After weeks of intensive lobbying by farm organisations, politicians have agreed to amend the Stormont Executive’s climate change bill, and set a separate target for methane emissions.
The bill passed its further consideration stage on Tuesday, and should now be on track to become law before Stormont dissolves at the end of March, ahead of May elections.
At the first consideration stage at the start of February, the bill had been amended from a headline target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 82% by 2050, to a new target for net zero emissions.
That had caused alarm among farmers given that it was contrary to the scientific advice offered by the UK climate change committee (CCC).
In addition, independent analysis by consultancy firm KPMG showed that cattle and sheep in NI would need to be virtually wiped out if that net zero target was to be met.
The key issue is the biogenic methane produced by these ruminant animals, which accounts for around two thirds of all agricultural emissions, and is difficult to reduce without cutting numbers.
By contrast carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning lasts for centuries
But methane is different to other GHG’s in that it is short lived in the atmosphere, breaking down after 10-20 years. In effect, methane released today by ruminants replaces methane from 10-20 years ago, so a stable livestock population does not contribute to global warming. By contrast carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning lasts for centuries, so has a permanent global warming effect.
It was a key argument made by Professor Myles Allen from the University of Oxford when he addressed a climate change event held in Cookstown on 16 February, and urged politicians to be pioneers in climate policy and consider methane separately to other GHG’s.
As well as a separate target proposed by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, crucially Sinn Féin also proposed an amendment to the bill that would have treated methane differently. However, the Sinn Féin amendment did not progress as it was deemed to be “mutually exclusive” from that tabled by Minister Poots.
The amendment from Minister Poots requires that methane emissions by 2050 are not required to be “more than 46% lower” than the 1990 baseline.
It is understood that if NI sets a target to reduce methane by 46% by 2050, while at the same time taking all other GHGs to net zero, the effect is broadly in line with the “at least 82%” reduction in net emissions as set out in the bill when it first came to Stormont.
This amendment was not opposed by Sinn Féin, and was supported by the SDLP, and the main Unionist parties, so it was passed on Monday evening. However, both the Green Party and Alliance MLAs were against.
“I am baffled about why two parties have tabled amendments to decouple methane from other greenhouse gases,” said south Antrim Alliance MLA John Blair.
“Split targets have proved to be insufficient elsewhere, and they will prove to be insufficient here,” added Green Party leader Clare Bailey.
Both Blair and Bailey argued that the amendment went against the advice of the CCC. The irony of that was that it was the CCC who recommended an 82% reduction in NI emissions in the first place, yet both Blair and Bailey had led the charge to get that changed to net zero.
150 amendments proposed to bill
At the first consideration stage of the climate change bill at the start of February a total of 80 amendments were proposed, with a significant number voted through. A further 70 amendments were tabled ahead of the further consideration stage on Monday.
Speaking at the start of Monday’s session Minister Poots acknowledged that a significant number of these new amendments were drafted by DAERA officials in an attempt to make the legislation “more workable”.
A Just Transition Fund for Agriculture is also to be created to provide advice and financial support to farmers
When compared to the original wording of the bill, it now has a number of significant additions including the appointment of an independent Climate Commissioner to oversee the operation of the legislation. A Just Transition Fund for Agriculture is also to be created to provide advice and financial support to farmers, while a Just Transition Commission will oversee the support offered across the economy as various sectors cut emissions.
Poots creates amendment specifically for Sinn Féin
The key amendment brought forward by Minister Poots might have been a separate target for methane, but he also tabled an amendment that would effectively have meant agriculture was not included in NI totals for greenhouse gas emissions.
Describing it as an “alternative for members”, he explained that it was “contrived” to allow Sinn Fein MLAs to follow through on what they said at the first consideration stage of the bill on Monday 7 February.
During that session, north Antrim Sinn Féin MLA Philip McGuigan was quoted as saying his party will not allow beef and sheep farmers in less favoured areas to go out of business and will not tolerate food production in Ireland being replaced by unsustainable imports.
It is a total nonsense amendment
“I have produced an amendment to enable you to put your vote to them. I expect you to support what you said,” contended Minister Poots on Monday.
“It is a total nonsense amendment. When I first saw the amendment, I thought that it was an early April Fool’s joke,” responded Philip McGuigan.
While the amendment was supported by Unionist MLAs, it was voted down by 49 to 38.