NI and climate change: a fork in the road
The International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) new report in climate change is powerful, chastening and unsurprising.
These are tough messages to hear, but they are not new. There is no point in despair. Societies and economies across the world must adapt – and Northern Ireland is no different. So, what are we going to do?
Individuals can make small changes to their own lives but, while this is a good thing, the level of change required makes huge governmental intervention essential. The climate crisis can only be met by collective action.
NI has lagged behind the rest of the UK when it comes to making concrete emissions commitments. However, we are now at a fork in the road where two different visions of climate actions have been presented to Stormont.
Here and now
Whatever targets we set ourselves, the overall effort will still come under the auspices of the UK’s wider promises.
The United Kingdom is committed to eliminating its overall carbon emissions by 2050.
This commitment to net zero was signed into law in June 2019, and the government’s own website describes the UK as “the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050.”
This is all good stuff, but there are many questions about how this should be achieved. The situation is further complicated by the fact that devolved governments in Scotland, Wales, and here in Northern Ireland are all responsible for their own approaches to the environment.
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) is an independent, statutory body that advises on climate matters. At the request of the governments of the UK, Scotland and Wales it produced a report in May 2019 advising on climate change targets (at this time, NI had no government).
The report’s key findings were:
- The recommendation a new emissions target for the UK: net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050 (as per the above, this was passed into law a month later)
- In Scotland, we recommend a net-zero date of 2045, reflecting Scotland’s greater relative capacity to remove emissions than the UK as a whole.
- In Wales, we recommend a 95% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050.
Per the CCC: “A net-zero GHG target for 2050 will deliver on the commitment that the UK made by signing the Paris Agreement. It is achievable with known technologies, alongside improvements in people’s lives, and within the expected economic cost that Parliament accepted when it legislated the existing 2050 target for an 80% reduction from 1990.
“However, this is only possible if clear, stable and well-designed policies to reduce emissions further are introduced across the economy without delay. Current policy is insufficient for even the existing targets.”
Northern Ireland is responsible for its own climate targets and plans (although doing nothing would result firstly in great political pressure and ultimately in a legislative intervention from Westminster).
These are yet to be decided, with two competing bills currently passing through Stormont, one an Executive Bill from Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, the other a Private Members’ Bill tabled by Green Party leader Claire Bailey.
And while the CCC does not list NI considerations in its own key findings or make specific recommendations when it comes to NI, Northern Ireland is given decent consideration in the report itself.
The paper advises that for the UK to reach net zero, Scotland should have net negative carbon emissions while NI and Wales could both still see emissions above net zero.
In fact, the paper is far more generous to NI than it is to Wales, saying that Wales could reasonably reduce emissions by 95-97% (compared with the 1990 baseline, which is the standard point of comparison) whereas NI could see reductions of 78-80%.
It says the earliest credible year for net zero emissions is 2050 for the UK as a whole, 2045 for Scotland, and “post-2050” for NI.
This is not a free pass for NI. The report states: “Achieving net-zero overall requires an integrated set of policies throughout the UK, which make the most of the attributes of each of the UK nations. The Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must make full use of the policy levers available to them and work with the UK Government on UK-wide plans…
“For the UK to achieve net-zero emissions, Northern Ireland must achieve… ambitious decarbonisation in the power [energy] sector.”
The report (which predates the pandemic) also said that making the necessary changes to decarbonise the UK would cost between one and two percent of GDP every year until 2050, and that this cost would be distributed fairly equally per capita across all four constituent nations.
In short, it is achievable. But where now for NI?
Northern Ireland has been slower than the rest of the UK to make its own climate commitments.
Passage of the Private Members’ Bill tabled by Green Party leader Claire Bailey (which has so far enjoyed the broad support of several other parties) would mean Stormont has committed to a climate action plan in response to the ongoing climate emergency.
This action plan will set several legally-binding targets to help tackle climate change and improve the local environment in a broad range of ways (beyond just reduction of carbon emissions).
The bill calls for net zero carbon emissions in NI by 2045 (as well as specific improvements in water quality, soil quality and biodiversity).
The emissions target is far more ambitious than the CCC’s report deems necessary (if everything goes to plan).
This is the basis of the Agriculture Minister’s objections to that bill when compared with his own, parallel bill which commits to an 82% cut in emissions by 2050 (i.e. slightly more than the figures suggested by the CCC).
Discussing the passage of his bill, Mr Poots said: “I believe my Climate Change Bill is right for Northern Ireland and it is a balanced and sustainable Bill which has the right level of ambition and credibility.
“Current independent scientific evidence and advice from the UK Climate Change Committee is clear - a just transition to a low carbon economy can be achieved in Northern Ireland via a balanced pathway to UK-wide net zero by 2050.
“This can be achieved through the highly ambitious but achievable target, set within my Bill, of an at least 82% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Northern Ireland by 2050.”
Both bills passed through the Assembly with solid support (Ms Bailey’s bill was backed by Sinn Féin, Alliance, the SDLP, UUP and several independents, as well as the Green Party – with only the DUP and Jim Allister voting against).
It is up to Stormont to choose one path or the other, or to meet somewhere in the middle via legislative amendments.
On the face of it, Mr Poots argument is strong enough. However, there are also compelling arguments in favour of a more ambitious approach.
Climate change is a graduated danger, as well as an existential one. There is no binary outcome – on the one hand the world is saved, on the other everyone dies in flames – and net zero by 2050 is not necessarily the best target to aim for.
The IPCC report itself makes this clear. The question is less one of balance – where short-term economic stability is in tension with efforts to reduce emissions over time – and more one of maximality: what is the most we can feasibly do to reduce the effects of climate change?
In the coming years and decades, we will see all sorts of changes in the world around us. Some are already visible, such as more extreme weather events and surges in wildfires around the globe.
The more we can reduce carbon emissions, the better. Some scientists are already calling for efforts to adapt to future changes that are already set in stone. A combination of emissions reductions and strategic adaptations is already gaining traction in policy. The IPCC report points to this while other examples include, for instance, the EU Commission’s new guidance on integrating both reductions and adaptations into new infrastructure projects.
Again, it is crucial to avoid despair, or fatalism, or any other useless emotional state. This battle is a practical one. Of course, we want to find the best way forward, but the social, economic and environmental systems at play are all incredibly complex.
Aim for the best, of course, but we should all be happy if the path we find is merely good. Just don’t expect the discussions about precisely what “good” means to end any time soon.
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