Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 25 June 2009

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Climate Change Inquiry

25 June 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Patsy McGlone (Chairperson) 
Mr Cathal Boylan (Deputy Chairperson) 
Mr Tommy Gallagher 
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses:

Ms Helen Anderson ) 
Mr Keith Brown ) 
Mr Brendan Forde ) Department of the Environment 
Mr David Latimer ) 
Mr Michael McCallion ) 
Mr Chris McWilliams ) 
Ms Paula McWilliams )

The Chairperson (Mr McGlone):

Thank you for being here. The aim of the meeting is to establish certain aspects of the role and function of the Department of the Environment’s (DOE) climate-change unit. Thank you for inviting us and for hosting the meeting. Other people who are present may not be aware of who you are, so before we start, it would be useful if you introduced yourselves.

Mr Brendan Forde (Department of the Environment):

I welcome the Committee to Calvert House, which has been the headquarters of the Department of the Environment’s planning and environmental policy group (PEPG) for the past few months. I am Brendan Forde, head of the climate-change unit.

Mr Chris McWilliams (Department of the Environment):

I am Chris McWilliams from the climate-change unit.

Ms Helen Anderson (Department of the Environment):

I am Helen Anderson, acting director of the climate-change and waste management division.

Ms Paula McWilliams (Department of the Environment):

I am Paula McWilliams from the climate-change unit.

Mr David Latimer (Department of the Environment):

I am David Latimer from the climate-change unit.

Mr Keith Brown (Department of the Environment):

I am Keith Brown from the climate-change unit.

Mr Michael McCallion (Department of the Environment):

I am Michael McCallion from the climate-change unit.

The Chairperson:

Again, thank you very much for hosting the meeting. Members have suggested discussion topics and questions. I will ask you to talk the Committee through your submission and then to take questions.

Mr B Forde:

Our presentation will last 10 or 15 minutes at the most and will, hopefully, address the matters that are most of interest to the Committee. We will answer questions after that. Please feel free to interrupt me at any stage.

I remind the Committee that a specific aim in its own terms of reference is to make recommendations on the public service agreement (PSA) for the DOE’s climate-change commitments in the forthcoming second Programme for Government. That PSA will ensure that Northern Ireland meets its climate-change obligations. That interests the DOE, because those terms of reference extend right across the Northern Ireland Government.

An email that described what the Committee wanted to discuss today, subsequent to previous evidence, found its way to us. The three subjects mentioned are summarised in our submission. After visiting the office, the Committee will have some perception regarding numbers and so on, about the first, which is the extent of the operation and how we function. The second subject is how we feed into policy decisions in our Department, including through the Executive. The third element is our liaison with other devolved Administrations, with the UK Government and with that down South in the Republic. That includes the degree of formality, frequency and the medium that is used for communication. I will go through each of those in turn, but members are free to intervene with questions.

The first element is the extent of the operation in the DOE. We have around seven staff at present, although the unit relies on some external support from an economist, a statistician, and scientific and legal staff. We call on them as needed; they are not integrated into the unit. However, we require support from such people on the basis of need.

Probably £130,000 or so of our £160,000 programme money goes to the apparatus that supports the Climate Change Act 2008. That includes our contribution to paying for the independent Committee on Climate Change, the Adaptation Sub-Committee and elements thereof. Therefore, not an awful lot of money is left once the infrastructure that supports the Climate Change Act 2008 has been paid for. To put that in perspective, the planning and environmental policy group has a total staff of approximately 113 and available programme money of about £17·5 million.

In comparison with our operation, the Whitehall-based Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have 317 staff and a pretty massive support budget. Of more direct interest is the size of the equivalent operations in the Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly Government. Both have increased their staffing levels significantly in recent years to more than the seven that we have. Indeed, it may be better to compare the figures of five years ago.

The Republic of Ireland’s unit has around 11 staff and is more directly comparable to our own outfit. However, the Republic’s unit has significantly more programme money with which to take forward its own actions.

(Inaudible due to mobile phone interference.)

Chris McWilliams and David Latimer major on EU issues, including greenhouse gas trading schemes, to which there are many elements. The carbon-reduction commitment and communications more generally are the responsibility of Keith Brown and of Anne Trimble, who cannot be here. Adaptation and correspondence, which we will pick up on, are the responsibility of Michael McCallion and Paula McWilliams. Those areas reflect the three elements of our work, and we generally stick to those.

We have split our work into two areas. I appreciate that the Committee is more interested in policy support, but before I talk about that, I should say that we have a strong role in supporting Ministers, as policy branches tend to. That includes dealing with any correspondence about climate change that people want to discuss with Ministers, providing suitable briefing, looking at inquiries, including this one and those such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development’s recent inquiry. Several issues may be pertinent at a particular time, and there is always something on the go.

Assembly questions for oral answer and questions for written answer on the climate-change agenda also come through this office, and, for a small unit dealing with climate change, it is no surprise to hear that that is quite high on the agenda. For example, one third of all questions for oral answer that come to the Department on the environmental side refer to climate change in some shape or form. The Committee’s interests in the issue, and those of other MLAs, must be taken into account, and we help the Minister to deal with that. That takes away a lot from the proactive nature and the policy-development side that we have to deal with.

With regard to policy support, the Climate Change Act 2008 has played an important role in sorting out the legislation that was to be brought to the Assembly through the Committee and the Executive in the first instance. The Committee on Climate Change, which is an independent body, was set up when the Bill was enacted, and we are involved heavily in that. When that committee produces reports, it consults with us in the development process. It keeps us briefed, and, likewise, we keep it briefed on what is going on in Government generally. The whole apparatus in Whitehall is trying to respond to the sorts of issues that that committee is involved in, and we are involved heavily in all that.

The carbon-reduction commitment is making progress, and the Committee has been in correspondence with us on that recently.

The EU mitigation policy side has expanded over the past couple of year. It deals with issues such as the energy and climate-change package. There is an international move towards what will happen as a result of the international deal in Copenhagen and the European Union emission trading scheme (EU ETS). That work is looking at 2012 and beyond. The current phase will take us to 2012, and it is considering the effect that the EU ETS will have beyond that. The EU will be involved in negotiations on that, and Whitehall will consult the devolved Administrations on many aspects of it. We must be clued in to the aspects that might be specific to Northern Ireland and contribute to the Whitehall negotiation process.

There will also be communications on climate change. However, due to the lack of resources, that has not yet extended out into the public interface. Principally, it is about communications in Government and how that is aligned.

The adaptation policy has taken on a bigger role in Europe and in the UK. The EU White Paper ‘Adapting to Climate Change’ was published in April 2009. Obviously, the UK will contribute to that White Paper and will seek comments from us, the Welsh and the Scots. We have been engaged actively on those types of activities. Last week, the UK climate projections were launched in London, and again, we were involved developing those and worked on their launch. Subsequently, we have to try to help others in Government and elsewhere to know how to use and benefit from those UK climate projections.

Under the Climate Change Act 2008 and the EU White Paper, a UK risk assessment must be in place by 2011, and we have been on the London-based steering group examining that. Ultimately, we will be looking for material that will help us to produce a Northern Ireland adaptation programme. However, in order to do that, we need to be consulting and bringing the matter through the political and the Assembly processes. Ultimately, that project will come to fruition.

Inventories form part of our work. We monitor Northern Ireland’s performance and work out projections to determine the state of play. A lot of that is farmed out from London to private consultants. However, when they do their analyses, we have to quality assess them. We use the statistical expertise that we mentioned earlier, and we can call upon it to interpret aspects of the analyses and ensure that the inventories are common sense.

We have also carried out a specific piece of work from our own resource. We have a small amount of consultancy support, and we use it to make projections of progress on emissions to 2025, which is the target year that is specified in the Programme for Government. It was not a specific requirement in the same way as the sustainable development strategy, but we thought that if there is a target, someone will ask what progress is being made towards meeting it. We have that bit of the apparatus in place.

The Chairperson:

How does that works in assessing other Departments? When you gave evidence previously, it was apparent that any initiatives were primarily, if you will forgive me for saying so, based on your personal, rather than strategic, information. How do you ensure cross-departmental input and assessment so that people comply with and meet those targets?

Mr B Forde:

Let me be clear: this is a technical piece of work. We get information from the inventories, and that tells us the levels of emissions in various sectors, up to the latest reported year. We have put together a tool. We base our projections on certain policy assumptions, and we populate that through the European-type policies, the carbon-reduction commitment and all the policies that you would expect, including through Northern Ireland policies such as building regulations and so on. We try to work out how that will look when factored out to 2025, based on population —

The Chairperson:

I am trying to establish the input of other Departments.

Mr B Forde:

They do not input into it; it is a technical matter. There is no such thing as a road map to 2025 showing what any specific Department must do to deliver its target. The only element that we can call on is the sustainable development strategy, which predates devolution, although the Executive chose the target for that. The identification of specific actions is fairly limited. It identifies some actions up to 2012, for example, electricity efficiencies, or DRD might introduce a more sustainable transport system. However, nothing is allocated to specific Departments.

The Chairperson:

The flaw in the overall governance system is that there is no strategic overview.

Mr B Forde:

That is correct. I was about to mention PSA monitoring, which is the closest that we have to such an overview, but even so, it is fairly limited. Only three Departments are identified as being required to take specific action, and even those requirements are vague. Requirements are not comprehensive in any shape or form.

We support the establishment of the Northern Ireland Climate Change Impacts Partnership. The Committee has taken evidence from that group in the past. Any amount of policy is made that we cannot foresee and that we must get involved in. For example, Whitehall was consulting recently on the definition of the term “carbon neutral”. In many ways, that definition is a moveable feast. Hence, we took contributions from Departments to try to inform that consultation. The implication of Whitehall deciding what is meant by “carbon neutral” is that, by default, devolved Administrations will follow suit.

We assist both London and Northern Ireland Departments with policy. When they consider new policy initiatives on climate change, they might call on us for help. Typically, they will call on us for input so that we can give them some perspective.

I hope that that gives you an idea of the extent of our work. The second subject was about how we feel about decision-making in Northern Ireland specifically. In our own Department, we are the main advisers to the Minister of the day on climate-change policy. That is not exclusively the case, and issues could come from the Republic of Ireland or the Northern Ireland Environment Agency on, for example, waste, Planning Policy Statement 18 or other different matters. However, the majority of policy direction on climate change comes from the Department.

Looking beyond that, the Committee has also asked about the Department’s role with the Executive. The very fact that climate change is a cross-cutting policy means that, under the ministerial code, the Department has to engage with other Departments, as it has done already with the legislative consent motion for the Climate Change Act 2008 before it was enacted, the report of the Committee on Climate Change in December and the carbon-reduction commitment (CRC) policy. Furthermore, under the ministerial code, the Department is also duty-bound to advise the Minister when he must go to the Executive. That happens, and it is an ongoing process. Therefore, that is our yardstick for acting.

Outside the Department, we have a “part-input”, which is a technical, Civil Service term that means that although we are not wholly accountable for climate-change policy, we make a suitable contribution. I picked out the three previous examples from any God’s number, because they have passed my desk and the branch’s desk in recent times. For example, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) will be bringing its strategic energy framework, which will deal with the development of its energy strategies, to the Executive in the next week or two, and DRD asked us recently to examine its regional development strategy and strategic review. Those are just some examples of what we do; I have not given a comprehensive, detailed description of our work.

As the Committee examines whether we can take on a broader role, I stress that the way that the apparatus of Government has been set up here ultimately means that the Department of the Environment does not drive the other Departments on climate change. The policy line on climate change, with which the Committee is probably quite familiar, is that there is collective responsibility in the Departments for achieving a Programme for Government target. However, there is no agreed road map for that.

Most of the agenda of the Department’s working relationship with the other devolved Administrations in the UK is driven by what happens elsewhere and through daily contact in various shapes and forms. However, there are formalised arrangements on specific policies. For example, in relation to the Climate Change Act 2008 and how the Department relates to the Committee on Climate Change, concordants and framework documents have been produced that describe the relationships between us, Whitehall, the other devolved Assemblies and the Committee on Climate Change. There are also documents that the current Minister of the Environment signed off with the Committee on Climate Change when it was established on 1 December 2008, as well as the documents that were signed by all the Ministers in each devolved Administration that is affected by the passing of the Climate Change Act 2008. In some other cases, there are formalised arrangements, such as structures on specific projects, but many of the other arrangements are made on an ad hoc basis where someone sends an email or makes a telephone call. In those cases, the Department tries to help first of all and then sees where it can progress.

We have far fewer formal links with our counterparts in the Republic of Ireland, and we are most likely to meet with them when we are asked to host joint events. For example, earlier in the week, an event was in the Canal Court Hotel in Newry to discuss the water framework directive and its relationship to climate change. At that event, my counterpart in the South and I spoke to those who are dealing with that directive in a specialist way. The main political point to be made for us, as officials, is that climate change is not a mandated area in the North/South Ministerial Council; instead, it is dealt with in British-Irish Council meetings, where it has been discussed actively in recent years. However, the event in Newry dealt with an EU directive, so it was held under a requirement of the North/South Ministerial Council. Therefore, there are not always straight lines through some of the demarcations. We have good relationships, as you would expect, and we lift the phone and so forth whenever necessary.

I hope that I have helped to address the three main areas in which you were interested: the extent of our operation; how we work; and how we interact with others in our Department and beyond these shores. When considering expanding roles, my main conclusion as an official is that is hard going to meet the existing requirements on the agenda, partly because we are a small unit that has to service the office of the Minister. Although climate-change policy lies, in a narrow sense, with DOE, I must point out that the Programme for Government targets go way beyond our Department. That means that collective responsibility exists.

The Chairperson:

Thanks very much, Brendan.

Mr Weir:

I found what you said about the wider links with the UK Government and DECC interesting. The Committee was in London recently as part of the consultation, and you mentioned Hilary Benn’s announcement about projected targets. There is an issue about the role that the devolved Assemblies take in attempting to achieve the overall UK target. The information that was given to the Committee was that there will be a degree of negotiation between the devolved Assemblies and DECC on the share of the burden. Do you have a particular role in ascertaining the specifics of working out Northern Ireland’s share for negotiating with DECC should be? Will the climate-change unit be the main interface with DECC, or is it a question of your providing some of the information to back up whoever will negotiate?

Mr B Forde:

As my presentation showed, our key involvement is in providing inventories and calculations and so forth. Equivalent units in the other devolved Administrations make the same calculations to work out what should be the Scottish and Welsh share of the targets. The negotiating role would naturally fall here, but the wider issue would involve more of a political decision and would require input from the Minister of the Environment and other Ministers.

Mr Weir:

If you like, you can provide the Committee with information on what we should be doing, what is achievable and what should be Northern Ireland’s share of the UK target. When it comes to negotiation, would that be done at a political level rather than by departmental officials?

Mr B Forde:

Negotiation is definitely done at a political level, and that has been the case in the other Administrations.

Mr Weir:

Thank you; that was useful.

The Chairperson:

The special advisers have drafted a couple of questions, and I just want to read them into the record. However, I do not expect you to answer them now. Perhaps you would respond in writing.

Mr B Forde:

OK.

The Chairperson:

I will read them out to ensure that they appear in the Hansard report. You have answered some to a degree, but others may require more complete responses.

How long has the climate-change unit been in existence, what is its budget, how many staff does it have, and what are their roles?

Is what DOE has been doing likely to be enough for Northern Ireland to meet its obligations under the sustainable development implementation plan, given that the target is a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025?

Does the DOE consider that the sustainable development targets are sufficient to ensure that Northern Ireland contributes its fair share to the UK target for a reduction in emissions?

Will the DOE introduce legally binding carbon/greenhouse-gas emission reduction targets in Northern Ireland? If not, how will Northern Ireland’s contribution to the UK target be measured?

Has the DOE approached the Committee on Climate Change to discuss targets, monitoring, reporting or action plans from a Northern Ireland perspective?

To date, with what other Departments has the climate-change unit worked and on what particular issues?

Does the DOE have sufficient data to enable it to measure progress against targets? We touched on some of that earlier. What cross-sectoral work is the DOE doing to ensure that other Departments are able to contribute to their own sectoral targets when those are established by the Committee on Climate Change in September?

Has the DOE done any work to assess the impact of other Government policies and strategies on climate change, adaptation and mitigation? Is the DOE doing any work on integrated communications to tie climate-change issues to related areas such as waste, energy, health and transport, with specific target audiences such as the public, business and other Departments?

What consideration has the DOE given to delivering, encouraging or supporting cross-departmental working so that a better overall programme can be delivered to address multiple issues and identify early, cheap actions? Finally, is the DOE working with others jurisdictions, and, if so, what conditions are taken into account to ensure that Northern Ireland needs are also taken into account?

We will leave this document with you, or have it emailed to you, and the Committee will get its response in due course. Thank you for your time.

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