Ireland votes for legally binding 2050 net-zero target, but agriculture may be exempt
Ministers of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland have voted to amend the nation's Climate Change Bill to include a legally binding net-zero target for 2050 - but the Agriculture Minister has suggested he will push for an exemption.
At a meeting of MLAs late on Tuesday (1 February), an amendment to the existing Climate Change Bill, to increase the legally binding net emissions reduction target for 2050 from 82% to 100%, was passed. The amendment was tabled by the Green Party of Northern Ireland and passed by 50 votes to 38.
Northern Ireland first announced a net-zero target last summer and, at the time, enshrined a target to reduce net emissions by 51% by 2030, against a 1990 baseline, in law. At that point, it did acknowledge that an updated 2050 target, as well as a review of carbon accounting processes, would likely be needed to ensure alignment with the Paris Agreement, and with the UK’s long-term climate targets.
The Green Party of Northern Ireland’s leader Clare Bailey said the new amendment “is an important step towards ensuring strong and robust climate legislation”, and that the vote shows a “clear expression of the will of the Assembly” to combat the climate crisis. Indeed, Northern Ireland is the last part of the UK to set a legally binding 100% net emissions reduction commitment for 2050 or sooner (the deadline is 2045 in Scotland).
The Climate Change Bill must pass through two further stages before it is sent for Royal Assent. Aside from the new 2050 net emissions target, there are more than 70 other amendments on the table.
The Green Party of Northern Ireland has stated that it will propose a 2045 target for reaching net-zero carbon, while other factions are seeking less of a stringent plan.
Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots called the new 2050 target “stupidity”, for example, arguing that it will be challenging to deliver a just transition within this timeframe for the 100,000 people employed in agriculture. Poots has stated that he intends to press for the agriculture sector to be exempt from carbon accounting under the Bill, to prevent “devastation” for rural communities.
In response, the Green Party of Northern Ireland has proposed a just transition fund for agriculture and is calling on Assembly members to back its creation, through a further amendment to the Bill.
Farmers and environmentalists have been holding separate protests outside of Stormont this week. Farming groups including the Ulster Farmers Union chanted “we want legislation that will support us, not eliminate us” and “don’t mess with our future”.
Agriculture accounts for around 2.5% of Northern Ireland’s GDP, compared to a 1% proportion for the UK as a whole.
Land-use shift and the just transition
The situation in Northern Ireland comes as, in England, the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) faces mounting calls to clarify how it will deliver its post-Brexit payment schemes for the agriculture sector.
In January 2020, the UK’s post-Brexit Agriculture Bill was introduced, including measures to prevent farmers from being financially incentivized to over-produce at the expense of the environment. Instead, new subsidies were promised for farmers providing “public goods” such as healthy soil and improvements to biodiversity.
Defra has subsequently provided more information, in recent weeks, about the Basic Payment Scheme under the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) package, as well as the Local Nature Recovery scheme and Landscape Recovery scheme. These announcements were met with criticism, with trade groups, individual farmers and green groups all calling for more detailed information on the schemes’ operations and predicted outcomes, a faster rollout and higher payments.
While trade bodies representing agriculture have acknowledged the need to boost biodiversity and lower emissions, they are seeking more clarity on how profitability and food security will be maintained if more land is set aside for plant-based foods and for nature conservation and restoration. These concerns have been reiterated by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and members of the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee.
The UK Government’s own climate advisory body, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has recommended that, as well as incentivising farmers to adopt low-carbon practices, there will need to be expansions to forestry cover and the bioenergy crop sector. It is also recommending a 20% reduction in food waste across the value chain and a 20% decrease in per-capita red meat and dairy consumption by 2050. The National Food Strategy recommends a more ambitious target on the latter point, with a reduction of one-third. Defra is yet to publish a full response to the National Food Strategy and is expected to do so later this year.