Question Time: Environment 13 October 2015

Environment Minister, Mark Durkan, discussed climate change priorities ahead of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference during today’s Question Time. TheIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) fifth assessment report highlights the dramatic changes to our climate and their causes. The Minister will be attending the Conference of Parties 21 (COP21) as part of the UK delegation, along with Ministers from Scotland and Wales and his intention is to “engage with colleagues from the devolved Administrations, Ireland and other countries to encourage and provide support for a comprehensive global agreement on action on climate change.” In preparation for the Paris summit on climate change the Minister has agreed that a discussion on climate change will be held at the next North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) environment sector meeting scheduled for mid-November. Mr Durkan stressed the importance of tackling the problem adding “I believe that it is vital that we explore how together we can offer leadership on climate change matters for all the people of Ireland and provide hope to those beyond our shores who are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change but yet have done the least to cause the problem.”

The Minister also discussed the problem of sand dredging from Lough Neagh. Around 1.7m tonnes a year has been removed by companies using special dredging barges, supplying around a quarter of Northern Ireland’s construction needs. Environmentalists are concerned that the practice is threatening the site. On learning of the situation the Minister sought a voluntary cessation of all operations and instructed officials to investigate and monitor any ongoing activity. The operators appealed the decision to the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC). Due to the legal challenge surrounding the enforcement decision the Minister was reluctant to comment any further saying, “I am acutely aware that this is a complex issue involving important environmental and socio-economic considerations. In order to respect both the judicial process and the independent appeals process, including the rights of the parties involved, I do not intend to comment further on these issues, pending the outcome of the procedures.”

Mr Durkan also fielded questions on planning issues in rural communities, retail sector planning policy and run-of-river hydroelectric schemes. A period of topical questions followed the regular period of oral questions in which the Minister also answered queries on household recycling targets, the Volkswagen emissions controversy, plans for the creation of an independent environmental protection agency and environmental health issues at Ballyhornan beach.