Northern Ireland launches consultation on first ever environment strategy

Northern Ireland’s environment minister has launched a consultation on a draft environmental strategy which will become the document against which the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will monitor green progress when the new watchdog becomes fully functional in the province.

The draft strategy, which was published this week for consultation, sets out Northern Ireland’s environmental priorities for the coming decades and includes a mix of both existing and new environmental targets.

The Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) says the strategy is intended to be a “high-level, executive-endorsed strategy that will sit alongside both new and existing strategies”. 

“For a high-level environment strategy to be meaningful it is essential that it is ambitious in terms of its breadth and depth. The strategy aims to focus on ambitious outcomes for the big environmental issues facing us that will make a difference to the lives and well-being of current and future generations,” the department said.

The section of the Environment Act which establishes the OEP as a formal legal entity is expected to be commenced in the coming days, however the watchdog cannot become fully functional in Northern Ireland until the move is approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The draft strategy says that while the provisions of the Environment Act do not require the strategy to become Northern Ireland’s first environmental improvement plan, it will be formally adopted as such either when the strategy is published, or when the relevant provision of the bill is commenced – whichever is later.

Monitoring progress against the plan will form one of the OEP’s statutory functions.

The minister for DAERA, Edwin Poots, announced the consultation during his visit to the COP26 summit in Glasgow.

Poots said: “This strategy will provide a coherent response to the global challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change, which have been addressed at this important conference over the past two weeks.” 

He said that Northern Ireland faced a range of local environmental challenges, including “habitat and species loss, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, waste management, the development of a circular economy, soil quality, air quality and waste crime”. 

Poots added that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU “provided new environmental opportunities and, “as environmental degradation poses an increasing challenge to all parts of our globe, there is a clear impetus for the first long-term, overarching environment strategy for Northern Ireland”.

The consultation will run until 18 January 2022 and is open to anyone who wishes to comment.