How is Northern Ireland tackling climate change?

When COP26 was held a year ago in Glasgow, Northern Ireland was the only part of the host country, the UK, that did not have climate change legislation in place.

Now, as world leaders gather in Sharm el-Sheikh for COP27, what has changed for Northern Ireland and where is it on its journey to net zero?

Climate legislation

The big change, of course, is that climate legislation is now in place in Northern Ireland.

After an unprecedented two-bill race, the Climate Change Bill (No 2) won Royal Assent in June 2022.

It has set itself the goal of reaching net zero by 2050, creating legal obligations to reduce emissions.

But former agriculture minister Edwin Poots won an amendment to his own bill that limited the required methane reduction to no more than 46%.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is mainly produced by agricultural activities.

Edwin Poots

Edwin Poots

Critics say it puts extra pressure on other sectors to make up the difference.

Northern Ireland’s first climate action plan resulting from the bill is due to be published at the end of December 2023.

It will contain reduction targets in each of the most emitting sectors.

Agriculture

Cows on the farm

Cows on the farm

The latest greenhouse gas inventory from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs shows that agriculture is the highest emitting sector in Northern Ireland, contributing 27% of emissions and posting a increase over the 30-year period covered by the statistical bulletin.

Farmers say improving the efficiency of food production is key to reducing their emissions.

And while they welcomed limiting the required methane reduction, the chairman of the Ulster Farmers’ Union said he had no illusions about the targets agriculture will be asked to meet.

“They will be tough on agriculture,” David Brown said.

“That’s why our farmers are obviously looking at carbon audits and so on, because retailers are saying we need to be able to provide proof that we’re moving in a direction that reduces that carbon footprint.

“There also needs to be a focus on maintaining food production, as part of this shift and mitigating the worst effects of climate change.”

Transportation

A zero-emission bus

A zero-emission bus

Transport is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Northern Ireland, according to the Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

It represents 16% of emissions, a proportion that has decreased by 2% between 1990 and 2020.

At COP26 in Glasgow, public transport operator Translink announced it was buying more zero-emission vehicles as part of its drive to make its fleet net zero emissions by 2040.

A new transport hub is being built in Belfast which the operator hopes will encourage more people to swap their cars for the bus or train.

“What we are doing at Translink is a continuation of what we announced at COP26,” Chief Executive Chris Conway said.

“So I think we’ve made great progress, but there’s still a lot to do.

“We are working on the feasibility of electrifying our railway. But also on modal shift – how do we get more people to use public transport?

“Obviously things like the cost of living crisis, Covid, the war in Ukraine – all of those things are dominating the news by the minute, but really, this [climate crisis] is still the biggest crisis we face in the long term, and we are very focused on making sure we address sustainable transportation. »

In private transportation, electric vehicles still make up a tiny fraction of the market – 0.8%, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Nine of 11 councils in Northern Ireland have formed a consortium and successfully secured funding from the Office of Zero Emission Vehicles to install charging stations in residential areas where off-street private charging is not available .

Energy

Almost half (47%) of Northern Ireland’s electricity comes from renewable sources, mainly wind.

But although emissions from power generation have nearly halved over the past three decades, the sector still contributes 14% of Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gases.

And world events have drawn attention to the need to be self-sufficient in power generation.

That worries the chief executive of Action Renewables, a charity that promotes renewable energy projects.

“We are seeing a lot more interest in renewable energy due to the current climate,” Terry Waugh told Action Renewables.

“So you have the gas crisis, you have the cost of living crisis, you have the Ukraine problem.

“When they are resolved, we would be concerned that the emphasis we put on the minute will recede a little.

“So we need to keep climate change central to why we’re doing this.”

Strategies

Daithi McKay, President of the Climate Coalition

Daithi McKay, chair of the Climate Coalition, says implementation is key

At COP26, Edwin Poots announced a consultation on Northern Ireland’s first-ever environmental strategy.

It is one of the four main strategies underpinning the Green Growth Strategy, which makes environment and sustainability the basis for economic growth.

It is also intended to be adopted as the first “Environmental Improvement Plan”, hopefully by July 2023.

An energy strategy has also been launched by the Ministry of Economy – “Pathway to Net Zero”.

It set out the ambition to decarbonize energy in Northern Ireland and an annual action plan was also published.

And if you think that sounds like a lot of strategies, you’re not alone.

“We have a lot of policies and documents that have the word ‘green’ at the end,” said Daithi McKay, chair of the Climate Coalition.

“They mean nothing unless they are implemented and we see real emission reductions.

“Reports released year after year show that emissions reductions are not happening fast enough.

“So we can have all the policies we want, but unless those emissions come down drastically, they mean nothing.”

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