Last week, the Republic of Ireland approved a landmark Climate Bill putting Ireland on the path to net-zero emissions by 2050. A Climate Change Bill was also introduced in Northern Ireland with the aim of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2045.

This legal insight provides a short summary of the Bills and their implications for dealing with climate change across the island.

Northern Ireland - Climate Change Bill

Last Monday, a Climate Change Bill was introduced to the Northern Ireland Assembly (link). It is a Private Members’ bill introduced by Clare Bailey of the Green Party. It was introduced to “enable the mitigation of the impact of climate change in Northern Ireland”, and it seeks to establish a legally binding net-zero carbon target so Northern Ireland achieves net-zero carbon emissions by 2045.

This is set against the context that Northern Ireland continues to be the only part of the UK with no legally binding greenhouse gas reduction targets. However, the New Decade New Approach document when devolution was restored in January 2020 mentioned the need for climate change legislation and in February 2020 the NI Assembly declared a client emergency, similarly via a Private Members’ bill. 

Overview of the Bill

As outlined in the Overview in the Explanatory Memorandum accompanying the Bill (link), in broad terms it includes provisions that:

  • declare a climate emergency as a mandate to provide a framework for mitigating the effects of climate change in Northern Ireland
  • place a duty on the NI Executive to prepare a Climate Action Plan with targets, carbon budgets, nitrogen budgets and sectoral plans
  • establish a Northern Ireland Climate Commissioner and a Northern Ireland Climate Office to act as independent auditor/expert bodies to monitor implementation of Climate Action Plans
  • guarantee non-regression of existing climate and environmental protections contained in EU law prior to Brexit

Climate Action Plans

The Bill introduces Climate Action Plans for Northern Ireland. It proposes that the NI Executive brings forward the first climate action plan to the Assembly within three years of the Bill being enacted, and then subsequently at 5 year intervals thereafter. Plans will have to be approved by the Assembly but will be open for public consultation before such approval. 

A Climate Action Plan will be comprised of targets (net greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, soil quality and biodiversity) and measures (carbon budgets, nitrogen budgets, sectoral plans and programmes). Reporting on the plans annually and powers for altering plans (and Assembly approval of any alteration) are also provided for within the Bill.

Next steps and implications

As the Bill has only been introduced to the Assembly, no debate or discussion has taken place yet and the second stage of the Bill is still to be scheduled.

As currently drafted, the appointed Climate Commissioner must then report on the adequacy and effectiveness of the legislation and may make recommendations. No doubt the function of the Climate Office and what “teeth” this office will have to enforce targets will arise as the Bill makes its way through the Assembly. Without enforceable targets the Bill – if passed – is unlikely to be anything other than symbolic. That said, clear commitments will inevitably feed into other areas of policy, for example in promoting further clean energy development, and sustainable transport and buildings. With the impending release of the new draft Strategic Energy Framework and an increased focus on electrification of the vehicle fleet, a Climate Act for Northern Ireland may create further impetus for sustainable development.

The guarantee of non-regression of existing environmental protections contained in EU law is one way of smoothing the Brexit transition and creating a level playing field across the island of Ireland (see further below), but equally this may not sit well with competing aspirations to follow the future path taken by the rest of the UK, should further potential divergence arise. 

This is clearly also an opportunity to seek a more “green” recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, but targets and timeframes are also likely to be a key topic of discussion since the Minister for the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is also pressing ahead with proposals for another climate bill. It is believed it will have a longer timeframe and less stringent targets due to Northern Ireland’s economic reliance on the agriculture sector.

Progress on the Bill can be viewed at the following link.

ROI - The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021

Last week the Irish Government approved the final text of legislation to set Ireland on the path to net-zero emissions by 2050. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 will establish a legally binding framework with targets and commitments (link), amending the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015.

Ireland previously laid out a 2019 Climate Action Plan but a recent press release emphasised that more has to be done; having reduced emissions by 4% and 6% in the past two years the need to reduce emissions by at least 7% per year is required to meet the 2050 target.

Three key points arising from the Bill are set out below:

1. National objectives

The Bill sets a national climate objective as Ireland’s long-term emissions reduction target - “The State shall, so as to reduce the extent of further global warming, pursue and achieve, by no later than the end of the year 2050, the transition to a climate resilient, biodiversity rich, environmentally sustainable and climate neutral economy”. A National Long Term Climate Action Strategy will be prepared every five years to support the objective.

2. Carbon Budgets

To achieve the national objective the Bill brings carbon budgeting into law. The Government will be required to set a series of economy-wide 5-year carbon budgets, on a rolling 15-year basis. These will be proposed by a strengthened Climate Change Advisory Council and the first two five-year budgets should be equal to a 51% reduction in emissions by 2030 (relative to a 2018 baseline).

3. Sectoral limits

Within the carbon budget, sectoral emission ceilings (a maximum amount of greenhouse gas emissions permitted in a sector) will be set. The Government will determine which sectors emissions ceilings will apply to and actions for each sector will also be detailed in the annual Climate Action Plan. Government Ministers will then be responsible for achieving the targets and actions for their sectoral area and reporting back on progress, with accountability to the Oireachtas for all relevant Ministers.

Ultimately if the Government or a public body fail to deliver on their required obligations the courts may be asked to compel them to act.

New requirements for local authorities

Local Authorities will also be required to produce action plans to include both mitigation and adaptation measures to be updated at least every five years. To ensure development plans and local authority Climate Action Plans are aligned, the Planning and Development Act 2000 which requires climate action objectives to be included in development plans will be amended to provide that future development plans take account of approved local authority climate action plans.

Next steps – open for consultation

The Irish Government is now consulting with the public ahead of preparing the 2021 Climate Action Plan, which is expected to be launched this summer. Through a Call for Expert Evidence it asks “climate scientists, experts and industry to share their data-based technical proposals to support development of the Climate Action Plan 2021”, and “views from households and communities on what the Government can do to support them on the journey to net zero”.

Launched on 23 March the consultations will now be open for 8 weeks until 18 May 2021. Submissions can be made at the following link.

This is an important opportunity for participants in the clean energy sector to contribute and influence the path to ambitious carbon reduction targets in Ireland.

Interim Climate Actions 2021

In the meantime, however, the Irish Government has also published Interim Climate Actions 2021 to replace the Annex of Actions published as part of the Climate Action Plan 2019.  Publishing the Bill, proposing an initial carbon budget programme and long-term climate strategy are all included in these interim actions. 

There is a sense that Ireland is attempting to strengthen their framework for governance on climate action albeit their target year is 2050 and not 2045. As Northern Ireland is slightly behind in terms of having legislation in place, NI can look to other jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland to shape the legislation moving through the Assembly. 

The environment has been a common battleground in the Irish courts in relation to major development projects both in the clean energy sector and other forms of development. Recent litigation in the UK courts on the relevance of the Paris Agreement and plans for expansion of Heathrow show the significance that can be attributed to climate policy issues in major infrastructure projects. Whilst the Heathrow litigation was ultimately unsuccessful, the passage of that case to the Supreme Court placed a clear marker down for future challenges over climate issues. As carbon reduction becomes increasingly embedded in statute and policy, developers and regulatory authorities will find their proposals and decisions ever more shaped by it.

Contributor: Sarah Mulholland

TLT’s Belfast-based Planning, Environment & Clean Energy team advises on all aspects of planning and environmental law in Northern Ireland and are qualified in Northern Ireland, England & Wales and the Republic of Ireland. 

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at March 2021. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms & conditions.

Date published

30 March 2021


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