Climate change NI-style: saving the planet, or a lot of hot air?

  It is the piece of legislation branded a “Disneyworld Bill” by the Environment Minister, Edwin Poots, this week and which has already created plenty of heated debate.

Our first climate change Bill has been progressing through the Assembly, with opinion split on an often-divisive topic.

Many argue it is vital to protect our environment, while others claim it will devastate the agri-food sector.

The Bill sets out a target of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2045, ahead of the UK-wide target of 2050, as well as establishing a governance framework to monitor progress in a range of areas, such as energy consumption.

Net zero refers to achieving a balance between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere.

The UK makes up around 1% of global emissions and, based on estimates, our share of global emissions is around 0.04%.

It would also require the Executive to develop climate action plans every five years to help reach the 2045 target and see the appointment of an independent climate commissioner to monitor Northern Ireland’s progress.

Opponents, however, say the Bill is not backed by credible evidence and it will mean dramatic reduction in livestock – cattle produce harmful methane – and impact negatively on farmers.

The Bill recently passed its second stage in the Assembly, with the majority of MLAs backing it. The DUP, TUV and Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs voted against it.

It will now move on to the committee stage for more detailed scrutiny before returning for further consideration.

Environment Minister Poots is strongly against it and has plans to introduce his own Bill, with lower targets.

He referred to the proposed legislation this week in quite colourful language.

“We can produce a Disneyworld Bill from anywhere and put it out there and say this is what is good for Northern Ireland, but it will not be Disneyworld when the farmers in west Tyrone are driven off the hills because they can’t produce their beef because of a climate change Bill that Sinn Fein has supported,” he said on Tuesday.

So, what is it all about? And what do its supporters and opponents say about it?

Green Party leader Clare Bailey began work on the Bill last summer, along with the Climate Change Coalition Northern Ireland, following a lack of progress in introducing a climate Act and an independent Northern Ireland environment agency, as committed to in the New Decade, New Approach deal.

The Climate Change Coalition NI is a network of stakeholders, including academics, scientists, legal professionals and environmental NGOs, set up last year to work together to tackle climate change issues.

“The Paris Climate Accord set a target of net zero carbon emissions for 2050, however we are seeing that target is rapidly being brought forward, with many other countries going for the target of 2045, such as Germany recently,” Ms Bailey said.

“This a Government framework Bill, rather than one that sets targets for sectors. It’s how we, as a Government and an Assembly, govern our way through this.

“That’s why the appointment of a climate commissioner is so crucial, to monitor and evaluate on our progress to date, in terms of full independence, or as much of it as we can guarantee.”

On the concerns of opponents to the Bill regarding the impact it could have on the agri-food sector, Ms Bailey said: “The first thing I would say is I understand the concerns and we’re going to continue listening. This Bill has only started its progress, but again this comes back to the governance framework.

“We know there are sectors out there that can do the vast majority of the heavy lifting in a very short space of time – the energy sector is ready to go, for instance, and they have been held back by a lack of targets.

“The problem is no one is monitoring where we are now. The shifting sands are not being accounted for. We need to get the baselines in place, we need the evidence, we need to monitor between now and 2045 how we’re moving and where the focus needs to be.

“I have never – and neither does the Bill – said that livestock needs to be halved. There’s nothing even agriculture-specific in it. It’s about setting that trajectory, how we can govern our way towards this, how we can have independent oversight, reporting and democratic accountability. Farmers need a new deal, too, there’s so many living in poverty.”

The Ulster Farmers’ Union, however, strongly opposes the Bill, stating that, while it supports climate change legislation and the need to tackle agricultural emissions, the current Bill is not fair or credible, and is not backed by evidence.

The UFU has around 11,000 members. UFU president Victor Chestnutt said it supports the views of the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) in London, which suggests an 82% cut in NI greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

According to the CCC, going for a net zero target – even by 2050 – would require more than a 50% cut in Northern Ireland livestock and dairy production, as well as “significantly greater levels of tree planting”.

“Our farmers are the climate change solution, not the problem. They’re committed to playing their part to combat this global issue and, while we’ve been thrown under the bus for the popular vote, this has not changed,” Mr Chestnutt said.

As the Bill has now passed its second reading in the Assembly, Mr Chestnutt said the UFU’s goal was now to ensure amendments are made to the Bill to create a “fairer framework”, allowing farmers to reduce emissions without drastic livestock reductions, while continuing to feed the nation.

“Many of our MLAs stated that they do not want to damage our agri-food sector and we’re going to ensure they stay true to their word,” he said. “The future of farming and local food production depends on it.

“Exporting our industry overseas is a major concern about this Bill, especially when our emissions are less than half the world average. The correct amendments need to be made to guarantee this doesn’t happen, because, otherwise, we would be contributing to increased global emissions and it would be counter-productive to combating global warming.”

While many have pitted the Bill as “farmers versus everyone else”, not all farmers here agree with Mr Chestnutt.

William Taylor of rural campaign group Farmers for Action (FFA), fully supports the Bill, as long as it goes alongside a Farm Welfare Bill, which will mean a minimum price is set for farm produce to ensure farmers are paid fairly and not undercut by corporations and others. FFA has around 9,000 members across the UK.

Mr Taylor said the UFU represents less than half of all Northern Ireland farmers and they also have corporate membership, which he feels is driving the opposition to the Bill.

“FFA backed the Bill, because, number one, even the dogs on the street know how much trouble we’re in across the world when it comes to climate change.

“It also would put a climate commissioner in place to see that things happen, whereas the corporations and big food processors want the good ship to sail on, so they can continue to reap the profits – they don’t want a climate change Bill rocking the boat.

“What the UFU and CCC don’t take into account when they’re saying we would need to halve livestock and everything is the innovation that’s taking place. We have electric tractors coming in, tractors powered by methane and, between that and a change in animal diets, we can cut down on emissions.

“Cattle also have lower methane emissions when they’re inside, so we want to capture that methane and use it to power machinery. We see no reason why we can’t have the same livestock numbers here and still meet the targets.

“We need to Farm Welfare Bill to go along with it, so farmers have to be paid a minimum of the cost of production, linked to inflation.”

The Farm Welfare Bill – which Ms Bailey says she “absolutely” supports, as farmers need a fair price for fair work and shouldn’t have to rely on Government subsidies – is currently being considered by Stormont’s Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson, a former Stormont Environment Minister, went further than the UFU, accusing those putting the Bill forward of being naive as to what it would mean.

“The reduction in livestock would devastate farmers. We do also know the bill would require us to go up to generating 90% of electricity from renewables (NI currently generates around 50% from these sources), so you can guess what that would do for subsidies for the energy industry and the impact on consumers’ bills,” he said.

“Around 42% of people here are also living in fuel poverty. The impact of this nonsense on ordinary people will be immense. It would also require energy efficiency measures put in place in our homes which the Government estimates to cost around £20,000 per house.

“So, many things are not being spelt out in this Bill. It would mean people changing their diet, moving away from meat, so we produce less methane.

“If those supporting the Bill want these carbon emissions reduced, are they really asking people to change their lifestyle and have their pockets hit?”

Case study

Michael Meharg, farmer, Co Antrim

As a nature-friendly farmer, I recognise that every farmer has a responsibility and role to play in reducing carbon emissions to tackle the climate crisis.

Sequestering carbon and restoring nature present huge opportunities for farmers. Capturing greenhouse emissions helps the government meet net zero targets, but it also goes hand-in-hand with making farm businesses more resilient and profitable.

The climate Bill will mean significant and positive changes in how farm businesses operate and how they manage their land.

This could include integrating more woodland into the farm, restoring nature by adding carbon-rich habitats, such as peat bogs, working with nature to minimise costly inputs and embracing technologies to reduce energy use.

With the right policy, comprehensive legislative frameworks and sufficient funding, it is possible to plot a course to net zero.

When farmers implement these changes, we also deliver thriving wildlife, a vibrant farming sector and good-quality food.”

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