Climate change bill update

Over the last few weeks, the focus of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) environment committee has been the Climate Change Private Member’s Bill which was lodged in the NI Assembly at the end of March by Green Party MLA Clare Bailey and co-sponsored by the Alliance, UUP, SDLP, Sinn Fein and independents.

This Bill proposes a net zero target of 2045 which initially concerned the UFU however, when the latest information from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) appeared in early April, those fears were heightened further.

The UFU is fully behind the need to address global warming and to reduce emissions in NI, and the need for fair and credible climate change legislation. The agri-food industry has been leading the way as one of the first sectors to develop a strategy to tackle climate change, with the publication of the ‘Efficient Farming Cuts Greenhouse Gas Emissions’ document in 2011 through the Greenhouse Gas Implementation Partnership and its subsequent action plans. The sector is committed to playing its part and contributing to a fair share of emissions reductions.

Our politicians must also note that feeding an increasing world population will also be a significant challenge in the years ahead. The Paris Agreement on climate change recognised the importance of “safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impact of climate change”.

By 2050, agricultural production must increase by 60 percent globally to meet food demand alone. However, this is from an ever-decreasing area of land. Across the world, agricultural zones are disappearing in favour of development reducing land for food production. Between 2006 and 2012, the annual land take in the European countries was approximately 107 000 ha/year. NI is well placed to continue to produce food from farmers high animal health and welfare and environmental standards. For example, beef production in Western Europe is currently 2.5 times more efficient in managing carbon emissions than the global average.

The climate change Private Member’s Bill currently going through the Assembly with a net zero target of 2045, will present an enormous challenge for all of NI, but especially for agri-food. Information from the CCC independent experts indicated that even with a reduction in meat and dairy production in NI of 50 percent and a substantial increase in forestry, NI would not reach net zero by 2050.

From this assessment, we can assume that to meet a 2045 target would require an even greater reduction in our livestock sector, which would be to the detriment of the NI economy and rural communities. Without a corresponding reduction in consumption of these products, meat and dairy demanded by local consumers will simply be imported from elsewhere, where emissions, environmental and animal health and welfare standards are much lower and with no benefit to the mitigation of global warming. This will in fact, increase global emissions. The CCC have warned NI that this will happen.

In addition, the CCC has highlighted that “at this time our assessment is that a net zero target covering all GHGs cannot credibly be set for NI” and estimates have been made which indicate there will be higher costs to the NI economy of moving beyond CCC advice by up to £900 million a year which may not be supported by Treasury and that there will be unfair distributional impacts as NI carries a greater share of the UK climate change burden by following the PMB targets.

The CCC is an independent, statutory body established under the UK Climate Change Act 2008. Its purpose is to advise the UK and the devolved governments on emissions targets and to report to Parliament. All the other regions follow their advice and have set targets on that basis.

In December 2020, the CCC recommended that NI climate change legislation should include a target to reduce emissions by at least 82 percent by 2050 as part of a fair contribution to the UK net zero target in 2050 and the UK’s international obligations under the Paris agreement. The DAERA Minister issued a public consultation and was preparing a separate climate change bill on this basis however, it is still to receive the backing of the NI Executive to allow it to progress.

Even reducing emissions to this 82 percent target will present a significant challenge; the CCC have outlined that to hit this target it will require a transformation of land use with 46 percent of land freed up from livestock production for forestry, agro-forestry, restored peatland (re-wetting) and growing energy crops. Therefore, even following the CCC expert advice is going to require changes to the agri-food sector over the years but in a more balanced and managed way without the risk of carbon leakage (bringing in meat and dairy products from overseas).

The UFU, in conjunction with other organisations in the agri-food sector, have been actively lobbying MLAs and political parties on this issue. UFU members also got behind this campaign with thousands sending emails, letters and making calls to their local politicians and we thank everyone who made the effort. This was incredibly helpful and raised the profile of the key issues.

The Private Member’s Bill was up for the second stage reading in the NI Assembly on Monday 10 May and despite our best efforts, MLAs failed to properly listen to the industry’s concerns and backed the bill. While many MLA’s raised concerns about the impact on the agri-food sector, most were prepared to risk the future of the industry in the hope that they can make amendments to clauses within the Bill.

Many MLAs argued that this is only a ‘framework’, and the detail will come later within Climate Action Plans however, this fools no-one. If a target for 2045 is set then those Action Plans will need to deliver that target and therefore, they are likely to require the drastic action of livestock reductions and significant investments that the CCC warned against.

Climate change and climate change policy is an extremely complex issue. Disappointingly it appears that many of our MLAs have not read the CCC expert advice which is there to help guide them and would rather jump on the populist bandwagon.

The bill will now pass to the AERA Committee at Stormont for in-depth scrutiny. The UFU and others will present evidence once again highlighting our concerns, quantifying the impact on the agri-food and rural sectors, and pointing to the CCC advice. This stage is expected to last until late 2021 before the bill will return to the Assembly for debate on amendments. There will be a final stage vote and if it is passed the bill will become law.

The UFU will keep members informed and asks that they continue to lobby local politicians on this issue to keep them focused and to ensure this bill is amended to deliver emissions reductions as well as allowing local farmers to continue to feed the nation.