Beyond Brexit: Climate change and environmental policy in Northern Ireland

10 October 2019 - by Matthew Jackson

With people protesting about climate change outside parliament this week and MPs protesting about Brexit inside, we take a look at how Northern Ireland is responding to two of the defining issues for the environment - Brexit and climate change.

Policy measures to ensure environmental sustainability will be top of the in-tray for a returning minister in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and departmental officials are getting their ducks in a row with the development of Northern Ireland’s first ever environment strategy.

The Department is clear in the need to further enhance the ways we manage our waste and develop the circular economy, along with improving air quality and reducing biodiversity loss and greenhouse emissions. These strategic themes are central to a living, working, active landscape valued by everyone.

This is the vision contained within the public discussion document that is currently out for consultation, alongside a suite of operational and strategic plans relating to the Department and a number of Arm’s Length Bodies.

With civil servants currently operating in a constrained decision-making environment, a future minister will have to carefully manage any policy implications of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, particularly in relation to environmental safeguarding and monitoring arrangements.  

We all know that Brexit has placed the agri-food and fishing industries, among others, at the forefront of discussions around Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit landscape and it is interesting to see how environmental groups are engaging to shape the post-Brexit environmental regulatory and policy landscape through the coalition Nature Matters NI. 

With recently published Dairy Council NI calculations that in a no-deal Brexit, trade tariffs on both “raw milk and finished products moved from NI to the EU would total £320m, before you calculate the cost of the administrative burden customs will place on dairy processors”, the need to drive cost, in the form of carbon, out of the agri-food sector makes both financial and environmental sense.

Moving away from Brexit for a moment, critically, Northern Ireland remains the only devolved administration in the UK without its own climate change legislation and targets for emissions, continuing to follow UK policy.

Environmental policy developments in both the UK and Republic of Ireland, in the shape of Whitehall’s Environment Bill (published in December 2018) and the Irish Government’s Climate Action Plan—have set a clear direction of travel. There is a shared commitment on both sides of the Irish Sea to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

However Northern Ireland’s unique political and geographical circumstances bring both opportunities and challenges compared to the rest of the UK and Ireland.

The draft Environment Bill currently applies only to England and to reserved matters across the UK with DAERA officials working with their counterparts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to retain the option for returning ministers to extend the Bill’s provisions to Northern Ireland.

This cooperation was highlighted recently in the joint consultation exercise between DAERA and DEFRA on the potential introduction of a Bottle Return Scheme in Northern Ireland alongside the rest of the UK.

Critically, the Department recognises a new environment strategy cannot be developed in isolation, and must compliment the suite of other strategies endorsed previously by the Executive. We also are waiting on forthcoming public consultations on waste management and clean air strategies, while parties including the DUP are currently in pre-consultation mode in developing their environmental policy position.

This cooperative approach echoes the Committee on Climate Change’s recent report which highlighted that reducing emissions will require effective decision-making and policy development across multiple sectors, including energy, agriculture, waste, transport and construction, alongside close co-ordination between the UK government and multiple government departments in Northern Ireland.