The provisional findings of an independent impact analysis commissioned by the agri-food industry suggests that livestock numbers will have to be cut by up to 85% if Northern Ireland (NI) is to achieve a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2045.

That target is set out in a private member’s bill taken forward by Green Party leader Clare Bailey, supported by the main political parties outside of the DUP, and currently being scrutinised by the agriculture committee at Stormont.

The committee meeting on Thursday heard from representatives from the NI Meat Exporters’ Association (NIMEA) and the NI Dairy Council.

Blunt assessment

Delivering a blunt assessment of the proposed legislation, NIMEA chief executive Conall Donnelly was critical of the lack of consultation with industry on the targets within the bill and the failure to understand what impact it might have on rural communities.

“In the absence of an impact assessment, we have commissioned one ourselves.

"On the basis of some provisional findings, in order to meet net zero, livestock numbers would likely need to fall by as much as 85%, based on currently available mitigation techniques,” Donnelly told MLAs.

Accountancy firm KPMG is understood to have been commissioned to undertake the work, although it is not yet complete, with more analysis still to be done around the impact of the bill on jobs and the wider rural economy.

Cottage industry

However, in his evidence NI Dairy Council chief executive Dr Mike Johnson suggested that the NI dairy sector would end up as a cottage industry if the net zero target is adopted.

“The scale of the NI dairy sector would have to reduce to a level, the milk production output of which we last saw in 1946. That’s why I say cottage industry – it would take us back to the future,” he said.

Johnson called for significant changes to the bill, pointing out that if that happened, it would send an important message to the agri-food industry.

We want to be involved, but give us a chance

“We want to get this right. We want to be involved, but give us a chance,” he said.

A second climate change bill, drafted by officials in DAERA, and taken forward by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, is also to come before the Stormont Assembly after it obtained NI Executive approval on Thursday.

It includes a less onerous target compared with the private member’s bill, with NI to cut carbon emissions by 82%, as part of an overall UK target to be net zero by 2050.

That target is based on advice from the expert UK Climate Change Committee.

Initial analysis suggests that NI may have to reduce livestock numbers by 20% to meet this CCC target.

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