Compromise could be on the cards as the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs’ Climate Change Bill has passed its second stage at Stormont.
The bill, which is the second of the two Climate Change Bills currently making their way through Stormont, received support from all of the main parties.
Opening the debate, Minister Poots acknowledged MLAs’ concerns about the two bills passing through the Assembly at the same time and explained that he had instructed his staff to work with those behind Climate Change Bill (No. 1) to reach a “compromise”.
“I recognise those concerns and met Clare Bailey, as the lead sponsor of the private Member’s Bill, to discuss the matter. I then instructed my officials to work with Clare and her team to develop a compromise that would involve incorporating some elements of the private Member’s Bill into the Executive Bill,” he said.
“The basis of a compromise has been agreed. I wrote to Clare to seek her agreement on the proposed way forward, and I await a response.
“I hope for a positive outcome and will update Members, as appropriate. However, I want to be clear: based on current evidence, I cannot support, nor will I agree to, a net zero target, as it is aspirational and, therefore, not real at this time.
“…It is vital that we include the right targets in our climate change legislation. The Climate Change Committee has identified that a net zero target for Northern Ireland would not be credible and that setting such a target would be morally wrong.”
Poots highlighted the UK Climate Change Committee’s estimate, which stated the the additional costs of meeting the heftier 2050 net-zero target could be as much as £900 million a year.
Poots said the “phenomenal cost” compared to departmental estimates that its bill would have a net cost between 2022 and 2050 of over £4 billion, which would equate to approximately £140 million a year.
“In contrast, a similar Bill with a target of net-zero by 2050, a whole five years later than 2045, is predicted to cost a staggering £30 billion-plus between 2022 and 2050,” he said. “That is an approximate annual cost of over £1 billion a year.
“The budget of every Northern Ireland department, including Health, would be affected by that. That is an extraordinarily high price for the public of Northern Ireland to pay, especially as, while it would decimate key parts of our economy, it would not actually reduce global emissions due to offshoring of our emissions to elsewhere to meet food demand.”
Explaining the challenge of meeting net-zero in Northern Ireland Poots said the region was starting “behind” other parts of the UK.
“Scotland is almost halfway to net zero emissions, having achieved a 45% reduction by 2018,” he said.
“Unfortunately, Northern Ireland is only a quarter of the way to reaching an at least 82% reduction; it had achieved only 20% by 2018.
“We are starting behind, and we need to recognise that and reflect it. An at least 82% emissions reduction is in no way lacking ambition; we actually have to do a lot more than others across the UK to do that.”
West Tyrone MLA Declan McAleer, who chairs the Stormont Climate Change Committee, said he urged the Green Party to get behind the department’s efforts.
“I resent the fact that we have two bills on the table. I understand that discussions between the department and the sponsor of the private Member’s Bill are ongoing. It is important to arrive at a sensible outcome, and it is incumbent on all parties to recognise that,” he said.
“I support the minister and the department in their efforts. As was said, the targets are a real challenge and will take significant effort. It is vital that the house gets behind that effort and embraces actions that are sustainable and achievable. To do otherwise will obliterate Northern Ireland’s agri-food sector.”
McAleer also called for the establishment of a forum or committee to assist with a just transition.
“Important work will have to be done to manage this course of action. It will be vital to ensure that our farming community and rural dwellers can raise their views and concerns about these matters,” he said.
Climate Bill No.2 criticism
However, despite the widespread support, there were some who criticised aspects of the bill during the debate.
Dr. Steve Aiken, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said his party supported both bills but called for the appointment of an ‘independent climate emergency commissioner‘.
The role, he said would have responsibility for monitoring the climate action plans, reviewing the implementation of the Bill and making recommendations to the Executive.
“The Executive Office must be mandated to address the issues that are raised by the commissioner. It must be an all-Executive responsibility,” he said.
Dr. Aiken said his party accepted the recommendations of the UK Climate Change Committee which has said that, for the UK to reach the net zero target, a fair contribution from Northern Ireland would be an 82% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 compared with 1990 levels.
Clare Bailey, the MLA behind the private member’s bill, said that some climate activists had told her that her bill, which aims for net-zero by 2045, was “not ambitious enough”.
“The 82% target is calculated solely on the basis that Northern Ireland will contribute to the UK net-zero target, without any acknowledgement of Northern Ireland’s political and geographical context as a devolved jurisdiction that has a unique relationship with the UK, the Republic of Ireland, the EU and the rest of the world,” she said.
“Many will cite and have cited our agri-food sector as a reason not to aim for net zero, but we know that the Republic of Ireland has forged ahead with a net zero target, even though its emissions profile is even more heavily influenced by its agriculture sector than ours is.”
However, Bailey also commented on “positive aspects” to the bill, highlighting its “well-developed provisions on carbon budgeting”.
“The Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) that will be delivered by the end of this mandate must reflect the fact that, yes, we can do better, that we can be ambitious and that we will achieve, because our very future depends on it,” she concluded.
All those in the chamber voted in favour of the bill passing to the next stage; the Committee Stage.