Climate change is the defining crisis of our time on a global and national scale

By Minister Edwin Poots, Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C has been clear that action needs to be taken to lessen our impacts on the climate. It must be recognised and accepted that we simply cannot continue with a ‘business as usual’ approach. The effects of climate change are felt across the globe and Northern Ireland is not immune to that. In Northern Ireland, we have experienced severe weather events in recent years with flash flooding damaging homes, infrastructure and impacting on businesses and record temperatures broken.

In November, the UK hosted the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow. This global summit brought together Parties to the Convention together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement. The UK Government holds the Presidency for COP26 and outlined four key aims: secure global net zero by mid-century; keeping a 1.5C temperature rise within reach;  adapt to protect communities and natural habitats; mobilise finance; and work together to deliver.

In hosting COP26, it is now more important than ever that the UK is leading by example in driving forward action to deliver action to address climate change in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. This leadership is not limited to the UK Government and must be shown at all levels – including Devolved Administrations and Local Government but also across all sectors, businesses and industry.

My Department is currently leading on developing the NI Executive’s multi-decade Green Growth Strategy. This strategy will act as a catalyst to enhance our economy, providing green jobs and other economic benefits at the same time as enhancing our environment, finding the lucrative benefits to ‘going green’. The Green Growth Strategy sets out the long-term vision and a solid framework for tackling the climate crisis, helping us meet our targets, and feeding into the UK’s goal of achieving net zero by 2050. The delivery of the long term vision will be supported by shorter term climate action plans which we will start to develop from 2022 to align with the publication of the final Green Growth Strategy.

I am committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland takes forward actions that deliver real results so we play our part in tackling climate change. Within my own Department there are a number of significant initiatives and policies underway or in development that will support both near term and long term decarbonisation such as the pollinator scheme and the soil nutrient health scheme. In 2020, farm businesses were also able to avail of the Farm Business Improvement Capital grants Scheme, are were encouraged to apply to the scheme to help them invest in Low Emissions Slurry Spreading Equipment (LESSE).

I also recognise the importance that Nature Based solutions will play. Under the Forests for Our Future programme, which I launched in 2020, work is ongoing towards planting 18 million trees in Northern Ireland by 2030, which will both greatly enhance our ability to sequester carbon but also provide biodiversity and adaptation benefits. My Department is also leading on a number of key initiatives to drive forward more action to tackle climate change including climate change legislation, future agricultural policy, food strategy, a Peatlands Strategy and the Environment Strategy. All of which will help in the collective efforts to reduce carbon emissions and ensure that we have a more resilient environment.

Agriculture is a key industry for Northern Ireland, contributing significantly to our economy but it is also is one of our biggest emitters of green house gases. While this presents the industry with significant challenges, I believe there are also many opportunities – including the potential for transitioning animal waste to energy.

Northern Ireland is already a leader in renewable electricity, achieving 45% of electricity consumption from renewables. We have also had considerable success in diversion of waste from landfill, and the associated emissions, with recycling rates in Northern Ireland now exceeding 50%. There is also exciting work underway to develop our budding hydrogen industry with companies like Wrightbus pioneering hydrogen fuel technology. I see a real opportunity for science and innovation to help us to reduce our emission across many sectors.

The challenges resulting from the global Covid-19 pandemic also presents an opportunity. As we plan our recovery from the effects of this pandemic, it is essential that we adopt a sustainable approach and address climate change. I firmly believe tackling climate change should be viewed not just as an environmental challenge, but also as an economic opportunity. It is an investment in the now and in our future.

My Department has issued millions of pounds worth of funding via the Environmental Farming Scheme, the Environment Challenge Fund, the Small Woodland Grant Scheme and the Environment Fund. Government alone, however, cannot deliver on and achieve the UK’s goal of Net Zero by 2050. Governments, business and individuals must work together to achieve success. Business and society must become more resilient, sustainable and resource efficient in order to tackle climate change. Improving resource efficiency will not only green the economy but will deliver economic opportunities and growth, improved productivity and profitability, and ensure local businesses remain competitive in the global market.

I am delighted that businesses in Northern Ireland have already begun to lead on these issues. The latest Greenhouse Gas statistics shows that emissions from business has declined by 25% since 1990. This has been done largely by the business community themselves, showing the forward thinking of business leaders and being more aware of how their businesses can impact on the environment. This is great news but more must be done.

Many businesses are already moving towards a whole life cycle approach.  Considering the practices of suppliers used, the processes of manufacturing, the packaging used, considering transport, how goods and services are sold and even considering the end user and final disposal. We must recognise and acknowledge those who are already on this journey and who have set out their plans, while also encouraging and supporting those who are just beginning it. By working collaboratively, business can create a network of support and encouragement. This is why my Department has supported the Business in the Community Climate Action Campaign and COP26 NI Business Hub. While everyone may be working towards the same goal, the journey for each business can often be very different which is where collaboration and support networks play a key role.

In support of COP26, the UNFCCC has sought to rally leadership and support from business, cities, regions and investors as part of a campaign called ‘Race to Zero’ which they are leading on. This campaign aims to create a healthy resilient and zero carbon economy that helps to prevent future shocks and creates inclusive sustainable growth with decent jobs. To date over 3,000 businesses across the world have signed up to the campaign and I would encourage all business to consider signing up. I have myself recently led on obtaining the agreement of my Executive colleagues for Northern Ireland to join the Under2 Coalition to show our commitment on the global stage to tackling climate change as well as the information exchange opportunities it can bring.

The key message coming out of COP26 is that we all must all work together to play our part in tackling climate change to support UK Net Zero and do so now. We cannot afford to delay and wait. I commend those in the business sector who are already taking action and I look forward to seeing further progress made as we all work towards a clean environment, green jobs and climate action.