Northern Ireland is set to officially have its own climate change legislation after Stormont MPs passed a bill from Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots.
r Poots and Green Party leader Clare Bailey had both proposed climate change bills, but Ms Bailey withdrew her bill on Wednesday.
Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the UK that does not have its own climate legislation, but UK-wide targets apply to the region.
Presenting the Bill to the House of Assembly, Mr Poots described it as ‘significant legislation’ and said it ‘would impact the Executive and the Assembly for decades to come’ .
“Some have said I couldn’t or wouldn’t introduce this legislation, but it’s clear I’m here today that those accusations were unfounded,” he said.
Mr Poots’ bill, backed by the food industry, initially proposed a target of 82% carbon neutrality by 2050, but has been criticized by environmentalists as not going far enough.
Politicians in Stormont then amended the bill to agree a goal of net zero by 2050. It also includes a provision for the appointment of a climate change commissioner.
The bill also contains a separate 46% reduction target for methane emissions, which are largely associated with the agricultural sector.
The Climate Change Bill (No 2) was one of two competing bills that were going through the Assembly at the same time.
An alternative climate bill had been proposed by Northern Ireland Green Party leader Clare Bailey.
Mr. Poots’ bill first reached the final stage of its legislative journey.
In response, Ms Bailey announced that she would not go ahead with her bill.
There was initially a significant gap between the targets of the two bills, with Ms Bailey proposing the more ambitious target of net zero by 2045 compared to an initial target in Mr Poots’ bill of an 82% reduction emissions by 2050.
Mr Poots said: “Climate change is an issue that affects everyone in Northern Ireland and everyone on this planet.
“This requires people globally and locally to respond, and as politicians we have a duty to act to ensure that our environmental footprint becomes smaller and that we produce a sustainable economic and environmental model where both can thrive in the future.”
Referring to the net zero target during the endgame, Mr Poots told Politicians in Stormont: ‘Agreed to change the primary focus of the bill to net zero emissions by 2050 and that was really for a title, it’s purely a lofty goal and one that unless we invest huge amounts of money or acquire carbon credits, we’re unlikely to achieve it.
Ms Bailey told Stormont Chamber Civil Society and campaigners they acted when the minister ‘failed to take the lead’ on the issue.
She said the bill had been made “much stronger” following a series of amendments tabled by the Green Party.
She also accused Mr Poots’ bill of being “much less ambitious, much narrower” than her bill.
Ms Bailey also suggested that targets for methane emissions had weakened the bill and yielded to NI’s “highest emitting sector” – in reference to the agricultural sector.
Mr Poots responded to his critics, saying his bill was ‘poorly drafted and economically damaging’.
He said it would have forced Northern Ireland to import more food from countries that lack such energy-efficient production methods.
“It wouldn’t have solved the problems of climate change – in fact, it would have hurt the climate change agenda,” he said.
The Climate Change Bill (No 2) passed in an oral vote and therefore needs to receive Royal Assent before coming into force.
Reacting to the passage of the bill, the Ulster Farmers’ Union said its members were “relieved that common sense had prevailed”.
President Victor Chestnutt said: “It has been a long and winding road to get to this point on this issue. We are very pleased that MPs voted in favor of the Executive’s Climate Change Bill today in the Northern Ireland (NI) Assembly, allowing it to soon become law.
“Big changes will be needed for agriculture to achieve the bill’s goals, but all are backed by science and expert advice leading us back to the Climate Change Committee’s balanced path for agriculture.
“Our farmers are completely relieved that we now have legislation in place that will allow them to reduce emissions without wiping out our unique farm family structure, damaging the very fabric of our rural communities across NI.”