Climate Change (No. 2) Bill: Final Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 9th March 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 10:30 am, 9th March 2022

Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you, once again, for your patience with all of this as we move the Final Stage of the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. We have had many lengthy debates on the legislation at various points during its passage through the Assembly, and rightly so. It is an important piece of legislation that will impact on the work of the Assembly and the Executive for decades to come. Essentially, the key decisions on the legislation have been taken, and its passing should be a formality.

I am pleased that my Climate Change (No. 2) Bill has reached its Final Stage. It has been a great challenge to get to this point, given the work that was required to develop the legislation at pace and to complete all the necessary processes and stages in its passage. Anyone who has taken significant, complicated and cross-cutting Executive legislation such as this forward will appreciate the amount of work that is involved, not just for me but for my officials, the AERA Committee — I give my thanks to it — the Bill Office staff, the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC), Members and the Speaker's Office. Thank you to all involved. Some said that I could not or would not bring the legislation forward, but it is clear, as I stand here today, that those accusations were unfounded.

I am grateful for the support that my Bill has received during its passage through the Assembly. Climate change affects everyone in Northern Ireland and on the planet, and it requires people to respond at local and global levels.

As politicians, we have a duty to take action to ensure that our environmental footprint becomes less significant and that we produce a sustainable economic and environmental model where both can prosper.

It was a privilege for me to visit Alternity Biogas Energy this morning to open a facility where biomethane, which is largely extracted from waste food products, is being turned into fuel through anaerobic digestion. Through further work, it is now being used to power trucks. Those trucks will produce around 20% of the carbon that a normal diesel truck would. The common-sense logic behind that is huge given that 20% of our diesel comes from Russia.

We have all those sources of energy here at home, and lot of them are on farms. Instead of taking away the methane altogether by removing the animals and the food, or by just allowing the methane to go into the atmosphere, we can capture that methane through anaerobic digestion and turn it into fuel for trucks, tractors and, indeed, homes. The mix of 80% biomethane with 20% hydrogen enables us to heat our homes without changing the boilers that are currently in those homes. All those things demonstrate to us the wisdom, common sense and practical nature of adopting high-quality policies that deliver on reducing the environmental footprint, reducing the methane that goes into the atmosphere and providing an energy source that is reliable, local, cost-controlled and will not be subject to the huge lurches that we have seen over the past few weeks. The common sense in what we are doing is very clear.

The Climate Change (No. 2) Bill will help to ensure that we do the right things. Since my appointment as Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in January 2020, I have made climate change a top priority in my Department and have ensured that resources are prioritised to deliver this legislation. Indeed, the Executive Bill has reached Final Stage ahead of the private Member's Climate Change Bill, which has only reached Consideration Stage despite being introduced to the Assembly four months earlier. That shows the commitment that we have made to delivering this legislation, having gone through all the due processes, including proper consultation, before we commenced.

I have been clear and consistent throughout all the debates on the Northern Ireland climate change legislation that we should follow the advice of experts and set targets on the basis of the evidence. There are Members in the Chamber who will take expert advice on climate change but will not take expert advice on how you respond to climate change. That is for them, not me, to answer, but my Bill, on its introduction, reflected the recommendations from the United Kingdom Climate Change Committee (CCC), which is the statutory, independent adviser on climate change. There are people on that body who have unsurpassed expertise and can provide us with evidence and advice. Delivering the targets that they recommended would have seen Northern Ireland make a fair and equitable contribution towards the UK net zero target.

Unfortunately, however, at Consideration Stage, a majority of Members of the Assembly agreed to change the headline target in the Bill to net zero emissions by 2050 — and that really was done for a headline. It is purely an aspirational target and one that, unless we invest huge amounts of money or acquire carbon credits, we are unlikely to achieve. On the use of carbon capture and storage technology, the acquisition of carbon credits is not the way to go about it. We need to ensure that, in the steps that we take, we minimise the amount of carbon produced here and we sequester as much carbon as possible. We will not do that without the assistance of the agricultural sector. Therefore, it is crucial that we bring that sector with us, thus the importance of the amendment that I moved last week.

As I have highlighted many times, we are talking about spending hundreds of millions of pounds per annum not just to reach the net zero target by 2050 but to continue beyond 2050. The long-term impacts of the decisions that are being made in the Assembly will be highly significant and will be felt by other Departments, such as the Department for Infrastructure, the Department of Education and, of course, the Department of Health. Again, it will be for Members to identify whether they are going to go through with some of that spending or go back on their word and support the Health and Education Departments. Nevertheless, the headline is there, and we will work with that as things stand.

Those present today will know that the issue that concerns me most about the overall net zero target is the potential impact on our local and very successful agriculture sector. There are some in the House who think that it is too successful. There are some in the House who think that we should not produce food for 10 million people but should only produce food for the people who live here. That is an entirely selfish notion and one that I do not want to be associated with. It is selfish because this world needs food.

We are in a circumstance where Egypt, which is a country in North Africa with a population of 120 million, is tendering for wheat and is not getting the supplies of wheat that it needs to feed its people. People tell us that we should let our land go wild: that is an absolute nonsense. It is a travesty. It is inhumane and it is wrong. Therefore, I support our agri-food sector in the production of food. We are one of the most efficient food producers anywhere in the world, and we are one of the most efficient food producers in keeping carbon down in the world. I will continue to make it very clear that we cannot allow those things to happen.

The agri-food sector in Northern Ireland employs some 113,000 people. Some people seem to think that those jobs do not matter because we are going to have all these new, green jobs etc. We should not cast away what we have; we should build on what we have. We should bring in the green jobs while keeping those existing 113,000 jobs. That is why I tabled the amendment at Further Consideration Stage to limit the impact of the net zero target in that regard and ensure that what we require of the agriculture sector and others in reducing methane emissions is in line with the evidence and advice from the experts.

My amendment clarified that the net zero ambition of some Members will not require a level of methane emission reduction of more than 46% by 2050, which is consistent with the advice from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UK CCC's balanced pathway recommendations and the ambition of the Paris agreement to achieve long-term temperature goals. That will be very challenging and will require significant new policies. The transitional elements of the Bill should help to ensure that the challenges that rural communities and many sectors will face while tackling climate change are recognised and taken into account when developing and implementing policies. There is also a requirement for Northern Ireland Departments to consider the risk of carbon leakage when deciding policies and proposals that are to be included under the climate action plans and for Departments to take into account the desirability of eliminating or minimising that risk.

Of course, we would not have required such amendments had the targets in the Bill, as introduced, been agreed, but at least I have been able to mitigate some of the potentially damaging impacts that aiming for overall net zero could cause, whilst also strengthening the just transition opportunities for rural communities.

In addition to the targets, the Bill includes a number of other important elements, which will help us to address issues that are caused by climate change.

Those include a requirement to produce five-year climate action plans that set out policies and proposals for meeting carbon budgets and the emissions targets; a requirement on a number of Departments to produce sectoral plans and to meet targets connected to them; a range of reporting requirements and duties for Departments and the Climate Change Committee; a requirement on my Department to bring forward public-body reporting regulations within 18 months of the Bill's achieving Royal Assent; and duties on all Departments to exercise their functions, as far as it is possible to do so, in a manner consistent with meeting the targets in the Bill and the carbon budgets that we set under it.

That last element in particular is crucial. All Departments and, indeed, all parts of our society will have to play their part in helping to reduce emissions. Climate change is not a one- or two-Department issue. The provisions ensure the need for all of us to act, as they will be enshrined in law, and if that does not happen, we will have no chance of getting anywhere close to the targets in the Bill.

I should add that that will not be achieved without investment. When I made requests for the green growth strategy to be properly funded, I was hugely disappointed by what was on offer in the proposals that came from Mr Murphy's Finance Department, because Sinn Féin Members' words and the money that the Sinn Féin Finance Minister provided did not match up. You will not reach 82% by 2050 on that budget, never mind 100%. There is therefore no point in going out and conning the public by saying that you want to do something significant on climate change and want to make efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon emissions, if you are not prepared to put your money where your mouth is. I challenged Sinn Féin Members last week to put their vote where their mouth was on the issue of herd reduction, and they demonstrated that they are quite happy with herd reduction, in spite of what they had said a few weeks previously. I challenge them again: if you want to achieve what you claim that you want to achieve through the legislation, the Sinn Féin Finance Minister needs to put his money where his party's mouth is on the issue, otherwise it will not be delivered.

That concludes my opening remarks today. I look forward to the Bill's being passed and to every party in the Assembly's supporting the efforts to implement and deliver on its ambitions.