Climate Change Bills analysis

Friday, 4 February, 2022

What next on climate legislation?

The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) will continue to monitor the situation at Stormont in light of the present political uncertainty. The vote on targets this week is a significant setback for the industry but we battle on. We have been greatly encouraged by the swell of support we have had to date from farmers and the wider agri-food sector including from the large crowd who attended the rally this week. We need to build on this momentum and continue to lobby for sensible legislation. We are exploring all options but may demand more action from our members in the coming weeks.

What can members do now?

We would urge you to continue to contact your local MLAs, particularly those who voted to support these targets that are not based on expert advice, have no analysis behind them and that they have been warned not to include. The impact on farmers and rural communities must not be ignored.  Make sure your local representatives are aware that farmers and rural people will not be dictated to by political ideologies or urban dwellers who fail to understand the importance of the agri food industry to the local economy and society or the perverse impact on climate change of exporting local food production elsewhere in the world.

What is in the Climate Change No. 2 Bill?

The Executive’s Climate Change No. 2 Bill was based on advice from Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) officials, legal teams, and experts from the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC). The CCC in it’s UK wide recommendations to enable the UK to reach a net zero target by 2050 had concluded that given the importance of the agri-food sector to Northern Ireland (NI) and the fact that methane from cattle and sheep is ‘hard to treat’ it was not appropriate for NI to set a net zero target. They clearly indicated that if this happened there would be ‘carbon leakage’ as meat and dairy products would be imported from overseas where emissions are higher and standards lower. 

The UK experts on the CCC have also advised that a target of Net Zero for all Greenhouse Gases by 2050 is not possible and cannot credibly be set for NI. Going beyond their advice would result in:

  • A 50% fall in meat and dairy production and would shift emissions overseas (Carbon leakage)
  • It would also result in a greater than equitable share of all UK greenhouse gas removal technologies being located in NI.

(Read the CCC advice to Minister Poots here.)

Taking all this in account the CCC recommended that a balanced pathway for NI was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 82% by 2050 and this target was proposed by the Minister, agreed by the NI Executive and taken to the Assembly for approval. This was seen as NI’s fair and equitable share of the UK net zero target by 2050.

What was the NI Assembly debating this week?

After weeks of scrutiny with the NI Assembly AERA Committee, this week the Executive’s Climate Change No. 2 Bill started the ‘Consideration Stage’ at Stormont. During this phase of the legislative process the Bill is debated by the whole Assembly. MLAs vote on each clause, schedule and proposed amendment to the Bill. MLAs spent two full days debating the No. 2 Bill and have still to finish this part of the process which we expect to conclude on Monday. 

Amendments:

During the consideration stage, MLAs can submit amendments and last week there were over 80 amendments submitted to the Climate Change No. 2 Bill including five amendments on the targets.

The first amendment ‘Net zero by 2045’ proposed by Clare Bailey (Greens) failed to ‘move’ as she was not in the Assembly chamber at the right time (it is rumoured she was getting her photo taken with the environmental lobby and missed her time). 

The second amendment ‘Net zero by 2050’ proposed by Sinn Fein and supported by Clare Bailey was then debated and a vote was called.  The result of this was 50 MLAs supported (Sinn Fein, SDLP, Greens, People before Profit, Trevor Lunn and Jim Wells) with 38 against (DUP, UUP, TUV, Claire Sugden, Alex Easton).  

No further amendments were moved, and this amended clause was added to the Bill. This means the Bill now has a target of ‘net zero by 2050’.

There are other aspects within the Bill which are still going through the process and the UFU is continuing to follow including independent scrutiny (climate commissioner) and sectoral plans.

What have the UFU been doing?

Throughout this process, the UFU have supported the need to stop global warming but in doing so it must be based on sound scientific evidence and also avoids creating carbon leakage by exporting our food production overseas where emissions are higher and standards are lower. In addition, farming is very much part of the solution in that we are best placed to sequester carbon.

Over the past year, the UFU have been lobbying at all levels. There have been countless meetings with politicians, political parties, officials, giving evidence at the NI Assembly AERA Committee and constant lobbying. We have built alliances with the wider agri-food and business sectors. The UFU have encouraged members to meet with MLAs on farm at organised constituency meetings and to write/email MLAs. The efforts culminated with the rally at Stormont on Tuesday. This has been a huge effort but disappointingly despite all the evidence, some MLAs have instead played party politics with the livelihoods of farmers, related businesses and the wider rural economy and society.

What happens next?

After consideration stage, agreed amendments are tidied up and a revised Bill is then put to a ‘Further Consideration Stage’. There are opportunities for further amendments here and the UFU will take further advice on this to see if there are opportunities for further amending that may help agriculture. 

Following this stage, the Bill moves to ‘Final Stage’ for the final vote in the Assembly – this is the last chance for the bill not to proceed. Only one Bill has ever failed at this stage so it’s unlikely that MLAs would not support when it comes to this point. No amendments are debated at this stage. Members debate and vote on whether to pass the Bill. After Final Stage, further checks must be carried out before the Bill can receive Royal Assent and become law.

The Bill could be withdrawn from the legislative process at any point but if this were to happen, the Private Member’s Bill (PMB) could then reappear. Another option is a ‘Petition of Concern’ which could be lodged if 30 MLAs would sign. Again, highly unlikely as politically this may not seen as a good move and under the New Decade New Approach agreement it was agreed not to use this petition for non-constitutional issues.

However, all this depends on the Assembly continuing to operate and in light of the news this week this is uncertain. There is a suggestion under new laws, the Assembly could continue to operate to a lesser extent despite the absence of a functioning Executive. 

If the Assembly collapses, legislation that has not completed the legislative process automatically falls. However, if Westminster takeover, they may follow the will of the majority in Stormont and bring in the legislation as it stands. Alternatively, a new local Minister in a new Assembly mandate could pick this up but would they again overturn the decision made on targets by the Stormont majority.

What about Clare Bailey’s Bill?

The Clare Bailey Climate Change (No. 1) PMB hasn’t yet reached the ‘Consideration Stage’ with the NI Assembly legislative process however it has not been removed from the system. There is a concern that if the No. 2 Bill is withdrawn then this could reappear. This Bill contains the tighter target of net zero by 2045. 

The KPMG report commissioned by the UFU outlined that the PMB with a net zero target of 2045 would result in:

  • Cutting cattle and sheep numbers in NI by 86%. Dairy cow numbers in particular, would be reduced to levels last seen in 1947.
  • Livestock reductions of this scale would decimate the agri-food sector and rural communities in NI, resulting in 13,000 on-farm jobs being lost plus thousands more in the ancillary industries.

(Read the full KPMG report here.)

What does all this mean for farmers?

DAERA will very likely have to significantly revise their proposals currently out for consultation on what future agriculture support looks like and how it aligns to a climate change target. Policies would have to be set to deliver the much more challenging emissions targets over time which ultimately could change farming practices.  It is unlikely that every farm would have to make the estimated reductions to hit the overall target but instead at an NI level. However, people still need to eat and the demand for food will continue to grow. As science develops there will be solutions to tackle methane from agriculture. Great progress is already being made and this may deal with emissions reductions without drastic cuts in numbers, but we need time within the legislative framework for this work to be implemented on farms.

Regardless of the target set, change is being demanded of agriculture, but the UFU will continue to fight that any change must be based on expert advice and sensible. We also need to ensure that all new research is considered in policy decisions particularly around methane.