Members of the MKO Environmental team attended the Environment Ireland Conference in Croke Park, Dublin on the 14th – 15th September 2023.
The conference included focussed sessions on environmental policy, sustainability, circular economy and resource management, biodiversity, climate, water, and planning and the environment.
The conference had a strong focus on circular economy in order to extend the life cycle of our products and reduce our consumption of resources. International speakers covered topics which included European environmental priorities (European Commission), the role of public sector leadership in tackling the nature and climate emergencies (Natural Resources Wales), the global challenges and the sustainable development goals (Institute for European Environmental Policy) and implementing the circular economy (University of Brighton).
There was also emphasis placed on the importance of a cross-border approach to environmental protection, with Kevin Hegarty of the Department of Agriculture, Environmental and Rural Affairs speaking on the climate action policy in Northern Ireland, Eimear Montague from the Northern Ireland Resources Network displaying excellent examples of communities growing the circular economy, Mike Savage outlining Derry and Strabane’s green infrastructure plan, and Peter McEvoy of Ulster Wildlife making up the discussion panel on “Responding to Ireland’s biodiversity emergency”.
Patrick Child, deputy director-general at the European Commission’s directorate general for research and innovation, spoke about European environmental priorities, in particular the EU strategy for textiles and the European Commission’s new rules on packaging to cut plastic and packaging waste. He also spoke of the flexibility given to Ireland on rewetting degraded peatland, where Ireland would be allowed to use more peat extraction sites and State-owned land for rewetting rather than agriculture land on peatland.
The Minister of State with responsibility for Communication and Circular Economy, Ossian Smyth, praised the town of Killarney for acting on their initiative and banning disposable coffee cups without requiring governmental input. Minister Symth highlighted that 500,000 disposable coffee cups a day end up in Ireland’s landfills or incinerators, and that the introduction of a levy on single-use disposable cups will be to incentivise people to choose to re-use, much like the plastic bag levy which was introduced in 2001. Minister Symth also announced that a Deposit Return Scheme will be launched in Ireland on the 1st of February 2024, where PET plastic bottles and aluminium cans will be returned, along with a deposit paid at the time of purchase. There are concerns, however, surrounding complications and potential exploitation that may arise if this scheme is not implemented as part of an all-island approach. The Minister briefly spoke of the delays in obtaining Waste and Industrial Emissions Directive licences from the EPA and how he was looking at changes to the licensing laws that would allow parallel planning and licensing applications to occur.
Imelda Hurley, CEO of Coillte, highlighted the company’s objectives for Climate, Nature, Wood, and People, outlining 11 ambitions, including redesigning 30,000 ha of peatlands by 2050, creating 1 Gigawatt of renewable energy by 2030, restoring 30% of its lands for nature by 2025, constructing 80% of new homes with timber frames by 2050, and investing €100 million in visitor destinations by 2030, for example.
Lucy Gaffney from Business for Biodiversity Ireland led the panel discussion on Responding to Ireland’s Biodiversity Emergency, with her presentation on “The Journey to Nature Positive: Driving the transition to a nature positive Ireland”. Lucy stated that there is no Net Zero without Nature Positive, outlining that:
- Policy and regulation are key elements of a successful transition;
- Business has both the opportunity and the responsibility to lead in co-creating the roadmaps to system transformation;
- Adopting best practices regarding nature is a critical responsibility;
- Creating partnerships can tip markets and value chains toward nature positive models; and
- Innovation needs to be at the centre of the transformation.
The second day of the conference opened with talks focusing on climate change policy, litigation, and the link between tourism and climate change. The second set of talks focused on how climate change will impact young people, the implications of climate change, and the outlook.
Paul Kelly of Fáilte Ireland spoke about driving climate action in tourism. He spoke extensively about the link between aviation, transportation, and the consumption of goods and services (accommodation and food) associated with tourism in Ireland to climate change. He highlighted several businesses, such as Hotel Doolin in Co. Clare, which is carbon neutral and Airfield Estate, an agritourism site in Dublin, which has invested in sustainable farming/gardening methods like accelerated aerobic digestion and rainwater harvesting. Furthermore, Kelly also spoke about the EU Just Transition Fund, which is intended to support communities affected by the transition to climate neutrality.
The conference then broke into two parallel sessions, one covering Planning and the Environment, and the other focussing on Water.
During the Planning and the Environment breakout session, a primary focus was on sustainable planning, legislation, and the role of public participation in environmental assessment and plan-making. Gavin Smith, Scientific Officer in Earth Observation and Spatial Analysis for the EPA spoke about the development of a national land cover map based on 2018 data. It is intended to be used as a tool to improve monitoring and assessment of impacts and benefits for the environment, and to inform sustainable land management. The map will be made available online in 2024, as part of the Open Data Directive. Mike Savage, a Green Infrastructure Project Development Officer for Derry City and Strabane District Council, spoke extensively about green infrastructure plans and initiatives within Northern Ireland.
Ainhoa Gonzalez Del Campo, an Associate Professor for the University College Dublin, highlighted the importance of public participation in strategic environmental assessment and planning. In collaboration with the EPA and Office of the Planning Regulator, her team created guidance notes and an informative video which will be made available to the public in order to spread awareness and increase understanding of the SEA (Strategic Environmental Assessment) process. Her research also involved testing new SEA practices, including meetings and neighbourhood walks with planners, consultants, and local residents to engage the public in the SEA process prior to the planning stage. The session concluded with a presentation by Paul O’Neil, a Principal Officer in the Planning Advisory Division of the Department of the Environment, Climate, and Communications. His talk focused on achieving climate goals through sustainable planning and tied in earlier conversations on the role of public participation in the planning process, specifically regarding renewable energy.
During the Water breakout session, the latest concerns on water quality in Ireland were discussed. Eimear Cotter from the EPA gave an update on the water quality monitoring programme. Approximately 60% of surface water and groundwater bodies in Ireland are now monitored. As of 2021, the year when water quality results were last published, 54% or our water bodies were considered of ‘High’ or ‘Good’ condition. Although we are above the EU average of 44% for waterbodies considered to be in satisfactory (i.e., ‘High’ or ‘Good’) condition, progress has been slow in recent years. High nutrient levels are still very problematic in Irish rivers, especially Nitrogen levels in the southeast of the country. Cotter stated that agriculture is responsible for approximately 90% of this nitrogen excess in the southeast. This is a rather stark statistic in light of the ongoing debate on Ireland’s EU nitrates derogation renegotiation.
Dr. Tríona McGrath of The Water Forum was another notable speaker in this session. The Water Forum, comprising stakeholders from 13 different areas, play a statutory advisory role giving policy advice to the government. McGrath highlighted how 99.7% of Ireland’s potable drinking water supply is in compliance with acceptable levels. She explained how (in spite of all of our rain) 58% of our water supply zones in Ireland have a supply demand deficit risk, with the midlands and east worst affected. Population increase and climate change were mentioned as potential concerns which may lead to further challenges to water supply here.