Environmental protection in the 21st century

Written by Alan Robertson on 3 September 2015 in Inside Politics

Interview: SEPA’s new chief executive, Terry A’Hearn, on delivering change 


Terry A’Hearn was not so much destined for the environmental field as he was dropped into it. An economist and accountant by trade, having studied at the University of Melbourne, the Australian found himself working in the Treasury in the state of Victoria.

“This would have been the early 90s, when climate change and ozone depletion were starting to become very big issues,” he recalls. “Someone in the Treasury had to write the briefing material for the Treasurer. We were all economists and accountants and no one was interested bar me, so I got involved.”

Environmental Protection Authority Victoria, the world’s second oldest environmental regulatory agency, having been launched two decades earlier, was soon looking to set up an economics team and A’Hearn was the first full-time economist to be brought in.


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It marked the beginning of an involvement with environmental protection agencies that has lasted 22 years and taken him thousands of miles across the planet. In fact, just five years on from swapping Australia for the UK, A’Hearn has already become the only individual to head up two national environmental regulators on these islands, his appointment as chief executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) in April following a two-and-a-half year stint leading its Northern Irish counterpart.

“SEPA would be regarded as one of the three or four most advanced EPAs in the world,” he says. “I have a view that the 21st century is really about bringing environmental, economic and social objectives together.

"That’s the cliché, but the real challenge now is to do it in practice, because that’s really going to be the only way of achieving successful societies. Because SEPA and the [Scottish] Government have both recognised that you actually have to try and do that in reality, it is a great platform to work on doing what the 21st century needs.”

That, as far as A’Hearn is concerned, involves tackling a mindset that still sees economic growth and environmental considerations in conflict with one another. “What we need to have in the 21st century is [a recognition] that if you are low carbon, low water use, low materials use and then low waste, you win in your markets if you’re a business.

"In Northern Ireland, the agency I ran and the part of the department I ran – because I was also in charge of policy – were responsible for the Government’s 35 per cent greenhouse gas reduction target, and a couple of the team were going to talk to people in one community about that community’s role in reducing carbon emissions. 

“Unemployment in this area was about 25 per cent. I said, ‘why don’t we frame the discussion around what are ways that reducing carbon emissions could create jobs for this community?’ because if you go to a community and say, ‘a quarter of the people here are unemployed, could you help us reduce carbon emissions because the planet is in trouble?’ a lot of people are going to say, ‘we’re having trouble putting bread on the table and paying the mortgage’.

“Much of the environmental debate [has seen] a lot of EPAs work [in a way in which] we go out and we talk about the environment because that’s our game and it’s our responsibility. I think the next phase is to shape the discussion in terms of other people’s sets of objectives.”

It was this way of thinking that led A’Hearn, during his time heading up the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), down the road of prosperity agreements, an initiative he is keen to replicate in one form or another in Scotland. It is, in many ways, a simple concept. The NIEA sat down with businesses to set out voluntary roadmaps that recognised where their mutual aspirations lay.

Three such agreements are now in place, including one with mineral and aggregates producer Lafarge Tarmac that saw the likes of chicken litter looked at as an alternative fuel source in order to cut costs and greenhouse emissions.    

“The key thing there was getting senior people [involved],” says A’Hearn. “It was the senior people in the company, me and some of my senior colleagues, as well as some of the technical experts, in a room a few times and saying, ‘basically, what are our mutual problems or opportunities? Can we agree there are things worth doing together? There are enough benefits for both parties. Sign it [and] let’s get on with it’. 

“When you think about it, that’s not a revolutionary idea – but it’s not the way regulation is set up. Regulation tends to be set up [so that] you’re dealing with X, there are rules seven and 12 that apply, show us that you’re complying, and that’s it. That’s great because it gets you minimum compliance, but it doesn’t open up problem solving.”

As far as A’Hearn is concerned, his relocation across the Irish Sea could hardly have been better timed, with “one of the best thought through regulatory reform acts you could have” having passed through Holyrood last year. The Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 brings with it additional enforcement powers for SEPA, including the ability to issue fixed and variable monetary penalties. A consultation on SEPA’s new enforcement policy and guidance for environment offences is to run until 22 October, after which the new powers will take effect.

“When you think about regulating, what you’re trying to do is influence behaviour,” says A’Hearn. “What I would say to anyone being regulated is, ‘look, the people of Scotland, through their parliament, say our job is, first and foremost, to make sure you comply with the minimum standards, so they’re non-negotiable, we’ll make you do it. If the way you want to do that is by being responsible and making use of our guidance and advice, that’s what we’ll do. But if you want to be prosecuted, well, you choose that route through your own behaviour’.”

As part of the reforms, SEPA will also be able to accept enforcement undertakings. In other words, the Agency will be able to give offenders an opportunity to make an offer to make amends for their behaviour rather than face prosecution.

“Obviously we’ll consult on this, but if someone puts their hand up and says, ‘yes, we’ve broken the law, we should be prosecuted’ so they admit it, rather than both of us spending time and money going through court, we’ll consider entering an undertaking to improve things,” explains A’Hearn.

“A lot of jurisdictions just say, ‘well, the undertaking says spend money to fix what you damaged, spend money to fix your own systems so it doesn’t happen again’. But should we be saying that if you want one of these undertakings, one of your executives or one of your board members does a three or four-day training course in environmental sustainability?

"Because then you’re using your enforcement not just to fix the individual environmental issue but you’re also equipping the business, the company you’re regulating, to think more about the environment and be quicker to see there is a business opportunity, not just a compliance problem.

“So we’ve got these new sets of powers [and] it is now a critical phase for us to work out how to use them for maximum benefit. There are key issues around transparency and fairness, which are obviously essential, and we just can’t use these powers in a pedestrian way. We have to think [about] what is the most powerful way to use these to move people along the [compliance] spectrum.”

A’Hearn, of course, was far from oblivious to what was unfolding in Scotland prior to his arrival. In November, he joined Northern Ireland’s environment minister, Mark H Durkan, in visiting Edinburgh to take part in Scotland’s first environmental waste crime conference. “Waste in most first-world jurisdictions can attract a certain type of entrepreneur,” he says.

“Both in Scotland and in Northern Ireland there seems to have been an infiltration of organised crime, and if not organised crime just people who are non-compliant and push the boundaries far more than they should.”

A’Hearn has been encouraged by work carried out to date by Scotland’s environmental crime taskforce. “The next phase is how we get people really switched on to thinking of waste as a resource,” he adds. “If legitimate operators can make more money either out of not creating waste in the first place or doing something productive with waste, then criminals can’t get it to put in a hole and we’ll win that game.”     

His appointment comes as the debate on fracking once again heats up. Earlier this year ministers announced a moratorium on all planning consents for unconventional oil and gas extraction, though they’ve faced pressure to extend this to cover underground coal gasification. SEPA’s role, stresses A’Hearn, is to bring scientific and technical expertise to such debates.  

“With the moratorium, we’ll be doing some technical work on it but I don’t have a strong view,” he says. “It is a technology which, if used, has a potential environment impact, so all I can really say is, yes, obviously we need to play our role with the other government agencies in working out whether it can work in an environmentally sound way [and], if so, under what conditions, etc. But, given the moratorium at the moment, we don’t have a position.” 




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