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Posted 9 February 2022

Climate Change Bill and Rural Communities

RCN Blog

RCN Policy Officer Aidan Campbell reflects on the Northern Ireland Climate Change Bill’s progress and implications for rural communities

Climate Change Bill and Rural Communities

The Climate Change Bill, the amendment to insert a net zero target and speculation on the impact on farming and rural communities attracted a lot of media coverage last week.  What’s RCN’s view on all these issues?  It’s complicated and RCN board and staff have been discussing matters surrounding proposed climate legislation at various stages over the past six months.  There are widely divergent views in rural communities as well as across Northern Ireland so I wanted to write this blog to set out some of the issues.

Firstly, most political parties and the farmers’ organisations agree we need climate legislation in NI.  Most political parties except the DUP and TUV, co-sponsored the Climate Change Bill no. 1 introduced by Green Party leader Claire Bailey.  Minister Poots brought forward his own Climate Change Bill in response.  Farmers’ organisations have said they will play their part and environmental NGOs have been campaigning for years for climate legislation.  RCN responded to the Call for Evidence on both Bills and our responses can be read on our website here.

Farmers are an important part of rural communities and the agri food industry is a big employer.  Just over 51,000 people were involved in farming in NI in 2020 (including farmers, spouses and farm workers).  The agri-food industry employs roughly 100,000 people but they aren’t all from rural communities.  In 2021 there were 876,000 people of working age (16-64) in employment across Northern Ireland[1]. Manufacturing, construction, and services are also important employers in rural communities and climate change legislation will impact on these sectors and on rural households.  There’s no doubt intensive farming has damaged the environment in NI, but climate change isn’t all about farming.  If you drive a car, heat your home using fossil fuels, buy out of season food which is flown half-way around the globe, eat meat and enjoy your overseas holidays then you, like me, are contributing to climate change.

All environmental indicators in NI are getting worse.  Water and air pollution have gotten worse and biodiversity has declined.  The Kendall Review commissioned by the Economy and Agriculture Ministers in NI Agri Food Industry, which reported recently, stated that NI agriculture currently doesn’t have a positive story to tell[2].  Many farmers are already on the edge of financial viability.  The intensive farming model only works for a few and most small farmers are unviable without public subsidy although they are more likely to be farming in a less intensive and more sustainable way.

On a global scale the COP 26 conference in Glasgow last November made some limited progress in agreeing global climate targets to limit greenhouse gas emissions including methane to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees.  The 1.5 degree limit has been agreed by climate scientists as the maximum rise in global temperatures that can be allowed if we are to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

The Assembly passed an amendment to the Bill that will commit NI to net zero carbon by 2050.  If the legislation passes into law then a whole raft of new policies and strategies will need to be developed, at pace, to move towards interim targets on the path to net zero.  Amendments have also been passed to insert just transition principles in the Bill and to establish a just transition fund for agriculture.  What is meant by a just transition?  There are a range of opinions on what a just transition will look like:

“The concept of ‘just transition’ was developed by North American trade unions to provide a framework for discussions on the kinds of social and economic interventions necessary to secure workers’ livelihoods in the shift from high-carbon to low-carbon, climate-resilient economies…”[3]

How politicians and officials put this into practice will need widespread and deep engagement across our communities.  The cost of food, how it’s produced, how much farmers are paid to meet the costs of production, food poverty and how diets need to change are just one set of complex issues that will be transformed by the transition to net zero.  There is no point in reducing meat and dairy production in NI to simply replace it with meat and dairy imports from other countries which requires a higher carbon footprint to produce.

De-carbonising home heating and tackling fuel poverty is another debate, but also presents an opportunity in rural communities to address fuel poverty and air pollution.  These transformations will cost huge sums and we will need the Assembly, working along with Westminster, to direct the public resources required to address the issues.  The costs of doing nothing – financially and in human terms – also need to be part of the debate.

The pandemic showed us how the state can bring its full resources to bear in an emergency.  Locally, nationally and internationally we need to learn the lessons.  The pandemic also deepened inequality so that those who had the least were impacted most.  At RCN we believe that a truly just transition will have to put the poorest people first, both locally and globally.