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While introducing climate change legislation is a commitment in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, this recent development means we now have two climate change bills moving through the legislative process in Northern Ireland. This legal insight highlights the high-level differences and implications.
The non-Executive / Private Member’s Bill brought earlier this year (link) passed its second stage in May and has moved on to the Assembly Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. We await the second stage to be scheduled for Bill No.2 but with Stormont’s summer recess, it will not be for a few months.
Both Bills seek to set targets and carbon budgets with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One of the major differences between the two bills, however, is the journey to net zero, with the Executive Bill having a less ambitious target. The Private Member’s Bill introduced in March this year “aims to establish a mandate for climate change mitigation and adaptation in Northern Ireland and ensure that Northern Ireland meets net-zero carbon emissions by 2045”, whereas the Executive Bill looks to 2050 and an “equitable contribution” by Northern Ireland to UK net zero.
This approach is based on a Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) consultation and the advice of the UK Climate Change Committee (an independent body providing expert advice to the UK Governments on climate change). The DAERA discussion document on a Climate Change Bill sought views on policy options for Northern Ireland late last year and the following options were considered:
Option 1: Do Nothing/Business as Usual (not considered a viable option but presented for comparison)
Option 2: Introduce climate change legislation for Northern Ireland which includes a target that represents Northern Ireland’s equitable contribution to the UK 2050 Net Zero target
Option 3: Introduce climate change legislation for Northern Ireland which includes a 2050 Net Zero target for Northern Ireland
Per the explanatory memorandum accompanying this week’s Bill a majority of respondents to the consultation (48%) supported a “Bill which sets evidence based greenhouse gas emission reduction targets to reflect Northern Ireland’s equitable contribution to the UK 2050 Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions reduction target”, essentially Option 2. A lower 40% were in favour of a Bill requiring Northern Ireland to be Net Zero by 2050 (Option 3), with remaining respondents not sure, or with no opinion, about the level of targets to be set.
Bill No. 2 includes emissions targets for 2030, 2040 and 2050 with a 48%, 69% and 82% reduction respectively in greenhouse gases from the specified 1990 and 1995 baseline years (defined in the Bill at clause 5). The 82% by 2050 “is a target that the UK Climate Change Committee have advised is a credible and fair contribution by Northern Ireland that delivers on UK net zero and the commitments of the Paris Agreement accord.”
Bill No.2 also includes provision for emission targets to be modified but only as a result of significant scientific or policy developments around climate change in the UK, or internationally. To ensure targets are only changed where developments or expert advice mean it is appropriate, the Bill includes clauses whereby advice has to be sought from the UK Climate Change Committee.
While it sets out Department powers, reporting requirements and duties to ensure targets are met, the two Bills also differ in their approach to climate governance. The Private Member’s Bill seeks to establish an independent Northern Ireland Climate Commissioner and Northern Ireland Climate Office, where the Executive Bill focuses on DAERA proposing regulations, albeit with the advice of the UK Climate Change Committee. In fact, Bill No.2 places a lot of focus on the Committee’s advice including in relation to the use of carbon units which may be credited or debited to the net NI emissions account for specified periods.
What is better – a Climate Commissioner or reliance on the Climate Change Committee? Perhaps as both Bills progress and everyone considers the legislative detail, members will seek to cherry pick parts of each Bill to be included in the other.
It is not yet clear how these two related pieces of legislation will be considered at the same time at Stormont. However merging both Bills seems unlikely for now given that those behind the first Bill will want to push on rather than seek consensus on differing targets and timeframes, with many feeling that Bill No.2 does not go far enough to address the current climate crisis.
However NI’s Meat Exporters’ Association has already told a Stormont committee that the first Bill’s net-zero by 2045 target will disproportionately affect the agri-food sector in NI. Bill No.2 is less stringent appealing to those in the agriculture industry who share these concerns so perhaps this industry will hold sway with many MLAs.
With the consultation on the Energy Strategy having closed recently, there is no doubt that climate legislation is a step is the right direction for further sustainable development in NI. Yet with two parallel bills, the road to legislating for climate change in NI will not be straightforward. Further scrutiny will have to take place before we see how Bill No.2 fairs in the Assembly.
Follow the link to track progress of the Executive Bill.
This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at July 2021. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms & conditions
07 July 2021