The last item of business before the collapse of the Stormont executive last year was the passing of the Climate Change (Northern Ireland) Act 2022. The act came into force in the summer of 2022 and set out a pathway for Northern Ireland to decarbonise. We consider where Northern Ireland is one year on.
After much political negotiation the Assembly agreed to set legally binding emissions targets for the years 2030, 2040, and 2050 measured against 1990 for C02, Methane and Nitrous oxide as a baseline (and 1995 for other gases). The most well publicised targets are 80% renewable electricity by 2030 and net zero by 2050. As with any legislation the targets can always be changed but under a power sharing government this will need the agreement of more than one party, which perhaps makes it more difficult to change than in other jurisdictions.
The act takes a similar approach to the UK generally and requires the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) to set successive “carbon budgets” every five years. These budgets will set legally-binding limits on the total amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted in Northern Ireland during the five-year period. They are set by legislation which must go through a public consultation and also separate consultations with the Northern Ireland Climate Commissioner, the other Northern Ireland departments and the Just Transition Commission. The draft must also be laid before the Assembly for approval.
The first carbon budget will be for 2023 to 2027. In contrast the UK more widely is already on its sixth budget. DAERA launched its first consultation on 21 June 2023 which will run for 16 weeks until 11 October 2023 and covers the first three budgets. This proposes a 33% reduction in emissions by 2027, 48% reduction by 2032 and 62% reduction by 2037, which in consistent with advice from the recent Climate Change Committee report.
DAERA must also prepare and publish a Climate Action Plan to meet its carbon budgets and set out how the 2030, 2040 and 2050 emissions reduction targets will be met. DAERA had originally intended to consult on the plan at the same time as the carbon budgets but has stated that budget constraints and the lack of a minister prevented this. A draft plan is now expected later this year.
Northern Ireland departments are required to develop and publish plans for certain hard to decarbonise areas of the economy (known as sectoral plans) setting out how the emissions targets will be achieved. Sectoral plans are required for energy, renewable electricity consumption, infrastructure, industrial processes, waste, agriculture, fisheries, transport and active travel sectors.
The act doesn’t contain dates for publication of sectoral plans and to date none of the departments appear to have consulted on sectoral plans yet. There has been no indication from government yet as to when drafts will be available.
One year on there has been some progress but perhaps not at the pace which may have been expected following the declaration of a climate emergency by the Assembly in 2020. Recent consultations by the Department for the Economy on renewable electricity support and offshore wind, and publication by DAERA of the draft carbon budgets are welcome, but Northern Ireland now requires Ministers in post in order to move forward. To quote the Climate Change Committee report in March this year “These targets are extremely challenging and will be unachievable without immediate policy actions.”