Climate and Ecological Emergency

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 14th September 2021.

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Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 14th September 2021

4. Mr McNulty asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs whether his Department has declared a climate and ecological emergency. (AQO 2397/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

My Department and I recognise the need for urgent action to tackle these issues, and we recognise the Assembly's climate emergency declaration of February 2020, when the Assembly also acknowledged a biodiversity crisis in Northern Ireland. Rather than my Department focusing resources on making further declarations, I am instead prioritising my work to drive forward effective and meaningful actions across government to tackle climate change and our ecological challenges.

In tackling the climate change emergency and the biodiversity crisis, we cannot be complacent. The evidence is clear, and we need real action, not just more words. Taking urgent action to reduce the causes of climate change and to tackle its impacts is everybody's responsibility in order to prevent further environmental damage and to deliver ecological and climate resilience in Northern Ireland.

One example of such action is my introduction to the Assembly of the Executive's Climate Change (No. 2) Bill, which is steeped in science and evidence. The Bill, if enacted, will underpin and drive forward climate action and policy across all levels of government, as it sets ambitious emissions reduction targets that, if met, will deliver on Northern Ireland's equitable contribution to UK net zero by 2050, in line with the Paris Accord.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he make a commitment to set a legally binding target to halt species decline here by 2030, in line with the recent G7 commitment to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We have a biodiversity plan. We also have a plan for green growth. We are developing, with our agriculture sector, work to improve efficiency on farms. We are helping to develop a whole renewables industry. I note that the Minister representing the Member's party refused one of the largest renewable energy projects that has come before us.

Looking after the environment takes more than just words; it takes actions. I am much more interested in actions to deliver a better environment than in glossy words. What I get in the Assembly, over and over again, is aspiration, but that aspiration is not taken to where the action actually happens, to what the costs are and what the impact is upon individuals and particular businesses or, indeed, agriculture. We need to get away from the aspirational fluff to what actually delivers for the environment — who is actually making the delivery and how we assist them in that — and then we will get real, tangible benefits arising from it.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

What steps has the Minister taken to reduce Northern Ireland's carbon footprint, and what role can green growth play in increasing Northern Ireland's carbon efficiency?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I was, perhaps, ahead of some colleagues across the way in that, when I was Minister previously, I brought in a planning policy statement for renewable energy. As a consequence of that, we are sitting on around 45% renewable energy in Northern Ireland, whereas other parts of the United Kingdom have struggled to reach 20%. Currently, the big opportunity for us lies in hydrogen. We can produce hydrogen from water and renewable electricity instead of importing fossil fuels from around the world.

I want to work with other Departments, including the Department for Infrastructure and the Department for the Economy in particular, to ensure that we embrace the opportunity that exists for Northern Ireland to lead the way on renewable energy. I want Northern Ireland to be a net exporter of renewable energy. That is an entirely achievable plan, and we need to apply ourselves to making it work.

Wouldn't it be great if we did not rely on oil from the Middle East, and gas from the North Sea or, indeed, Russia, but were using our own resources? From existing anaerobic digestion, for example, there is the capacity to provide biomethane to 62% of the households on the gas network. We should invest in further anaerobic digestion. We should look at slurry separation thereafter. We should take the phosphates out of the system and sell those to other parts of the world to ensure that they do not arrive in our waterways. However, we need people with the vision to do this. I cannot do it on my own; I need the support of Executive colleagues. There are so many opportunities out there to make a clean, green environment but it will not come from just words; it will come from actions.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

Does the Minister acknowledge that biodiversity loss can have a profound impact on human health, including through the increased risk of infectious diseases?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

None of us want to see biodiversity loss. That is why we have taken the actions that we have. One of the areas that I am looking at is peatlands. We have a peatlands strategy because there is very specific biodiversity in our peatlands. We need to ensure that our peatlands are wetter. We also need to ensure that we better deal with ammonia, so that there is less nitrogen deposition in our peatlands. Our peatlands are in better condition than those in some of the countries neighbouring us. They are certainly in better condition than the peatlands in the Republic of Ireland, and almost certainly in better condition than some of those in Scotland, which are in a very poor state. However, we can, and will, do much more. We are clearly identifying ways and means to improve that habitat because it is a very rich and important part of our biodiversity.