Guest blog by Jonathan Bell, RSPB NI Head of Land and Sea Policy

The recent publication of the UK Committee on Climate Change report on land use change and climate change is very timely given the recent resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its promise to step up efforts to tackling climate change.

The draft ‘New Decade New Approach’ deal states: “The Executive will introduce legislation and targets for reducing carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Change Accord… The Executive should bring forward a Climate Change Act to give environmental targets a strong legal underpinning.”

The impact of having no binding climate change legislation in Northern Ireland is apparent through the considerable disparity in emission reduction progress between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Since the introduction of the UK Climate Change Act (2008), greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 9% in Northern Ireland (2008-2016), compared to a 27% fall for the whole of the UK. 

The UK has since raised the bar, aiming to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050, with Scotland aiming to achieve an 80% reduction by 2030. Given that Northern Ireland is lagging behind, delivering on this level of ambition would be challenging. Urgent action is now required.

Northern Ireland must embrace the challenge and legislate for an ambitious Net Zero target. Legally binding Northern Ireland-specific emission reduction targets are essential to effectively de-carbonise our economy and drive more radical and ambitious sectoral action in areas such as transport, agriculture and energy (our highest greenhouse gas emitters).

An often-overlooked weapon in the climate change defence armoury is our natural environment. By restoring, protecting and managing carbon sinks (such as woodland, peat, seagrass beds and kelp forests), nature-based solutions play a critical role in addressing societal challenges, such as climate change. RSPB research has highlighted spatially where opportunities exist for delivering dual aims of carbon storage and nature protection. Worryingly, two thirds of carbon areas mapped across the UK sit outside of protected areas.

Peatland landscapes are an important and potentially growing reservoir of carbon that have enormous potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The imperative to restore our peatland resource has come into sharp focus due to widespread global recognition of the need for climate action. In Northern Ireland, peatlands cover some 14% of our land surface and hold an estimated 40% of our soil carbon stock. 

The extent of blanket bog is estimated at 140,000 hectares, with only a small proportion (14%) considered to be intact. The relevance of healthy peatlands to the emissions reduction agenda is reflected by the UK Committee on Climate Change (UK CCC): ‘The future inclusion of emissions from degraded peatland in the UK emissions inventory could add around 9% to Northern Ireland's total emissions’. Yet the most recent report from the UK CCC (2020) only proposes to restore 50% of upland bogs and 25% of lowland peat by 2050. 

Successful peatland restoration in Northern Ireland is already delivering an array of benefits. For example, as part of the Co-operation Across Borders for Biodiversity (CABB) project, RSPB NI - in partnership with RSPB Scotland, BirdWatch Ireland, Butterfly Conservation, Northern Ireland Water and Moors for the Future - has restored and repaired approximately 2,000 hectares of peatland in the Garron Plateau in County Antrim.

As well as improving carbon storage, this investment has helped improve raw water quality, reducing the need for (and costs of) water treatment, and created improved habitat for declining species including curlews, hen harriers and marsh fritillaries.  

Tree planting has also been identified as a land use priority for Northern Ireland (UK CCC, 2019). Forest coverage in NI (8%) is much lower compared to the UK as a whole (13%). Current tree planting rates of 200 hectares per year are a fraction of the 1,700 hectares per year required to meet the NI Forestry Strategy aim to double woodland coverage from 6% to 12% between 2006 and 2056.

The Woodland Trust Emergency Tree Plan (January 2020) recognises that the biodiversity and climate crises must be addressed in tandem and a careless ‘dash for carbon’ approach to tree planting poses significant risks in terms of unintended negative consequences.

Past tree planting activities in the wrong places (such as on peatland, or adjacent to designated open habitat) has harmed important wildlife habitats and species and undermined effective climate action. Future woodland expansion must be undertaken in a way that delivers for biodiversity, as well as the climate and other objectives. Achieving this will require a strategic approach to woodland expansion that is well integrated with peatland restoration and other land use planning considerations. 

Since the previous NI Executive collapsed in 2017, public interest in the environment has grown and interest in the climate agenda has risen sharply. 
At the beginning of this new political dawn in Northern Ireland, let’s hope politicians return with a renewed sense of ambition and a clear vision for the environment. 
With sufficient investment and well directed strategic interventions, we can harness the untapped potential of our natural environment to fight the climate and ecological crisis.

Photo credits: Garron Plateau by Henry McLaughlin/NI Water, marsh fritillary by Katy Bell, curlew by Neal Warnock