AFTER two weeks, one of the world’s largest ever environmental events has finished and the question now is – what’s next?
COP26 pulled together world leaders, governments and officials, stakeholders and industry leaders to pause, reflect and work together to chart the way forward to deal with the ever-increasing problem of climate change. The challenges we all face are well documented, complex and internationally linked.
I spent a number of days at the event, meeting with leaders from across the world as well as hearing from experts, stakeholders, ENGOs and those working in businesses.
It was an important and unique opportunity to listen, as well as showcase the positive action being taken forward in Northern Ireland to tackle climate change to the world – including what our businesses are doing and what we as an Executive are doing.
The energy and enthusiasm for change from everyone I met at the two-week event was not only encouraging, it was inspiring – but we must capture that momentum and ensure that our actions speak even louder than our words.
Northern Ireland may be small in global terms, but we have a substantial part to play in helping to make our planet healthier – and it starts at home. Since coming into office in 2020, I’ve progressed a number of initiatives that have environmental considerations.
I launched the Forests for our Future programme, which pledges to help tackle climate change by planting 18 million trees over the next 10 years – 10 for every person in Northern Ireland. This includes reopening two forest grant schemes designed to support farmers and other private and public landowners to plant new woodland. These will benefit individuals, community and society by contributing to a healthy, quality environment, and capture carbon from the atmosphere as they grow for future generations.
I published the DAERA Science Strategy Framework, which will
guide and direct how the depart-ment will utilise science over the next 15 years in delivering services, and also launched the department’s Innovation Strategy 2021-2025, which
aims to develop an innovation eco-system.
I announced DAERA’s plan to 2050, which sets out the long term vision to ensure Northern Ireland has a healthy environment, healthy economy and healthy population. I also recently launched the new Future Agricultural Policy Framework Portfolio for Northern Ireland, which aims to boost efficiency and resilience whilst enabling a decrease in the agri-food industry’s environmental footprint and creating the means to enhance our natural assets and address climate change. I will soon launch a consultation into the details of this framework.
In addition to what we’ve launched, we’ve also consulted on a range of other upcoming strategies such as the NI’s first Clean Air Strategy discussion document, the draft Northern Ireland Peatland Strategy 2021-2040, the draft Northern Ire-land Food Strategy Framework and a Call for Evidence on a Plan to Eliminate Plastic Pollution. Work on these consultations is progressing at pace.
We’ve also issued millions of pounds worth of funding via the Environmental Farming Scheme, the Environment Challenge Fund, the Small Woodland Grant Scheme and the Environment Fund.
So what’s next? Well, here in Northern Ireland there have been a number of developments and announcements over the last few weeks and months that will help us to navigate our way forward. One of the most significant was the launch of the Executive’s draft Green Growth Strategy.
This cross-cutting multi-decade strategy will set out the long-term vision and a solid framework for tackling the climate crisis by balancing climate action with a clean environment and the economy. It would ensure that new policies and programmes align with the need to address climate change, develop green jobs and address biodiversity commitments.
The other significant development was my draft Climate Change Bill passing its second stage in the Assembly – based in science and evidence, my Bill will strike the right balance between safeguarding the environment, the economy and society.
Northern Ireland will play its full part in reaching the wider UK targets reach UK net zero by 2050, if not before. We’ve set ambitious targets and plans, but I’m also aware of the fact that technological advances over the next decade may in fact help us to move quicker on those targets to cut carbon emissions by at least 82 per cent by 2050. If the science, innovation and expert advice allows, I will seek to go further.
Just last week at COP26 I also launched a consultation on Northern Ireland’s first ever Environment Strategy. This strategy will form the basis for a coherent and effective set of interventions that can deliver real improvements in the quality of our environment.
This will also improve the health and well-being of all who live and work here; create opportunities to develop our economy; ele-vate Northern Ireland to an environmental leader; and enable us to play our part in protecting the global environment for many decades to come.
There is no doubt that the journey ahead will be hugely challenging and complex for individuals, bus-inesses and governments.
On the one hand, we all understand the urgency that’s needed to tackle this issue and the commitment it is going to take, however the road ahead is a long one and it will require step change and strong leadership from civic and political representatives.
It will mean a period of transition and change for us all. How we heat our homes, how we travel, how our food is produced and how we treat our planet must change and progress if we are to make a difference.
You can see that the various initiatives, programmes and pol-icies we’ve put in place give us an excellent blueprint to move forward. We are also working with other departments and agencies on key areas such as energy, transport and housing, all of which are vital components in our battle against climate change and I very much welcome this.
With collaboration, the political will and by working together with stakeholders and industry, Northern Ireland can meaningfully contribute to the wider fight against climate change.
I was very proud to attend COP26 as DAERA Minister and be able to outline this substantial body of work which has been developing under my stewardship to help future generations fight climate change.