Page last updated at 14:34 GMT, Saturday, 26 December 2009

Environmental action? Don't hold your breath

By Mike McKimm
BBC NI environment correspondent

2009 was a year of environmental opportunities - missed.

Sammy Wilson
Former environment minister Sammy Wilson is a global warming sceptic

Legislation piled up, waiting to be passed or even just discussed in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

From new marine laws to wildlife orders, we fell further and further behind the rest of the UK and Europe in environmental protection.

The added problem is that because of funding shortages created by the financial crisis, the world of environment as it applies to Northern Ireland is in real danger of being nudged so far onto the backburner that it will fall down the back of the proverbial cooker.

Even the NGOs who would be critical of government inaction are finding fiscal problems thinning their ranks.

The Friends of the Earth have had to cut back their operations in Northern Ireland because they can't afford to finance the same level of work here.

Hope you didn't hold your breath until many of the missing Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs) were introduced in 2009.

We saw problems and threats while other devolved areas of the UK saw potential and opportunities

With about 200 still unlisted, the habitat damage is quite serious.

To make matters worse, some of the ASSIs already nominated and supposedly protected are showing signs of damage and neglect.

It has become a bit of a vicious circle for these areas, with little hope or prospect in the near future for any action.

One ASSI had to be rescued by public pressure after the environment minister at the time, Sammy Wilson, tried to cancel it.

In the end, pressure from various sources including his own department saved the day.

Advert on climate change vetoed by Sammy Wilson
Sammy Wilson said the message of the adverts was "patent nonsense"

And 2009 wasn't the year when our biodiversity became more diverse.

A report out late in the year rattled the cage of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, pointing that opportunities and species were slipping away by the day.

"Time is running out" was the warning and its run out a little bit more since then.

Ironically, the group was set up by government to advise on how endangered our biodiversity is and what needs to be done.

But all this annual hand-wringing is nothing when compared to the bombshell dropped in March by the aforementioned Sammy Wilson.

The BBC revealed that he had called on the Department of Energy and Climate Change not to run a series of "ACT on CO2" adverts here because he hadn't cleared them and didn't agree with their message.

The story rocketed around the world but Mr Wilson shrugged off the criticism and calls for his resignation.

2009 has been a year of almost total environmental inertia in many key areas

He clung on until a party reshuffle in the summer, when his DUP colleague Edwin Poots took over the role.

All of this happened at the time when other devolved areas in the UK were making international headlines with their approach to global warming.

We saw problems and threats while they saw potential and opportunities.

They produced champions and visions - we produced a sceptical environment minister, albeit we have a new one since then.

From forests of trees that were never planted to Area Plans and Planning Policy Statements that were never completed, 2009 has been a year of almost total environmental inertia in many key areas.

Edwin Poots
New minister Edwin Poots seems well disposed to the environment

It seems to have been a year when it was left to the voluntary organisations to deliver the goods, from creating environmental spaces to planting new woods and forests (despite the usual enthusiastic vandalism).

And what of 2010? The present environment minister seems well disposed to the environment and aware of global warming problems.

But the fact that this has to be alluded to at all says something about the state of debate in Northern Ireland when it comes to environment matters.

What happens next depends on what importance the Assembly and its Executive places on the environment.

So it's not a time to be holding collective breaths for another year.

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