Clare Bailey on Northern Ireland’s Climate Bill

13 November 2020 

There’s been lots of coverage and discussion of the recently introduced Climate Bill as it made its way through the pre-legislative scrutiny.

Meanwhile, we found out that Northern Ireland’s Climate Bill is set to go before its parliament and has garnered cross-party support, with a couple of exceptions. 

So how did it come to be, and what’s in it? 

We called up the lead sponsor of the Bill, Northern Ireland’s Green Party Leader Clare Bailey, to find out more.  

Note: this interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

For people who wouldn’t know a lot about the climate policy in Northern Ireland, how would you describe what it looks like right now? 

We’re not doing very well at all, and I don’t think that would be a big surprise to anybody. 

While we try and sell a good news story, particularly with carbon emissions being reduced by 20 per cent in recent years, we just have to look at the rest of the UK who are doing much, much more. Scotland in particular. 

When we look in comparison, Northern Ireland is very much lagging behind the rest of Great Britain. 

We also had no executive for three and a half years and we have to look at it in the context of Brexit as well. 

Most of our environmental regulations would be EU legislation and directives. Through the Brexit transition period, what we have is the UK government then transposing EU law into domestic law and now we’re in the process of creating our own legislation. 

But we had no Executive and no Ministers during that period until January of this year. 

So when we see Scotland, Wales and England moving forward with their own specific legislation, we again are left lagging behind. 

I read in a BCC piece that you said NI is falling behind on a raft of indicators. So in terms why that is, would you attribute that to the Executive not being in place? 

I think it goes much further back than that. 

There’s never been the political will to take this on. I think that the public are much more ahead than our traditional political parties and leaders on this issue, and we in the Green Party have been calling for specific legislation for so many years now. 

This should have been done a long, long time ago. But the political will just wasn’t there. 

I make the case that the best time after yesterday is today, and now is the time for the action. 

When we see the grassroots organising and the civic engagement with the environmental crises that we’re in, we see that they are leading the charge on this one. 

They are making our politicians and political parties stand up and take notice and that’s what is causing the change. 

And you have cross-party support, with the exception of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)? 

CB: Yes, the DUP and the Traditional Ulster Voice (TUV). That’s what makes the Bill really, truly groundbreaking. 

It was drafted by the Climate Coalition and that’s a coalition right across society. It’s academics, it’s legal professionals, it’s environmental NGOs and it’s wider society engaging there as well. 

When the executive came back together again in January this year, they did so under a New Decade, New Approach deal. 

Under that agreement, we were promised climate change legislation and we were promised an independent EPA. So the five parties in the executive signed up to deliver that, but yet we haven’t seen any move to do so. 

One of the first debates at the re-establishment of the Assembly was to declare a climate emergency, and it got cross party support. 

Then in July this year, he Environment Committee brought forward a motion calling for the Environment Minister to introduce climate legislation by September under the New Decade, New Approach agreement. 

During that debate, the Minister stood up and told the house that we were ridiculous to ask for legislation within that timeframe and that it was impossible to deliver and he basically shut it down. 

The call then went out to the wider sector and said, “how do you feel? Do you think that this would be impossible?”

What the coalition then did was make what the Minister told us was impossible, possible. They delivered this legislation. 

Not only did they deliver legislation, but they got the political support. 

You’ve got Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party, People Before Profit and several independent MLAs, and of course ourselves as the lead sponsor. 

That is particularly groundbreaking and unheard of in Northern Irish politics.

Why do you think that is? 

A lot of work was done. You have to work to bring people along with you in politics. Everyone was putting climate into their manifestos during the last election, but it’s action that we need. 

We can have the words and nice policies but we need delivery. Time is not on our side anymore. 

Again it goes back to grassroots and wider civic society pushing this onto the political agenda is much more than it’s ever been before. 

The BBC reported that you have a 2045 carbon neutrality goal. Why have you picked that target? 

It’s to try and keep us within the Paris Accord and to help us meet our targets within that. 

So we have set the target and this is again negotiating with other political parties  to get this on the agenda. Some people will think that’s not soon enough, but there’s nothing to say we can’t do it sooner. Setting a deadline isn’t preventing us from getting there earlier. 

The main provisions in the Bill are net zero by 2045. That’s only 24/25 years, and when you look at where we’re standing right now, that’s a body of work to be done.

But I don’t believe it’s impossible in any way shape or form. We can do it much quicker, but there’s a lot to be done in that time frame. 

It’s a framework and a trajectory for Northern Ireland to become a climate-resilient society and to achieve an environmentally sustainable economy. It sets out a clear path in how we achieve that. 

So it requires the Executive Office to bring forward a Climate Action Plan and to do that within three years of this Bill becoming law, and then every five years after that. 

A big part of this is that there are interim targets included within that as well. This will be assessed and monitored by outside independent climate commissioners. 

But while the UK government will be the state body, the Northern Ireland Executive is five very different parties all sharing power. Unless they all agree, nothing is delivered. 

The Executive will be called on to bring forward a Climate Action Plan within three years and that impacts on every Department and every Minister. They have to produce their own set of plans and targets. We shouldn’t underestimate the context from where we are operating. That is ambitious. 

Agriculture is your largest emitting sector. How would you envision reducing emissions in that sector? 

That’s a huge problem and it’s something that I’ve been working on.

Agriculture emits 27 per cent of our carbon emissions. What we’ve seen over the past 10 to 12 years is the deliberate intensification of our agri-food sector. That came under the Going for Growth signed off by the successive Executive Offices and Ministers. 

So we now have intensive farming, and it’s for export markets. 

So while it has been economically to sell Northern Ireland PLC globally, nobody has been keeping an eye on it and certainly not enforcing environmental elements.

There’s lots of work to be done with farmers and this should not be pitted as the environment against farmers. We can move to a sustainable model. 

From my perspective, it has been deliberate government policies that have not just encouraged, but forced the sector down this path, and there are many within the sector that want to include more sustainable practices. 

They’re being harmed. They can’t farm in ways they want because economic incentives from the government are not there to support them. 

So this isn’t one against the other. This is absolutely supposed to be focused on the government making it economically sustainable and viable to do things better. 

In this Bill, you’ve made the decision to address biodiversity issues. Why?

We know through many reports about the decline of our species. We know it’s happening, but we’re not taking the measures to protect them. 

We’re a largely rural area in the whole, and we have to look at how we can maintain and sustain our biodiversity. What we’re doing at the minute is taking away our biodiversity for economic gain. That’s just not sustainable. 

Will Just Transition appear in the Bill, and if so, what would it look like?

It is absolutely fundamental to this Bill. For me, there can never be enough ambition when it comes to tackling climate breakdown. 

What we’re facing right now is this really unique set of circumstances that I don’t think we as a population have ever experienced. 

We have a health pandemic and the crisis that has brought. Then you have the knock on effects of that bringing an economic crisis along with it. And then we have the climate crisis. 

We haven’t even begun to truly get to grips with the ramifications of what climate is going to do in terms of completely changing how we live our lives. 

So when we have a triple crisis that we are facing, the only solution is to make radical change in order to sustain ourselves. 

That cannot be done by maintaining the system we have at the minute. 

It is absolutely fundamental ,and yes, the trajectory and the path set out within this Bill is completely built around a Just Transition to a low carbon economy and one where no one is left behind. 

We also know from all the evidence that it is our most vulnerable and most deprived areas that will be hit the hardest and we must protect them. 

What are the next steps we should be looking out for? 

We launched it three months to the day the Minister said it was impossible, and there’s a process that it goes through. 

It goes onto the legislative council to make sure it’s legally competent. If it passes this, it should be laid within the assembly. That’s when it goes public and we can then start to move it forward. 

We are all pushing that this must be passed during this mandate. We have a very short mandate left during this executive and assembly term.

We have assembly elections in 2022 and we do not want to be entering those assembly elections without having this legislation in place. 

So we’ll have to see how this goes, but with political support and the good will behind it, fingers crossed that we’ll have it passed during this mandate.