The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has expressed “deep disappointment” after proposals for a target of net zero emissions in Northern Ireland by 2050 were backed at Stormont on Tuesday.
The union’s president, Victor Chestnutt believes that 113,000 jobs in the local agri-food sector will "become vulnerable overnight” if this target becomes legislation
“We are deeply disappointed by the outcome of the vote,” he said.
"This net zero target of 2050 goes against the advice of the experts on the Climate Change Committee (CCC).
"They originally highlighted that it was not achievable for NI and would result in at least, a 50% reduction in livestock numbers here."
In 2020, the UK’s climate advisory body suggested that an 82% cut in greenhouse gas emissions for Northern Ireland by 2050 would be a suitable contribution.
It said that for Northern Ireland to have its own net zero target would pose too big a burden on the agriculture industry here, but a coalition of environmental groups and Green Party leader Clare Bailey urged for tougher targets.
“We need to stop global warming, but a net zero target will not do this. It is unrealistic and can only be met by cutting livestock numbers on local farms, and even by doing that, it would still not solve climate change,” Mr Chestnutt continued.
"Instead, it will export our food production overseas to meet consumer demand for meat and dairy products, where emissions are higher and standards are lower.”
After a lengthy Assembly debate, the vote for the net zero target, which passed by 50 to 38, came during the latest stage of a bill to tackle climate change.
It was supported by the Greens, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance but Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots argued instead for a target of reducing emissions by 82% by 2050.
He accused other parties of "ganging up on rural communities" after the vote passed, with the DUP and UUP opposing the plan.
Mr Poots said he is going to attempt to make further amendments to the bill which will mitigate the impact on the agricultural sector - and potentially leave them out of the net zero target altogether.
The 100% figure is being passed as a "headline" but may not be fulfilled, Mr Poots added. "The consequences are hugely damaging," he said. "I have to find a means of undoing the damage."
Ms Bailey believes the agriculture sector should not be left out of any net zero targets.
Speaking on BBC’s Good Morning Ulster radio show, Ms Bailey said: "The agriculture sector is our highest emitter. We know that farmers want to do better. In Northern Ireland, despite being a small region and a small population we actually emit double our per capita in terms of emissions - more than China."
“Every single job that is linked to farming in some way will be impacted, as well as jobs in rural areas that depend on business from agri-food workers. Jobs are needed to sustain rural communities,” added Mr Chestnutt.
He noted that farmers lobbied MLAs and commissioned KPMG “to conduct the economic impact assessment on the far-reaching consequence of the Private Member’s Bill (PMB) on agriculture and rural communities”.
The UFU urged MLAs “to think again when this Bill comes back to the Assembly for further consideration at the next stage and for the many that supported the net zero target but made a commitment to us that they would ensure nothing would be done that would harm agriculture or reduce livestock numbers, to deliver on their promise!”