The Northern Ireland Assembly has passed climate change legislation committing the region to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
A Bill tabled by Agriculture and Environment Minister Edwin Poots passed its final stage in the Assembly chamber and will now go forward for royal assent.
While there is an overall net-zero target for 2050, there is a separate reduction target of 46 per cent for methane emissions, which are largely associated with the agricultural sector.
Northern Ireland has been an outlier in terms of climate change laws, having previously been the only part of the UK and Ireland without specific legislative commitments to reducing greenhouse gas output.
MLAS passed the final stage of the Bill by way of an oral vote on Wednesday.
The Climate Change (No 2) Bill was one of two competing Bills making their way through the Assembly at the same time.
An alternative climate Bill had been proposed by Green Party Northern Ireland leader Clare Bailey.
Mr Poots’s Bill made it to the final stage of its legislative journey first.
In response, Ms Bailey announced that she would not be proceeding with her Bill.
There was initially a significant gap between the targets in the two Bills, with Ms Bailey proposing the more ambitious target of net-zero by 2045 compared with an original target in Mr Poots’s Bill of 82 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050.
However, the gap narrowed markedly during Assembly stages after MLAs voted to amend Mr Poots’s draft legislation.
The Bill passed by MLAs on Wednesday commits Northern Ireland to net-zero by 2050.
Mr Poots had warned that the revised target could have devastating consequences for Northern Ireland’s farming community, and he subsequently secured an amendment that afforded a degree of protection for the agriculture sector, limiting the reduction of methane gas by 2050 to 46 per cent.
Addressing the Assembly at the final stage of the Bill, Mr Poots said: “Climate change is an issue that affects everyone in Northern Ireland and everyone on this planet.
“It requires people both at a global and local level to respond, and as politicians we have a duty to take action to ensure that our environmental footprint becomes less significant and that we produce a sustainable economic and environmental model where both can prosper going forward.”
However, he criticised the Bill’s amended net-zero target as a “headline” that was “aspirational” and unlikely to be achieved without huge expenditure or by way of purchasing carbon credits.
But he said suggestions that he would not bring his Bill forward for a final vote due to the amendments had proved “unfounded”.
“The headline is there, and we will work with that as things stand,” he said.
Mr Poots said the inclusion of the specific target for methane emissions allowed him to support the Bill as amended.
The minister criticised Assembly rivals who had pressed for more far-reaching targets on the agriculture sector.
He said the consequential reduction in food production would have limited the region’s ability to export products to nations that needed them.
“That’s absolute nonsense, it’s a travesty, it’s inhumane, and it’s wrong,” he said.
Commenting on the final Bill, Ms Bailey said it had been made “much stronger” as a result of a series of amendments tabled by the Green Party.
She said climate activists had forced Mr Poots to act on the issue, claiming he had shown reluctance to table a Bill until she tabled hers.
“When the minister failed to step up, civic society and activists stepped in,” she said.
She added: “It is one of the most significant pieces of legislation that this Assembly has considered, and it tackles the most important issue of our lifetimes.”
Ms Bailey also criticised those parties which backed splitting off the target for methane, accusing them of “talking out of both sides of their mouth”.
Mr Poots responded to her criticism, claiming her Bill was “poorly drafted and economically damaging”.
He said it would have forced Northern Ireland to import more food from countries that do not have such energy-efficient production methods.
“It would have not resolved issues around climate change – in fact it would have done harm to the climate change agenda,” he said.