Stormont votes to set target of net-zero emissions by 2050

MLAs have voted to set a target of net-zero emissions by 2050 for Northern Ireland in the Climate Change Bill.

An amendment by the Green Party NI was passed by a vote of 50 to 38 on Tuesday, increasing the reduction target from 82% to 100%.

Party leader Clare Bailey said the move means Northern Ireland will "no longer be the only region in these islands without a net-zero emissions target".

She added: "The passage of this Green Party NI amendment has significantly increased the ambition of the Climate Change (No.2) Bill, and is an important step towards ensuring we have strong and robust climate legislation.

"Following this clear expression of the will of the Assembly, I hope that we will now see this net-zero climate legislation come into force in the coming months."

She called on the Assembly to back other amendments to the Bill, including a 'just transition fund' for agriculture.

Earlier, MLAs heard there was a "degree of absurdity" in the consideration of two separate climate change Bills at Stormont.

Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots and Ms Bailey both proposed Bills which are being progressed in the final weeks of the Assembly term before the institutions are dissolved for fresh elections.

Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the UK which does not have its own climate legislation, however UK-wide targets do apply to the region.

Mr Poots' bill, backed by the agrifood industry, proposed an aim of cutting emissions by 82% by 2050, but was criticised by environmentalists as not going far reaching enough.

Ms Bailey's Bill went further, proposing a 2045 target for reaching net-zero carbon emissions.

On Tuesday, MLAs started debating some 80 amendments which have been proposed to Mr Poots' Bill in discussions which appeared likely to required another day to consider.

UUP MLA Steve Aiken said his party has been encouraging those behind both bills to come closer together.

"To many people outside, there is a degree of absurdity that the Northern Ireland Assembly is indeed debating two climate change Bills when in fact what we should be doing is debating one climate emergency Bill because that is the situation we're in," he said.

However he said they will back Mr Poots' proposed target to be 82% carbon neutral by 2050 after "listening to the farming community", describing it as "realistic".

Alliance MLA John Blair said his party will back amendments for a target of net-zero by 2050.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP were also expected to back amendments for tougher targets in Mr Poots' Bill.

On Tuesday the first proposed amendment to Mr Poots' Bill was unable to be tabled because the MLA proposing it was not in the chamber.

The first amendment by Ms Bailey aimed to create a tougher deadline for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, from a target of 82% by 2050 to 82% by 2045.

She was not in the chamber to move the amendment when it was called on Tuesday.

Principal Deputy Speaker Christopher Stalford then called on Mr Poots to move amendment four.

Mr Poots described his Bill as "the right Bill for this House", adding that it will "ensure that we can tackle the important issues around climate on the one hand, and ensure on the other hand that we can deal with all of the issues that involve our economy, our agrifood sector".

Mr Stalford later clarified to MLAs that, as Ms Bailey was not in her seat and as no other MLAs volunteered to move amendment one, it could not be moved.

Interrupting Mr Poots' speech, he told MLAs: "I think it's important, given the sheer scale of what we're about to go through, that we get this procedurally correct.

"I have been advised by the clerk that, although Ms Bailey wasn't in her place to move amendment one, any member would have had the right so to do, so I am making the House aware of that before the minister proceeds on this."

He asked whether any member was willing to move amendment one but there was no response.

By this time Ms Bailey had arrived in the chamber and moved amendment two.

She also apologised to the House for not being in her seat to move amendment one.

"I am very sorry that business has moved much quicker today than was scheduled so I can only apologise and thank you for allowing me to speak," she told MLAs.

Earlier, farmers and environmentalists staged separate rallies at Stormont.

At the first event, farmers walked up the hill to Parliament Buildings, where they cheered an address by Ulster Farmers' Union president Victor Chestnutt as he warned MLAs: "Don't mess with our future."

Mr Poots joined the crowd along with DUP colleagues, TUV leader Jim Allister and some members of the UUP.

"We want legislation that will support us, not eliminate us.

"There are few out there who are more vulnerable to extreme weather than we are," Mr Chestnutt told the crowd.

"Farmers are part of the climate change solution but a net-zero greenhouse gas emission target for Northern Ireland will take us completely out of the equation.

"We're pleading today with our MLAs to vote for the Executive target of 82% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

"Anything more than this is a vote to put us off the land, the land that past generations farmed and the land that we hope future generations can farm in a sustainable way."

Later, environmentalists staged a demonstration as part of the Climate Coalition.

They were joined by representatives from Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance Party,Green Party and People Before Profit as well as DUP veteran Jim Wells. Academic John Barry said it is "regrettable and unnecessary" in terms of how the debate has played out that farmers and agriculture have been "put against" strong climate legislation.