Opinion Piece by Declan McAleer
Next week, in the final month of the current Assembly term draft legislation to tackle climate change will again be debate on the Assembly floor.
There has been much attention within the wider community and among farmers in particular about the consequences of this legislation should it pass into law before the 28th March.
Sinn Féin have engaged extensively with farmers on the doors, in public meetings and through NIAPA and the UFU. We have listened to the valid concerns and questions and we have corrected some misinformation that has been circulated on this important issue.
Farmers have told us that they support and want to see effective climate action, they want to be part of effective measures to tackle climate change but they do not want to face unfair or disproportionate measures while the big global polluters continue to evade their responsibilities.
Climate change legislation is about balancing out the amount of emissions we make with the amount we absorb/sequester across all sectors in society, not just farmers, over the next 28 years.
In a post-Brexit world, where the British market fills up with cheap imports from Australia, New Zealand and other places, it is important our already highly integrated agri-food industry thrives by taking a strong and consistent island-wide approach.
This means, for example, beef from the north being included in the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status for Irish grass-fed beef, which will maximise opportunities for us across the EU and beyond to secure new markets that want high quality, sustainable produce.
We want to ensure a Climate Change Act doesn't disproportionately impact farm families and rural communities so we have proposed amendments to ensure those affected are fully consulted in developing plans to tackle climate change.
If the legislation is passed, plans to tackle climate change can only be agreed after a 16-week public consultation. These plans will also have to be rural proofed, equality proofed, small business impact proofed and would then have to be agreed by the Assembly.
Farmers, and those from other sectors, will be central to the design and development of these plans.
In order to strengthen protections for agriculture in the Bill we have introduced a number of amendments, such as the creation of a ‘Just Transition Fund for Agriculture’ for the north, something which is in place already in Scotland. A Just Transition Fund for Agriculture will support farmers with training, accessing equipment and other measures to help them reduce and sequester on-farm emissions.
Sinn Féin brought forward the amendment which will legally require the government to recognise the special economic and social role of farming and the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane. Another Sinn Féin amendment will protect against ‘carbon leakage’ and the displacement of our local production by less sustainable and more environmentally damaging produce from markets elsewhere.
With the Bill now entering the Further Consideration stage, we have submitted further amendments to strengthen these protections including making clear that targets for biogenic methane reductions make a fair and proportionate contribution to long term temperature goals. We hope our amendments improve the Bill and get the support of other MLAs.
We believe that much of the changes to balance out emissions can be achieved on-farm. There is ground-breaking work being carried out by AFBI, Teagasc, Queens University and NUI Galway on soils, liming, carbon benchmarking, sequestration and methane and we have seen in the south how they are working to a 2050 net-zero target.
Finally, it's also vital that we protect farming from the impacts of climate change itself. If the trend in emissions is not reversed it will have a devastating effect on local agriculture.
In June 2021 the CCC Risk Assessment report (CCRA3) warned that failure to limit global warming will have dire consequences, not just around the world, but here, in the north of Ireland. They have explicitly stated that the threat of wildfires, flooding, coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion, threats to natural carbon sinks and an increase in pests, pathogens and invasive species are all greatly increased by climate change.
There are a range of issues that affect the farming community and farming families that have been overshadowed by the focus on this issue. The removal by the DUP of the ANC Hill farm payment and the huge damage of Brexit which has removed EU funds for Single Farm Payment and Rural Development Programme are issues directly impacting farmers.
The DAERA draft Future Agriculture Policy, which closed for consultation on February 15th, proposes to raise the minimum farm size eligible to claim Single Farm Payment from the current 3 hectares (7.5 acres) to 10 hectares (24.7 acres).
This will exclude around 4,800 small family farms, many in LFA areas, from claiming the Single Farm Payment. It would also have a wider impact on issues such as planning permission for homes in rural areas, potentially locking new generations out of their rural communities.
Unfortunately, the DUP have now collapsed our Executive. As always, Sinn Fein’s position on these matters will be informed and guided by the best interest of farming families and the rural communities that depend on them.
Sinn Féin will continue to engage with and listen to farmers and represent you at the heart of government.