FARMERS will be given the financial backing they need to help Northern Ireland achieve an ambitious net zero carbon target, whilst still maintaining sustainable businesses, Green Party leader Clare Bailey has said.
As the sponsor of one of two pieces of climate change legislation currently progressing through the Assembly, the South Belfast MLA believes that, with the help of a “just transition fund for agriculture”, her Private Members Bill will be the one that provides the farming industry with the right policies and resources to drive down its greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s not the cross-party Bill that is a threat to agriculture, it’s climate change and what we need to do is mitigate against that to sustain our agriculture,” she said while discussing her Bill with FarmWeek.
As the clock ticks down on the current Assembly mandate, leaving precious little time to remedy NI’s status as the only part of the UK without climate change legislation, Ms Bailey believes action is urgently needed.
Her Bill, which has achieved cross-party support from all but the DUP and TUV, has set an ambitious target of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2045, a target described by the Ulster Farmers’ Union as the “ruination of agriculture”.
Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots has also put forward his own Climate Change Bill which aims for the less ambitious target of cutting NI’s carbon emissions by at least 82 per cent by 2050.
With two potential pieces of legislation on the table, farmers know change is coming but what exactly that change will mean for the sector remains unclear.
Ms Bailey said that while she understands why farmers may be alarmed, they have nothing to fear from her Bill.
She explained: “The first thing to make clear is the cross-party climate Bill does not make any target for any sector. It sets a target of net zero by 2045 for Northern Ireland as a whole and we’ve set that target in line with international best practice and scientific evidence that is available at the minute.
“The longer that we leave this and the less that we do to protect ourselves and mitigate against what’s coming down the line, then the deeper and the harder and the more radical that those changes are going to be.”
She said she has met with many farmers, some of whom are members of the UFU, who are very supportive of her Bill.
“Farmers know better than most because they are working the land and they are impacted by the weather, they know exactly what is going on and they have an awful lot of solutions to offer as well, so when we keep hearing the UFU is speaking for farmers I am speaking to some of their own members who are supporting the Cross-Party Bill.”
She believes that with the right policies and financial support, farmers will be able to adapt to meet the demands of any new climate change legislation.
Following a recommendation from the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) Committee at Stormont she has amended her Bill to include a ‘Just Transition Fund for Agriculture’.
Based on the Scottish model which has been established with a budget of around £40 million, the Just Transition Fund is designed to provide farms with grants to enable them to adopt more green practices and become more sustainable.
Ms Bailey explained: “What we want to see is a ‘just transition’ that will benefit everyone, including farmers, and if we get the right legislation in place then we can start to resource and build the right policies to allow that transition to happen.
“We want to see that happen for farmers as well so what we have done is include an amendment in our Bill which will include a Just Transition Fund for farmers in Northern Ireland.
“We’re not seeing that come from the minister, we’re not seeing that come from the department and certainly not contained within their bill.”
She thinks actions like this can also help farms become more financially stable going forward.
“We’re hearing an awful lot that farms are struggling to get the next generation to come in and work the farms because they are not profitable. This is a big, big problem, so if we’re going to start building new economies and ways of doing business in order to be sustainable in the future then all this has to come into play and farmers, just like everyone else, can not feel like this is stuff being done to them, it has to be done with them, it has to be done with that inclusion.
“So the economic incentives that make a farm viable, that make any business viable, will be led by the policy and resource from government and that’s the bit that we need to get right,” she explained.
Her Bill does not set sectoral targets but will demand the Executive prepares a Climate Action Plan at five-year intervals, with annual targets, carbon budgets, nitrogen budgets and sectoral plans, thus allowing for flexibility within individual sectors.
It will also contain “specific protections” around small-to-medium enterprises like farm businesses regarding any actions coming from these climate plans.
Ms Bailey added: “We are not seeking to wipe out agriculture or farming in Northern Ireland in any way, shape or form but what we’re missing from the department and the minister’s Bill is the ability to put those types of amendments and protections in place because it’s much more narrow in scope.”
In August a report conducted by KPMG claimed that a net zero target of 2045 would all but devastate NI farming, see herd numbers drop by 86 per cent and cause thousands of job losses in the sector.
However, Ms Bailey says that while she understands why such headlines generated concern, the report’s findings were “misleading” and based on a scenario “if all subsidies were removed – which isn’t going to happen”.
She continued: “We don’t understand where these figures are coming from but what the Cross-Party Bill actually proposes is new grants for farmers and the ‘Just Transition Fund’ to protect them, and we are not seeing any of that in the department and the minister’s Bill.”
She is calling for actions such as land use mapping to be urgently carried out, actions which she believes should have been done long ago.
“I think it’s absolutely shocking that we’re still sitting asking, that they haven’t been done. It’s from there that we can build policy and allocate resource as it is needed. For as long as we’re not doing that basic level of research and mitigation measure we’re failing everybody, farmers included,” she warned.
She agreed that having two bills progressing simultaneously through the Assembly has been divisive and said she had offered to incorporate some elements of Minister Poots’ Bill into hers but claims to have “never heard back from the minister”.
With an election looming in May and the Assembly due to be dissolved in March, she concluded: “We need a bill, we were promised a bill and we are sitting with just weeks before the Assembly is dissolved and this mandate is over with the very real potential that we’ll have no bill at all with climate change still happening and everybody else moving on but Northern Ireland. If we still don’t have legislation in place we will begin to start missing out on the opportunities that we have for a green recovery and that is unforgiveable.”