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I am very pleased to open today’s Shared Island Dialogue, looking at how we protect our shared environment on the island of Ireland and how best we can work together, North and South, to address the climate and biodiversity crises we face.
As the Taoiseach set out in launching the Government’s Shared Island initiative last October, central to our Shared Island approach is working with the Northern Ireland Executive and the British Government to address shared strategic challenges, in ambitious and effective partnership, founded on the Good Friday Agreement.
There is no greater and more common challenge we face on the island, than tackling the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis, with the urgency, resolve and solidarity it demands.
Civic engagement is of course fundamental to developing effective, holistic and just approaches to our environmental challenges.
Today’s Dialogue provides a forum to consider, with a shared island perspective, what we need to do to meet the generational challenges we face on our environment.
It is brilliant to see such a wide range of representatives, from North and South - from civil society and academia, in enterprise and agriculture, and from environmental and sustainable development agencies, participating today.
I know that most of you already work and cooperate effectively in a range of ways on a cross-border basis, both North/South and East-West.
For instance, there is vibrant engagement among environmental NGOs right across the island, and I want to acknowledge the contribution of Northern Ireland Environment Link and the Environmental Pillar to the preparation of today’s Dialogue.
Today is an opportunity to share experience and suggestions on what works, what more could be done together and where we could learn from each other on the island - in government, in research, and in our economy and society - to protect our shared environment.
I and my Government colleagues will listen to and take account of today’s Dialogue, as we seek meaningful and effective shared island approaches across our climate, biodiversity and environmental policies, working in cooperation with the Executive and British Government.
And we approach this with the benefit of the strong record and relationships that have been built up in government and civil society through the framework of the Good Friday Agreement since 1998.
Through the North South Ministerial Council and the North South Implementation Bodies, we’ve had important and effective cooperation over the last two decades on environmental issues, ranging from aquaculture and clean air, to water quality and waste management.
Since the resumption of NSMC meetings last year, I and my colleagues in Government has had constructive engagement with our counterpart Ministers in the Executive, including on ensuring that shared priorities across the two administrations are reflected in our work programmes at the Council.
Up to now, cooperation on the implementation of common European Union policies and funding programmes has been a central area of work at the NSMC, not least in the Environment sector.
Now, post-Brexit we need to ensure that we continue in that shared endeavour, with an equally ambitious and effective programme of environmental cooperation for the years ahead - through the NSMC, as well as the British Irish Council and bilaterally – and focused on the critical and pressing challenges we face on climate, biodiversity and in other areas.
With the breadth of environmental cooperation that we have developed on the island in recent years in a range of ways, I believe that we can achieve that.
For instance, on biodiversity, supported by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC) has developed an online invasive species database that allows for sightings of invasive species, North or South, to be reported, providing a critically important monitoring and control function.
Similarly, on protection of species and habitats, our protective regime for birds is based on an all island, bio-geographic approach and the surveys of wintering waterbirds are carried out by a large and dedicated volunteer workforce on both sides of the border, with the results compiled together for maximum value.
This is the kind of broad-based collaboration - involving government, agencies, researchers, and civil society - that makes the difference.
Where we achieve far more together than we could separately on the island.
We need to be ambitious and strategic in working to deepen cooperation across government and society on the island, if we are to meet the scale and urgency of the challenges that the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis presents.
On climate, the Paris Agreement is of course our common framework for action, North and South on the island of Ireland, as it is around the world.
And in November, the UK will host the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26), which will set the course for climate mitigation efforts globally, in the next pivotal period for our planet and our future.
For Ireland, the Government is firmly committed to achieving an average 7% per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030, and to net zero emissions by 2050.
A key aspect of delivering this commitment is setting our 2050 target in law through the Climate Action Bill, which has been recently published and which, once enacted, will significantly strengthen the governance structure to support Ireland's response to the climate challenge.
At EU level, the European Green Deal and digitalization will generate green growth and jobs, enhance the resilience of our societies and the health of our environment, and keep the EU as a whole on track towards a climate-neutral Europe by 2050.
As we progress these comprehensive climate measures, we want to deepen our partnership and cooperation with the Executive in Northern Ireland and with the UK Government, where comparable concerted actions are being taken
There are a range of areas on climate, where a more coordinated or cooperative approach on the island could bring gains, for instance potentially on sustainable energy practices and renewable energy generation, and on further development of the bio-economy.
As part of our Shared Island initiative, the Government is commissioning research that will be published on the opportunities for deepening cooperation on the island.
As part of this research programme, I welcome and commend the first consultation paper that the National Economic and Social Council have prepared on climate and biodiversity issues on the island, which is an input for today’s Dialogue. I encourage you all to engage with the consultation that NESC are running in the weeks ahead on this paper, which will contribute to the Council’s final report to the Government later this year.
Importantly also, as part of the funding and cooperation by the EU, Ireland, UK Government and the Executive on the PEACE PLUS Programme, there will be a strong thematic focus on supporting a sustainable future on the island of Ireland, with funding supports in a range of areas including on biodiversity and resilience, marine and coastal management, water quality and sustainable transport.
And alongside PEACE PLUS, the Government in Budget 2021 announced our Shared Island Fund, with €500m in capital funding being made available over the next five years, ring-fenced for collaborative North/South investments, to be made in line with our Programme for Government commitments and priorities, including on environmental protection and sustainable development.
At present, North and South, we are striving to overcome the terrible toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on lives and livelihoods, families and communities.
As we look to rebuilding, it is crucial that we make structural changes that will break the link between fossil fuels and economic progress. We must embed climate resilience as part of the recovery.
Our collective recovery from the pandemic offers a window of opportunity to modernise and strengthen policies, to provide an historic boost to transition to climate neutrality in 2050 as we are committed to, North and South, and at EU and UK levels.
So, we are at a significant moment on the island of Ireland, both in terms of the acute environmental, climactic and public health challenges we face, but also in the opportunity that there is now to work together in new and more ambitious ways through the framework of the Good Friday Agreement to address these shared challenges.
Today’s Shared Island Dialogue on the Environment is a timely and important opportunity for the Government to hear from you:
- on how we could address the climate and biodiversity crises more effectively on the island;
- how we harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement institutions to protect our shared environment in the years ahead;
- and how in wider civic society we can engage to ensure that we pass on to our children and grandchildren the priceless environment and natural heritage of our shared island.
I look forward to hearing from all of you today and to working with you as we address these demands of our time together.