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Citizens' assembly on biodiversity loss had 'no urban-rural divide' in forming recommendations

The Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action met this morning to hear from members of last year’s Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss.

THE CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY on Biodiversity Loss that brought 99 citizens together across several months last year saw varying opinions brought to the table but with no “urban-rural divide”, a committee has heard today.

A day before the Dáil returns to session after the summer recess, the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action has sat today to begin its work considering the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss.

“A recurring theme across the work of the assembly was the failure of the state to implement its own laws with regards to nature and members have emphasised the progress that can be made by enacting current legislation and policies,” assembly chair Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin has told the committee of TDs and senators. 

Biodiversity loss refers to the growing number of animals and plants that are becoming extinct at an accelerating pace due to factors like overexploitation, habitat loss, and the climate crisis.

The government declared a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019 and passed an amendment calling for a citizens’ assembly, though it took nearly three years for the assembly to be convened.

It finally met last year to 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.

Several months of discussions and hearing from experts culminated in members voting on more than 100 recommendations.

The assembly’s conclusions included that the State has “comprehensively failed” on biodiversity to date and a proposal to call for a referendum for a Constitutional amendment about biodiversity protection received 83% support.

Anne Jones and Patrick Joyce, two of the citizens who were randomly selected to receive an invitation to participate in the assembly, came before the assembly this morning alongside Dr Ní Shúilleabháin, who chaired the assembly’s meetings, and members of an expert advisory group.

Speaking to the committee, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin said that “at the heart of the work of this citizens’ assembly was a realisation that a breakdown between humanity and the natural world such as we’re seeing today puts us all at risk”.

“As someone who proudly comes from a rural Ireland, a small town in Co Mayo, I’m delighted to note that over 60% of the assembly membership was from rural Ireland, and while we hear much rhetoric on the urban-rural divide in terms of care for the environment, no such divide was apparent in the room,” she said.

“There were differences of opinion and differences in experience, but through respectful listening, dialogue and engagement, powerful tools of deliberative democracy, the assembly came to overwhelming majority agreement on nearly all of the recommendations.”

Anne Jones described how accepting the invitation to participate in the assembly was a “step into the unknown”.

“Putting 99 people into a room from different age groups, different backgrounds, with different life experiences, views varied hugely, but it was, for me, democracy in action,” she said.

“I grew up on the lower uplands of the Sliabh Aughty mountains of East Clare. It wasn’t prime land, but there was a pride in that land. Every inch of it was valued. If there was a field of rushes, it was drained and turned into grassland.

“The focus was on improving the land to maximise its efficiency and increase its return. To leave that field of rushes was a failure, not just in the eyes of the farming community, but in the eyes of agricultural advisors and the state.

“Today, that field of rushes has a totally different value. It’s hard to get our heads around this. We are challenged to understand it, to place trust in the scientific evidence that supports it and to change our ingrained mindsets.”

She said that it is a “delicate tightrope walk to balance the absolute urgency of meeting climate change targets while at the same time not biting the hands that feed us”.

“New obligations require a fair and just transition but it is a monumental challenge. We trust as the 159 recommendations go before you, they contribute to the work that is ahead of you, the legislators. in the daunting task of preserving, protecting and enhancing biodiversity for the generations to come.”

Where there is a willingness, I am convinced that it is possible to make a difference.

“What I have learned from my involvement in the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss and what science and our own instincts tell us is that mitigating climate change is urgent; that biodiversity has a huge role to play; that individually we are required to take responsibility and action; and that there is an equal imperative on industries, businesses, organisations and agencies to do likewise and that government fully commits to making the necessary policy and strategy changes while facilitating supporting and funding priority actions.”

In total, the assembly agreed on 159 recommendations, which the Oireachtas committee is now tasked with considering.

Some of its key recommendations are that:

  • the State must take “prompt, decisive and urgent action” to address biodiversity loss
  • responsibility for implementing and enforcing biodiversity legislation should be made clear and public bodies should be held publicly accountable for their performance
  • local leadership and communities should be developed and resourced to help tackle the biodiversity crisis
  • people in “primary production industries” should implement measures that conserve biodiversity and should be incentivised to enhance biodiversity.

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