Climate Change Act for NI - Where are we now?

Climate Change Act for NI - Where are we now?

Progress towards a Northern Ireland Climate Change Act: a tale of two Bills and what must happen next.

In Northern Ireland we remain the only part of the UK without legally binding greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets – as enshrined in a Climate Change Act. This is in spite of us having the highest emissions per person of all UK regions, and the declaration of a Climate Emergency by the NI Assembly in February 2020.  However, we’re now in the unique position in Northern Ireland of having not one, but two Climate Change Bills making their way through the legislative process to become our first ever Climate Change Act. 
First up was the Private Members’ Bill (brought to the Assembly by Clare Bailey MLA), which is referred to as the “Climate Change Bill” – this was supported by the Climate Coalition NI and its headline ask is a Net Zero Emissions Target by 2045. Notably, this Bill has cross party support with the exception of the DUP, and made it to Committee stage (see Figure 1 of legislative process) in May 2021, with a Call for Evidence by the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) Committee completed before the summer recess. 


NI Legislative stages

Figure 1. Northern Ireland legislative stages 

Edwin Poots MLA (Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs), following a DAERA-led public consultation at the start of the year, then brought his departmental Climate Change Bill to the Assembly, passing its First stage on 5th July 2021, with the Second stage completed on 27th September 2021.  This Bill is currently known as “Climate Change (No. 2) Bill”.  Due to the urgent nature of progressing a Climate Change Act before the Assembly stands down in spring 2022, rather than wait for the Bill to pass the Second stage before moving to Committee stage and its Call for Evidence, the written Call for Evidence was opened over the summer and closed on 30 September, and oral evidence sessions ongoing following completion of the Second stage.

There are some key differences between the DAERA Bill and the Private Members’ Bill (PMB):

The DAERA Bill has a less stringent emissions target of an 82% reduction by 2050, compared to the PMB’s target of net zero emissions by 2045.   

The DAERA Bill does not make provision for an independent local Climate Commissioner, or for the supporting Climate Office.    

Reporting of progress against targets differs: annual reporting in the PMB versus 5 yearly reporting by the DAERA Bill. 

Just transition principles are embedded in the PMB but not mentioned in the DAERA Bill. 

 Non-regression clauses are in the PMB but not in the DAERA Bill. 

Sustainable NI has produced a handy table outlining the differences between the bills which you can access via the link below

The most notable – and most important – difference between the Bills is the overarching emissions target: DAERA Bill’s target is based on the UK Climate Change Committee’s evidence for an achievable pathway based on Northern Ireland’s current economic structures.  Edwin Poots has strongly argued that the PMB’s net zero by 2045 target would disproportionately affect the agri-food sector, and could be unachievable. This has been countered by others who are stating that in a Climate Emergency we must have the highest possible ambition, to drive innovation, partnership and solutions, and set appropriately bold targets. Furthermore, the principles of Just Transition (as included in the PMB) would ensure that no one sector of society would be disproportionately affected.  At Ulster Wildlife, we recognise that how we use the land has a huge impact on emissions- for example through degraded peatlands, and that livestock-related methane emissions account for a significant proportion of NI’s overall emissions – and that there is no simple or quick fix to these issues. However, we also believe that solutions are emerging and that investment is needed now to accelerate these

So what will happen to two Bills that currently both sit at Committee stage in the legislative process? The Assembly, by custom and practice, gives priority to the Executive’s legislation, which may mean the PMB will now not get enough time to complete its remaining stages (see Figure 1 above) before the May 2022 elections.  It is hoped, however, that given the PMB’s progress, its cross-party support and the concluded AERA Committee Call for Evidence for this Bill, that at a minimum there will be attempts to merge elements of the two Bills and agree on a single path forward.   Ulster Wildlife has responded to the Calls for Evidence for both Bills and we have continued to highlight the urgency for action: Climate change is the single biggest threat to nature – and people.  We will continue to campaign for a Climate Change Act to be in place before the May 2022 elections- further delays are unacceptable. 

Ulster Wildlife is calling for strong leadership from our government, in line with Northern Ireland’s declaration of a climate emergency, with legally binding, ambitious emissions targets in place within the year. This must galvanise the necessary action and just transition to reduce future climate risks. 

Finally, the role of nature-based solutions in adapting to climate risks that we’re locked into, and in tackling emissions (e.g. by locking away carbon), must be front and centre- we cannot address climate change without addressing biodiversity loss.