Major action on climate change is possible
Could NI be on the edge of massive reform? The end of the pandemic is hopefully in sight, while other political ructions will herald change, in some form. A modern, green economy would be the best possible result.
Northern Ireland is on the cusp of major political change. The ramifications could be huge.
No, not that thing. A new leader of the DUP and a new First Minister will of course be a significant moment for Northern Ireland, but parties and their leaders change all the time.
Whether the DUP makes a reactionary appointment (or appointments) or tries to walk a more modernising line does matter, but some other things are more important. And one of those things is climate change.
Northern Ireland is going to go green. However, what shade of green that will be remains an open question. Will it be vibrant, or something more pale?
This question is well illustrated by Stormont’s current legislative agenda. Currently two climate change bills are passing through the House. One is more ambitious than the other. If both proceed in their current form, that will lead to confusion. Clearer options involve one being shelved in favour of the other (whichever way), or an effective merger on some agreed basis.
This week the Alliance Party launched its proposals for a Northern Irish Green New Deal, which sets out plans for 50,000 new jobs over the next decade, as well as pathways towards universal and affordable childcare, greener housing stock, zero-carbon public transport, incentives for green private cars and help for farmers to shift to more sustainable ways of working.
It amounts to Alliance’s version of build back better, the political mantra of the day, as politicians around the world seek to provide aspirational plans for recovering from the pandemic and improving economies and societies.
The proposals are not purely environmental. For instance, it sets out plans for better social care and stronger rights for workers. In that sense it is more precisely a New Deal that is Green, rather than a Green New Deal.
Party leader Naomi Long said: “While everyday life has often felt at a standstill over the past year, climate change has continued to accelerate. A regionally balanced green economy can help us make our contribution to tackling that and could create 50,000 new jobs for Northern Ireland… The recovery also requires more than just environmental interventions. We need urgent and radical changes to the structure of our economy, based on long-term security and shared prosperity.”
In policy terms, this could (and hopefully will be) a very important document, albeit one that will get lost in the week that’s in it because of the DUP’s political storm (which is not a big problem – nothing can seriously call itself a New Deal if it can’t survive getting squeezed out of a couple of news cycles).
However, while this is a big moment for the Alliance Party, and could be a big moment for Northern Ireland, one political party cannot make the sweeping changes needed to help curb environmental concerns and create a modern, flourishing society.
What is necessary is consensus, or something like it. Alliance going green is not a huge surprise. However, they are not the only major party making moves on the environment.
In late 2019, the DUP launched a pre-consultation on crafting its own future green policies. The party said these policies would revolve around three principles:
- That we can all live in a healthy, greener and pleasant place, region, country and world.
- That we can grow and develop economically while passing on an environment as good if not better than our generation received it.
- That we gain economic advantage by seeking to be in the forefront of technical innovation to achieve environmental goals that are common across the world.
The three-stage consultation process appears to have faltered (there’s not much sign of progress on the party’s website) but we all know what happened in early 2020 and how best laid plans everywhere fell to bits.
What remains important is that the intent was there - and, also, that the three principles above are correct. The second might be a touch optimistic, but it’s not outside the realms of possibility. Moreover, climate change policies should be positive, even if the stakes are existential.
The protection of Northern Ireland’s “Green and Pleasant Land” (weird branding, given that label belongs to a neighbour, but there you go) was one of the party’s twelve pillars for its 2019 General Election Campaign so, even if the longer consultation process faltered, this was a developing party policy.
In June 2020, Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots told the Assembly: “I firmly believe that, even in the darkest times, we have a duty to plan for the future, and this is no exception. The COVID-19 pandemic, despite the pain and suffering that it has caused, has forced us to live and work differently, to think differently and to behave differently.
“Around the world, people are travelling less, using less energy and finding new ways to communicate, to socialise, to work and to learn. At the same time, there have been tremendous benefits for the environment, at the micro and macro levels, that we can all recognise. As we plan our recovery from the effects of the pandemic, it is crucial that we adopt a holistic approach, building on the many lessons learned in recent months.
“Rather than picking up where we left off, I am recommending economic renewal that recognises the importance of our environment and advocates green growth as a pathway to a sustainable future.”
If the DUP’s fundamental commitment to tackling climate change is still questionable, given the positions taken by other senior figures in the party, it should be acknowledged that Mr Poots’ stated position is on the right page.
Furthermore, just four weeks ago Economy Minister Diane Dodds launched a consultation on the future of NI’s energy policy that puts the shift to renewables front and centre.
It is fair to question what the current DUP flux will mean for green issues. That is not entirely certain – but, in all likelihood, Mr Poots will become an even more senior figure within the party over the next month (Mrs Dodds’ power will probably shrink). He might even be the next First Minister.
What about everyone else?
Sinn Fein’s plans for moving beyond Covid-19 as stated in Economic Strategy: Principles for Recovery highlights the importance of “confront[ing] the severe economic threat of climate breakdown” in the very first sentence of this June 2020 policy paper.
This document builds on its September 2019 paper Inclusive and Sustainable Growth, which – as the title suggests – seeks “a regionally balanced, productive, zero carbon economy with Good Jobs [sic]”.
The SDLP has climate justice as one of its major policy aims. The party says: “Climate breakdown is the seismic global challenge facing this generation. Failure to take action now will result in significant changes to our global climate and weather patterns that will devastate developed and developing economies across the world, leaving millions destitute and poverty-stricken…
“While balancing the needs of our economy with the needs of people and communities, we must also respect the needs of our natural environment. Protecting our indigenous plant and animal life is critical to preserving the delicate ecosystems which we occupy. That demands a tough new look at planning policy to create a new approach to development that respects and nurtures local habitats. The shift to a net gain approach to biodiversity and development across these islands should be examined as a potential model for an ecologically aware economy.”
The UUP does not list a green Northern Ireland on its list of individual policy papers, and the word climate does not feature in its 2017 General Election Manifesto but no-one could accuse them of being environmentally ignorant.
The party has a climate spokesperson – John Stewart MLA – who said last year: “The greatest issue we face is that of climate change. There is a growing duty on lawmakers to urgently step up and be aspirational in policy-making. We must treat this issue with the seriousness it requires as every day we are already seeing the devastating effects climate change is having on societies around the world.
“Our party made a commitment to see a zero net carbon future by 2035 and I am delighted the Prime Minister will bring forward the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040 to 2035. This acknowledges that we must act sooner rather than later in moving to zero net carbon emissions.”
The good news is that the major parties are all saying positive things.
However, in Northern Ireland the path between collegiate words and ultimate policy failure has been walked countless times.
Making nice about sustainable development is easy. The transformations required to make those words real are broad and deep. They will require collective political will from all major parties, a vision co-designed by that collective, and – crucially – for that will to be maintained over years if not decades.
Can this be done? Yes. The real question is whether it will be. The pandemic should be winding down. A new, multi-year Programme for Government should be prepared in earnest. The time for specifics is now.
The new DUP leadership will have a big part to play in these changes – either as a disruptor or a facilitator.
Mrs Foster’s replacements will want to distance themselves from her failed tenure but, while a harder approach on the union and on matters dear to the party’s religious base should be expected (all of which, let’s be clear, could lead to enormous friction across NI politics in general), it still leaves plenty of room for manoeuvre.
The soon-to-be former First Minister has been party leader for six years but for half that time Stormont was collapsed and, even accounting for that lost time, she leaves little to no legacy on Northern Irish domestic policy. She will be remembered for Brexit and RHI.
This means the new leadership could go any which on one of – if not the – most important policy area today: climate change and the environment.
Everything remains to be done but, in the policy horse trading to come, if climate change is not a priority for the DUP then it will be an area where the party could be malleable.
The problem with political trade-offs is that sweeping reforms in many areas can collapse if one part of a deal goes sour. If Stormont creates ambitious plans for a green economy only for this to be scuppered by arguments about the Protocol, or the past, or flags, that would be calamitous.
However, if the DUP (and everyone else) throws in behind stronger, more comprehensive and more ambitious climate action it could be transformative for Northern Ireland, help re-tool the local economy, and allow Our Wee Country to do its bit in curating the planet for today’s children and the generations still to come.
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