High energy costs, rural logistics issues, methane emissions from livestock and a new net-zero carbon target are among issues of concern for the agri-food sector after Northern Ireland’s first Climate Change Bill was tabled this week.
Receiving its first reading before the NI Assembly on March 22, the draft legislation was introduced by Green Party MLA Clare Bailey with the DUP the only main party withholding support.
“Northern Ireland’s manufacturers have been at the forefront of investing and innovating in reducing their environmental impact and spotting business opportunities and this will continue regardless of a Climate Change Bill or not,” said Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI.
“From creating engineering solutions in renewables to resource efficiency to ensure their competitiveness given our peripherality from markets, our manufacturing community work every day to achieve marginal gains.
“However, they’ve also had to pick up the cost of some policy decisions. As the largest energy users, they have bills amongst the most expensive in the world and our location means lots of the new options on transportation just don’t work.
“So, if a Bill progresses, our Assembly needs to be careful and not destroy jobs, particularly as the economic impact of Covid and Brexit will be with us for years to come.”
Climate Coalition Northern Ireland worked alongside the Green Party to write the Bill, which sets a net-zero carbon target of 2045, and will be debated by MLAs during its second reading.
It stands separate to a bill under development by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, which is expected to adopt Lord Deben’s Climate Change Committee recommendation of an 82% cut in emissions by 2050 as an equitable NI contribution to the UK's net zero ambition.
Making the recommendation, Lord Deben acknowledged the contribution of agriculture to the NI economy and its vulnerability to any greater or faster reduction in emissions.
David Brown, deputy president of Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU), expressed particular concern over the new Bill setting aside Lord Deben’s recommendation for a net-zero by 2045 target.
“We recognise we have to make our contribution to it, but if you’re feeding 10 million in the UK from Northern Ireland with its 1.8 million population, that has to be taken into account,” he said.
UFU has met with Bailey, as well as representatives from all the main parties, and is seeking clarification on the science behind the expedited targets, as well as further detail on how the Bill proposes measuring methane emitted from agriculture.
Last month, the Irish government recognised biogenic methane from agriculture as separate from its other methane reduction targets under the RoI climate bill, and UFU is pushing for adoption of a similar distinction in NI.
Michael Bell, executive director of Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), meanwhile highlighted progress already made by food and drink companies to lower their carbon footprint, reduce packaging and eliminate waste.
“It is vital that any legislation is workable on the ground, and as an industry stand ready to work with government to develop practical solutions to the challenge of climate change,” he said. “Through our NIFDA environment and packaging forums, we have been working hard on these issues to ensure we reduce emissions and enhance sustainability as our industry continues to grow from strength to strength.
“As a society we have a responsibility to tackle emissions and minimise our impact on the environment, and we welcome the Climate Change Bill’s objective of making businesses and society more resilient, sustainable and resource efficient.”