Climate Change Bill: North Antrim

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 17th January 2022.

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Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP 3:00 pm, 17th January 2022

4. Mr Storey asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for his assessment of the impact of the Climate Change Bill [NIA 19/17-22] on farmers in North Antrim. (AQO 2953/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The private Member's Climate Change Bill will have a very significant and detrimental impact on farmers across Northern Ireland, including those in North Antrim. The UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) indicated that even a 50% reduction in meat and dairy production in Northern Ireland would not get Northern Ireland to net zero by 2050, never mind by 2045. The Climate Change Committee further highlighted, in the strongest possible terms, that a target of net zero by 2050 or earlier for Northern Ireland is not credible, is morally wrong and could undermine efforts to reduce emissions. It could also result in a shift of food production from Northern Ireland to other countries where the carbon footprint of such production is much higher, thereby actually increasing global emissions.

Recently, KPMG published a report on the economic impact assessment of the private Member’s Climate Change Bill. The report reaffirms the evidence presented by the Climate Change Committee and predicts that sector-level herd numbers would significantly fall, with the greatest impact being felt in farms operating in less-favoured areas. Overall, the report concludes that the impact would be beef, dairy and sheep herd numbers falling by 86% and pig and poultry herd numbers falling by 11%. That would represent a 54% decrease in farm employment, with around 13,000 jobs lost in the primary area alone.

Instead of imposing a target that is not credible, we need to ensure that we work collaboratively with the agri-food sector to achieve reductions in emissions through a balanced approach. The private Member's Bill could disengage the very people who are a part of the solution to this issue: our farmers. We must get full buy-in and face this challenge collectively.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I place on record my appreciation of farmers in North Antrim and across Northern Ireland for the work that they do. I condemn yesterday's attack in a rural constituency, which had a real impact on our farming community in Loughguile.

Will the Minister shed some light on the comments of the TD in the Irish Republic who is the Sinn Féin spokesperson on climate change? Clearly, he speaks with a different tongue from his colleagues in this House, because he made it very plain that there is a serious lack of trust in the Green Party's ability to deliver for the environment or rural communities when it comes to the Bill in that House. Does the Minister recognise that, to ensure the future of farming, the Climate Change Bill cannot proceed on the basis in which it is currently framed?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That has been debated considerably for quite a period. Over and over again, we have asked for evidence of how that can be achieved without having the damaging impact on the agricultural sector that the KPMG report and the Climate Change Committee, which consists of world-renowned experts on the issue, have indicated that it will have. People make bland statements without having any factual, scientific backing for them. <BR/>The Member serves a constituency in which there is a large less-favoured area. The figure that I just quoted to the Assembly on the impact that it would have on farms in less-favoured areas is incredible. We are looking at beef, dairy and sheep herd numbers falling by 86%, and the biggest impact would happen in the less-favoured areas.

I understand where the Green Party is coming from; it is, largely, a Belfast-based party, and it does not get that many votes from the agriculture sector. However, we have a party that is in behind the Green Party on the issue — Sinn Féin — that is saying one thing in the South of Ireland and a different thing here in Northern Ireland. It is abandoning the farmers who live in the hills and the uplands of Northern Ireland. I call on Sinn Féin to reflect on the damage that it is potentially doing to the agricultural industry by backing something that has no scientific grounds.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I have no doubt that the Minister knows fine well that the private Member's Bill has the support of all the parties in here, with the exception of the DUP, and that, across this island, Sinn Féin speaks with one voice.

The Minister will, no doubt, remember the extreme snowfall in the spring of 2013, which resulted in the North, but particularly my constituency of North Antrim, being covered in snow, with drifts as high as 10 feet. That snowfall resulted in the death of 17,098 sheep and goats and 535 cattle, caused much structural damage to many farms and cost the Executive £5 million in compensation. Does the Minister agree that robust and ambitious legislation to address climate change and extreme weather events that may happen in the North is essential in order to protect the future of agriculture and all other sections of society in the North?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I recall that particular snow experience. I do not recall the one that took place in, I think, 1961, which my mother and father talked about; they were locked in their home for three weeks. Major snow events have occasionally taken place for very many decades. Thankfully, this year, we have avoided them thus far.

The Member talked about the death of 17,000 sheep. Sinn Féin is standing over the death of 13,000 farms and the people who work on those farms not being able to make a living from them. The farmers in my constituency will feel the impact of that considerably less than the farmers in the Member's constituency of North Antrim because there are many more farms there in a less-favoured area. Those are the people whom he is hurting the most.

Sinn Féin is in a different place from the other parties because the other parties backed my proposals at the Committee last week. Sinn Féin stood alone with the Green Party last week on the issue, and it is standing alone against the farming community with the Green Party on it now.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Is the Minister aware that, shortly before Christmas, local farmers in the Loughguile area of North Antrim invited MLAs to meet them to discuss the issue, and that Mr McGuigan, who styles himself as a co-sponsor of the green Bill, did not trouble himself to attend? If he had, he would have been asked this question by one of the farmers: would you rather that your constituents bought high-quality north Antrim meat, or meat that is produced from the cleared Amazon basin? What is the Minister's view about that?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

When politicians run away from their constituents, it is never a good sign. The fact that I would probably be more welcome amongst the farmers in Loughguile than Mr McGuigan — in fact, Mr Allister might even be more welcome than Mr McGuigan amongst the farming community in Loughguile — speaks volumes.

[Laughter.]

I visited a farm in north Antrim with Mr Storey just last week, which has been engaged in work on carbon. That farm is able to demonstrate that the carbon involved in its production of beef is one quarter of that produced on the big farms in North America and South America.

However, those politicians here have a policy, and, because they think that it is populist — some people think that it is populist — they are driving ahead with that policy, which will actually lead to more environmental damage. If they think that a policy is popular and trendy with a particular voter base, they will go after it, irrespective of the consequence, and that is the approach that is being adopted by both the Green Party and Sinn Féin.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 3:15 pm, 17th January 2022

I will allow a very brief question from Patsy McGlone and a response from the Minister.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Minister accept that, whichever climate change Bill is enacted, it will involve significant change and impact not only on agriculture but on agri-food, the wider economy and communities? Will the Minister give us some insight into what sort of just transition measures are being talked about and will be put in place, and will he say if that will be done on a cross-departmental basis?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for the question. With regard to a just transition, our green growth policy is about taking meaningful actions. We had requested a substantial amount of money. I have to say that the Department of Finance has fallen pitifully short with what is actually needed. We can remove carbon, whether that is through anaerobic digestion, animals' food intake or genetics and breeding to ensure that less carbon is produced. We have identified very clearly that the more efficient farming is, the lower its carbon footprint. We have made proposals. We have put proposals to the Department of Finance to financially support them. That Department needs to put its money where Sinn Féin's mouth is. It is not supporting us to deliver 82%, never mind 100%, with the pitiful offer that has been made to us to tackle climate change.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That ends the period for listed questions. We will now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions. Topical question number 1 has been withdrawn.