Reducing Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions to halt the impact of climate change will require transformation at every level. It’s not going to be easy. But if we want to save species, protect air quality, prevent coastal towns from rising sea levels and preserve our ability to grow food, then it’s a challenge we all must overcome.

Common swift_Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Photo credit: Common swift by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

That’s why RSPB NI, along with cross-party MLAs, NGO colleagues and with the support of our campaigners, is working hard to secure an ambitious Climate Change Bill in Northern Ireland.

Why do we need laws on climate?
A new report published on Wednesday 16 June by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) - an independent advisory body to the Government - revealed that the UK is failing to protect and adapt against the impending impacts of climate change. The CCC’s experts advise that damage from extreme weather will cause power blackouts, infrastructure failures, risk to life from overheating and irreversible changes to nature - costing the economy billions of pounds. The report also highlights that Northern Ireland faces greater risks of flooding, summer droughts and wildfires, and that these threats could be made worse in the future due to the “degraded state of the natural environment”.

Rathlin Island by Hazel Watson

Photo credit: Rathlin Island by Hazel Watson

Risks to our already threatened wildlife and natural habitats will also be exacerbated as a result of the climate emergency. Several tree and plant species will be unable to tolerate the warmer conditions; peatlands, if not restored, are predicated to dry out; and some wildlife may be lost forever. These findings are confirmed in the State of Nature 2019 which outlined how climate change is already driving widespread changes in the abundance, distribution and ecology of Northern Ireland’s wildlife, and will continue to do so for decades or even centuries to come.

The CCC’s sobering report concludes that less reliable evidence and fewer climate policies in Northern Ireland also increase the “uncertainty” around future impacts of climate change. Given that Northern Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions increased between 1990 and 2018, and that we have made the slowest progress toward reducing these emissions of any part of the UK, this report leaves little doubt that Northern Ireland needs a truly ambitious Climate Change Bill to help avert climate crisis – for both nature and for ourselves.

What does an ‘ambitious’ Climate Change Bill really mean?
The CCC has stated that Northern Ireland can aim to reduce the volume of greenhouse gas emissions it produces by 82% by 2050. However, as global temperatures continue to rise (it’s already 1.3 degrees warmer) and more evidence on climate impacts becomes available, it’s likely that targets to reduce emissions will need to be accelerated.

Stormont by Simon Harrison Photography

Photo credit: Stormont by Simon Harrison Photography

Introducing a Climate Change Bill with an ambitious target to reach net zero emissions by 2045 in harmony with nature, will put Northern Ireland on a sustainable pathway and prevent the risk of further painful and costly changes in the future.

This year, action for nature and climate is more critical than ever. World leaders will negotiate last-resort targets to address the dual emergencies at two global events taking place in autumn - the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). Since the UK is hosting COP26, the decisions and policies our national and devolved Governments make will set the bar for the rest of the world.

We need Northern Ireland’s Government to match their words with radical action by supporting a Climate Change Bill that shows leadership and enables Northern Ireland to play its part in tackling a global crisis. So how do we get there?

Harnessing the power of nature to enable more ambitious climate action
Analysis and mapping by RSPB has found that we how we manage our land holds the key to our climate ambition. The maps reveal that by restoring and creating habitats that naturally capture carbon, we can accelerate our greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, which is good for people, the climate and for nature too.

Harnessing the power of nature, known as nature-based climate solutions, includes restoring peatlands and expanding native woodlands to maximise their immense potential to suck up carbon dioxide from the air and store it safely, as well as providing a rich and diverse habitat for wildlife.

Power of Northern Ireland’s peatlands

Dungonnell Peat Dams by Henry McLaughlin NIW

Photo credit: Dungonnell Peat Dams by Henry McLaughlin NIW

Peatlands across the UK hold over two-gigatons of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of all the greenhouse gas emissions the UK generates over four years – making them incredibly important in the fight to tackle climate change.

In Northern Ireland, peatland covers approximately 12% of our land, but alarmingly, 86% of this crucial habitat, even in protected areas, is in a poor condition releasing carbon into the atmosphere. In fact, the inclusion of emissions from degraded peatland could add around 9% to Northern Ireland's total emissions, undermining our climate actions.

But with only 1% of peatland restored in the past 30 years, there is huge potential for the NI Executive to invest in the restoration of these important carbon stores and increase our emissions reduction ambition.

With an ambitious Climate Change Bill, the Government can take urgent action to legally protect and restore these sites and benefit from a natural climate solution that will help us to save nature and tackle the climate crisis. The restoration of peatland would also bring additional benefits to wildlife, water quality and flood protection.

Planting the right trees, in the right place

Tree plantation_Kelly Thomas (rspb-images.com)

Photo credit: Tree plantation by Kelly Thomas (rspb-images.com)

Like peatland, RSPB analysis has found that the creation of native woodland is vital in the fight for a climate-safe future. Native trees have the capacity to sequester and store carbon from the atmosphere and give wildlife a home, but only if the right tree is planted in the right place. In fact, planting the wrong tree in the wrong place, such as on peatland or adjacent to open habitat, can lead to more carbon emissions and harm vulnerable wildlife. Whereas semi-natural woodlands managed for conservation can actually store more carbon over 100 years than Sitka spruce plantations under standard productive management.

With only 13% woodland cover, the UK is one of the least wooded countries in Europe. This is well below the average of 38%, and in Northern Ireland, our forest coverage is even worse at only 8%! But while this figure may look discouraging, it also means there is greater opportunity for woodland creation and climate ambition. Currently, tree planting in Northern Ireland is at a rate of 200 hectares per year, which is a fraction of the 1,700 hectares per year required to meet the NI Forest Strategy. By investing in the expansion and creation of more native woodland, Northern Ireland can commit to more ambitious carbon reduction targets and stimulate a host of benefits for nature and ecosystems.

Farmers and land managers should be supported and incentivised to protect, enhance and create these natural habitats on their land as a top priority.

How you can support the Climate Change Bill

Young people protesting_Canva

Photo credit: Young people protesting by Canva

Our research proves that by harnessing the power of nature, Northern Ireland can be a small country with big climate ambition.

As the only part of the UK without its own climate legislation, we have a critical opportunity to send a clear message to the Government that we want an ambitious net zero target by 2045 to reduce our emissions in harmony with nature – and revive our world for future generations.

Right now, RSPB NI’s Policy and Advocacy Team are working with colleagues across the environmental sector to provide evidence in support of the Climate Change Bill. This part of the legislative process is called the Committee Stage, when members of the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) Committee will scrutinise the Bill and make recommendations for how it should be amended. If you want to share your views on the Bill and give support for its ambition, then sending an email to members of the AERA Committee is a great way to make your voice heard.

If you need help in writing this, please don’t hesitate to contact RSPB NI's Campaigns Team. And if you do send a message, please forward it or BCC us on it, as we’d love to know your thoughts as well. Our email is campaignsni@rspb.org.uk

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