Climate change: what it means for Northern Ireland

12 Nov 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 12 Nov 2021

Pic: John Cameron, Unsplash

The enormity of climate change and its potential repercussions must not blind us to two simple questions. How will the need to combat climate change affect policy in Northern Ireland, and how will the necessary changes impact our day-to-day lives?

The answers to both are contained in a report authored by the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) in 2019. It was requested by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs during the period when Northern Ireland had no government.

It sets out the scale of the challenge, outlines measures which need to be taken with some estimates of the costs - and readers of it can get a good grasp of how life is likely to change. It is also a useful yardstick by which we can see how actual policy measures up.

The document will have fed into both of the competing Climate Change Bills currently going through Stormont and should help us understand both the problems and opportunities that lie ahead.

First, some context. Northern Ireland contributes around 4% of UK’s emissions and our emissions are both greater per person and falling more slowly than other regions.

One of the main drivers for our relatively high levels is that around 30% of Northern Ireland’s emissions are from agriculture, compared with 10% in the rest of the UK, and to compound that is much more heavily livestock-based, leading to higher levels of the methane produced by digestion. And these agricultural emissions have increased year-on-year since 2009.

As agricultural emissions are more difficult to address than those from other sectors, the CCC wants to see an overall reduction of at least 35% for Northern Ireland on 1990 levels, whilst that for the UK as a whole is 61%.

There are other points of divergence from the rest of the UK as well.

The first is that Northern Ireland, uniquely amongst devolved administrations has responsibility for energy policy – it is a member of the all-island Integrated Single Electricity Market, so needs policies which are consistent with those of the Republic.

Second only 24% of households have access to the gas grid, as opposed to 87% in Great Britain, meaning more households reliant on oil boilers and coal and log fires. This is an opportunity as well as a threat: it means that there is a much bigger potential gain in switching conventional oil boilers to those powered by heat pumps.

Thirdly because of Northern Ireland’s small size uptake of electric vehicles should be more attractive than in the rest of the UK, provided, of course that there is enough charging capacity for longer cross-border journeys.

Finally the land itself has long been stripped of its forests – only 8% of Northern Ireland is covered in trees (40% less than GB) and we also have large areas of degraded peatland. Together these mean that our land is a carbon source, rather than a carbon sink.

So what needs to be done?

The electricity network is a good place to start. Currently there is just one major interconnector from North to South. However a second linking Tyrone to Cavan is under construction. When it is completed it will be a game changer – simultaneously reducing costs for consumers and, because it will provide greater flexibility across the grid, allowing for a massive expansion of renewable generation through land-based wind farms.

These have not proved popular in many rural communities to date – however the CCC believes that this will change if local communities get a meaningful stake in them. “Community and locally-owned low-carbon energy can play a useful role in progress towards meeting carbon targets. Evidence from other countries suggests that increased engagement of communities helps gain acceptance and support for large low-carbon infrastructure and increases awareness of climate change issues.”

In any event more turbines is a price we will have to pay to reduce carbon emissions.

Northern Ireland’s only coal-based power station at Kilroot has been acquired by new owners who have announced a £600 million plan to convert it into a low carbon “energy park” generating electricity from gas and renewable sources.

The network, however it is configured, will need to have the capacity to cope with the demands that will come from increasing electrification of vehicles – and that will also mean having enough charge points available, and more specifically ensuring that those in Northern Ireland and the Republic are designed to consistent standards and are compatible.

We can also expect more cycle lanes and more promotion of walking to work and to school and of public transport– measures that the CCC believe could reduce road transport use by 10%.

One of the most visible areas will be the measures required for both heating and insulating homes. Emissions from homes amount to 13% of the total in Northern Ireland 29% lower than the figure for 1990 but there’s room for significant further progress.

To date policies to incentivise energy efficiency programmes in homes are targeted at low income households. The CCC wants to see that widened to include those who are able to pay focusing on so-called trigger points such as when a home is sold or renovated.

With so many of our homes not on the gas grid we can expect a programme to replace oil boilers with heat pumps. But this will require financial support to make it attractive to home owners.

Northern Ireland desperately needs more trees and also re-wetting of peat bogs. Sadly progress is not as it should be.

Tree planting rates in Northern Ireland have fallen since 1990. The Northern Ireland Forestry Strategy envisages an expansion of tree coverage from 6% to 12% between 2006 and 2056. That would require average planting rates of 1,700 hectares per year. The current rate is around 200. Especially depressing is the fact that there has been practically no new planting on state owned land in recent years.

And attempts to tackle agricultural emissions – the really big ticket item - come against the backdrop of the 2013 “Going for Growth Strategy” which, as its name implies priorities growth and productivity, specifically increasing annual turnover by 60% to £7 billion.

One advantage of Brexit is that it leaves Northern Ireland freer to more closely link financial support to the agriculture sector to both reducing emissions and increasing carbon capture through tree planting and restoring peat bogs.

Therefore the CCC recommends that: “land use policies should promote transformational land uses and reward landowners for providing public goods that deliver climate mitigation and adaptation objectives. New policies should also reflect better the value of the goods and services that land provides.”

The sort of measures it envisages include: low-carbon farming practices; afforestation and forestry management; restoration of peatlands; improving soil and water quality and reducing flood risks.

The argument is that whenever measures go beyond the minimum standards that landowners should already be delivering they should be rewarded for it.

There is also another unavoidable change required – reducing the demand side, which in plain English translates as persuading people to eat less meat.

The good news is that the CCC believes that if all its proposals are adopted Northern Ireland should be able to reduce emissions by more than 40%.

However we are not currently on track and if they are not we’re going to fall further and further behind what’s needed and in a part of the world that has a poor track record of government making difficult decisions and showing the leadership required, there is no room for complacency.




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