Yes, I can confirm that I am moving the motion. I beg to move
That this Assembly recognises that we are facing climate breakdown and a biodiversity crisis, which are impacting here and now, and will affect all aspects of our lives in coming years; declares a climate emergency; and calls upon the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the Minister for the Economy to implement urgently the commitments as agreed in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to include reviewing the Executive’s strategies to reduce carbon emissions in respect of the Paris Accord and the need to limit global warming to 1·5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100; developing a new energy strategy that will set ambitious targets and actions for a fair and just transition to a zero-carbon society; bringing forward a climate change Act to give environmental targets a strong legal underpinning; establishing an independent environmental protection agency to oversee this work and ensure targets are met; developing an economic strategy that will support clean and inclusive growth and create jobs as part of a green new deal; creating a plan to eliminate plastic pollution; and closing down the renewable heat incentive scheme and replacing it with a scheme that cuts carbon emissions effectively.
Order. Please resume your seat; there is some protocol to go through. The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. Three amendments were selected, but one has since been withdrawn. In accordance with convention, an extra 15 minutes has been allocated to the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and a further 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. The proposers of the amendments will have 10 minutes to move and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
I now call on Dr Archibald to open the debate on the motion.
Third time lucky. I am delighted that we have the opportunity to debate this important motion. I move the motion and will support amendment No 1. On that, I acknowledge colleagues Clare and Rachel in the Green Party. I am grateful that we were able to work together on this. It sends a positive message when we can collaborate cross-party on big important issues that will affect us all.
For many years, the science and evidence on the breakdown of our climate have been abundantly clear. The earth's temperature is rising, causing our polar ice sheets to melt and collapse and our sea levels to rise, heat up and acidify. We are all witness to the increasing numbers of extreme weather events that cause greater human and ecological damage around the world. There is, perhaps, no more striking example of that than the bush fires in Australia. They have caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of precious and endangered animals whose species might never recover and devastated the land and plant life. We send our solidarity to those suffering the real and present consequences of climate breakdown in Australia and around the world where extreme weather events will not get the same media attention.
The scientific evidence is also crystal clear on the cause of global warming. Carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases pumped into our atmosphere are rapidly warming our planet. It is also clear that this is a direct result of industrialisation, endless economic expansion and resource consumption and other human behaviours. The rise in global temperatures between 2006 and 2015 was greater than in the 50 years between 1850 and 1900. Since the pre-industrial era, the earth has warmed by at least 1°. If we want to have any chance of a safe and stable climate future, we must halt that warming in its tracks. In 2020, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have just 10 years to reduce our global carbon emissions by at least 50% to have any chance of limiting warming to 1·5°. That is our target: if we miss it and even succeed in limiting warming to 2°, that difference of 0·5° could change the world irrevocably. It would expose millions more people to heatstroke and desertification; it could displace millions more climate refugees, as sea levels rise further and food and other essential resources become more scarce. Sea levels will rise, with more flooding in vulnerable areas. That 0·5° will see our air more polluted, while our oceans warm further, destroying marine wildlife and coral reefs.
The essential point is this: we have no margin for error. Any error or lack of application or the slightest failure to recognise the emergency around us has profound human and wider implications. As legislators and those charged with protecting public safety, our natural environment, our biodiversity and our climate for future generations, we must move now with urgency — all of us. To do that , we need rapid and radical action to reduce our emissions. We all have an individual and moral responsibility to confront climate breakdown and the disfigurement of the natural world, but meeting the scale of that challenge will require systemic change and unprecedented government action. By declaring a climate emergency, we are telling the public and the world that we recognise the scale of policy change and cooperation needed to deliver radical and consistent climate action. We are saying, "We are ready to meet the challenge of limiting global warming to 1·5°". The purpose of the motion is to ensure the Assembly and the Ministers responsible in the new Executive urgently implement the commitments on climate action and environment in 'New Decade, New Approach'. However, to be clear, I do not believe that the actions listed should be or can be the sum total of our response to the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis; they are a starting point.
Detractors of the radical policy that we need to deliver across all Departments will deploy tired and exhausted excuses for inaction. They may ask, "Is this not too costly?". To this we must say, "We cannot afford not to act". The current unprecedented bush fires in Australia are likely to result in a cost of tens of billions of pounds. The cost of dealing with extreme weather events and the negative impact on health, infrastructure, food security and our ecosystems is incalculable. Central banks around the world now recognise the systemic and unprecedented risk to the global economy and the financial system. Perhaps the most vocal of those actors is Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, who starkly warned the global financial industry:
"Those that fail to adapt will cease to exist."
We have the choice of allowing total economic damage, or we can embrace the prospect of a just transition and roll out climate action in a way that protects vulnerable communities, improves resilience through afforestation, transforms our public services and improves human health. Moving towards a zero-carbon society, we must introduce secure high-skilled employment to harness the world-leading potential of our renewable energy resources. That can create clean energy to power communities, eliminate fuel poverty and save hundreds of millions of pounds on annual fossil fuel imports.
At the core of any economic strategy going forward must be a green new deal and the principles of a just transition. A green new deal will support other key commitments in 'New Decade, New Approach', including addressing regional imbalance. We now have the real opportunity to fundamentally change our economy, improve productivity and direct resources on the basis of demonstrable and objective need. That is the vision of a just transition in this part of our island: confronting climate change in a way that improves the quality of our lives and ensures that we live within our planetary boundaries. To that end, Sinn Féin wants to see the establishment of a just transition commission that will detail the economic and legislative changes needed to reach the IPCC 1·5° target, while protecting the lives and livelihoods of communities. We need to end dependence on fossil fuels and move towards renewable energy sources. Sinn Féin has called for a moratorium on the issuing of any new fossil-fuel licences on the island of Ireland, as well as a complete ban on fracking.
Here in the North, we have met and surpassed the 40% target for the production of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. We now need a strategy that will rapidly build on that progress with programmes to replace the renewable schemes that are no longer active. The renewables transition must also be supported by improving energy efficiency through an ambitious retrofitting programme and amending planning regulations to ensure carbon-neutral buildings.
We want to see climate action legislation that places targets on a statutory footing and obligates Departments, public authorities and public bodies to put in place strategies to meet emission reduction targets. An independent environmental protection agency must ensure that those targets are met, provide support and advice and, where necessary, deliver enforcement. We need policy that will both encourage change by consumers and obligate corporations and big polluters to reduce their emissions and move towards renewable sources. The same is true in tackling pollution, waste and toxic plastic waste, in particular, through an extended producer responsibility scheme.
All the actions outlined will be the initial steps in our response to the climate emergency. It is necessary that we take those steps immediately and with urgency. We also need to ensure that our actions are joined up and collaborative. We need to act on an all-island basis, as climate and environment recognise no borders. We need to continue to uphold and work to EU environment regulatory frameworks and contribute to wider targets.
In summing up, I thank all those who provided briefings for today's debate, including SONI, NIFDA, NIE, the Royal College of Nursing, RSPB and others. The range of those who provided briefings shows the cross-cutting nature of the impact of the climate emergency. I also thank the Assembly Research and Information Service for its briefing.
Finally, I pay tribute to activists across Ireland and, in particular, our young people who have joined the school strikes over the past year. They stand alongside activists around the world who have ensured that the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis will no longer be ignored. They have placed the emergency facing us at the heart of the political agenda, exactly where it needs to be. In their name, and for future generations, we cannot let them down. I commend the motion and amendment No 1 and hope for all-party support.
Leave out all after "crisis" and insert: "declares a climate emergency; and calls on the Executive to fulfil the climate action and environmental commitments agreed in the New Decade, New Approach agreement by commencing, as a matter of urgency, a review of the Executive’s strategies to reduce carbon emissions in respect of the Paris Accord and the need to limit global warming to 1·5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100 and to ensure that targets are met; and further calls upon the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to begin immediately work to establish an independent environmental protection agency based on models of best practice, that will be appointed within 12 months."
Members do not need me to tell them that we have very little time to act on the twin crises of climate disruption and biodiversity loss. The UN scientific consensus is that we have 12 years to arrest carbon emissions. Meanwhile, another UN science body tells us that one million species are at risk of annihilation. Members do not need me to tell them that the climate is becoming increasingly chaotic, and Members do not need me to tell them that a collapse in biodiversity will be accompanied by the collapse of humanity.
Leading climate scientists have warned that there are less than a dozen years left for global warming to be kept at a maximum of 1·5 degrees, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. I do not have time, during this debate today, to go into the double injustice that those who will be the worst and most affected, short and long term, are those in the global south; those who did not cause this but who are having to leave their land because it is uninhabitable; those who literally have to move to another island because their current home will be under water in a few years.
Given the magnitude of this issue and its severity, there is a role to play at every level of society and government, and it should be the top priority of this Government. Accelerating our pace of change is no simple task, and it will be a challenge for everyone at times of supposed austerity and cuts, but it is a challenge that we need to rise to. There is no app for this. There will not be a wholly technological solution to fix this issue. We must fix it at every level, from the home to the farm, to how we grow and consume our food, to how we travel, what we wear and up to our entire economic structure.
A crucial part of responding to the climate emergency is the decarbonisation of our economy; that is, the phased and planned transition beyond fossil fuels. What is needed is a transformational adaptation of our economy and society. We need to take a leadership role in bringing the importance of climate breakdown and energy transition to the forefront.
The motion as amended can give us five steps. First, we can declare a climate emergency, mobilising the resources and attentions that this deserves. The second recognises that we are actually in a climate and biodiversity crisis, leading to detailed action plans on how that can be managed. This needs to include the voices of and cooperation from everyone at every level. The third calls on the Executive to live up to the promises in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, crucially introducing a climate change Act as Northern Ireland still does not have one. The fourth reviews the Executive's strategies to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Accord and ensures that those targets are met. Finally, it calls on the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to begin to work immediately to establish an independent environmental protection agency based on models of best practice. That agency should be appointed within 12 months as we desperately need it if we are to meet any of these commitments. We need legislation with teeth, and we need an agency that has teeth, is properly resourced and is able to respond and lead on matters, which is why we are calling for one to be introduced as a matter of urgency.
We have much to do to get up to speed on plastic pollution, marine waste, illegal dumping, air quality and air pollution, transport and long-term sustainable planning. We need to tackle our biodiversity crisis as part of a climate breakdown as the two are intertwined. Environmental and natural mitigations to climate change are available and should be utilised. Northern Ireland is on target to go beyond the goal of generating 40% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020, yet levels of greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, and we have the highest levels of car use, air that is literally killing us and the highest levels of fuel poverty in the UK and Europe. As many Members know, 42% of households in Northern Ireland are in fuel poverty, which is a terrible blight on our society where people have to choose between heating and eating. We should all be ashamed of that figure. There is an answer, and that is why we need a just transition beyond fossil fuels as that is the only legitimate way to respond to climate breakdown: a fundamental change to our system.
A just transition means that no one will be left behind. Governments must cooperate with trade unions, industry and local communities to ensure that good quality jobs are available to workers in the new low-carbon green economy. We can retrofit homes, street by street, and ensure that any new houses are of the best quality and are as efficient as they can be. We can train and upskill the labour market, and we have an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in coordinating such moves. We have an opportunity to lead on quality rather than focusing on quantity. pA just transition strategy not only is recognised in the preamble to the Paris agreement but is growing as an inclusive, realistic and positive approach to tackling climate breakdown. In September last year, for example, a just transition commission was established in Scotland, and the Spanish Government have committed over €250 million to compensate, retrain and offer early retirement to displaced workers and their communities. All those could serve as possible models for Northern Ireland so that we can address climate breakdown and the various transformations in different sectors and areas of our lives connected to creating a low-carbon Northern Irish economy and society.
The just transition approach has been supported and promoted by trade unions, businesses, climate advocates and environmentalists as a way to ensure climate policies include economic and, especially, employment considerations and that any low-carbon transition prioritises jobs that are well paid, decent employment and in the new green economy. It proposes bringing together everyone in a social dialogue to formulate and drive the plans, policies and investments that are needed for a fast and fair transition to a low-carbon economy. The transition to a green economy will be an opportunity for more jobs, warmer homes and new businesses, and will therefore be a positive step as opposed to being something that we begrudgingly have to do.
There are many voices that urge us not to do anything too radical. Why spend money on cutting emissions when we are only a tiny part of a huge global economy? Let the others do the hard work, and we can follow later. Apart from the moral bankruptcy of that argument, if we do not invest in a low-carbon economy now, we will be left behind in pretty short order. With no carbon targets and poor environmental regulation on our businesses, we will all wake up one morning and realise that they can no longer compete in a green economy. That will not be their fault; it will be ours for failing to provide the leadership that is needed now. A very wise man once said that a roof should be fixed when it is sunny, not when it is raining. The time to act is now, not some time down the road when the costs of doing something about it are dire and the negative consequences of inaction are high. This is not a "keep calm and carry on" situation. It is no longer business as usual. We owe it to our citizens and our young people to act now by declaring an emergency and showing leadership and action. This issue is above party politics. It is far too serious.
I will finish with the words of one young person who has provided more leadership in the past year than all the world's politicians together. In Davos last year, Greta Thunberg said:
"Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is."
Leave out all after "years" and insert: "notes that the 'New Decade New Approach' paper was tabled by HM Government, in conjunction, where relevant, with the Government of the Republic of Ireland and contained within appendix 2 a possible outline of a Programme for Government that listed a number of potential measures on the subject of climate change but which have not been agreed as a final Programme of Government by the parties within the Executive; and calls on the Executive to use an evidence-based approach to balance the demands of our growing population whilst ensuring the protection of our natural resources for future generations, as they work to construct a final Programme for Government."
Thank you, Mr Irwin. You will have 10 minutes in which to propose the amendment and a further five minutes at the end in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak in the debate will have five minutes. The Assembly should note that amendment No 1 and amendment No 2 are mutually exclusive, so if amendment No 1 is made, the Question will not be put on amendment No 2.
I speak as a farmer and as someone who is fully committed, first, by my personal desire and motivation and, secondly, of course, by very strict environmental guidelines to be a custodian of the countryside. That is a role that I take very seriously. I am joined in that role by many thousands of other farmers across Northern Ireland who also farm the land and take great care of the environment. That work is of the utmost importance. It cannot be overstated from an environmental perspective. The work, which, as I said, is very tightly controlled and monitored, serves the very important purpose of protecting our ecosystems while also providing vital food to sustain our population in Northern Ireland and, through exports, populations across the UK and further afield.
I am not a climate alarmist, and I do not promote alarmism. I say that because I have seen, over many years, all types of different weather patterns, which have given benefit and concern in equal measure. The farmer will agree with me wholeheartedly on that. However, I do not dispute that industrialisation has given cause to an increase in disruptive weather patterns in the global context. In Northern Ireland, as we know, farming the land and relying heavily on weather systems instils in the farmer an acute understanding of the environment. Farmers know a great deal about the capabilities of the environment and, indeed, its resilience.
The motion leads with the statement that we are "facing climate breakdown". Everyone understands that, across the world, there is a growing frequency of climate events that are causing great distress and concern and are upsetting the lives of people in a very serious way. We should all be concerned about that. I want to see the environment be protected in the strongest possible terms. However, I want to see everyone playing a part in that response in a measured and non-alarmist fashion. Consumerism is driving global industrialisation, so it is consumers and their habits that will, to a significant degree, dictate the pace of change.
Recent statistics on global emissions point a finger very firmly towards China and other nations with a high reliance on coal and fossil fuels. The UK, by contrast, currently contributes only 1%, owing to very proactive steps taken to reduce carbon emissions, and that is to be welcomed. However, it is somewhat negatively offset by the UK's high-import carbon footprint for goods that are bought in, for instance, from China.
Farmers have been leading the way on protecting the countryside. Financial margins for farmers are so tight and competitive that their farming operations must be managed on the strictest and most efficient terms. A few decades ago, thousands of farmers, each with their own sewing, fertilising and harvesting operations, used smaller vehicles and equipment and took many trips to complete a task. In 2020, we have a limited number of contracted services that use high-tech machinery and much more capable equipment that covers greater areas much more efficiently. Food products must meet the most rigid production standards, meaning that farmers cannot cut corners. Farmers are encouraged to make their farm as clean and traceable as possible. That, as I said, is bound by strict protocol. That type of responsibility and custodianship, if anything, needs to be replicated across other production sectors and, indeed, instilled in our general population.
I mentioned wider society needing to care for the environment. Take a look at our roadside verges. They are a disgrace, strewn with litter and Coke bottles. Our hedgerows are the same. Everything looks unsightly. That is certainly damaging our environment. Farmers are sick of litter being blown across their fields and causing risk to grazing animals. Hundreds of thousands of plastic bottles litter our roadsides, along with coffee cups and takeaway packaging.
Why is it acceptable for people to hurl their packaging into the verge and for our councils to spend heavily on removing this unsightly mess, costing ratepayers more and more each year? This is only one area, but it shows that responsibility is key to this debate.
Impacting global emissions positively will, of course, take more positive action across the globe, but it will also take a very real effort by consumers to use resources much more wisely and make choices much more sustainably. The amendment I speak on takes a more measured, reasoned approach to dealing with what is truly a global problem, and it is important that the Assembly and Executive take actions that are very well assessed and thought out and balanced by protecting both our environment and the livelihoods of people in Northern Ireland.
The motion calls for Departments to simply rush ahead and implement actions "urgently". This is not how it should be done. Actions should be well thought out and need to be sustainable. Proposals and policies need to be tailored to the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. I do not support knee-jerk reactions, which will do more harm than good to the well-being of the economy of Northern Ireland in the here and now.
I fully support the need for the Executive and the Executive parties to agree a financial Programme for Government that can work effectively on measures that, as the amendment says, use an evidence-based approach that will continue to see our environment protected not only in the here and now but for future generations. As I said, I speak as someone who has endeavoured to care for the environment for decades, and I want to see —.
I thank the Member for giving way. The Member outlined the issues he has with the language in the motion, and I will bring to his attention some issues that some of us might have with the language in the amendment, specifically when we talk about a:
"possible outline of a Programme for Government which listed a number of potential measures" with regard to climate change. Yes, the deal was tabled by the two Governments, but it was signed up to by the two biggest parties, and, as I recall, the DUP was quick out of the blocks to do so. It was the basis on which five parties, including my own, went into the Executive in good faith. Do we now see the DUP distancing itself from the agreement, even the uncontroversial aspects, such as commitments to tackling climate change, —
I thank the Member for his intervention. I do not believe so. I think these issues need to be thought out properly and looked at in great detail before decisions are rushed in to.
As I said, I speak as someone who has endeavoured to care for the environment for decades, and I want to see people with a new-found respect for the environment around them. One aspect of any climate response must be a renewed sense of understanding of how our daily actions impact on the environment. As a Province, we can control only what is within our gift to control. It is, therefore, clear that we can, in the very near future, make decisions in a balanced and measured way that continue to protect our green and pleasant land and, in fact, create new opportunities.
"By April 2020, informed by a detailed stakeholder engagement process, the Executive will publish a new strategic level outcomes-based Programme for Government aligned to a multi-year budget with a sustained approach to public finances and prioritised investment in infrastructure and public services. The new Programme will be aimed at delivering lasting changes and improvements in key priority areas and will include measures aimed at: removing paramilitarism, ending sectarianism, transforming health and social care, reforming education, ensuring households have access to good quality, affordable and sustainable homes, addressing climate change, creating good jobs and protecting workers’ rights."
Further, it states:
"The new Programme for Government will be supported by an Anti-poverty strategy; an Economic/Industrial strategy; and an Investment strategy."
In addressing climate change, as the amendment suggests, actions on this issue must be complementary to our ambitions in the Programme for Government. It cannot be in competition with our objectives as an Assembly. For instance, an economic and industrial strategy must be positive and forward-looking but also respectful and meaningful in protecting our environment. This is where our efforts need to be directed, with full engagement from the industry, to arrive at a sustainable and desirable set of objectives to ensure that our Province does its share to lessen the impacts of climate change.
That is why, through our amendment, I encourage Executive parties to ensure that every effort is made to construct and agree a Programme for Government that is ambitious, that promotes and encourages economic and social enhancement, and that also contains measured approaches to meet the challenges of climate change and its effects.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I express my gratitude to the Speaker of the House for his role in going back and securing the funding for a little school called St John the Baptist. The school enhancement programme brought the Minister out to west Belfast to visit that school. For me, that was a wonderful example of how and in what way this place is meant to work. As the old advert says, "We're better together".
This is my maiden speech, 1,168 days since the people of Lagan Valley elected me to the Chamber. I come from the world of business. I got my first job in the bar at the age of 15, and I have worked ever since. I was elected to this Chamber to work, and it is disgraceful that we have not been able to work whilst people in our communities are suffering, whether from poverty, mental health or lack of a hospital bed. We can never let such action occur again.
I am, however, very glad that I have the opportunity to use my maiden speech — sounds strange when you say "maiden speech" at the age that I am at, but anyhow
— to speak on this incredibly important motion. I am particularly glad that the motion brings the issue of the climate emergency to the Assembly Floor so soon after we have been able to re-form. This is not only because of the devastation the climate emergency will cause to Northern Ireland but because, in the past, many in the Chamber have expressed some curious views when it comes to climate change. Even former Ministers for the Environment have expressed some foolish views denying the existence of climate change. I hope that, in supporting the motion, the Assembly shows all the people of Northern Ireland that this really is a new decade and a new approach.
The climate emergency impacts on a wide range of areas. That is why our plan for tackling it needs to be broad and far-reaching. These plans will not only see benefits in our environment. A move to a greener energy supply creates a more secure energy supply that is less vulnerable to global tensions that we cannot control. A greener economy not only cuts down waste but cuts down on cost, allowing our businesses to take home more of their hard-earned profits — probably to pay the rates. A greener public transport system not only reduces our emissions but creates a more connected and accessible society for us all that boosts productivity, innovation and well-being, from our rural towns to our modern cities. On a personal note, I would add that a lot of the infrastructure already exists, including the disused railway line that runs between Lisburn and Antrim, which I believe we should try to open up. All right, Minister, I got that in.
A wide-ranging plan of action does not have to be a complicated one. That has been shown by our colleagues in Dublin, who have committed to get one million electric vehicles on the road and 500,000 homes insulated and to move to 70% of power from renewable resources by 2030. I welcome the UK's ambitious goal of net zero emissions by 2050 but, to achieve it, we need to develop our list of simple and real waypoints towards that goal so that the people can keep us in check and moving forward every day. I hope to see Ministers bring forward some such proposals as soon as possible.
I want to highlight just one more policy. I was delighted to see the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency included in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. An independent EPA is vital to our achieving our goals for a cleaner and greener environment. I believe it to be so important that I made an election promise to bring forward a private Member's Bill to establish an independent EPA if it was not included in the Programme for Government. It is also a development that the SDLP has been calling for for a very long time, having first been proposed by my colleague Alex Attwood. I think that I speak for all of us and all our citizens when I say that I am glad that everyone else has caught up with this idea.
Over Christmas, I welcomed my third granddaughter into this world. It has been a time of great joy in our family, and I look at her and all my granddaughters and see the potential of all that is to come after me.
I might be happy to take an intervention at some stage.
What a privilege to follow the Member for Lagan Valley, who I had the privilege to be elected with, along with a few others, in 2017. We have waited 1,168 days for this moment, and what a wait it has been. It is a moment that, at some stage in the last three years, I honestly thought would never come, and I am so pleased that we are here today.
It is 20 years since I sat — roughly in this seat — with my Carrickfergus Grammar School politics class. When we were at school, many of us came to visit the "Big House", and I remember saying to my teacher at the time, Miss McKinley, how I would love to do this for real one day and represent the people of East Antrim. It is an immense honour to stand here today and give this maiden speech representing each and every one of them. It is a responsibility that I will never take for granted.
East Antrim, as I am sure you will agree, Mr Deputy Speaker, is the centre of the universe and the nicest constituency in Northern Ireland. I think that you will give me a bit of leeway to reflect on that for a second. It is full of our tourist gems, the gateway to the Causeway coast and a drive that has been described by many as the nicest anywhere in the world. It is a constituency with a wonderful blend of rural communities and coastal towns and villages, from Carrickfergus to Carnlough, from Greenisland to Glenarm, from the Glynn to Glenoe, and if there was any upside to the hiatus of the last two years, it was the ability to represent the people of East Antrim daily on the constituency matters that matter to them.
I am a proud, progressive, liberal unionist; some would probably say too progressive at times. I have a business background and spent seven years in local government. My grandfather was a B-Special, my dad was an RUC officer, and I am a member of Her Majesty's Reserve army. Many in the Chamber will have fundamental differences with me on our past and how we see it, and probably on the future as well, and we will debate those out in a respectful manner, but there are many issues that we will agree on, whether it is on housing, health, mental health, education, growing the economy or the housing crisis we face. There are hundreds of issues that each and every one of us in the Chamber can get behind each other on and agree on. Those are bread-and-butter issues and real-life issues, and that is why we are all here. That is what we agree on.
The climate change emergency is also one of those issues. It is not only massive here but across the world and, as the spokesperson for the Ulster Unionist Party on climate change, I am happy to support amendment No 1 and the specific asks of the original motion, specifically Northern Ireland-specific legislation in the form of an all-encompassing climate change Act, Northern Ireland targets on emissions and the need for an independent environment protection agency, in addition to our party's commitment to see a zero net carbon future by 2035.
None of us in the Chamber is a climate scientist. The only sensible thing for us to do, in understanding the science behind climate change, is to follow the advice of the overwhelming number of scientific experts. The science behind this — the link between CO2 and rising temperatures, along with the associated risks of burning fossil fuels — have been well established for decades, but the issue has probably only been in the political agenda since the late '80s. It took a politician with a scientific background and, like it or not, a lot of courage to spell out the implications. They said:
"I spoke about the global threat of climate change. I set out the magnitude of the challenge we face. Until recently, we have always thought that whatever progress humanity makes, our planet would stay much the same. That may no longer be true."
An inconvenient truth perhaps, but it was not Al Gore; it was Margaret Thatcher speaking in October 1989. That was over 30 years ago, and, since then, the narrative has evolved greatly, with virtually all developed countries around the world having implemented essential legislation to help combat the causes and effects of climate change.
There has been a lot of talk in the Assembly about a fresh start and the feeling that we need to not rake over the past and be partisan for the sake of it. However, as a new legislator, I feel I need to ask this question: why are we the only devolved region of the UK that does not have an independent EPA and climate change-specific targets?
Looking back to the period of devolution post 2007, there seems an obvious conclusion to be made. While officials in various Departments, local government and NGOs did a sterling job on climate change, there has been a severe lack of political leadership. As a result, the last Stormont Executive was the only Administration in the UK and Ireland not to have produced its own laws to cut carbon emissions. I am not saying, Mr Speaker, that legislation is a panacea to all the problems — and there is an awful lot of virtue signalling on this issue — but the impression has been given for too long that Northern Ireland does not take the issue seriously, and that is unfortunate to say the least.
What we need can be summed up in two words: mitigation and adaptation; mitigation meaning addressing the causes of climate change — many of them have been alluded to today, and we will get into the nuts and bolts of that later; and adaptation —
— meaning the necessary changes to reduce and negate the effects of climate change, such as building sea walls and other things in our coastal communities. Neither of these will be easy, and they are not meant to be easy. They cannot be done in a silo mentality but, rather, with a cross-departmental and collegiate approach. I support the motion.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will start by welcoming you to the role and thanking everyone throughout the Chamber for the welcome that has been provided to me. In the short period since I became an MLA, one thing that has become acutely apparent to me is that, whilst these institutions are supported by structures, it is relationships that form their foundation. If the last three years have taught us anything, it should be the importance of relationships as the way to strengthen the foundation of these institutions.
Talking of relationships, this brings me to the reason why I am here, namely the elevation of my predecessor to the House of Commons. My relationship with Stephen Farry started nearly 30 years ago in the early 1990s, when we were both young-ish and I delivered leaflets and canvassed for Stephen's election to council. I have deeply admired his dedication, insight, integrity and courtesy shown to all. I was, therefore, absolutely delighted to see Stephen elected as my Member of Parliament, and honoured to have been selected by the Alliance Party as his replacement.
Stephen Farry follows in the footsteps of Lady Sylvia Hermon, who personified North Down in so many ways for the 18 years that she served as MP. She was respectful, principled and passionately committed to representing and reaching out to all communities. Stephen Farry and Lady Sylvia Hermon say everything about why I love north Down. I am so immensely proud to represent the people and the place where I was born, grew up and live.
While some may not think of it as remotely enjoyable, one way that I get to enjoy north Down is by running many miles amongst the wonderful natural environment that we are so lucky to have, but, Members, as we have seen in recent times, we cannot take our environment for granted. The impact of climate change has already taken effect on the most vulnerable across the globe. The risk of climate catastrophe is ever-increasing, especially if we do not take action now. I am, therefore, glad that one of the first motions to be debated in this place during this mandate is about such a topic. At this point, I should declare for the record that I am a former employee of Translink and councillor on Ards and North Down Borough Council.
Whilst I welcome the commitments given in the motion and in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, if we are to genuinely declare a climate emergency, I suggest we must be prepared to respond accordingly. The commitments given in the 'New Decade, New Approach' document should be the bare minimum, and, as a result, I cannot support amendment No 2. The independent Environmental Protection Agency must be urgently established to bring us into line with the rest of the British Isles and Europe. It must have real teeth and real freedom to pursue its remit with vigour. The targets in the Climate Change Act must stretch us in ways that we have never envisaged. Petrol and diesel cars need to be phased out. Plans to expand the Sydenham bypass to three lanes need to be shelved. The way we move around has to change.
A step change in how we produce and use energy is essential. It should not just be about reduce, reuse and recycle but rather reduce, reuse, recycle and rethink — rethinking everything we do about waste. We need a collective effort involving everyone at every level of society and government. It would be great if this were the first issue to be addressed by the citizens' assembly.
I believe that we are up to the challenge. As Alan Turing — a personal hero of mine — once said:
"We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done."
Plenty does need to be done, but I believe that together we can do it.
I am wearing a dicky bow. Hopefully, that is a tradition that has been set for maiden speeches.
How refreshing it is to hear so many maiden speeches today. We should all be thankful that we are here debating these issues. We have been out of this place for far too long, and it has been a disgrace.
With this seat comes a lot of responsibility. With a five-party Executive now in place, the Assembly becomes much more important and critical, as does the work in our scrutiny Committees. We need an era that we have never had. We need the Executive to step up with courage and bring to us an era of decision like we have never had.
MLAs must hold their nerve not only in scrutiny but in difficult decisions that must be taken for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. That has been lacking for many years in this place. It is not good enough that this place functions; we need decisions to be taken and taken quickly.
For us to be able to make decisions, we have to be informed. We have to ensure that, when we make decisions, they are the right ones for the people of Northern Ireland. I worry and fear for the state of our Civil Service and some Departments in this place.
Do not get me wrong: there is some great expertise around Civil Service-land, and there are some shiny, fine cogs in what I believe is a broken machine. It should be our task to make sure that that machine is fixed and running smoothly. I cite three examples, because if we are to make tough decisions on these big political issues — one of them being climate change — we need to make sure that we are taking the right steps.
I hark back to the decision that Secretary of State Karen Bradley made, bringing in the Northern Ireland (Regional Rates and Energy) (No. 2) Act, whereby the tariffs of the RHI scheme were stripped. That brought great hardship to recipients, the farming community in particular, especially poultry farmers, whereby they are facing a dilemma such as the industry has never faced before.
Are we going to leave them hanging in that position? It might be good, sound political policy for any party to want to scrap the RHI scheme but, before you make that decision, have you read the Cornwall review? Have you read the Buglass review? Have you even read the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee "raw deal" report? Before we make any decisions in this place, and before the Executive make decisions, we need to be informed about what has taken place, and I am not sure that any of us are in that position. None of us has yet shone a light into the energy branch as to what went on in the years before we got to this place.
I also suggest that Members look up the work that the Economy Committee did on the Northern Ireland-only ROC, where I believe that Department officials tried to mislead the Committee on what Whitehall and other Ministers in Westminster were expecting of us at that time.
I go on to my third point. If we want to have a sound energy policy, we need a suitable system operator for Northern Ireland (SONI). I do not believe for one moment that we have one at present. I believe that SONI is a shell of its previous self and is not capable of making sound energy decisions on behalf of the consumers of Northern Ireland. Before we go making energy policy, we need to make sure that the machine below it — the machine that will implement it — is capable of conducting that policy as we see fit. It could be party policy to have one wish or another, but unless we are informed and given the correct reports and the correct information, we are in a very bad place. I fear for the future if we do not get it right this time, because we will get only one more crack at it.
I can confirm that, even though this is not my maiden speech, today is a potentially historic day for the Assembly. If we support the motion and amendment No. 1, we will join a handful of legislatures across the world that have done what is long overdue.
More importantly, we will have collectively pledged to tackle the climate emergency. We will be resolving to confront it with urgency and focus. We stand today not just recognising that our climate is changing but knowing that it has already changed profoundly. Human activity to date has set in motion emissions that have radically altered the delicate balance that creates and sustains life on this planet.
Today is perhaps not the time to document the staggering loss of biodiversity that has already unfolded or to lament the rapid melting of ice caps, destruction of habitat or the growth of barren deserts around the world. It may not even be the time to bear witness to the extraordinary destructive weather events that we have seen unfold in front of us over the past number of weeks and months in places such as Australia and the United States. Indeed, on this island, increasing numbers of severe storm events continue to reach our shores.
Today is the time to talk about action. Real, meaningful and radical climate action is required to halt the advance of climate breakdown. The steps we must take should not be seen as a threat or something that we must endure as a hardship. In fact, the opposite is true. The motion calls for a "just transition" to a cleaner, more efficient and more cooperative society. It calls for a "green new deal".
Of course, it will involve transformative change, but change for the good. First and foremost, we must change the ways in which we consume energy, including heating and powering our homes and communities and through our travel habits. How much time in our life is spent pent up in cars in endless traffic jams, roads full beyond capacity, when we could be using a modern and efficient public transport system? A society over-reliant on cars is a society embracing the least efficient and most harmful mode of transport. It is a society ignoring the social, health and transport benefits of active travel. I say that not to put the blame or the responsibility for taking action on hard-pressed families living in communities with next to no decent public transport facilities, cycle lanes or greenways in rural communities in constituencies such as mine. We all have a part to play. By passing the motion, we in the Assembly will have a moral obligation to assist people in playing their part.
I welcome the attendance of the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. I am disappointed that the Minister for Infrastructure has just left. This debate is about lots of responsibilities for Minister Poots, but it is also about other Ministers on the Executive coming together and making collective decisions that will help move the situation forward.
Infrastructure, for example, will be key in that. I am a cyclist, and I like nothing more than talking about riding my bicycle. I was checking my Strava app — any athletes, runners or cyclists will know what Strava is — just before the debate. In the past seven years, I have cycled over 83,000 kilometres. Unfortunately, most of those 83,000 kilometres is cycling in the pursuit of leisure or sport, not in the pursuit of active transport or commuting because of the infrastructure where I live. That is the kind of thing that we need to change. Whether in this city or others, we need a separate cycle infrastructure that allows people to feel safe travelling to and from their work.
We need an effective transport system, we need safe passing laws, and we need all our new developments to take a keen eye to active travel. We need an innovative and modern public transport authority for the North, and we need strong and effective active travel legislation. We need a strategy and funding to rapidly grow and decarbonise our public transport fleet. T
The action that we need will involve a change in all our public services. Powering our health system with clean energy, retrofitting homes to conserve heat and money and educating young people on the benefits of more sustainable lifestyles will improve the quality of life for everyone while creating a greener and fairer economy. All this must be led by government. People cannot make the changes without being given the alternatives. I welcome all the commitments that people made today on the motion and amendment No 1, and I welcome the commitments and the promises made in 'New Decade, New Approach', including the commitment to an Act and an independent environmental protection agency. After today's debate, hopefully, this will be the task of all of us, and it will be our duty to implement it.
So, the Northern Ireland Assembly is going to declare a climate emergency. That is it sorted, then — wow. What is meant by the Northern Ireland Assembly declaring a climate emergency? Are we going to switch off the lights and bring in the candles? Are we going to send Minister Poots home not in his limo but on a bicycle? What nonsense are we talking here? Phraseology like this: this pitiful Assembly, which cannot even sort itself out, is going to declare a climate emergency. What turbocharged virtue signalling — that is all it is.
It is not that the climate does not change. The debate is this: what causes it to change? Now, I do not know: maybe we have some climate deniers in our midst. Maybe they deny the medieval warm period. Maybe it never happened. If it did, what are we going to blame? Factories? I do not think so. Cows? I do not think so. Electricity? Fossil fuels? I do not think so. It happened, and then, a few centuries later, in the 17th century, for 10 years during that century, the River Thames froze over as the climate cycle switched the other way.
Climate change happens, but the question is this: why are we working ourselves up into a frenzy in the belief that this puny Assembly — the puny man — in some way can stop the forces of nature? Yet, that is what we are doing. We are all getting, it seems, on the bandwagon of Greta this and Greta that. Remember Al Gore? Remember the great hero of climate change? In 2009, he, with great solemnity, told the world that, in five to seven years, there would be no ice at the North Pole.
I thank the Member for giving way. Further to his point, he said that single, small entities cannot affect change by standing up and resisting larger things. Why does the Member bother to intervene in a debate like this, if that is the way he feels?
Some small things can be quite effective
Let us be serious. Is the Assembly serious, or is it just virtue signalling to say, "We are going to do this, we are going to do that, because it makes us feel good"? We have had more doomsday predictions from climate alarmists than we have ever had from the most extreme and ludicrous religious cult. "The apocalypse is upon us", according to these folk: "We are going to do this, and we are going to do that". Try as you might, you will not change the natural cycle of nature. You are not as big as that. Therefore, reality needs to dawn.
Yes, it is absolutely right that, as the custodians of this beautiful planet, we have a bounden duty to hand it on to the next generations in as fantastic a shape as we can. Of course, we should not be reckless. We should not be wanton in how we treat it. We should be sensible. We should be controlled. Where we can do things better, we should certainly do them better, but the idea that, suddenly, we are going to stop the world, we are going to kill off all the cows, because they belch and do all sorts of things, and we are going to save the world is such patent nonsense. Yes, focus on the real; forget the fantasy. If we did that, maybe we would get focused on things that we can do something about and get off our high horse that we somehow can declare with effect a climate emergency. Maybe somebody could tell me what it is.
I congratulate the three Members who made their maiden speeches, particularly the Member who struck a blow for ageism and us grandfathers.
Climate change is a global emergency. We are all agreed on that. We in Northern Ireland must play our part to reduce its effects. The evidence is all around us: more violent storms, heavy rains, floods, rising sea levels, shrinking ice sheets and wildlife threatened with extinction. The world is not in a good place. While the main sources of warming lie elsewhere, change is required to reduce what are commonly known as greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and chlorofluorocarbons — which are known to directly contribute to the greenhouse effect. There are other initiatives: reduce vehicle journeys, more use of public transport, promotion of renewable energy, a new greener agenda, promotion of electric cars etc. Those are all things that we can do. To take a point that one Member made, a large journey begins with a small step. We have to try to take small steps here in Northern Ireland.
The reduction of ammonia in farming practices, including some form of renewable energy away from the use of fossil fuels and gas in farming, particularly poultry production, must be tackled immediately. That includes a long, hard look at what is to replace RHI and what options are available. A reforestation plan for Northern Ireland with a "One person, one tree" planting scheme in 2021 to plant a tree for every person who resides here is a small first step. A single tree has the potential to recycle a ton of carbon in its lifetime. However, there needs to be a concentrated effort to plant and nurture more trees across Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister has a keen interest in that. While reforestation currently sits at around 8%, I believe that, with greater effort, we could achieve a target of 20% or more.
All Departments have a role to play. I think about the vast estate of our schools and colleges. Further extensive planting along our road network is another way of introducing trees and hedgerows. There are open spaces at our hospitals, along our riverbanks and in our town and city centres. That is all open space with the potential of helping reforestation across Northern Ireland and, at the same time, creating quality space. All that will help to reduce the carbon footprint.
We should look at providing greater protection for trees in current planning applications and building works that are being carried out and at building houses and buildings etc in a more environmentally aware way. Trees that have to be removed in the name of progress should be replaced, and we need to revisit the criteria for tree preservation orders. We should look at creating a natural sink to help to reduce our carbon footprint, and that can be achieved only by strategic thinking and planning.
Climate change is the remit of us all, and every Department has an important role to play. An independent environmental protection agency is one of the ways to tackle climate change in Northern Ireland. The time frame in which to have the independent environmental protection agency is immediate. The planet is the one thing that we all have in common. Work has to start now, but in a well-thought-out and well-structured way. Therefore, I support amendment No 2.
There is no question that the dedicated and selfless actions of young people have forced the climate emergency on to the political agenda around the world. Global days of action, school strikes and the fearless, irresistible message of urgency from people such as Greta Thunberg have woken up policymakers and Governments around the world. We have young people to thank for the relative urgency with which we now consider the breakdown of our climate and the staggering loss of biodiversity all around us. Perhaps we should ask why. Why has it taken people whose futures are at risk to get us to wake up to the evidence that has surrounded us for decades?
The evidence has been clear for some time that the destructive activity of humanity and our economic system has broken our planetary boundaries and that we are rapidly changing the climate that we all depend on for survival. For too long, we have been guilty of inaction. That ends now. We have an undeniable and irrefutable moral responsibility to pass on to young people a safe climate future. In their name we act today. They have demanded that we recognise the scale of the climate emergency facing us, and, by agreeing the motion, hopefully we will. I commend young people across the North and across the island who have taken their future into their own hands and demanded action. Let us not let them down. Let us confront the economic and social systems that have pushed our climate and biodiversity to the point of breakdown. Let us commit today that we will not be found wanting in standing up for those who depend on us to secure their future. Let us act.
It is 100 seconds until midnight. For those who are not aware, for over 70 years, the 'Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' has published an annual assessment of the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Doomsday Clock measured the probability of an extinction-level event as the nations of the world edged closer to nuclear conflict. Last week, at the annual assessment, former Irish president Mary Robinson revealed that the twin threats of increasing geopolitical instability and rapid climate change have brought us closer than ever to the brink of irreversible disaster.
The climate crisis is the most pressing global challenge we face, but it cannot be addressed without action at local, regional and international level. That means that we have a part to play, and it will mean that difficult decisions have to be made. It begins with the Assembly facing up to the scale of the crisis that we face. The suspension of the Assembly cost us precious time, and we cannot afford to be complacent. We must join the legislators of the world who have made an unambiguous declaration of climate emergency, and, having declared an emergency, we need an action plan that focuses on prevention and mitigation. I fully support the proposals in the motion and amendment No 1, all of which are closely interrelated.
I will focus now on the viability of the green new deal from an economic perspective. A green new deal offers exciting economic opportunities that will benefit people, communities and businesses. For instance, carbon savings would be made by expanding public transport infrastructure to reduce journeys made by cars. Other benefits include job creation, increased mobility and a reduction in air pollution. Transitioning to a zero-carbon society also requires an increase in the production of renewable energy. That would strengthen our energy security and reduce our dependence on other countries for fossil fuel imports, thus creating a more sustainable society.
We have already laid solid foundations. Recent statistics from the Department for the Economy show that 44·9% of total electricity consumption in Northern Ireland is generated from local renewable sources.
However, the number of new renewable installations is declining, so further investment is needed to sustain growth. One approach would be to implement the proposal that seeks to replace the failed RHI scheme with a new scheme that effectively cuts carbon emissions.
Clean energy can be affordable and could help to alleviate the high rate of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland, which currently stands at 42%. Work to improve energy efficiency will further reduce the energy bill for consumers, as well as minimising carbon emissions. Also, analysis from the European Commission shows that employment created from investing in energy efficiency has the potential to be 2·5 to 4 times larger than that from investing in oil and natural gas.
The SDLP supports the calls for binding emissions reduction targets that are underpinned by legislation. On that note, I welcome the Minister for Infrastructure's announcement about next-generation public transport and the unveiling of hydrogen fuel cell busses, which was made just last week. We need a similar programme to improve efficiency in our housing stock, which not only helps the environment but helps to reduce fuel costs for the most hard-pressed families in our society.
The new energy strategy being produced by the Department for the Economy must break our reliance on destructive legacy fuels and plot a new course for a clean and green sustainable future. We have an immense opportunity to become global leaders in renewable technology, with our on and offshore wind, the high quality —
— geothermal points along the north coast and investing in tidal energy: that is our future. We must prepare to exploit those opportunities and prepare our economy for industry transition. Mr Speaker, the clock is ticking. The climate crisis is real and is escalating.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Too often, in the last Assembly, the voices of the smaller parties were not heard. Today, it is a shame that the voice of my party, and those who vote for us, has not been heard. My party provides the only eco-socialist voice in the Chamber. I ask you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and your office to look at how every voice and all parties can be included in future debates.
We will reflect on what you have said, but I hope that you will reflect on the fact that diverse opinion was brought into the debate. That is one of the issues that the Speaker or a Deputy Speaker has to determine when deciding who is called to speak. I hope you appreciate the thinking behind that.
I now call the Minister. You have a maximum of 15 minutes.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank Dr Archibald, Miss Woods and Mr Irwin for moving the motion and the amendments to the motion. The Department for the Economy has a number of issues, and I will speak on its behalf as well.
I welcome the widespread interest from colleagues throughout the Chamber today, and, if Mr Carroll wants to make an intervention, I will happily give way, providing that he does not speak for too long.
I note that we had no fewer than three maiden speeches, which all had something going for them. In Mr Muir's instance, he spoke about having the greatest Alliance Minister representing his area as an MP, and, of course, Mr Catney and Mr Stewart also have great MPs.
I have warned Mr Catney, because we get on quite well and come from a similar family background, that the Chamber is like a boxing ring: we cut the tripe out of each other inside, but we can be pleasant to each other outside. Today, Mr Catney, it is good news: I am not going to have a go at you in here, as you made a great speech. It was wonderful. Well done to you and to Mr Stewart and Mr Muir.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Will the Minister support the calls for no further extraction of fossil fuels in our country? It would be very significant for people who are campaigning to save the environment if he said, today, that he would refuse to support further extraction, and would call for no more exploration of fossil fuels. Will he support that call?
I thank the Member for his question. I would like to have heard more of the argumentation behind it, and maybe we will at a future time. I know that we have very limited extraction of fossil fuels in Northern Ireland and I hope to move to a circumstance where we use considerably less fossil fuel, where we require less gas from Russia, less oil from the Middle East and all of that. Those are all things that we wish to do.
In my previous role in the DOE, we did a lot of work on renewable energy, and, as a consequence of that, today 45% of our electricity comes from renewable energy. We have the opportunity to drive that up further, and we will do that in meeting the challenges that lie ahead.
Climate change is a global challenge that needs to be addressed through comprehensive and effective global actions. It requires actions across all society to help to reduce carbon emissions. I am pleased to see that the UK's leadership in taking action to combat climate change was recognised this year in its presidency of the United Nations Conference of Parties on climate change. The UK will be hosting the annual conference, known as COP 26, later this year in Glasgow, and I intend that Northern Ireland will play its full part in that event.
I appreciate what an emotive subject climate change is and how some people want to see immediate action to make a difference. They want to use the language of crisis to generate support for change. We can see that wording in the motion, and I do not doubt the sincerity of many of those who take that view. My party also wants to see action to tackle climate change, but we want to see practical measures that make a real, tangible difference, and we want to be sure that we do not rush into schemes that could end up making matters worse. Ultimately, we will all need to work together if we are to confront the issue effectively. We need to be wary that the language we use does not make it harder to work together. Action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to our changing climate should not be viewed as a burden but as an opportunity, and we need to create a stronger, prosperous and more sustainable green low-carbon economy and enhanced natural environment for everyone.
I am sceptical that there are quick fixes on the issue, albeit they are desirable, but I suspect that someone would have found them by now if that were the case. Addressing climate change will take a sustained effort over many years, requiring input from academics, regulators, business and industry, local and central government and society in general if we are to reduce our emissions. Any actions that we take must be adequately resourced, with support for the most vulnerable in our society.
Our approach to climate change also needs to be realistic and sustainable. We cannot just close down business and industry, stop people travelling and hike up energy costs. Never mind the impact on the way we live, it would not work to reduce global CO2 emissions in any event. We would simply export our emissions overseas to those who were less committed to addressing the issue, but that does not mean that we can sit back and do nothing.
Following the report from the Committee on Climate Change on the UK's contribution to stopping global warming, the UK Government have set a UK net zero greenhouse gas emission target by 2050. That is to ensure that the UK contributes to the worldwide challenge of keeping global temperatures well below 2°C and pursuing efforts to limit it to 1·5°C.
Northern Ireland needs to play its part in minimising greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to the UK net zero targets. However, we need to recognise that every region has distinct characteristics and will be able to contribute at different levels. The Government's independent expert advisers recognise that, and Scotland has greater scope for carbon storage and hopes to achieve net zero by 2045. Wales, where reductions would be harder to achieve, is hoping to achieve 95% reduction by 2050.
A greater percentage of our emissions are attributed to agriculture. It is 27%, as opposed to an average of 10% elsewhere in the UK. That, however, reflects the fact that we produce 10% of the UK's food, so our agri-food footprint is bound to be higher, and it is recognised that it is more challenging to cut emissions in that area. We need to be clear that carbon capture in agriculture is properly recorded so we can move forward on an evidential science-based analysis as opposed to wrapping up with what everybody else is doing elsewhere, given that we have a different food production system from many parts of Europe.
Accordingly, I am writing to the Committee on Climate Change, asking it to provide advice and assistance on what we need to do in Northern Ireland to reduce our emissions so that we can contribute equitably to the net zero target. On receipt of its recommendations, I will bring the Committee's advice on what we do on climate change to the Executive to agree a way forward. Decisions on any new cross-cutting approaches will naturally require Executive support.
My Department commissioned the Committee on Climate Change to produce a report on how Northern Ireland can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the 2020s. 'Reducing emissions in Northern Ireland' was published in February 2019 and provides us with advice on how we can deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The report has been circulated internally and externally, and its recommendations are being considered by all Northern Ireland Departments. Our response to climate change action is coordinated through a cross-departmental future generations and climate change group. I intend to personally oversee the group's work personally to ensure that we build on our response to the impacts of climate change.
Turning to what we have achieved so far, the latest Northern Ireland greenhouse gas inventory estimates emissions to be 20 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, which is an 18% reduction on the 24 million tons that were emitted in 1990. Our reductions are of a lesser amount than elsewhere in the UK, but, nonetheless, they are still welcome. Statistical research released by my Department last week estimates that, by 2030, greenhouse gas emissions in Northern Ireland will have reduced by 37% on their 1990 levels to 15 million tons. The level of confidence that we can place on some of those projections is naturally subject to wide variation. Much of the reduction has been achieved as a result of our efforts in the energy sector, particularly the increase in renewable energy to 45%. In other areas, it has proved more challenging to reduce emissions, and work remains for us on a number of those areas. Our emissions from transport have gone up, and our land use, which elsewhere is a carbon sink, is an emitter. There have been significant reductions in other sectors, such as waste, but those sectors are responsible for relatively small percentages of emissions. All of that emphasises the need to take action across the board.
I have set out initial actions that I intend to take to tackle climate change, and I will consider plans to bring forward climate change legislation and other approaches on climate change outlined in 'New Decade, New Approach'. However, these are significant and complex issues that have long-term consequences, and I do not want to be bounced into rushing through measures that we later regret. I appreciate the need for swift action, but there are matters that need thorough analysis. It will take collaborative action across all parts of government, local government, business, industry and households to ensure that we leave the environment in better shape than that in which we found it.
I will say a quick word about climate change adaption. Much of the climate change debate is about mitigating the impact of our emissions, but we also need to adapt to the changes that are already happening, whether those are due to rising sea levels, a wetter climate or more extreme weather. As required by the UK Climate Change Act 2008, a second five-year Northern Ireland climate change adaption programme was recently published by my Department. It contains government and outside government responses to the latest climate change risks identified for Northern Ireland. Again, we need to work together on building a resilient Northern Ireland.
The biodiversity information compiled by the NIEA and various other stakeholders has indicated that there is a variety of pressures in Northern Ireland. My Department is refreshing the Northern Ireland biodiversity strategy to align our targets with post-2020 global diversity targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity. Once again, we need to act collectively, as improvements in biodiversity can be achieved only when we work together.
On the matter of establishing an independent environmental protection agency to oversee the work, I say that environmental governance is much wider than the degree of independence of one particular agency. It is about making appropriate decisions on the environmental outcomes that we are seeking to achieve and about the effective and efficient deployment of limited resources to achieve those outcomes. In November 2017, a report on a review of environmental governance, jointly commissioned by a number of environmental NGOs, stated that forming an independent environmental agency without pinpointing all the problems would probably mean that any reforms would not operationally have much impact. Any decision on a fundamental structural change to the NIEA is, of course, a matter for the Executive, but a robust economic appraisal of the costs and benefits of having an independent agency will be necessary to inform that decision properly. I remain open to the idea of an independent environmental protection agency, and that is something that we will look at.
We also have the opportunity of looking at the office of environmental protection, which is being developed in Westminster to take the place of what would previously have been carried out by the European Commission.
We are planning to eliminate plastic pollution. That is an absolute must. We need to do more to reduce our dependence on single-use plastic bags. It is estimated that we have brought in some £19 million since the introduction of the plastic bag levy and that we have used 300 million fewer single-use bags as a consequence. I pay tribute to Mr Durkan for his work in bringing that in. It has been a significant success story. My Department also introduced a ban on the manufacture and sale of rinse-off personal care products, including microbeads, in March 2019. That will have a significant benefit, as it is estimated that products used in a single shower could result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the sewerage system.
Where an energy strategy is concerned, Sinn Féin brought forward a notion about closing down RHI. Let me say this: the ambitions of RHI were good. The introduction of the renewable heat incentive — there are renewable heat initiatives in the Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales — has reduced ammonia, carbon and methane in our environment. A crude closure would mean a return to fossil fuels, which would be environmentally damaging. It is an entirely contradictory position for Sinn Féin to suggest that we should close RHI and reduce carbon because, if you close the RHI, you will increase carbon. The scheme is already less effective as a consequence of Karen Bradley rushing legislation through Westminster. The same Karen Bradley could not bring forward legislation on historical institutional abuse victims, but, nonetheless, she brought legislation through Westminster that made entirely unjustifiable cuts, which made the running of the boilers a huge burden for those who invested heavily in the capital cost of installation. Members may think it is popular because one particular newspaper happens to run a story about it very regularly — it has somewhat of an obsession with it — and it is bad news, given the way it is put out there. It is, but the reality is that a lot of good has come from the renewable heat initiative. From 2012 to 2030, the renewable heat initiative will account for 6% to 7% of the greenhouse gas reductions in Northern Ireland that we are seeking.
I thank all the Members who contributed, and I congratulate the new Members on their maiden speeches. I am glad my maiden speech was made long before the suggested tradition of wearing a bow tie for it.
I support, obviously, amendment No 2, which is tabled in the name of me and my party colleague William Irwin. I think it is fair to say, from all the contributions today, that people are concerned about climate change. Some of us are more energised than others, but I think people are genuinely concerned and know that action needs to be taken. The Executive and Assembly must use an evidence-based approach to ensure that there are measures and targets in the Programme for Government to tackle the climate crisis. In the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, there are a number of potential measures that would go some way to ensuring that there is a coordinated and strategic approach to the challenge of climate change. I must say at the outset that I welcome that the Minister is here. As Mr McGuigan touched on, we know this is something that goes across all Departments. I appreciate that the Infrastructure Minister is here as well. All our Departments have a role to play, and we very much need a coordinated approach to tackling climate change.
It is recognised that there will need to be actions and interventions across a wide range of areas to address the immediate and longer-term effects of climate change in a fair and just way. We will need all the Departments to work collaboratively and to lead by example in their relevant areas of responsibility. It is also noted, of course, that the Executive should bring forward a climate change Act. We know that, since the introduction of the UK Climate Change Act 2008, greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 9% in Northern Ireland compared with a 27% fall for the whole of the UK. A Northern Ireland climate change Act will need to take into account the unique characteristics and challenges that we have here in Northern Ireland. In the February 2019 report by the Committee on Climate Change, analysis showed that nearly 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions here in Northern Ireland are from agriculture, compared with 10% in the rest of the UK. The farming sector here in Northern Ireland is also much more heavily livestock-based.
The Minister has said that legislation should not be rushed, and I agree with that. I think that any proposals, including those within the 'New Decade, New Approach' document, should be well thought out, should be tested and should be debated here in the Assembly Chamber. Unlike other devolved Administrations, energy policy is an area of devolved responsibility. We need to see a new energy strategy that has ambitious targets and actions as we transition towards a zero-carbon society. There is also a need for investment in our infrastructure. We need to encourage a greater uptake in public transport across all of Northern Ireland, not just here in Belfast. For example, charging points for electric vehicles need to be reviewed to ensure that they are sufficient to meet the current and future demands.
I also recognise and pay tribute to many of our local councils, which are already taking action on a range of issues affecting their environment. In the absence, of course, of the Assembly for the past three years, many local councils have taken the lead and have put forward similar motions, followed up, of course, with action in the areas of their responsibility. It has also been mentioned that the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency will be an important step to oversee and ensure that targets are met. It is indeed the case that Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK and Ireland that does not have an EPA.
I thank the Member for giving way. I will pick up on his comments regarding an independent environmental protection agency. In no way is this an attack or an insinuation around the ability or dedication of the existing Northern Ireland Environment Agency, which often goes above and beyond to ensure the protection of our environment, but will the Member agree with me that, if we are looking at a new independent environment agency, there is logic in doing so on an all-island basis?
As you will see, I mentioned that it was mentioned that the establishment of an independent environmental protection agency is something that could be looked at. I think that we need to look at all options. Again, it is something that cannot be rushed into. I think we need to look at examples of best practice elsewhere and at what is unique and what works here in Northern Ireland.
There are a number of urgent actions needed to tackle climate change, and we need to ensure that these are implemented as soon as possible. I thank all the organisations and charities that have contacted each and every one of us with very useful briefing papers and information. We know that not all of that can be discussed here today, but I think, from listening to all the Members around the Chamber, it is very evident that this is an issue that we will not be leaving behind. It is an issue that will be in the forefront of all our minds as we go forward. I urge Members to support our amendment No 2, which we believe will send a clear signal that we are united in our commitments to deliver a new approach to climate change.
First, I thank the honourable Member Caoimhe Archibald and her party, Sinn Féin, for their willingness to enage in this debate and to work collaboratively and in a cross-party way on the amendment and throughout the debate. On a personal note, it is a bit bittersweet to watch the growing understanding across our public decision-making bodies and also within our political leadership, knowing and understanding that continuing as we are is just not an option. If we had understood that earlier, we could have had interventions earlier. I do not feel that we are being bounced into anything. These debates and this evidence base have been building for 50 years. I know that change comes slowly but just consider that. I have been watching the growing understanding that our environment is not a stand-alone thing that can be dealt with separately or by just recycling cardboard boxes. It is much more urgent and intrinsic. It goes to the very heart of who we are, what we are and how we do business. It goes to the heart of our education system, our health systems, our communities and to the very heart of our economic systems.
"Capitalism, by ignoring the finite nature of resources and by neglecting the long-term well-being of the planet and its potentially crucial biodiversity, threatens our existence"
Our very systems are our greatest threats. Our planet will, can and has sustained itself over billions of years, as the honourable Member Mr Allister has pointed out, and through many environments. It is us who are at risk.
The changes that we need to bring in cross every Department. While it is great to have our Minister for the environment here and speaking on the motion and our Minister for Infrastructure joining the debate and being here, it is to be regretted that their Executive colleagues are not here. They will carry as much responsibility in carrying out the changes that are needed. It is not just one Department; it is across Departments. The Executive's strategies to reduce carbon emissions need to be reviewed in light of the Paris Accord. Our energy strategy, which is out for consultation, needs to set ambitious targets and actions for a fair and just transition.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does she agree with me that it is disappointing that the AERA Minister did not rule out opposing any further extraction of fossil fuels in the future? Does she agree that the only way we have a chance of saving our environment is by stopping the drilling for and extraction of fossil fuels?
It is a very valid point. I do not think that it is the only thing that we need to do, but it is very urgent. I think that the moratorium on fracking in Northern Ireland still stands, but I am willing to be corrected if I need to be.
We want to see the Executive bring forward a climate Act, environmental targets with strong legal underpinnings and an independent environmental protection agency to oversee that work and hold us all accountable. We need our communities to be protected and made resilient in the face of the changes that are to come. We can make sure that they can thrive.
The honourable Member from East Antrim tried to take the title of the centre of the universe earlier, but Belfast is the centre of the universe. It is the city that I am from, and it makes me so proud to see a Commissioner for Resilience in Belfast City Council doing fantastic work and the recently established Belfast Climate Commission linking up many networks across these islands to set new frameworks and share best practice.
There is real potential in what we would understand as a post-growth economy. There is a spirit level. There is greater health and well-being. The Minister is right: there is no quick fix. The economic and human cost, the environmental and biodiversity cost of not acting now will be greater if we delay. We have the evidence, but we are fast running out of the time. Fifty years of this evidence base is not being bounced, but we do delay very well here. Let us take a moment to decide whether we will have a new approach for a new decade and begin to deliver. I urge the House to support the motion and amendment No 1. Thank you for your time.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, thank you for the debate. I commend the proposers of the motion — I was one of them, I suppose. I want to draw on some of the points that were raised. I also want to make a couple of points.
From my perspective, as the agriculture and rural lead in the party, I want to make the point that farmers are at the very coalface of the climate. They face climate change all the time, are aware of the challenges and can play a big part in the solution; indeed, if you were in a constituency such as mine and many others during 2013, you will have seen the big snow on the Sperrins. Again, in 2017, we saw the huge floods. That makes you realise how farmers are impacted on by climate change. They are part of the solution, and I think that they are willing to play their part in it. They provide grasslands, habitats and hedgerows for the purpose of carbon sequestration.
I want to move on and try to summarise the debate. Fourteen Members spoke, so I will try to get through some of the key points. The debate was opened by Caoimhe Archibald, who made the point that we face into an ecological and environmental disaster because of climate breakdown. She referred to the international examples in, for example, Australia and outlined the economic and human impact of that and, indeed, the impact on wildlife and habitat as well. She also drew attention to the 1·5° target that is contained in the Paris Accord. She said that we must put climate action on a statutory footing and called for the implementation of the independent environmental protection agency to ensure that targets are met. She also underlined the point that that must be done on a joined-up and an all-island basis.
The next Member to speak was Rachel Woods of the Green Party, who, again, picked up on the 1·5° target. She referred to the biodiversity loss and the climate destruction that would lead to the collapse of humanity. She also called for a big role for the Executive and the Assembly in this and again underlined the calls for an independent environmental protection agency with teeth to be implemented in the next 12 months. She made the point that we needed a just transition from fossil fuels for the low-carbon economy and that we needed joined-up social dialogue. She also called for leadership and said that the time for it was now.
William Irwin was the third Member to speak. He spoke on amendment No 2 and made the point that farmers were the custodians of the landscape. He said that they have been protecting our landscape and our wonderful ecology. He said that he did not want to be alarmist but thinks that everybody has their part to play. He also drew attention to the environmental impact of litter on the verges and hedgerows and how it can blow into fields, become very unsightly and cause risk to livestock. He believes that a more balanced approach is needed to climate change and that it should be based on a very firm evidence-based approach.
Pat Catney was the fourth Member to speak, and he made the point that we needed to move swiftly towards a greener economy and a greener energy supply. He referred to greener public transport and gave some examples of the greenways, for example, that we have down in the South of Ireland. He also referred to the progress that the Government in the South have made towards reducing emissions and said that we needed proposals as soon as possible. He also welcomed the plans for the independent EPA and for a clean and green environment and said that it is important that we ensure that the next generation grows up in a world that allows its potential to flourish.
He supports amendment No 1. He said that we needed to follow the experts, and he questioned why we were the only devolved region that had not got an independent EPA and climate targets. Again, he called for greater political leadership on this. He said that we need to take the issue more seriously, and he referred to the objectives of mitigation and adaptation and reiterated the need for a cross-departmental approach.
Andrew Muir of the Alliance Party spoke next and made the point that the New Decade, New Approach agreement is the bare minimum. He said that he cannot support amendment No 2. He said that the targets in a new climate change Act must stretch us and that the way we move around must change. I am guessing that he was drawing on his experience of working in Translink when he picked up on that point. He said that a rethink is required. However, he said that we are all up for the challenge and that together we can do it.
Paul Frew came in next and made the point that we need a new era of informed decision-making. He referred to Karen Bradley's decision to strip the RHI tariffs and made the point that no light has yet been shone on the energy branch. He said that we need a suitable system for sound energy policymaking and decisions.
My colleague Philip McGuigan spoke in favour of amendment No 1. He referred to the impacts of climate change and said that it was time to focus on the actions and steps that we must take for a green new deal. He said that there must be a change in the way that we consume energy and in our travel choices. He called for active travel legislation and made the point that we must engage in a modal shift to different types of infrastructure for how we travel and move ourselves around. He gave the examples of cycling infrastructure and safe passing laws. He also talked about retrofitting homes to save energy but said that this must be led by government.
Jim Allister came in with a different perspective. He rubbished the climate emergency as nonsense and accused most of us in the Chamber of being climate deniers. He made the points that climate change has been happening for centuries; that we as an Assembly cannot stop the forces of nature; and that the people who tabled the motion are being alarmist. He said that the reality needs to dawn.
Maurice Bradley of the DUP made reference to the global emergency and said that we must play our part. He referred to the impacts of global warming. He mentioned the need for reforestation, pointing out that we have only 8% tree cover in the North and should move towards a target of around 20%. He made the point that one tree has the potential to recycle a ton of carbon.
The eleventh Member to speak was Catherine Kelly. She commended the young people who have forced the issue of climate change onto the agenda and the world stage. She said that we have a moral responsibility to young people to pass on a safe climate future. She commended the young people who are demanding action and said that we must support them.
Sinead McLaughlin of the SDLP said that there are two issues — geopolitical instability and climate change — and said that this could lead to irreversible disaster. She said that we need to face up to the scale of the crisis. She said that we need an action plan to back this up. She said that the green new deal can usher in exciting opportunities, and she gave examples. She also talked about more renewable energy. She said that we are sitting at over 40% but further investment will be needed. She welcomed the next generation of public transport and said that a new strategy must plot a course for the new green future. She also talked about tidal energy and preparing the economy for energy transition.
Minister Poots talked about the global challenge and how cross-society actions are needed. He reminded us that the COP 26 conference will take place in Glasgow later this year. He wants practical measures and no rushing into schemes that we may regret further down the line. He wants a low-carbon economy but no quick-fix solutions. He wants it to be more sustainable and lasting but said that we must be realistic. He made reference to the CCC aim of a net zero carbon by 2050 and made the point that the North can play its part in achieving that net target. He also made the point that agriculture produces 10% of food and that, as a result, we have higher emissions. The Minister said that any decision must be based on scientific evidence-based analysis and that a cross-departmental approach must be taken. He also made the point that there has been an 18% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions here since 1990 and that that is largely due to the efforts of the energy sector, but he said that there are other areas that are more challenging. In terms of actions, he said that he would consider legislating but does not want to be bounced and wants to take a collaborative approach. He made reference to a climate change adaption programme.
Question put, That amendment No 1 be made. The Assembly divided:
Dr Aiken, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms S Bradley, Mr Butler, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Chambers, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Mr Durkan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mrs D Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Ms Mallon, Mr Muir, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Mr Nesbitt, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Mr Sheehan, Miss Sheerin, Mr Stewart, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Ayes: Dr Archibald, Miss Woods
Mr Allister, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Middleton, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey
Tellers for the Noes: Mr M Bradley, Mr Robinson
Question accordingly agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly recognises that we are facing climate breakdown and a biodiversity crisis, declares a climate emergency; and calls on the Executive to fulfil the climate action and environmental commitments agreed in the New Decade, New Approach agreement by commencing, as a matter of urgency, a review of the Executive’s strategies to reduce carbon emissions in respect of the Paris Accord and the need to limit global warming to 1·5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100 and to ensure that targets are met; and further calls upon the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to begin immediately work to establish an independent environmental protection agency based on models of best practice, that will be appointed within 12 months.
Adjourned at 7.40 pm.