In late June the UK Committee for Climate Change published its annual report to Parliament on how we are progressing towards legally-binding emissions reduction targets. The Climate Change Act is UK-wide and the report provides details on greenhouse gas emissions for each part of the country. The report shows that despite targets for greenhouse gas reductions, last year Northern Ireland saw an increase in emissions. The report warns that unless action is taken now, the public faces an unnecessarily expensive deal to make the shift to a low-carbon economy.
Even in the energy sector, where renewables are now successfully delivering more than one third of our electricity, much more progress needs to be made. There is a very obvious policy gap across all sectors, meaning that without clear direction we are likely to fail to deliver on all our carbon reduction targets and lose the benefit of investment in a low-carbon economy.
Overall, the UK saw a 5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, while NI saw an increase of 1.3%. NI transport emissions are 29% higher than in 1990, and while at 470 our number of electric vehicle charging points was similar to Wales, last year saw only a 3% rise in the number of charging points compared to Wales’ 43% rise. In agriculture, emissions across the UK have fallen, except in NI where they have risen 2.7% since 1990 baseline levels. Recycling figures for NI, while improving significantly, are also lower than Wales and Scotland, at 44% compared to 64% and 61% respectively.
Even in electricity generation, where NI has achieved remarkable success in reaching 35% electricity from renewable sources, the emissions from the power sector rose in 2016 by 5%, largely due to the fact that NI hasn’t yet seen the switch away from coal that other parts of the UK have seen. Without renewables the power sector emissions would have been even higher. In fact, the only sectors of NI that have seen reductions in emissions are in industry, waste and non-residential building sectors.
Northern Ireland has also failed to set a new renewables target for 2030, while Scotland aims to reach 100% electricity from renewables in 2030 and Wales has set a 70% target. Northern Ireland could have 70% renewable electricity by 2030 with no additional cost to the consumer according to NIRIG analysis carried out this year, and this would both benefit from and facilitate electric vehicles and low-carbon heat.
We have a target to reduce emissions in 2025 by at least 35% compared to 1990 levels. In 2016 levels were 16% below 1990 levels. The NI Executive’s own projections suggest that progress is falling short of what is required.
It’s not only the environment that suffers from this state of limbo. Energy consumers suffer too as renewable energy offers the best value for money for bill payers. Onshore wind is the cheapest way to generate electricity – bar none – so it has an important role to play in our energy mix, along with other low-carbon technologies.
While Brexit occupies the energies of politicians in Westminster, local MLAs twiddle their thumbs and civil servants are challenged on what decisions they can make, our contribution to a changing climate may well grow and grow.