Department seeks legal advice over missed first carbon budget timeframe

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) says that it is considering legal advice after the passing of the statutory deadline for publishing Northern Ireland’s first carbon budget.

The Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 established the “end of 2023” as a deadline for the Department to publish carbon budgets for the first three budgetary periods of (2023-2027, 2028-2032, and 2033-2037).

Despite the launch of a 16-week consultation in June 2023 on Northern Ireland’s 2030 and 2040 emissions reduction targets, as well as the first three carbon budgets, the Department has not clarified its current or next steps for establishing a carbon budget.

Instead, in response to a query on why the deadline had been missed, and whether a new timeframe had been established, a spokesperson for DAERA said that the Department is currently considering legal advice and as such, “is unable to comment further at this time”.

Carbon budgets set a maximum total amount for the net Northern Ireland emissions as a whole for five-year periods and are seen as a key component to the overarching ambition of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While the emission targets set are a net figure for Northern Ireland, each department will have to ensure that the net Northern Ireland emissions account for each budgetary period does not exceed the carbon budget for that period.

The Climate Change Act mandated the Department to carry out a public consultation lasting at least 16 weeks on proposed carbon budgets; commission a financial, social, economic, and rural impact assessment on the effects of the carbon budget for that period; and consult the Northern Ireland Climate Commissioner, the other Northern Ireland departments and the Just Transition Commission and lay proposals before the Assembly.

It is around this last point on which the Department is potentially seeking advice, given the prolonged absence of a Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly and subsequent failure to appoint a Northern Ireland Climate Commission Commissioner and establish a Just Transition Commission.

While the Climate Change Act allowed for the Department to publish regulations that would amend carbon budgets for any budgetary period before the start of that period and change the date by which a carbon budget must be set, the Department has missed the timeframe set for the first carbon budget for 2023-2027.

Earlier in 2023, the Department had already set out that plans to also consult on Northern Ireland’s first draft Climate Action Plan (2023-2027) had been delayed, pointing to the requirement for detailed modelling, analysis, and policy development across government departments, “coupled with an extremely difficult budgetary position and the challenges associated with developing, in the absence of ministers, the new policies and programmes required to meet the carbon reduction targets”.

Prior to the establishment of a net zero greenhouse gas emission target in the Northern Ireland Climate Change Act, the Climate Change Commission, an independent, statutory body set up to advise the UK and devolved governments on emission targets, had previously advised on an 83 per cent emission reduction target for Northern Ireland, highlighting that even this aspiration would be “extremely challenging”.

The Climate Change Commission has recommended that the first carbon budget should be set at a 33 per cent average annual reduction, the second carbon budget at a 48 per cent average annual reduction, and the third carbon budget at a 62 per cent average annual reduction.

The Climate Change Act requires the setting of targets for the years 2030 and 2040, that are in line with the 2050 target, to be completed by June 2024. The CCC’s advice is a 48 per cent emissions reduction, against the baseline figure, by 2030, a target already outlined in the Act. It further recommends a 77 per cent reduction by 2040 as the target.

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