Reducing net emissions requires many changes

6 Feb 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 7 Feb 2020

Northern Ireland emissions (graph from Pivotal PPF)
Northern Ireland emissions (graph from Pivotal PPF)

The Assembly has declared a climate emergency. There is no one way to fix this global issue – but it is great to see us take a seat at the table to take on this existential problem.


The UK Climate Change Act passed in 2008. It committed the UK to reducing net carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, compared with the 1990 baseline.

Since then, both Scotland and Wales have set their own specific targets, part of efforts to ensure they do their bit to tackle what is a global and, for humanity, existential crisis.

Yet while UK emissions are now 39% lower compared with the 1990 baseline, Northern Ireland has only seen a 16% reduction.

This week Stormont declared a climate emergency. This is a welcome move because NI has done almost nothing to join the fight against a threat that itself has huge momentum. MLAs reiterated support for measures within the draft Programme for Government, namely immediate action to cut emissions and for an Environmental Protection Agency to be established within a year.

That said, the Assembly debate preceding the passage of this motion was not unified in calling for decisive action.

Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said: “Our reductions are of a lesser amount than elsewhere in the UK, but, nonetheless, they are still welcome. Statistical research released by my Department last week estimates that, by 2030, greenhouse gas emissions in Northern Ireland will have reduced by 37% on their 1990 levels to 15 million tons…

“Much of the reduction has been achieved as a result of our efforts in the energy sector, particularly the increase in renewable energy to 45%. In other areas, it has proved more challenging to reduce emissions…

“A greater percentage of our emissions are attributed to agriculture. It is 27%, as opposed to an average of 10% elsewhere in the UK. That, however, reflects the fact that we produce 10% of the UK's food, so our agri-food footprint is bound to be higher, and it is recognised that it is more challenging to cut emissions in that area…

“[T]hese are significant and complex issues that have long-term consequences, and I do not want to be bounced into rushing through measures that we later regret.”

What to do

The Minister has a point. To state the obvious, if Northern Ireland was itself to hit the 80% emissions reduction target then our net carbon emissions would be 20% of the 1990 amount.

Take a look at the graph in the picture above (taken from the inaugural report from think tank Pivotal). Right now, agriculture uses up pretty much that entire allowance – and most of agriculture’s emissions are taken up by cows.

That’s right, cows. The existence of all our Northern Irish cows – GAWA cows, Snow Patrol cows, cows that enjoy Paul Muldoon and Derry Girls – accounts for over half our entire regional allowance of carbon emissions (assuming a crude equality with the rest of the UK when, in reality, we would likely see some mitigations).

The level of disruption required to reduce those emissions, however it is done, is enormous. If we have many fewer cows, there will be serious economic damage - including a lot of farms either transforming themselves into something else, which is very difficult, or going to the wall.

This gets to the heart of tackling climate change. Almost certainly, there is no one fix. Any solution will be many solutions.

And, of course, ultimately what we want to reduce is net emissions. Finding ways to directly offset any carbon we produce is much the same as not producing any in the first place.

Fancy ways to do this include things like carbon capture. A less fancy example is planting more trees.

Net zero

Scope wrote last week about Restorify, an innovative re-wilding project helping to find pockets of land across Northern Ireland where trees could grow.

This is as much about the past as the future. Ireland was once a forest island. Years of logging changed our landscape and the nature of where we live:

We have just 8% of our landmass covered with trees, even less than the Republic which is around 9%. The European average is 44%. Britain is 13%. Only Iceland which in the 1950s had virtually no trees at all fares worse.

Yet all of Ireland was once a vast forest stretching from coast to coast, east to west and north to south.  There are reminders of this everywhere: of the 62,000 townland names in Ireland, north and south 13,000 have reference to trees whiles 1,600 have a derivation of “dair”, Irish for oak. 

And, of course, trees take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen.

Last week the Woodland Trust published its first ever Emergency Tree Plan.

Northern Ireland is targeting a total tree coverage of 12% by 2050. To achieve this, we need to plant 2,000 hectares of trees per year until then. Last year only 240 hectares were planted.

Of further note is the face that the UK as a whole wants 19% tree coverage by 2050 (as recommended by the Independent Climate Change Committee). Per the above figures, Britain has a significant head start compared with Northern Ireland. To achieve 19% coverage by 2050, we would need to plant 3,500 hectares per year.

Innovations like Restorify will help Northern Ireland hit its tree targets but are unlikely to be enough on their own. Planting that many trees will require several complementary solutions.

In that sense, it is a microcosm of the larger issue of which it is a part.

Trees won’t save the world. But they have a part to play. Easy resolutions are wonderful but complicated problems often require a variety of fixes.

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