential trade-off between environmental, social and economic outcomes.
Sustainable Production and Consumption can be defined as: production and use of products and services in a manner that is socially beneficial, economically viable and environmentally benign over their whole life cycle.

This aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) published in September 2015[5], particularly Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Although the UN SDGs are a global initiative, there is a recognition that they need to be progressed at a local level, generally referred to as “localising the SDGs”.

This goal is very much at the heart of the Environmental Efficiency theme and what we, in DAERA, are striving to achieve through policy interventions in respect of: resource efficiency; the circular economy; producer responsibility; food waste; waste management; climate action; agricultural subsidies; recycling; efficient farming; fisheries; procurement etc. but of course other departments have their parts to play too.

7. Do you have any comments on what specific issues should be included under a proposed Environmental Quality strategic theme?

Environmental Quality - More Information

Environmental Quality – While many aspects of environmental quality have a long term or cumulative effect, others have a more immediate impact on health and wellbeing, environmental justice and economic prosperity. That does not, however, mean that they are always easily visible or simple to deal with.

DAERA's annual Environmental Statistics Report[1] provides a wealth of data across a range of policy areas. There is a vast array of data contained within this report but the department recognises that additional metrics may need to be developed to appropriately monitor environmental performance in light of the final content of the Environment Strategy.

Some of the specific environmental quality issues that we would expect the strategy to cover include:

Air Quality – the main air quality issues prevalent in Northern Ireland are:

  • Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), which is produced as a result of road traffic and other combustion processes, and is known to irritate lungs and lower resistance to respiratory infections. 
  • Particulate Matter (e.g. PM10), again largely produced by road transport and other combustion processes, these fine particles can be carried into the lungs where they can cause inflammation and may also carry surface-absorbed carcinogenic compounds.
  • Ammonia, which arises mainly from agricultural practices (although there are other sources), as an air pollutant impacts on human health mainly by contributing to the formation of particulate matter but also significantly affects biodiversity through deposition.

Environmental Noise – one of the environmental issues most commonly complained about, statistics are published annually for Northern Ireland. In 2016/17 over 12,000 separate complaints were made across these categories, with around 80% relating to domestic noise.

Biodiversity – this includes the full range of life on Earth – all species of plants and animals and the complex ecosystems of which they are part.
Although the focus on biodiversity actions is often on protected species and habitats, it is not just the rare or endangered that need to be protected and enhanced – it’s all of the natural world, from the commonplace to the critically endangered. The designation and management of protected sites is a key tool in our efforts to halt biodiversity loss on land and sea but so too are broader initiatives in respect of the natural environment.

Land Quality – Land use, for agriculture, industry, leisure, transport and residential purposes is central to each of our daily lives. In a relatively small area with many competing priorities, great care must be taken to ensure we get the balance right, allowing our people to prosper socially and economically, while at the same time preserving and enhancing our environment. These are not separate issues – they are intertwined and interdependent.
How we use our land can have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions but also provides us with the natural means to store carbon through, for example, healthy peatlands and forestry.
There are still too many who see our beautiful land as simply an opportunity for economic gain, through fly-tipping, illegal landfilling, fuel laundering and other activities. High profile, large scale cases like the illegal dumping at Mobuoy make the headlines but there are many other smaller scale incidents that impact the environment and local communities that are not so widely reported.

Water Quality – fresh water is essential for all life – humans, animals, and plant life cannot survive without it. We use water to drink, prepare food, help with sanitation, and for agricultural and industrial purposes. However, water is a finite natural resource that needs to be respected and used efficiently, with a minimum of waste.

The aquatic environment, freshwater and marine, are key ecosystems in themselves and are also a hugely important and valuable resource for recreation, leisure and tourism as well as providing an important source of food through fishing and aquaculture activities.

The key legislative instruments in this area (although there are others) are the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), which require the protection and improvement of all aspects of the water environment including rivers, lakes, estuaries, marine and coastal waters and groundwater. In basic terms the Directives require EU Member States to try to ensure that all inland and coastal waters reach at least “good status” and our seas meet “good environmental status”. The most significant water quality issue militating against achievement of these requirements at the moment is nutrient enrichment, the main cause of which is run-off from agricultural land.

Neighbourhood Quality – covers a wide range of local environmental issues, including: litter; dog-fouling; environmental noise; dilapidation; graffiti; and fly-posting, which can contribute to a loss of amenity for residents and visitors, and a range of social and economic problems, such as anti-social behaviour, reduced trade and tourism, and health issues. The maintenance of attractive and successful places in which people are happy to live, work and visit is therefore very important and should help to move Northern Ireland towards greater economic, social and environmental prosperity.
Litter (much of it single-use plastic) and dog-fouling are often the local environmental quality issues most visible to members of the public. However, these are not simply aesthetic issues – there are obvious human health implications from dog fouling and, to a lesser extent from litter pollution. However, litter pollution also impacts negatively on the natural environment as programmes such as Blue Planet II have highlighted. There are also financial implications; research shows that there are direct costs accrued from removing litter pollution and indirect costs as a result of impact on brand value, refuse fires, loss of material resource and amenity value etc.
We do not yet have a litter strategy for Northern Ireland although we do have a Marine Litter Strategy. The Marine Litter Strategy[2] acknowledges that approximately 80% of marine litter comes from land based sources and provides a targeted approach to addressing the problem. 
Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful gathers data on a range of local environmental quality indicators which are collated in an annual Cleaner Neighbourhoods Report[3] and the Marine Litter Survey which reports on litter levels observed on a number of reference beaches.


8. What do you see as the main environmental governance priorities for Northern Ireland?

Environmental Governance - More Information

Environmental governance (how we manage protection and enhancement of the environment) is an issue that has generated a long-running debate here, focused largely on whether we should have an independent environmental protection agency. While there is support for an independent agency, responses to the most recent discussion document on environmental governance[1] indicated a widely held view amongst stakeholders that the focus should be on environmental outcomes rather than simply changing delivery structures.

It follows that the development of an environment strategy is one of the ways in which we are seeking to achieve this. There are many strongly held views on the pros and cons of such a step and it may be that the issue of governance structures will need to be considered again once the potential impacts of Brexit become clearer.

However, the concept of environmental governance encompasses a great deal more than structural issues and includes:

  • a strategic vision for the environment;
  • the development of appropriate policy;
  • implementation of that policy;
  • better regulation;
  • personnel issues (training, development, motivation etc.);
  • the environmental justice agenda;
  • knowledge management and communication.

Brexit has also brought other governance issues to the fore, such as the potential need for: (a) enhanced North/South environmental protection arrangements; and (b) some form of independent environmental oversight body when we leave the EU. On the latter, the UK Government plans to establish an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which is intended to have statutory roles in respect of monitoring, reporting and adjudicating on the environmental performance of public bodies. The proposed OEP will be separate from, and perform a different role than, the Environment Agency in England. Should a future Minister decide that the functions of the OEP should extend to Northern Ireland, it would not replace any of NIEA’s duties or responsibilities. 

Of particular relevance to the Environment Strategy are the proposals that:

  • the OEP’s duties should include monitoring and reporting on the UK Government’s progress against its 25-year plan for the environment; and
  • that the UK Government’s 25 year plan for the environment should be given a statutory footing.

In both cases it will be for a future DAERA Minister to decide if similar provisions should apply here.

[1] Discussion Document on  Environmental Governance in Northern Ireland – Synopsis of Responses

9. Do you agree that these are appropriate draft outcomes for the Environment Strategy for Northern Ireland?

These are merely suggestions to start a discussion - no outcomes are determined yet.

The 6 suggested draft outcomes are:

  • We achieve zero waste and a well-developed circular economy
  • Everyone can access and is connected to a healthy environment
  • We have reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved climate resilience
  • Biodiversity loss halted, ecosystems in a healthy state, and well managed landscapes
  • We achieve sustainable consumption and production on land and sea
  • We have excellent air, water, land and neighbourhood quality

The graphic below shows how these draft outcomes relate to the DAERA vision: A living, working, active landscape, valued by everyone, and a number of relevant PfG outcomes.

Draft Outcomes Graphic

10. What are your big ideas for the future protection and enhancement of the environment?

Big Ideas - More Information

An all-encompassing Environment Strategy for Northern Ireland is a big deal – it will potentially sit alongside existing high-level strategies endorsed by the NI Executive and will set the tone for environmental protection and improvement for decades to come.

As preparations continue to leave the EU, the development of this Strategy provides us all with the opportunity to shape environmental engagement, prosperity, efficiency and quality for our future generations.

Big strategies need big ideas and this public discussion is your opportunity to suggest what those big ideas should be. We are placing no restrictions on those ideas at this stage – it might be that not all of them will be feasible but we are committed to considering them all in the context of an open and inclusive discussion on the future of our environment.

All of the inputs we receive will be carefully considered and analysed and developed into firm policy proposals to be consulted on under the direction of a future Minister.

11. Do you have any other comments or contributions?