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News 29 July 2020 Updated 26 January 2021

Welsh climate governance as a model for Northern Ireland

by Jack Wilkinson-Dix

The Northern Irish Executive is working on a new, comprehensive Energy Strategy, and there have been calls in recent weeks for Northern Ireland (NI) to adopt bespoke climate targets as part of their ambition to reduce emissions in line with the UK’s net zero by 2050 goal. Drawing up NI-specific climate targets as part of a wider climate governance framework can give businesses and the public confidence in a country’s direction of travel and can spur green investment. When formulating climate targets for Northern Ireland, Wales’ experience could provide some policy inspiration. The Welsh Government has relatively recently implemented their own climate target regime and as a nation Wales faces some similar challenges to Northern Ireland in decarbonising.

In what follows we explore the current Northern Irish context, make the case for tailored climate targets, and present the Welsh climate governance regime as a model that Northern Ireland can draw lessons from.

Climate governance at the national level usually means the climate-focused rules and regulations put in place by a government which will help to either avoid further climate change (e.g. through lowering emissions), or adapt to the changes (e.g. by earmarking budget for flood defences). A key climate governance tool used by both national and supranational governments, like the EU, are emission reduction targets.  Often, governments will also introduce carbon budgets between target years, which give them an idea of the emissions they are ‘allowed’ to produce, whilst sticking to their climate targets.

In the UK, there are two layers of this kind of climate governance in place. Under the terms of the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK is committed to cutting carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, with a system of five-year carbon budgets. The 2008 Act also established the official advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change.

Alongside the UK Climate Change Act, Scotland and Wales have devolved climate change governance laws which set their own targets and – in Wales – carbon budgets. Devolved climate legislation allows countries to plan for and tackle the climate emergency whilst reflecting their distinctive economies, people, natural resources, and particular challenges.

Climate legislation and governance at the devolved nation level can help the country in question plan for a decarbonised future and protect livelihoods and vulnerable sectors, such as agriculture or heavy industry, helping to achieve a ‘just transition’. It sends clear, long-term signals to businesses and society on the direction of travel. This long-term approach can help to boost confidence and investment and spread the benefits as widely as possible, with bespoke support delivered by a government that intimately understands the country context.

In Northern Ireland, there is no devolved legislation like there is in Wales and Scotland. Arguably, this is limiting Northern Ireland’s ability to develop the best response to the climate emergency. In recent days the Northern Ireland assembly voted in favour of a motion tabled by the agriculture and environment committee deputy chairman Philip McGuigan which calls for legally-binding sectoral targets as part of a wider NI Climate Change Act. So, what could this look like in Northern Ireland?

Wales’ climate change governance regime was put in place through the Environment Act (Wales) in 2016. Action to tackle the climate crisis in Wales is also underpinned by Wales’s world leading Well-being of Future Generations Act (2015). Our view is that Wales’ climate change governance regime represents a great model for Northern Ireland to draw lessons from given that it is still relatively recent legislation and the two nations face some similar challenges on the path to net zero.

There are three main aspects of the Welsh system that we would highlight for Northern Ireland:

  • the targeting and budgeting framework – carbon budgets
  • the inclusion of consumer emissions in emission accounting
  • ensuring decision making addresses the well-being of future generations as well as climate change

Northern Ireland – why it needs new governance arrangements and current progress towards this

The UK introduced into law its target of reaching net zero by 2050 in the summer of 2019 as an amendment to the 2008 Climate Change Act. Following this announcement, both Wales and Scotland have introduced their own targets.

For Scotland, the agreed upon target is net zero by 2045 – an ambitious and challenging undertaking. In Wales, the government have accepted the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) target to reduce emissions by 95% by 2050, with an ambition to try and go further and reach net zero by this date. The lower target proposed by the CCC reflects the particular challenges Wales will face in reducing its share of carbon emissions – including emissions from industry and agriculture.

Currently, Northern Ireland (NI) is the only devolved nation without its own climate targets.

The NI Executive has reconvened after an almost three-year hiatus and committed in January’s New Decade, New Approach agreement to tackle climate change. Northern Ireland has particular challenges to address on its path to decarbonisation. These include a large proportion of emissions from the agricultural sector (the largest single emitter), a majority of homes off the gas grid, and emissions from the transport sector which will also likely prove difficult to address.

The NI Assembly has recently voted in favour of implementing “legally binding and ambitious sectoral emission-reduction targets” in the coming months, proposing that the legislation be called a Climate Change Act. The Executive have also been making positive steps towards addressing the challenges mentioned above, having consulted on an Energy Strategy. The Strategy is looking to address emissions from heat, power, and transport as well as questions around climate governance and the possibility of implementing climate targets and budgets.

A particularly promising element of the plans is the cross-departmental ‘Future Generations’ working group, which is currently designing a future programme of work to set out how NI emissions can be curtailed. We believe this will cover:

  • agriculture
  • energy and energy use
  • transport
  • business and investment
  • buildings and housing
  • education

This approach is welcome and NI policymakers should seek to profit from the experiences of Wales and Scotland in this area.

What is needed is an overarching climate governance framework to respond effectively to the distinctive challenges Northern Ireland faces. A devolved climate governance regime made up of agreed-upon targets and budgets will allow the Executive, and society at large, to formulate the necessary long-term plans, policies, and investments.

Wales’ world leading climate governance

The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 (Environment Act) and Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 (WBFGA) represent some of Wales’ strongest contributions to global climate governance and policy formulation, with the latter being lauded by the United Nations.

What exactly is it about these Acts that has caused them to generate so much international attention?

Fundamentally, the fact that at their core, they seek to compel current and future governments to take the long view and plan for the future in a holistic way that supports people and businesses make the transition.

The Environment Act

The Environment Act addresses a host of environmental and resource issues but crucially implements legally binding carbon budgets and targets for Wales. These are comprised of:

  • The ‘big’ target of 95% greenhouse gas emission reduction from the baseline by 2050. This figure was arrived at after analysis by the CCC of the decarbonisation challenges Wales faces and reflects the higher proportion of difficult-to-decarbonise emissions from industry and agriculture. This should be of interest to policymakers in NI, which is also faced with a higher proportion of challenging-to-decarbonise emissions, primarily from agriculture, which accounts for around 30% of total emissions.
  • A number of interim targets for 2020, 2030, and 2040 with a corresponding emission reduction target for each.
  • Five-yearly carbon budgets – Welsh Ministers must by regulation set a maximum emissions total for a given period, the first being 2016-20, then every proceeding five years thereafter.

Purpose of the Act

The Act seeks to ensure that Wales has a prosperous economy alongside a healthy and resilient environment. Rather than being a hinderance to business or innovation it is viewed as an opportunity to create a sustainable and prosperous economy and society.

The Act puts in place processes that are designed to allow Welsh Government to better evaluate progress towards climate goals, assess what is and is not working and how success can be achieved, and provide certainty to help drive investment for a low-carbon economy.

How it works

Crucially, the Environment Act allows for any of the targets or budgets to be adjusted but with these amendments only being allowed under stringent circumstances.

Welsh Ministers must prepare and publish a report for each five-year budgetary period, setting out proposals to meet the carbon budget for that period, with input covering the areas of responsibility for each Minister.

At the end of a budgetary period Ministers must also produce a Final Statement and lay it before the Senedd: an assessment of the extent to which their proposals and policies for meeting the carbon budget for the period (a) have been carried out, and (b) have contributed to the carbon budget for the period being met or not.

The Final Statement must include an assessment of Welsh consumer emissions: an estimate of the emissions, whether in Wales or elsewhere, that have been caused by Welsh consumption.

This is a unique consideration, not taken into account in the UK’s overall climate targets. This is an ongoing bone of contention among climate activists, who argue that the UK’s improving headline emissions data masks the fact that the emissions required to manufacture the products we consume do not count against our own targets, a process known as ‘offshoring’. The assessment of Welsh consumer emissions seeks to address this in Wales.

The advisory body (CCC) must also produce regular progress reports; illustrating how much progress has been made towards meeting the carbon budget, interim targets, and 2050 targets, how likely each is to be met and what more needs to be done, with Welsh Ministers responding to the points raised within the document.

The Well-Being of Future Generations Act

To ensure that the transition to a prosperous, zero carbon society is fair the Environment Act works in synergy with the Well-Being of Future Generations Act (WBFGA). By adhering to the seven overarching Well-being Goals the WBFGA stipulates, policymakers in Wales are better able to craft policy and invest in a future that will spread the benefits of the transition more equitably.

Welsh Ministers must publish regular Future Trends reports, which lay out the Governments assessment of the outlook for different sectors against the Well-being Goals. This report must be produced in advance of each Senedd election and is designed to encourage policymakers to plan for the future, balancing short-term goals with long-term ambitions.

How it interacts with the Environment Act

The Future Trends reports are a core plank of the WBFGA which:

“requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change”.

The WBFGA comprises seven ‘Well-being Goals’ which all public bodies must work to achieve, namely:

  • a prosperous Wales
  • a resilient Wales
  • a more equal Wales
  • a healthier Wales
  • a Wales of cohesive communities
  • a Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language
  • a globally responsible Wales

To achieve these goals, the Act promotes five Ways of Working. These are:

  • long-term
  • integration
  • involvement
  • collaboration
  • prevention

Through these Goals and Ways of Working the Government is committing to future-focused, considered, and democratic policy and decision-making. To support this work, a Future Generations Commissioner is employed to maintain focus and drive positive change. They play a crucial role in making sure the recommendations made in the Future Trends report are acted on.

By ensuring that Welsh Government adheres to these Goals and Ways of Working alongside its legally-binding climate targets, the two Acts work together to encourage policymakers to reduce emissions in an equitable and just manner. Both Acts encourage government to plan beyond a Senedd term. Both Acts, but particularly the WBFGA, seek to frame the changes society will undergo in the next 30 years as an opportunity.


The Welsh climate governance system recognises that a commitment to carbon reduction, with legally-binding budgets and targets, is essential to kickstart the rapid emission reductions required to address the climate crisis. Rather than being constrictive, this policy approach, which deliberately outlasts individual parliaments, gives businesses and the public the certainty needed to drive investment and behaviour change.

Alongside an assessment of emissions reductions all governments should be seeking to ensure that the dramatic societal transition required is fair and just. The transition to net zero offers all nations the opportunity to create sustainable and prosperous economies that work better for all citizens, but this will not be achieved automatically. The Welsh Government’s Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act is key to implementing this approach and safeguarding it up to 2050 and beyond by mandating that Welsh Ministers have regard for the well-being of future generations in all that they do.

Northern Ireland faces challenges in reaching net zero, a number of these challenges it shares with Wales, such as a high proportion of emissions coming from agriculture and difficult-to-decarbonise housing and transport sectors. Northern Ireland and its Executive could profit from adopting elements of the Welsh approach to climate governance. In formulating emission targets and budgets, and the Energy Strategy more generally, the NI Executive should recognise the great benefit of having long term, defined emission reduction targets with corresponding mechanisms that ensure the transition is as equitable and just as possible, leaving no one behind.

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Last updated: 26 January 2021