Dr Amanda Slevin

8 April 2022

Throughout the Place-based Climate Action Network, there are amazing examples of diverse people and organisations working together to translate climate policy into action “on the ground” to bring about transformative change. Yet what happens when climate action efforts are constrained by the absence of policy? Northern Ireland is such a case, but that is set to change following collaborations between civil society, politicians and legal experts to advance Northern Ireland’s first Climate Change Act.

Although the UK has climate legislation with a net-zero emissions target by 2050 (Climate Change Act, 2008), climate change policy is a devolved matter. The Climate Change (Scotland) Act (2009) involves a net-zero target of 2045 and just transition principles, exemplifying how devolved administrations can innovate and become climate leaders. In March 2021, Senedd Cyrmu (the Welsh Parliament) increased their climate ambition by approving a net zero target of 2050, up from 80% reductions by 2050 established in the Environment (Wales) Act (2016).

Legacy of missed opportunities

In Northern Ireland, we have experienced the opposite, despite various opportunities since 2008. The Northern Ireland Executive’s (NIE) Programme for Government (2008-2011) identified climate change as “one of the most serious problems facing the world” and committed to a 25% carbon reduction by 2025. The Committee for the Environment’s Inquiry into Climate Change (2009) also agreed climate targets were important: it made 52 recommendations, including a proposal that new primary legislation in the medium to longer term should be considered when “sufficient local information is available to identify challenging but achievable targets”. However, primary legislation was not pursued.

Fast forward to 2016 via other potential inflexion points (advice from the UK’s Committee on Climate Change on greenhouse gas reduction targets in 2011; the SDLP’s efforts to develop climate legislation in 2013-15, along with further CCC advice on legislation and targets). Following the 2016 NI Assembly (NIA) Election, the Department for the Environment was dissolved and the new Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) assumed responsibility for climate action. This, in itself, could be regarded as problematic, since agriculture has consistently produced the largest share of NI’s greenhouse gas emissions (26%).  When the Assembly collapsed over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal (January 2017), NI climate legislation still did not exist. Three years later, following British and Irish government-led negotiations, the Executive was restored, based on the New Decade New Approach Deal (NDNA), which committed to a climate change act that would “give environmental targets a strong legal underpinning” and reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

After the NIA’s hiatus, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MLA[1] Edwin Poots became Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA). When the Assembly passed a Sinn Féin motion declaring a climate emergency (3 February 2020), it appeared political momentum for climate action and associated legislation was finally building. The motion recognised the climate and biodiversity crises, called on NIE to fulfil NDNA commitments, proposed a review of NIE strategies to ensure carbon reductions, and asked the AERA Minister to establish an independent Environmental Protection Agency. When the motion was not acted upon, the Assembly passed an AERA Committee motion calling on the Minister to introduce a climate change act with “legally binding and ambitious sectoral emission reduction targets” within three months (21 July 2020). In the associated debate and subsequent media coverage, the Minister made clear he would not introduce urgent climate legislation.

Civil society takes action

The legendary Civil Rights activist, John Lewis once asked, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” Recognising the extent of the climate emergency and the necessity of multi-level action, in August 2020, colleagues and I in Climate Coalition Northern Ireland (CCNI) began to explore possibilities for civil society to advance climate legislation in partnership with cross-party politicians[2] and independent legal experts[3].  Formed by NI Environment Link in early 2020, CCNI is a network of organisations and individuals concerned with cooperation on climate change issues, locally and globally, in order to bring about climate mitigation and adaption action across Northern Ireland. With close to 30 member organisations that represent, collectively, around 400,000 people, CCNI is NI’s largest civil society network for climate action. Our members include academics, businesses, environmental NGOs, farmers, international development agencies, student groups and youth climate strikers.

Hand in hand with collaborations with Members of the Legislative Assembly and legal experts, CCNI consulted with our members and stakeholders such as civil servants and representatives from agriculture and industry bodies around a potential climate change bill for NI. Following our multi-sectoral endeavours, Clare Bailey (Leader of the NI Green Party, Lead Co-Sponsor) presented Northern Ireland’s first Climate Change Bill to the NIA Speaker’s Office as a Private Members’ Bill (PMB) on 21 October 2020. The achievement of cross-community collaboration on such a crucial matter was momentous and saw, for the first time, MLAs from across the political spectrum working in partnership with civil society groups to co-develop legislation. The majority of NI’s political parties supported the PMB, except for the DUP and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), although DUP MLA Jim Wells was a vocal advocate for the Bill.

A Climate Change Bill for NI

Learning from countries like Scotland, Germany and Sweden, the PMB sought to make Northern Ireland, “a net-zero carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by the year 2045.” The PMB recognised the climate emergency, mandated climate action plans (including carbon budgets, nitrogen budgets and sectoral plans) shaped by just transition principles, and entailed independent oversight via the Northern Ireland Climate Office and NI Climate Commissioner. The PMB passed First Stage (22 March 2021), Second Stage (10 May 2021) and on the day it passed Committee Stage (after extensive public consultation), Minister Poots opened an online consultation on a separate climate change bill (8 December 2021). The Executive nature of the resultant Climate Change Bill (no.2) (CCBill2) meant it was given precedence over the PMB and it rapidly moved through the legislative process, amidst much debate and amendments by all parties.

On 9 March 2022, when the PMB was due to commence Consideration Stage, CCBill2 passed Final Stage. After an arduous, protracted process dating back to 2008, NI’s first Climate Change Act will now come into operation when it receives Royal Assent. The passing of CCBill2, rather than the more ambitious PMB, might seem like an anti-climax but the PMB and associated collaborations strongly influenced CCBill2. When introduced, CCBill2 was premised upon 82% greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2050; gave the Department power to amend targets; and created requirements for carbon budgets. Originally, it did not involve sectoral plans, nor did it establish independent oversight.

Following wide-ranging amendments, CCBill2 incorporated core aspects of the PMB: achieving net zero (by 2050 instead of 2045); sectoral plans; carbon budgets; just transition principles, and it established the independent office of the Northern Ireland Climate Commissioner. In addition, new amendments meant CCBill2 included aspects not in the PMB, such as a Just Transition Commission, concern for nature-based solutions to “enhance biodiversity, protect and restore ecosystems” and help reduce greenhouse gases, and a Just Transition Fund for agriculture. However, unlike the PMB, the Climate Bill enables split greenhouse gas targets and methane (primarily produced by agriculture) will only be subject to 46% reduction by 2050.

Northern Ireland’s first Climate Change Bill is to be celebrated, not least given the role civil society involvement and cross-community collaboration has played. Arguably, no Bill would have passed without the unique partnership inherent to the PMB. In many ways, the forthcoming NI Climate Change Act symbolises new, inclusive ways of working, offering hope, and illustrating that we can transcend entrenched political divisions to move towards a better, fairer and more sustainable future for us all.

Dr Amanda Slevin, Policy Fellow, Place-based Climate Action Network and Chair of Climate Coalition Northern Ireland

Photo: en:User:Dom0803 - en:Image:DSCF6636.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia

[1] Member of the Legislative Assembly

[2] The resultant Climate Change Bill was co-sponsored by Philip McGuigan (Sinn Féin), Mark H. Durkan (Social Democratic and Labour Party), John Stewart (Ulster Unionist Party), John Blair (Alliance Party), Clare Bailey (Lead Co-Sponsor, Green Party), Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit), Claire Sugden (Independent) and Trevor Lunn (Independent).

[3] The Climate Change PMB drafters included: Anurag Deb (PhD Researcher, Queen’s University Belfast);  Laura Neal (Lawyer, Friends of the Earth); Nicolas Hanna QC (The Bar of Northern Ireland); Monye Anyadike-Danes QC (The Bar of Northern Ireland); Dr Ciara Brennan (School of Law, Newcastle University and Environmental Justice Network Ireland); Professor Ole Pederson (School of Law, Newcastle University); Dr Thomas L Muinzer (Senior Lecturer in Energy Transition Law and Co-Director, Aberdeen University Centre for Energy Law).