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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
PA DUP Leader Edwin Poots speaks to the media, Belfast.

Opinion One challenge for the DUP in power will be to finally accept a climate bill

Thomas Muinzer says Northern Ireland waited a long time for a climate bill and now gets two.

THEY SAY LIGHTNING never strikes twice, but one may be well advised to dispense with that maxim in Northern Ireland. After many years without a Climate Change Bill being introduced into the Northern Ireland Assembly, indications are that two Bills may soon be appearing. This amounts to a most peculiar set of circumstances.

Of course, this comes as, hopefully, the latest political crisis in Northern Ireland has been averted and Stormont remains a functioning assembly.

One Climate Bill has been introduced into the Assembly already in March of this year, and just last month it passed an important vote called Second Reading, getting voted through by 58 votes to 29.

The Bill was introduced by Clare Bailey MLA, Leader of Northern Ireland’s Green Party. It received co-sponsorship and support from all major parties in the Assembly apart from the DUP.

The importance of this long-awaited Bill should not be underestimated. At the national level, the UK Parliament enacted a Climate Change Act in 2008, which currently applies the renowned ‘Net Zero’ emissions target to the UK for 2050.

Northern Ireland is the part of the UK that has used its devolved powers to take the least legislative action on climate in the UK, yet it has the most devolved powers to actually affect change.

By way of example, energy generation in Great Britain – a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions – is governed largely at the national level, and so it lies beyond the immediate control of Scotland’s devolved Scottish Parliament.

Yet in spite of these constitutional constraints, Scotland has done what it can to push the envelope, creating a pioneering Climate Change Act of its own in 2009. This currently applies a Net Zero Scottish emissions target for 2045. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, has sweeping devolved powers in the area of energy generation but has failed to act.

People power

Substantial public and political pressure for action have existed within Northern Ireland for a long time. A “Financial and Explanatory Memorandum” accompanying the Climate Bill notes that an opinion poll carried out in the summer of 2020 found that almost three out of four respondents supported the introduction of a Climate Act, and over two-thirds agreed that there should be a Net Zero emissions target for 2045.

A New Decade, New Approach deal was agreed by Northern Ireland’s political parties in January 2020, which included the commitment that “the Executive will introduce legislation and targets for reducing carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Change Accord” such that “the Executive should bring forward a Climate Change Act to give environmental targets a strong legal underpinning.”

Regrettably, Minister Edwin Poots, the newly inaugurated DUP-leader and long-time head of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), danced around this obligation. Perpetuating a culture of prevarication around a Climate Bill for Northern Ireland, he failed to bring forward the requisite legislation.

He was given a shunt by the Northern Ireland Assembly in July 2020, where it passed a motion asserting “the Assembly’s demands for the urgent introduction of a Climate Change Act”, requesting action from the Minister within three months.

Poots subtly let the three months slide by, and eventually it fell to a broad coalition of members of the public, NGOs and others to come together, shape the draft legislation, and ram it into the Assembly under Clare Bailey’s stewardship, supported by all major parties apart from the DUP.

The Bailey Bill proposes a Net Zero emissions reduction target for 2045, to be driven by Climate Action Plans designed to secure the reduction over time. It also proposes to establish a Northern Ireland Climate Commissioner and Northern Ireland Climate Office.

Two for one

Against the colourful backdrop outlined above, the UK’s independent climate advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), took a gentle stumble into the realm of politics in issuing a letter to the Northern Ireland Executive that recommended an (at least) 82% emissions reduction target for 2050 for Northern Ireland.

In doing so, no mention was made of the Bailey Bill that was then under preparation, nor its Net Zero 2045 target, but the advice has been wielded by Minister Poots in an ongoing effort to undermine the Bailey Bill’s 2045 objective, pointing to the CCC’s disagreement with the figure.

More curiously, though, Minister Poots’ broader response to the Bailey Bill has been to begin production of a second Climate Bill for Northern Ireland, which he says he intends to introduce into the Northern Irish Parliament alongside the current Bill. This would make for an unusual situation indeed – two major Bills on the same crucial matter proceeding through Parliament at the same time. Surely something unseen in contemporary devolved politics.

If the Bailey Bill’s Net Zero 2045 target is deemed unsuitable in the eyes of some, there is a credible argument that it could be amended to a Net Zero target for 2050, i.e., changed by the Assembly before the Act is passed so that it aligns with the UK’s overall Net Zero target for 2050 under the national Climate Change Act.

This ‘amendment’ argument would be rooted in an acknowledgement of Northern Ireland’s circumstances as the weakest jurisdiction economically in the UK, its proportionally high level of emissions arising from agriculture – a particularly difficult sector to regulate – and similar.

It could also be noted that Carbon Capture and Storage is intended to form a major pillar of the UK’s emissions mitigation strategy over coming years, but it is not anticipated to operate in Northern Ireland significantly due to various technical geographic limitations, thereby depriving Northern Ireland of significant mitigation opportunities in comparison to the rest of the UK.

While a 2045 Net Zero target is most desirable on environmental grounds, a 2050 Net Zero target provides a credible amendment possibility for those who, unlike me, cannot accept it.

But amendments are one thing – a natural part of the life of a Bill through Parliament – whereas creating and introducing an entirely new Bill at the same time seems peculiar and imprudent.

Thomas Muinzer is a freelance writer and lecturer in law at Aberdeen University.


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