Belfast Telegraph

No more time to waste for climate action

Andrew Webb
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Climate scientists are unambiguous about the need for rapid reductions in carbon emissions to meet the aim of limiting average levels of global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius

While the climate challenge has been recognised for years, a lack of action up to now ramps up the urgency to act.  It is now two years on from the NI Assembly declaring a climate emergency and similarly, Belfast City Council declared a climate emergency in October 2019. 

Across Northern Ireland, the average annual land temperature in the decade 2010-2019 was 0.7°C warmer than the period from mid-1970s to mid-2010s. The 21st century has so far been warmer overall than any of the previous three centuries. Winter 2019 was the third warmest winter for Northern Ireland since 1884.  The changes in climate that we are already experiencing are projected to continue and intensify. In the second half of the century, the amount of change that occurs will depend strongly on how successful we are in reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally.  Annual temperatures in Northern Ireland are projected to rise by approximately 1.2°C by the 2050s from a 1981-2000 baseline average. Risks associated with rising temperatures, such as more extreme heatwave events causing impacts on people’s health and wellbeing, are likely to become more prevalent as a result of these projections, with their magnitude depending on the degree of change that is experienced.

At the time of writing, Northern Ireland remains without a climate bill, although the expectation is that this will soon be resolved.  The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Minister Poots and Green Party NI leader, Clare Bailey, both have bills that have reached the consideration stage at the Assembly.

Whichever bill emerges, it is clear that significant change to our socio-economic model needs to occur to reach any of the proposed targets. In 2019, Northern Ireland’s total greenhouse gas emissions were estimated to be 21.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Northern Ireland accounted for 5% of UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, compared to approximately 3% of the UK population. Agriculture (26%), transport (20%) and residential buildings (14%) were the largest sectors in terms of emissions in Northern Ireland.  Mindful of the need to address this, and maintain a viable economy, DAERA has produced a draft Green Growth Strategy which is about creating more green jobs and protecting or repurposing existing jobs where possible. An important part of the draft Green Growth Strategy is the new Energy Strategy from the Department for the Economy. Launched in December 2021, it notes an ambition to deliver energy savings of 25% from buildings and industry by 2030 and meet at least 70% of electricity consumption from a diverse mix of renewable sources by 2030.

While the legislation may be edging forward, and strategies are emerging, the current Northern Ireland report within the latest UK Climate Change Risk Assessment makes for sobering reading. The UK Government is required by the Climate Change Act 2008 to conduct such an assessment every five years to inform the UK National Adaptation Plans for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.  The assessment covers 61 specific risks and opportunities in detail across themes such as infrastructure, health, the natural environment, international dimensions and business and industry.  Taking the business and industry theme, issues such as increased flooding of business sites, increased levels of coastal flooding, access to finance, worker productivity and disruption to supply chains could all be at risk from climate change. For example, the annual bill for damage for non-residential properties in Northern Ireland is expected to increase by 22% by 2050 due to flooding events. The expected annual damages for UK business properties from coastal flooding is expected to increase by 30% by 2050.   The Climate Change Risk Assessment also suggests that there is a risk that access to finance, investment, insurance, and capital for businesses are negatively impacted by climate change through decline in availability and affordability of insurance, a reduction in the value of assets and investment and increased credit risks and cost of capital. Across Northern Ireland, this is currently a medium risk but has the potential to rise to high magnitude in future.

With these potential risks fast approaching, finding a path to net-zero is crucial.  The net-zero carbon roadmap produced for Belfast is enlightening in this regard. Currently, 39% of Belfast’s emissions come from the domestic housing sector, with transport responsible for 20% of emissions, public and commercial buildings for 24% and industry 18%. Belfast’s roadmap includes assessment of the potential contribution of approximately 130 energy saving or low carbon measures for:

  • Households and for both public and commercial buildings; including better insulation, improved heating, more efficient appliances, some small scale renewables
  • Transport; including more walking and cycling, enhanced public transport, electric and more fuel efficient vehicles, and
  • Industry; including better lighting, improved process efficiencies and a wide range of other energy efficiency measures.

The most effective measures that could be taken in Belfast are identified as insulating domestic buildings, switching from car journey to bikes and improving/upgrading heating controls in domestic buildings. Implementing the necessary changes is not going to be cheap, ranging from £1.6 billion to £5 billion depending on the scale of initiatives implemented. I don’t think anyone knows where the money is coming from to pay for these initiatives, but it may be the case that a slowness to act has brought us to the point where we can’t quibble on the cost?