Legal limit on emissions to 2037 to be set

A public consultation has opened on Northern Ireland’s first three carbon budgets. However, a planned new Climate Action Plan has been delayed until at least the end of 2023.

The consultation on the legally binding limits of the amount of greenhouse gases that Northern Ireland can emit for three consecutive five-year periods also seeks to set emission reduction targets for 2030 and 2040.

An effort to set proposed carbon budgets for the periods 2023-2027, 2028-2032, and 2033-2037 comes following the publication of an advice report carried out by the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC).

Plans to also consult on Northern Ireland’s first draft Climate Action Plan (2023-2027) have been delayed. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) says that 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”, means that it will be later in 2023 before the plan is completed.

The creation of emission reduction targets, including the production of a system of carbon budgeting and the setting of 2030 and 2040 targets, was mandated by the passing of Northern Ireland’s Climate Change Act in June 2022. The Act also established the overarching goal of net zero emissions by 2050, despite previous advice from the CCC that an 83 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would be a realistic ambition, and feed into the UK’s net zero ambitions.

The significance of the ambitions being set out in the proposed carbon budgets to reach net zero can be seen by the fact that the CCC has described achieving the 83 per cent reduction target as “extremely challenging”. This pathway, which includes the decarbonisation of electricity generation, all new car and van sales being zero-emissions in the first half of the 2030s, all properties off the gas grid, a reduction of livestock numbers by one third, and a significant increase in peatland restoration and afforestation, would still see Northern Ireland fall well short of net zero emissions, and require radical action to meet the 2050 target.

A ‘stretch ambition’ pathway, which would include the actions above, as well as “radical” steps to increase afforestation rates to reach 3,100 hectares by 2035 and 4,100 hectares by 2039, a reduction of cattle and sheep by around 18 per cent by 2030, and significant investment and infrastructure development to provide engineered GhG removals from solid biomass and anaerobic digestion of wastes, would only close the emission gap to 93 per cent.

‘Speculative options’, which the CCC says one or more of which could possibly close the remaining gap to reach net zero include further engineered removals using direct air carbon capture technologies and transporting the CO2 to be stored elsewhere, the halving of livestock numbers by 2050 plus other speculative actions, for which reliance is not currently “credible”.

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.

Carbon budgets

The nature of a carbon budget, limiting the maximum total amount of greenhouse gas emissions which should not be exceeded for a defined budgetary period, means that carbon budgets will be set at a Northern Ireland level, rather than a sectoral level. As all Northern Ireland departments are required under the Act to ensure a carbon budget is achieved, climate action plans will be the delivery vehicle for sectoral limits.

Proposed 2030 and 2040 emissions reduction targets and first three carbon budgets

2030: 48% emissions reduction

2040: 77% emissions reduction

2023-2027: 33% average annual reduction

2028-2032: 48% average annual reduction

2033-2037: 62% average annual reduction

The first three carbon budgets for Northern Ireland must be set by the end of December 2023 and each subsequent carbon budget must be set a minimum of 12 years in advance of the budgetary period commencing.

The CCC 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 Department says that following the completion of the consultation process, views will be considered to help inform decisions on the appropriate emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2040, and the level of the first three carbon budgets. Once published, each Climate Action Plan will be accompanied by the relevant impact assessments, which will provide more detail on the expected impacts of the policies and proposals.

The Department says that it anticipates that the draft Climate Action Plan 2023-2027 will be issued for consultation as soon as possible after Executive consideration. Targets and carbon budgets must be set through regulations which need to be agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive before being laid in the Assembly for debate and approval.

The 16-week consultation runs from 21 June to 11 October 2023.

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