Climate Change legislation in Northern Ireland: Is it just a lot of hot air?

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A satellite image showing Storm Ophelia making landfall in Ireland on 16 October 2017 (Image: NASA, public domain)
Storm Ophelia making landfall in Ireland on 16 October 2017 (Image: NASA, public domain)

Climate change and the need for legislation to address it still remains a debate in Northern Ireland (NI), where specific legislation has not yet been introduced. The following article considers the introduction of specific climate change legislation in NI, exploring some of the main arguments expressed for and against it.

Since the early 2000s, climate change has gained high priority status on international political agendas. The European Union (EU) is committed to working constructively towards a global agreement to control climate change by adopting an integrated package of legislative measures on energy and climate. These include the targets set for 2020 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% (or even 30%, if the conditions are right) lower than 1990. The issue of climate change has not only raised concern at governmental level; particularly given recent events off the east coast of America and South America, intense media attention has fostered a lively public debate about the potential connection between global climate change and the effects of each extreme weather event at a local level.

The UK Government considers the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as the authority on climate change, and bases its reasoning for climate change legislation on its work and findings.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts increases in extreme weather events over the 21st Century and attribute this to climate change as a result of greenhouse gas emissions causing rising surface temperatures.

Through the production of a Climate Change Adaptation Programme for NI, the Department of the Environment (now Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs) asserted a link between climate change and recent episodes of extreme weather in Northern Ireland. Importantly, the latest UK Climate Change Projections (UKCP09) predict that NI will experience warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers by the 2050s, with extreme weather becoming more frequent.

The target race

The latest figures published, for 2009-2015, show NI emissions had reduced by 18% (17.8%) compared to 1990 levels, an increase of 2% since 2013 levels. The largest sources of emissions in 2015 were from agriculture (29%), transport (21%) and energy supply (19%). This is due to the large size of the agriculture sector in NI. However, the largest contributions in both England and Scotland respectively come from energy supply due to it being their largest sector.

Comparatively speaking, in 2015, England had a reduction of 42% and Scotland 39%, with Wales and NI having the lowest of 20% and 18% respectively since 1990 levels. The Republic of Ireland records its emissions slightly differently and has shown a 3.7% increase since 2014.

Over the years, NI has shown less of a reduction compared to the rest of the UK. However, the UK Committee for Climate Change states this deficit is due to:

  • The comparatively low reduction in emissions from agriculture;
  • The land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector being a net emitter rather than a net sink, as it is in the rest of the UK; and
  • Increased emissions from transport.

Based on 2013 levels, a departmental discussion paper on proposals for climate change legislation in NI detailed that projections forecast a 33.3% reduction in emissions in NI by 2025, which suggests a predicted shortfall in achieving the last Executive’s Programme for Government (PfG) target of a 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, from a 1990 baseline. However, the latest Draft PfG does not continue the aim of achieving the last PfG target by 2025. In fact, it does not provide any targets for climate change but merely contains greenhouse gas emissions as a measure for indicator 29: increase environmental sustainability.


European Union

The European Union is committed to working constructively towards a global agreement to control climate change by adopting an integrated package of legislative measures on energy and climate. These include the targets set for 2020 in the EU’s 2020 Strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% (or even 30%, if the conditions are right) compared to 1990 levels.


From this EU-wide target, Member States developed their own targets. The United Kingdom (UK) Government has set a UK-wide target under the Climate Change Act 2008. This mandates a reduction of at least 34% in emissions by 2020 (well beyond the EU 2020 target) and 80% by 2050. It also introduced legally binding five-year carbon budgets setting a limit to the amount of greenhouse gases the UK can emit.

There are no specific targets for the devolved administrations under the Climate Change Act, but they have to contribute to the overall UK target of 80%. According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the devolved administrations account for around 20% of the UK’s total emissions.

Scotland and Wales

With the lack of specific targets in the Climate Change Act, Scotland produced its own Climate Change (Scotland) Act in 2009 which targets a reduction in emissions of 42% by 2020, preparing for an 80% reduction by 2050. Under its Climate Change Strategy, Wales also intends to exceed the UK target for 2020, with a reduction of 40%, and an annual reduction of 3%.

Republic of Ireland

The Republic of Ireland aims to reduce emissions from the non-emissions trading sector (agriculture, transport, residential, non-energy intensive industry, commercial services and waste) by 20% of 2005 levels by 2020. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 provides for targets up to 2050, to be detailed in subsequent plans.

Northern Ireland: Progress and debate

There are no specific targets for Northern Ireland in the UK Climate Change Act 2008; it is implicit that Northern Ireland contributes to the UK effort of reducing emissions by at least 80% in 2050 from 1990 levels.

The Climate Change Act 2008 established an independent body called the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to advise the UK Government on reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). In December 2015 the CCC reiterated its support for specific climate change legislation in NI. The Minister at the time published a consultation on the introduction of a Climate Change Bill in December 2015.

Climate change legislation proposals include:

  • A long term target of 80% reduction on 1990 levels by 2050 – in line with UK legislation and other UK jurisdictions;
  • Interim targets and carbon budgets (over five year periods);
  • To establish a NI Committee on Climate Change (similar to the UK Committee on Climate Change) or to designate an existing body.

In general, there was consensus among those who responded to the discussion document that NI climate change legislation is needed (74% in support).

Most of those in favour of a Bill were from the public, environmental, energy and voluntary sector. The most common positive impacts highlighted were in relation to the potential for improvement of the economy through encouraging more energy efficient, clean and low carbon businesses with possible investment opportunities in the low carbon sector.

Those not supportive of a Bill were mainly from the agriculture and agri-food sector. Common areas of concern were the lack of robust data and the negative impacts on the agricultural/agri-food sector and thus NI’s economy. A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) review of approaches used to reduce GHG emissions stated that if policies encourage farmers to adopt resource efficient practices, these not only help reduce GHG emissions, but provide benefits to the operation of farm businesses.

The CCC has advised in its Fifth Carbon Budget that more challenging measures are required in order to reach the UK’s 2050 target, and has indicated the need for a 15% reduction in agriculture emissions. It suggests that the focus should be on nitrates reduction and livestock measures to tackle methane emissions, such as improved fertiliser use efficiency, anaerobic digestion and livestock measures targeting diet and breeding that reduce methane.

On the other hand, work carried out by Rintamäkia et al (2016), looking at the impacts of different EU climate and energy policy scenarios on agriculture, highlighted that mitigation measures may threaten farm economical and structural development by limiting the growth of farms.

A UN report which looks at the future of farming and food security under different climate change scenarios calls for major transformations in agricultural practices. Similar to the opinions of the IPCC 1997 and 2019, which stresses particular concern for the impacts of climate change on small scale farmers and food production, particularly in vulnerable areas, due to potential impacts on crop yields and livestock.

Either way, a common view on both sides of the debate was the need for new thinking and willingness to change by the agricultural sector. Rintamakia et al (2016) and the UN report highlighted the importance of subsidy mechanisms to encourage a shift towards sustainable land use, including the assurance of long-term credit support for farmers to encourage their shift from short-term to long-term green technologies and practices. That being said, further alterations in agricultural practices may require buy in and attitudinal change through understanding, rather than fiscal incentives alone.

However, the impacts of mitigation measures on agriculture need to be weighed against the actual impacts of climate change on the industry. There appears to be a lack of evidence to form a sound understanding of the impacts of climate change mitigation measures on agriculture, specifically to NI. The Greenhouse Gas Implementation Partnership in NI encourages on-farm efficiency measures to reduce carbon intensity of food production. A common view amongst the literature examined is the need for behavioural change if new approaches to agricultural practices are to be realised, however this may be problematic if there is a lack of a sound understanding of the impacts at the local level.