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New Citizens' Assembly on biodiversity loss officially launched at first meeting today

Over the next six months, a citizens’ assembly will hear evidence and made recommendations for the good of Ireland’s biodiversity.

A Eurasian jay in the Cooley Mountains, Co Louth
A Eurasian jay in the Cooley Mountains, Co Louth
Image: Alamy

Updated May 14th 2022, 7:25 PM

DR AOIBHINN NÍ Shúilleabháin, chair of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, officially opened the assembly’s six-month programme today, calling for people to help confront Ireland’s climate and biodiversity emergency that was declared in 2019. 

The new citizens’ assembly met in person for the first time today to begin its work forming recommendations on how Ireland can tackle biodiversity loss.

“The more engagement that we have from people and communities all across the country – young and old, urban and rural – the better informed and richer our recommendations to the Oireachtas will be,” she said, speaking at the event today.

Over the next six months, 99 randomly selected citizens and Ní Shúilleabháin will convene regularly to hear from experts and ultimately send recommendations to Government on how to restore biodiversity and prevent further loss.

The long-awaited assembly, first put forward in 2019 as the government declared a biodiversity emergency, is meeting physically today at Dublin Castle for the first time after formally launching its term last month. 

Speaking to The Journal, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin, who addressed the assembly today as its chair, said that “in and of itself, [biodiversity] sounds like a very simple term, but actually, once you start looking at it, it’s such a broad spectrum of areas and issues”.

“We’re going to be beginning our conversation with the assembly on defining what biodiversity is and framing biodiversity loss, because we’ve got to have a look at what the problem is before we can think about tackling it,” she said.

“We’ve been tasked with the question of how does Ireland tackle the issue of biodiversity loss, so I think from the outset that that puts us in a position where we’re taking it that we have a crisis of biodiversity loss, that we’re acknowledging it’s a problem.”

We’ll be talking about our forests, we’ll be talking about our country landscapes, we’ll be talking about our peatlands, we’ll be talking about our rivers and our estuaries and we’ll be talking about the seas around Ireland.

“That includes all of the wildlife and all of the flora involved in all of that as well. That’s why it’s so complex. Once you start scratching the surface, there’s so many different issues.”

Cabinet signed off on the establishment of the biodiversity assembly, alongside an assembly about local governance in Dublin, in February, taking an unprecedented step to hold two assemblies concurrently.

Both assemblies were launched at a mostly-online meeting last month, where the Taoiseach told members over a video address that “once again, we are at an important moment in the political and democratic life of this country”.

In 2019, the Irish government declared a climate and biodiversity emergency and passed an amendment calling for a citizens’ assembly, which has now been formed nearly three years later.

The biodiversity assembly will consider the threats of biodiversity loss and how to reverse it; the main causes and impacts of biodiversity loss; and how to improve the government’s response and measure progress.

Dr Ní Shúilleabháin outlined that the assembly’s first step will be defining biodiversity and biodiversity loss to understand the complexity of the problem.

“After that, in June, we’ll be taking field trips to a couple of different locations and we’ll be looking at marine, we’ll be looking at agriculture and freshwater to get a handle on biodiversity in these fields.

“Then, come September, that’s when some of the nitty gritty work will be happening. We’ll be hearing from experts, we’ll be hearing from advocates, voluntary groups, interest groups and stakeholders.

220323_NCP3_038 (1) Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin Source: Naoise Culhane

“We’re going to hear all the voices, from those who think we’re not doing enough and from those who think we can’t do any more unless we want to risk damaging the economy and things like that,” she said.

“The whole job of the citizens’ assembly as an exercise in deliberative democracy is making sure that the 100 members of the assembly are making informed decisions on the recommendations that we’ll make to government. That’s what we’re embarking on: a lot of learning, a lot of listening and a lot of conversation.

“We will be listening to voices from around the world but also from the ground in Ireland. There are a lot of people who are really in tune with what’s happening in the landscape in Ireland and we want to be very respectful of that.

“Farmers are working on the lands day in, day out… they know what’s happening and I want to make sure that we’re listening to their input as much as we’re listening to other experts from around the world.”

Biodiversity loss is caused by factors like overexploitation of natural resources, habitat loss, and the climate crisis.

With every tenth of a degree that global temperatures rise, threats to species and ecosystems in oceans, coastal regions and on land also increase, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced significantly and urgently to thwart putting animals and plant life into unlivable conditions. Already, local extinctions caused by climate crisis are widespread, and consequences of rising temperatures such as heatwaves, sea-level rise and coral reef bleaching are detrimental to biodiversity.

On top of climate change, other human activities, like overexploiting resources with a lack of respect for the natural environment, are driving biodiversity loss.

“The climate crisis is something that has been very much highlighted in terms of extreme weather that we’ve been seeing. Biodiversity loss is like a quieter crisis, because you don’t necessarily tune into it or hear about it unless something terrible is happening, like animals being on the verge of extinction,” Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said.

“Biodiversity is key in linking into the climate crisis, because when we lose biodiversity, it does make us more susceptible to things like flooding, various kinds of erosion, things like that. It’s all interlinked.”

A recent survey by the Office of Public Works (OPW) found that 90% of respondents wanted to play a part in improving Irish biodiversity, but 56% were unsure about what can be done. 

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Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said it will be important that the recommendations provided to the government at the end of the assembly’s term on how to act against biodiversity loss are put into practice.

“What I’m hopeful for is that the recommendations that we decide on will be something that will be taken seriously by government and will be actionable. I consider that part of my role as chair to make sure that when we present them, we present them in a way that they won’t be ignored,” the assembly’s chair said.

“I don’t want them to be left on the shelf,” she said.

We won’t know what they are until the end of the year, but whatever those recommendations are, I will work really hard to make sure that our politicians understand why those decisions have emerged and to make sure that they are acted on because that’s the purpose of these.

She said: “This whole exercise in deliberative democracy is something that I feel strengthens democracy, because you’re bringing in people who are representing the whole country.”

“It’s actually far more inclusive and diverse than you would find in any parliament, because the 100 people that we have are reflective of our population according to CSO statistics.

“We have people who are not necessarily registered voters but are people who live in Ireland, we have farmers, we have people who haven’t necessarily been born in Ireland, we’re representing 18 to 24-year-olds, we also have lots of retirees.

“This is a broad spectrum of people that will represent the country and they will make informed decisions on the recommendations that we agree on. I think in and of itself, that’s something to be really proud of.”

Members of the public with views about the topic can submit their thoughts over social media on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok or on the citizens’ assembly website.

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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