Climate Change (No. 2) Bill: Final Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:15 am on 9th March 2022.

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Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green 11:15 am, 9th March 2022

I am pleased to have arrived at the Final Stage of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. It is one of the most significant pieces of legislation that the Assembly has considered, and it tackles the most important issue of our lifetime. The Bill has been a long time coming. After three missing years in the mandate, an Executive was reconvened after the New Decade, New Approach agreement was finalised, which promised us a climate Bill for Northern Ireland along with an independent environmental protection agency. The Minister took office on 11 January 2020, and it has taken us over two years to get to this point.

On 3 February 2020, the Assembly passed a motion calling on the Minister to bring forward a climate change Act and establish an independent environmental protection agency for Northern Ireland. The Minister responded by saying that he would not be rushed into introducing measures that we would later regret. On 21 July 2020, the Assembly passed a further motion, which called on the Minister to introduce a climate change Act with legally binding, ambitious targets within 100 days. The Minister responded by telling us that the time frame was impossible and that the Assembly's ask was ridiculous.

When the Minister failed to step up, civic society and activists stepped in. By the hundredth day of the Assembly's restoration, a climate change Bill for Northern Ireland had been drafted, to be introduced as a private Member's Bill, and had the support of all parties except the DUP and the TUV. The cross-party Bill was submitted in September 2020 and introduced to the Assembly in March 2021, setting the framework for what we need in a climate change Act for Northern Ireland: strong net zero targets, a just transition, non-regression and robust climate action plans that take a holistic view of the crisis by incorporating targets on not only greenhouse gases but soil quality, air quality and biodiversity.

Once the Bill was introduced, the Minister suddenly found that he did have the time to take forward climate change legislation. The Minister's Climate Change (No. 2) Bill was introduced in July 2021. It was much less ambitious and narrower in scope. It was a watered-down version of what had already been proposed. The fact that we have two climate Bills close to completion is down to the fact that the Minister's hand was forced by an unrelenting civic movement and cross-party working. United in the demand for climate action, those people stepped up in the face of the Minister's refusal to meet his commitments.

I am delighted to see a few of the faces behind that push in the Public Gallery. I know that others are listening online to witness the passing of this stage of the Bill on its journey to becoming the Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022. I acknowledge the professionalism and the work put into the Bill by Barbara and her team of private Member's Bill Clerks, the Committee Clerks and the departmental officials.

It is positive that the Bill, in its current form, is much stronger than it looked when it was introduced. That is thanks, in part, to 12 successful Green Party amendments. On policy areas, it largely mirrors what was in the initial Climate Change Bill and the cross-party desire to see robust legislation.

The Green Party has managed to put a just transition firmly on the agenda and, through amendments, at the core of the Bill. That means that consensus-building with people and communities, and empowering them to play an active part in the transition to net zero, should be at the heart of actions coming out of the Bill. Be in no doubt that the Green Party will be watching very closely. Our amendments have ensured that action taken in Northern Ireland to reduce emissions should simultaneously serve to reduce poverty, inequality and social deprivation. We have guaranteed a just transition fund for agriculture, which was missing from the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill until an amendment was made to it. That is to ensure that farmers can access financial support and advice on reducing emissions.

We are particularly proud of the fact that we secured an amendment requiring sectoral plans to eliminate gender inequality and advance equality of opportunity between men and women, which would make this one of the first pieces of gender-proofed climate legislation in the world.

Targets have been expanded to look beyond emissions to soil quality and biodiversity, because the problem of climate breakdown is inextricably linked to ecological breakdown and the state of our soils. We secured an amendment requiring policies and proposals to support nature-based projects that enhance biodiversity, protect and restore ecosystems, reduce emissions and support climate resilience. The Green Party will push to see that delivered and not swept aside in the push for further economic development, which has caused the crisis that we are in.

We secured vital, Northern Ireland-specific, independent oversight through the establishment of the Northern Ireland climate commissioner. The commissioner will be an independent organisation, separate from government and political interference and bias. Its report will provide an independent, scientific critique of the efficiency of the Executive's climate action plans. The role of the Northern Ireland climate commissioner will be crucial in underpinning public trust in climate policy. The absence of independent environmental regulation in Northern Ireland generally, and the absence of an agency, has eroded public trust. If Northern Ireland intends to make the deep-seated changes necessary to tackle climate change, the public must have trust in the system and be invested in the process. The commissioner will ensure that the public and climate policy decision-makers have all the necessary information to assess whether the Executive's climate policy is effective, fair and in line with the best available climate science. That should ensure that we will no longer hear the trotted-out excuse that we simply do not have the proper evidence needed to create the right policy.

The Bill is much stronger than when it was introduced, thanks to the extensive amendments tabled by parties across the House. However, the amendments that passed last week to create a separate target for biogenic methane, so that the Bill does not reflect a truly net zero target, have seriously weakened the Bill's provisions. That shows that, when it comes down to it, our political parties will not make the hard but necessary decisions that go with climate action, because that would require them to think beyond elections and electoral cycles. We are elected by the people of Northern Ireland to show political leadership. Meeting the climate crisis requires bravery, but, at the eleventh hour, the majority of MLAs caved in to the demands of a lobby that represents the highest-emitting sector in Northern Ireland. That is a political and moral failure, and future generations will judge them harshly for it.

There are fewer than eight years left in the global carbon budget. That gives us two thirds of a chance of staying under the critical threshold of 1·5°C global warming. What is right is not always what is popular. With fewer than eight years left to avoid catastrophic climate change, Members of the House have decided that votes and lobbyists are more important than fully addressing the "code red for humanity" warning and the "atlas of human suffering" warning given to us by the IPCC. The Minister focused on headlines during his contribution, yet he totally ignores those headlines.

What happened last week with regard to amending the Bill to create split methane targets is the perfect example of parties' duplicity; they are talking out of both sides of their mouths. Once they feel that the public will not understand the detail, they do what they want to do and not what they have said they will do. The DUP has, at least, been consistent in its position, but other parties that claim to speak for the planet, the environment and climate justice showed, last week, what they truly stand for: keeping their seats, no matter what. Citizens who want to cast their vote for the planet should know that, last week, the DUP, the SDLP, Sinn Féin, the UUP and the TUV spoke in favour of significantly weakening our net zero commitments. Parties that were co-sponsors to the cross-party private Member's Bill — Sinn Féin and the SDLP — spoke in favour of split targets for methane last week, abandoning the commitment to a net zero target for Northern Ireland. It is great to see the climate champions in the SDLP supporting net zero by 2040 and no split methane targets at Westminster. Why, then, would they not support the same here? The climate champs in the UUP make manifesto demands for a UK net zero target by 2035 but vote for our contribution to be 82% and for splitting the targets.

Throughout this process, it has been noted and argued that, despite having a similar emissions profile to Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland did not set split targets for methane. At Consideration Stage, Sinn Féin successfully passed an amendment what would require us to align our policies with the Republic, yet they now support different targets for Ireland, North and South. How does that make sense? The island of Ireland is a single biogeographic unit. At every stage, the Green Party advocated for an all-island approach to climate action. Sinn Féin, the SDLP and others caved in to corporate lobbyists, creating two separate targets for this island with all the administrative, legal and practical difficulties that come with that.

It is abundantly clear that, in the course of this process, Members lost sight of what this legislation is truly about. On the very day that Members of the Assembly watered down and weakened the Bill, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 'Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability' report. The IPCC says, unequivocally, that:

"places where people live and work may cease to exist, that ecosystems and species that we've all grown up with and that are central to our cultures and inform our languages may disappear".

The IPCC report also states that the burden is falling overwhelmingly on those who have not caused the problem. Large parts of Africa will become uninhabitable. Growing numbers of people are dying as a result of excessive heat. Fifteen times more people have died as a result of floods, droughts and storms in vulnerable regions such as Africa, South Asia, Central America and South America than have done in other parts or the world. That is climate apartheid, where the rich pay to escape heat and hunger and the rest of the world watches.

The report sets out an atlas of human suffering. In the words of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres:

"This abdication of leadership is criminal."

Thanks to the inclusion of many Green Party amendments, the Bill is stronger than when it was originally introduced. It is not everything that we wanted it to be, particularly given its less ambitious methane targets. I respect the will of the House, however. It has been a democratically developed Bill, with much cross-party working. Now is the time for us to ensure its delivery. It is time to get behind the structures that are contained in it in order to allow us to create the systemic changes that are so urgently needed.

In agreement with the co-sponsors of the Climate Change Bill and Climate Coalition Northern Ireland, I have decided that, if the Final Stage of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill is passed by the House, I will not move the Consideration Stage of the Climate Change Bill. The will of the House would be similarly expressed, and the outcome for the target would not change.

Although the Minister has held true to his word by not delivering an independent environmental protection agency in this mandate, it is a historic day for Northern Ireland. The Bill creates an important framework for the future for the climate action that we need to take. The Bill is not everything that we would like it to be, but it is an important first step, and one that we all need to keep building on. It is now time for every politician and political party and all Departments and civic actors to step up and put the policies in place to see the Bill achieve real emissions reductions, while also securing a sustainable future so that people and communities can thrive and be equipped with the tools that they need in order to thrive. The climate crisis is the biggest crisis that humanity is facing today. We need to play our part. I am glad that today we are creating the building blocks to start moving forward.

It is time to future-proof Northern Ireland. I look forward to working with the people in South Belfast along with my new constituency colleague to deliver what is contained in the Bill.