Is Northern Ireland on track to meet its climate change targets?
Progress on climate legislation has been slow and arduous in Northern Ireland, in part because of its reliance on agriculture, an industry responsible for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Bill has now been passed, but does it go far enough and what goals does Northern Ireland need to achieve to ensure real change that benefits both the environment and public health?
Climate Change Bill
Northern Ireland has finally aligned itself with all other Western European countries by approving its own climate change legislation.
Late progress has been made on this Assembly mandate, but some have criticized Northern Ireland for remaining an exception in achieving net zero ambitions.
MPs passed an amendment tabled by Minister Edwin Poots that caps the methane emissions target.
The Minister argued that reducing cattle herds was not an option, particularly with an escalating crisis in Ukraine which could impact food supplies in Northern Ireland.
His amendment sets a separate target for methane as part of broader ambitions for net-zero emissions by 2050. This means that methane emissions for 2050 must not be more than 46% below the reference level. of 1990. The law must now be applied.
Northern Ireland ranks poorly among the least forested regions in Europe, with only 8% forest cover compared to a European average of 37%. In addition, nearly 60% of our woodland is in the form of recent conifer plantations.
The Woodland Trust said Northern Ireland needed to dramatically increase tree planting if it was to help meet a UK forestry target.
The conservation charity previously published its tree emergency plan.
The plan outlines how the UK can rapidly increase tree cover to help achieve net zero carbon emissions and tackle wildlife decline.
Northern Ireland would need to plant 2,000 hectares of trees a year to meet the current target of 12% coverage by 2050.
To help with this, the Forests For our Future program announced by Mr Poots in March 2020 set targets to create 9,000 hectares of new forest by 2030, well below those recommended by the Woodland Trust.
The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has a woodland expansion target of 600 hectares for 2021/22.
Ammonia is an air pollutant widely emitted by agriculture and has a detrimental impact on biodiversity, including sensitive habitats, as well as on human health. It is produced by many common agricultural activities, such as housing livestock, storing and spreading manure and slurry, and applying fertilizer.
A February Audit Office report found that most areas of Northern Ireland, including designated sites and other priority habitats, are affected by high levels of nitrogen deposited on land and in water surfaces.
Levels in most areas are well above what is considered their “critical load”, the concentration of nitrogen at which significant ecological damage occurs. Northern Ireland is responsible for 12% of UK ammonia emissions, despite having only 3% of its population and 6% of its land area, and is the only region in the UK where ammonia levels have not decreased.
“Failure to address the rising level of ammonia emissions can also contribute to serious and long-term damage to the environment and human health,” the report concludes.
Mr Poots conceded that the failure to publish an Ammonia Reduction Strategy (ARS) will be a regret when he leaves office and it is one that has left the department vulnerable to a legal challenge. However, he stresses that he wants to publish a strategy before leaving office.
Independent Environmental Protection Agency
As part of a framework program for the government in the new decade, new approach, a number of coordinated measures to reverse climate change have been defined.
They included an Independent Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) to oversee the targets that would be set under climate change legislation.
Mr Poots opposes the creation of an interim EPA, saying it is unnecessary bureaucracy. However, he offered to establish an environmental protection office to do similar freelance work.
Conservation Management Plans
Northern Ireland is home to significant nature and wildlife, of national and international significance, which form a key part of the Northern Irish landscape, providing a wide range of goods and services to society and helping to cope with change climatic.
The UK has been the subject of formal infringement proceedings by the European Commission due to the lack of Conservation Management Plans (CMPs) for its European sites.
There are 58 Special Areas of Conservation and 16 Special Protection Areas in Northern Ireland. Strangford Lough and Rathlin Island were reported to the commission as having a CMP in place.
This leaves 56 sites without such plans in Northern Ireland.
At the time of the infringement proceedings, it was reported to the Commission that Rathlin Island and Strangford Lough had Conservation Management Plans (CMPs) in place.
The Commission considered that the development of CMPs for each of the remaining SACs would contribute significantly to addressing the alleged breaches of obligations under the Habitats Directive.
DAERA then embarked on a major work program to develop such CMPs; to date, draft CMPs have been developed for 40 of the SAC sites, with the intention of having draft plans for all SACs completed by December 2022.
Air pollution is the biggest environmental risk to human health in the UK and the fourth biggest public health threat after cancer, heart disease and obesity.
The Clean Air Strategy, released in January 2019 by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), sets out a number of targets to improve air quality across the UK. United.
Additionally, DAERA published a Clean Air Strategy Discussion Paper for Northern Ireland for public review in November 2020. The public discussion period ended in early 2021.
This strategy aims to build on existing improvements in Northern Ireland and seeks to address important cross-departmental issues relating to transport, energy, agriculture, industry, local quality management air and communications.
An air quality strategy was planned but not published. Minister Poots says recommendations are awaiting the next office holder.
Mobuoy Super Dump
In public meetings, government officials have been repeatedly challenged to urgently deal with around one million cubic meters of waste at the Mobuoy ‘super dump’ on the outskirts of Derry. The Faughan River which forms the western boundary of the site supplies the town with 60% of its drinking water.
The ongoing legal action has been accused of delaying remediation work at the site. That trial is due to begin next month.
The cleanup cost at Mobuoy has been estimated at a minimum of £20m – and potentially up to £100m.
NI Water and DAERA have always assured the public that chemicals in drinking water are at safe levels. However, activists argue that there are “no safe levels” of arsenic or manganese, as exposure to these chemicals can have a long-term damaging effect on the brain.
It is expected that, based on the successful approval of a business case, a remediation contractor will be appointed by the end of 2023.
Prohibition of petroleum licenses
In a somewhat unexpected move, DUP Economy Minister Gordon Lyons announced that he would support a ban on fracking and onshore oil licensing activities in Northern Ireland.
Hydraulic fracturing is widely banned in the UK and Ireland. In England, the government has told industry it will not agree to any future fracking “until convincing new evidence is provided” that it is safe.
Two oil license applications in NI relate to Fermanagh, where a company called Tamboran Resources UK applied for a license in 2016.
A separate EHA Exploration app covers five council areas: Belfast, Antrim and Newtownabbey, Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon, Lisburn and Castlereagh and Mid Ulster.
However, Sinn Fein said it was “bitterly disappointing” that following the DUP’s collapse of the executive, this ban could no longer be brought forward.
A recent ‘Water Framework Directive Statistical Report’ determined that none of Northern Ireland’s 496 rivers, lakes and coastal waters achieved ‘good overall status’ for water quality .
Environmentalists have argued that minimum fines imposed for water pollution are not an appropriate deterrent to repeat offenders.
Figures obtained by Green Party MP Rachel Woods showed that more than seven million tonnes of raw sewage is dumped into Northern Ireland’s seas and rivers each year.
NI Water requires an investment of around £2bn in water and sewerage services over a six-year period, the utility regulator said in May. In this financial year, Minister DfI has allocated a combined budget of £350 million to NI Water for 2021/22.
Smoky coal is one of the worst causes of air pollution. It has been reported that around 8,000 premature deaths have been averted in Dublin since a coal ban was introduced in 1990. In the past, DUP MP Sammy Wilson has strongly opposed proposals saying that low-income households that use cheap charcoal would be negatively affected. because smokeless charcoal is more expensive.
In response, then Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said: ‘Great to hear Saint Sammy, advocate for the underprivileged – I don’t know what happened to Sammy, the champion conservative cuts – making all these arguments on behalf of those who are suffering. fuel poverty.
“There is not a word about the big business interests of those working in the coal business or, indeed, the interests of the Port of Larne in its own constituency.”
DUP MP Michelle McIlveen, who was Minister for DAERA before the Assembly collapsed, also said she had no plans to ban smoky coal in the North.
Now Mr Poots says he has no intention of banning coal because people would ‘die of hypothermia’ in poorly insulated homes.