All-island co-operation between Ireland and Northern Ireland in environmental protection, sustainable waste management and policy ordination is a mutually beneficial area of co-operation. Given current headwinds, it is more crucial than ever that progress is now made.
Co-operation on waste management was first placed on a formal footing in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in the Annex to Strand Two as a possible area “for North South co-operation and implementation”. Also included in this Annex were environmental protection, pollution and water quality.
The practical and mutually beneficial reasons for this agreement to co-operate are self-evident: the two jurisdictions share an island with a contiguous land border. Not to co-operate closely and effectively would be to create unacceptable risks.
The Environment Sector of the North South Ministerial Council has developed a number of areas of collaboration on common policies as provided for in the Agreement.
In the area of waste management this work has resulted in the completion of the Repatriation Programme for 2015-2016, following on from the joint roadmap for tackling illegal movements of waste between North and South and the introduction of a fuel marker in both jurisdictions which has resulted in a decline in the reporting of fly-tipping.
In addition, there are numerous other examples of comparable co-operation:
• the development of the all-island single electricity market in 2007 which has provided proven benefits for citizens throughout the island since its inception, as well as contributing to the achievement of key energy policy objectives;
• the long-established joint procurement initiative between the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health in Northern Ireland in the context of the removal, treatment and final disposal of clinical waste; and
• the ongoing collaboration between the two main business groups across the island, the Irish Business Employer’s Confederation (Ibec) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), in order to promote the economic advancement of the island as a whole and one such example is provided by a joint comprehensive report: Connected: a prosperous island of 10 million people, which sets out ambitious proposals to upgrade the all-island transport network.
Such initiatives demonstrate beyond doubt that further enhancing a strategic co-ordinated all-island policy on waste and resource efficiency could similarly deliver significant benefits for all citizens and contribute to the delivery of overarching environmental targets and objectives into the long term.
While significant strides have been made by both jurisdictions in the context of sustainable waste management with the proportion of municipal waste sent to landfill diminishing substantially over the last number of decades, numerous and significant challenges remain. In Ireland, built landfill capacity is at a critical state with potentially less than one year’s capacity available, based on the 2015 landfill rate according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In 2016, additional capacity was authorised in order to prevent negative environmental impacts such as the stockpiling of wastes or illegal activity and whilst provisional figures indicate that Ireland has achieved the 2020 landfill diversion rate, the amount of waste sent to landfill rose by more than 110,000 tonnes last year, a 40 per cent increase, according to figures from the Agency. Furthermore, Ireland still generates more waste per capita than the euro area average and is in the upper range in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Likewise in Northern Ireland, a recent briefing supported by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) and the Strategic Investment Board, The Future Management of Northern Ireland’s Municipal Waste ‘The World Has Changed’ identifies a number of emerging trends, including, increasing waste tonnages and growing volumes of refuse derived fuel being exported and further points out that the appropriate thermal treatment infrastructure is not in place.
As a result, significant volumes of waste continue to be sent for treatment abroad. Whilst this clearly represents a lost economic and resource opportunity and is at cross purposes with a transition to a circular economy, the viability of this option must now also be given due consideration given the risks associated within the availability of this option into the long term and the increasing difficulties with securing outlets on continental Europe for waste exported from the island.
Such challenges are further compounded by projected population increases with the Central Statistics Office (CSO) estimating that Ireland’s population will increase to over 5.6 million by 2046 and according to the Northern Ireland Statistics Agency, Northern Ireland’s population is projected to grow to 2.021 million by 2039. Given such projections and correspondent waste arisings, a coordinated and strategic approach to waste management on an all-island basis and alignment with key policy objectives is of fundamental importance if the island is to be in a position to manage such increased levels of waste in an environmentally sound manner.
An all-island waste strategy, informing the four regional waste plans (including a newly constituted single waste region in Northern Ireland, the Connaught-Ulster, the Eastern Midlands and the Southern regions) would facilitate a collaborative approach and would serve to ensure that all disposal and treatment options available on the island would be firstly exhausted before relying on export.
Such an innovative approach would assist in ensuring that a joined-up approach is taken in the context of strategic waste infrastructure investment decisions and to ensure that economies of scale are achieved. The development of such strategic waste infrastructure would also constitute an important contributory factor to the future advancement and prosperity of the island as a whole, in the generation of renewable electricity and contribute to the success of I-SEM, the next phase of the all-island Single Electricity Market (SEM).
Failure to put in place the requisite domestic waste infrastructure necessary to ensure sustainable waste management solutions could have serious consequences regarding unregulated waste disposal activities. Potential damage to the island’s natural environment could in turn be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of citizens and lead to severe environmental harm in the long-term. The adverse effects of failure to develop much needed strategic infrastructure in a timely fashion is illustrated in relation to the delays to the North-South electricity connector which are estimated to be costing consumers on the island approximately ⇔20 million per annum as a result of higher production costs and a reduced ability to share generation capacity across the island.
An added layer of complexity which necessitates continued co-operation is the impact of Brexit on the land border and the risk of potential criminality in the form of unlawful waste movements which must be avoided at all costs. The joint Progress Report on the Article 50 Negotiations sets out in detail the need to protect the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and as an area of co-operation and implementation in Strand Two of that Agreement. Its protection should be read as implicit in those commitments.
In light of such challenges, it is more pertinent than ever that progress is now made. An all-island waste policy predicated on mutual collaboration would not only deliver economic and environmental benefits but would also greatly assist in a transition whereby waste is properly regarded as a resource from which the maximum value can be extracted while simultaneously addressing common environmental challenges.
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