Climate Change

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 25th May 2021.

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Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance 2:00 pm, 25th May 2021

1. Mr Lunn asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, in light of the support for the Climate Change Bill [NIA 19/17-22], which is now at Committee Stage, whether he intends to bring forward an alternative climate change Bill. (AQO 2104/17-22)

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

5. Mr Irwin asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to outline the risks of carbon leakage with a carbon net zero target by 2045. (AQO 2108/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 1 and 5 together. I want to ensure that Northern Ireland plays its part in minimising greenhouse gas emissions and tackling climate change head-on. I am committed to Northern Ireland having its own climate change legislation to achieve that. We do not need just any Bill; we need the right, evidenced-based climate change Bill that sets out an achievable pathway for Northern Ireland to contribute to the wider UK and global efforts for greenhouse gas emission reductions. Therefore, I intend to bring a climate change Bill that is an alternative to the private Member's Bill, one that is strongly evidence-based and better for Northern Ireland and that will be a high-quality piece of legislation. I have been seeking to get the proposals for that on the agenda of an Executive meeting since 24 March 2021, and it has yet to happen. My officials are working with the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC) and are very well advanced on the drafting of a climate change Bill based on my proposals. I intend to circulate my draft Bill and accompanying explanatory and financial memorandum to Executive colleagues. Once agreement to proceed is secured, I intend and am prepared to quickly move to introduce the right climate change Bill for Northern Ireland.

It is important that carbon leakage is taken into account when setting emission reduction targets so that we do not inadvertently displace emissions to other jurisdictions. In some situations, such leakage could result in higher levels of overall emissions due to practices in other jurisdictions potentially not being as sustainable as those in Northern Ireland. In that context, the agri-food sector, for which my Department has sectoral responsibility, aiming for a net zero carbon target by 2045 presents an increased risk of carbon leakage. The Climate Change Committee (CCC), in recommending an emissions reduction target of at least 82% for Northern Ireland by 2050, took account of the importance of the Northern Ireland agri-food sector and the fact that around 50% of NI produce is exported to other parts of the United Kingdom.

Whilst targets, such as having net zero carbon by 2045, may stimulate some sectors, carbon leakage is extremely pertinent for the agri-food sector. In its analysis for Northern Ireland, the CCC felt that, based on current knowledge, meeting net zero carbon by 2050 would require such a significant reduction in livestock production, particularly in the beef and dairy sectors, that it did not present a viable option.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

You went well over your two minutes, Minister, if I may remind you.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I thank the Minister for his answer. I think that the answer was yes. Did the Minister have sight of the current Climate Change Bill that is going through the Assembly before it was made public, or did he have any input into it?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

No. I did not have input into the private Member's Bill. It was not consulted upon with the public in the first instance. There are serious flaws in the private Member's Bill. Leaving aside the issues that I outlined about not taking the independent expert advice and simply latching on to what is happening in other jurisdictions, where there is no direct interchange, leads to the very significant flaws in the private Member's Bill.

I wish there to be climate change legislation. I wish that legislation to make a real and tangible difference. The problem is if we simply introduce legislation that translates to the beef or dairy that is produced in Northern Ireland being produced in South America, for example, we will be cutting down trees in order to produce that beef and will do more harm to the environment. Jumping up and down and pretending that you are doing something for the environment whenever what you are actually doing is entirely counterproductive is not a wise way forward, in my opinion.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

Will the Minister outline what other risks he envisages as a result of being net zero by 2045?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

First, there is the risk of job losses in the agri-food sector, which employs well over 100,000 people. If there is a 50% reduction in beef and dairy, which are the two largest parts of the sector, there will be job losses. For example, County Tyrone is a hub for agri-food and has many large factories. Such a reduction would lead to job losses and have an impact on the regional balance of our economy, with a disproportionate impact on rural communities, particularly in the west of Northern Ireland.

Going beyond the natural rate of stock turnover would also lead to the premature scrappage of assets. High-quality dairy cows and beef cows, for example, may have to be slaughtered at a much earlier age, and that is not a benefit to the environment.

We are looking at a potential increase in prices due to a loss of control in production and the importation of so many goods. There is the potential for lower welfare standards and the quality of imported goods being of a lesser standard than what we have at home. There is also the potential for increased transport emissions, depending on the means of transport into the country. For example, it is not only about the shipping of meat from South America to here but the fact that it may have been hauled for thousands of miles to get to the port. There is potential for a loss of support from the very sectors and those who rely on them that we need to achieve emission reductions. We could fail to meet legislative carbon budget targets at an early stage, which would result in a loss of momentum and detract from any positive progress that is made. Finally, there is the sheer cost of achieving net zero by 2045 as opposed to an 82% reduction by 2050, with the ability to increase that if the science allows us to do so.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Notwithstanding the fact that climate legislation was a commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach' (NDNA), my colleague and Chair of the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, Declan McAleer, tabled a motion calling on you to introduce a climate Bill almost a year ago. The private Member's Bill that is in motion and is supported by the Assembly is a response to your failure to act. Given the important issue at stake and the extremely tight time frame, does the Minister agree that his time would be better spent engaging with the existing Bill, rather than attempting to belatedly bring forward his own?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That demonstrates the desperation of those who are trying to undermine me and have been sitting on my Bill from 24 March. My paper has been with the Executive since 24 March. I will provide the Executive with a full copy of the Bill so that they have absolutely no excuse for not moving it forward. The legislation is there, and it will go before the Executive. That legislation has been consulted on, and work has been done on the costs. We can produce a Disney World Bill from anywhere, put it out there and say, "This is what's good for Northern Ireland", but it will not be Disney World when the farmers in West Tyrone are driven off the hills because people do not want their beef and they cannot produce their beef because of a Climate Change Bill that Sinn Féin has supported.

I hope that you will be able to go back to North Antrim and tell the farmers there that they are no longer needed because Sinn Féin wants to back a Climate Change Bill that has not gone through the regular processes of consultation, has not been costed and has not taken the independent advice that is available. Instead of that, you should back and support me in bringing forward my legislation. I said that I could not bring forward legislation in three months because I had to go through a consultation process, and that was accurate. The other Bill was rushed. That leads to rushed legislation, and rushed legislation, as always, gets the label of "bad legislation".

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for confirming that he intends to introduce said Bill. Will there be specific emissions targets for the agriculture sector in the Minister's Bill? If so, what support is envisaged for that sector to assist it in meeting those targets?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Bill that we introduce will have targets and will identify where those targets can be achieved. Northern Ireland has made substantial progress on transport and energy and can make substantial progress on agri-food. Farmers and the agri-food sector have bought in to doing this. Cranswick pork factory, for example, is operating a net zero plan.

People are totally committed to achieving this. Why are we saying to those people, "Yes, you are committed to helping, but we are not interested in working with you to ensure that you have an industry in the future"? We need to ensure that we bring people with us in a way that sustains jobs, sustains the economy and puts food on people's tables. We all say that we might not have a planet in a number of years, but we will not have a life if we do not have food on our tables. Food production is one of the most important tasks anywhere in the world, and I for one am not prepared to take the quality food production in Northern Ireland and offset that in some other part of the world that has lower animal welfare standards, lower workers' standards, lower carbon standards for us to say, "What good boys are we", because we are not producing carbon but are using material where carbon has been produced at an even higher level than it would have been had we used material produced in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Minister, you and the Economy Minister have asked Sir Peter Kendall to do a review of agribusiness in Northern Ireland. Sir Peter Kendall was clear that this is not about a zero-sum option for agriculture but about being smarter. Will the Minister and whoever will be the new Economy Minister commit to taking the recommendations and implementing them in full?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We did not take on Peter Kendall to do work and then for us not to give due regard to his recommendations. He comes with an excellent track record, and I expect that his report will be of a high standard. It would, therefore, be foolish of us, having commissioned such a report, not to pay attention to what is in it.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, on the basis of your answer to my Lagan Valley colleague Trevor Lunn, I am not sure whether you are still committed, as stated in the climate Bill that you intend to introduce, to having zero emissions by 2050. I heard you mention a figure of 82·5%, but I hope that you are still committed to making that target in your climate Bill.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I am absolutely committed to this country — the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland — reaching net zero by 2050. I am absolutely committed to Northern Ireland making its contribution, as recommended by independent experts on climate change.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Given the governmental system in which the Minister operates, will he clarify whether he is at liberty to bring a Bill to the House without the assent of the Executive? If he is not, does that mean that his best intentions, which are far preferable to what we have before us, can be stymied by other political parties, most particularly Sinn Féin, simply declining to give assent?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

There is a lot of truth in what the Member says. The problem for Sinn Féin, however, is that the issue probably impacts on the farming community that it represents more than on any other, because it is more likely to impact on hill farms and marginal land. The land that will have the lowest carbon footprint will be the lowlands. Sinn Féin talks a lot about hill farmers and people who operate on farms that are marginal because of the quality of the land, but Sinn Féin does not seem to mind turning those farmers over on this issue. Sinn Féin can reflect on that when it blocks my Bill and supports something that will do demonstrable harm to the people whom that party purports to represent.