'Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK and Ireland without dedicated climate legislation'
The UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) chair, Lord Deben, has come under criticism from environmental campaigners in Northern Ireland, who argue he is setting back the progress of the province’s first official climate legislation.
Their comments came as emphasis was placed on agriculture yesterday at the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow.
At present, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK and Ireland without dedicated climate legislation. And a battle has emerged this year over two proposed laws that are passing through the devolved administration at Stormont.
One of the proposed bills, put forward by Green Party leader Clare Bailey, sets a 2045 net zero deadline for NI. But a second climate bill, tabled by agriculture minister Edwin Poots, would instead seek an 82% reduction in NI emissions by 2050.
An ‘enhanced’ compromise bill has also been put forward by Ms Bailey in recent days.
With fresh Assembly Elections due to be held before 5th May 2022, some campaigners believe Poots’ bill is designed to water down the contents of the incoming legislation or to torpedo its proposals altogether.
Agriculture pressure groups have argued the first bill may wipe out half of NI’s livestock farmers if it were enforced. Poots, a creationist who has stubbornly held onto the agriculture brief after his short-lived spell as DUP leader, has also said it would “decimate” NI’s agri-food industry, costing the province £1bn a year in lost revenue.
At the annual Balmoral Show gathering this summer, Deben defended his previous comments that had described efforts to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in NI by 2045 as “morally wrong” and simply “an aspiration”, with the upshot being that Great Britain would have “to make up that difference” for the UK to meet its current climate targets.
“I don’t think it’s right to ask people to do something you know you can’t do,” he said when questioned at the event.
“Because that is not a target – it’s an aspiration…84% or about that is what we believe that Northern Ireland can achieve. And the rest of the United Kingdom will have to make up that difference.”
Environmentalists have responded by claiming that the CCC chair is allowing NI to ‘go rogue’ on its climate commitments in developments that they say will set the north behind the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain at a time of wider uncertainty for the region.
They have also cited correspondence between the CCC and Poots in which they say it is pointed out that there is no technical reason why NI can not reach net zero by 2045.
Friends of the Earth NI director, James Orr, told LFF that Deben’s position overlooked small farmers in NI that are increasingly losing out to a heavily-subsidised intensive agriculture sector.
“The bill and the emissions target Deben has supported will benefit agribusiness at the expense of more sustainable family farmers in Northern Ireland,” he said.
The ‘Just Transition’ principle is embedded into the first climate bill and would apply to the agriculture sector, in particular. This idea doesn’t really feature in the second bill at all and some of the evidence it relies on is very questionable.
“He’s effectively letting Northern Ireland go rogue on its climate commitments.”
Deben has won plaudits from a number of quarters this year for his interventions opposing new fossil fuel projects in Great Britain, such as the proposed west Cumbria coal mine and Cambo oilfield schemes.
But, Friends of the Earth NI says, he has unduly “politicised” the supposedly impartial committee in his support for Poots’ legislative proposals. They also alleged that the CCC had not approached environmental groups in the six counties for input on the legislation.
Orr added that Deben’s engagements concerning the proposed bills have seen him effectively provide cover for NI’s most reactionary and denialist climate actors. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson, another creationist who has held the environment brief at Stormont in the past, has this week attacked the wider climate commitments made by the UK government at Cop26, objecting to the “huge costs of net zero” and branding the summit a “climate circus.”
In recent years, Wilson has also argued that manmade climate change is “a con.”
“Lord Deben hasn’t responded to the best science here,” Orr said. “He’s responded to power and money.
“This pushes us further down the line of being a receptor for toxic industries. It’s simply more evidence that we need independent oversight in Northern Ireland – both in terms of the role we play here towards the UK’s overall emissions responsibilities and in terms of emissions on the island of Ireland.”
An independent EPA-style environmental regulator was promised for NI in the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement that saw the Assembly resume business in early 2020 after a more than three-year-long shutdown period. But, as yet, such a body has not materialised.
A spokesperson for the Climate Change Committee told LFF that Deben’s evidence concerning the legislation had been “fair”, saying: “Lord Deben’s evidence to the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee reflected the Climate Change Committee’s latest advice to the Northern Ireland Executive on long-term emissions targets as part of a fair contribution to the UK Net Zero target in 2050 and our international obligations under the Paris Agreement.
“As far as we are aware, we have not declined any meeting requests from environmental civil society groups in Northern Ireland.”
Tommy Greene is a freelance journalist
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