Northern Ireland’s Climate Breakdown Battle

The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions are at the lowest rate in twenty years, at around 450 million tonnes in emissions noted in 2019, though many will agree that there is still some work to be done. The term Climate Change has now evolved, the warming of the planet is now often referred to as a “breakdown” to some and “emergency” to others.

Though some may agree that the battle to cool a burning planet is not being ignored, with nearly 50% of electricity in Northern Ireland coming from renewable sources, and the Green party’s Climate Change bill having been announced in March this year.

“Calling it “Climate Change” would be like calling an invading army, “unwelcomed guests”, the Queen’s University Belfast professor and co-head of the Belfast Climate Commission, John Barry spoke from his home, which I learnt has its own solar panels installed with an electric car in the drive-way. Like many a meeting over the lockdown, this was done over Zoom.  The green woolly-jumper he wore seemed fitting for the nature of the conversation.

An expert of green political economy, John Barry has devoted years to studying the transition to a low-carbon economy. He believes that though the Prime Minister’s plans to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2030 is a welcomed change, giving hope to a journey to a low-carbon economy, “I don’t think it goes far enough”, the co-chair explained, “it’s what I call, “bio-fuelling the hummer”, he emphasises the dire situation. “There’s too much stress being laid upon technological innovation. We need much more radical changes in terms of living lighter on the planet, moving on to a much more regenerative economy, rather than an extractive one”.

The transition to living lighter is explained to me by the eco-expert, he speaks enthusiastically of innovations in Belfast, “in East Belfast there is a tool library where you can book tools. I think that’s a fantastic idea because why does every house have to have a power tool”? The use of public transport over private also gets the green thumbs up, “because 90% of the time what is your car doing? Sitting your driveway or parked somewhere, we don’t need the car, we need mobility. That more service-based concept is the direction we need to go in”.

Professor Barry explains that that it is mostly those in the developing world who are most affected by the volatile effects of this warming of the planet.

 “The very people who are not living high consumption lifestyles, are not driving SUVs or flying around the world, it’s the poorest of the poor”, he explains. The floods swallowing villages, home destroying hurricanes and devastating droughts are all a result of what the Queen’s lecturer calls “Climate Breakdown”.  

Though the poor of our own country do not evade calamity. Professor Barry states, “we have over 40% of households in fuel poverty, we have a lot of people that have to make the awful decision to heat their home or eat. Those issues of inequality are inextricably linked with issues of unsustainability”.

Despite the cold north, the planet is heating. To combat this the green professor states that we must change the way we live our lives, in terms of housing and even our diet, “it’s a whole set of issues; partly in my view, tied up with capitalism, tied up with an excessive dependence on economic growth and consumerism which of course requires more energy resources and pollution”.

Though what about the action to reduce emissions? John Barry enthusiastically teaches that “we absolutely need to make a transition beyond carbon energy and move away from coal to oil and gas, but it has to be done in a way that working class communities will benefit, therefore that’s going to require state action and not individual action”.

This state action that the ecological educator endorses may be crawling out of the woodwork. This policy has been crafted by the Green party. While speaking to her fellow MLAs in the assembly on the 10th of May 2021, Claire Bailey reiterated her Climate Change bill, which the Green party leader pioneered in March of this year, her fellow party member, Rachel Woods says that this “will introduce a framework for reducing emissions in line with the latest climate science and expert advice, we hope that this will become law in early 2022”.

The some of the main goals of the bill is to get to net zero by 2045 and to create a more sustainable economy.

Through the actions of activists throughout the world, it can definitely be said that the state of the planet is of great concern to some in the general population, “you will find our activists on the streets, in the countryside and on our coasts, taking part in protests, marches, organising clean-ups, litter picks and representing your interests. But you will also find us in local councils, assemblies and parliaments”, the MLA lists.

Rachel Woods also firmly believes that if politicians lead their communities into a greener future the right way, “we can prevent such a catastrophe in the future”. The MLA may be in the same line as the professor. To cool a boiling planet, she believes that we too must re-think the way we currently live, “how we travel and what we eat. Everything we produce and consume, everything that we do is important in terms of the impact that it has on Climate Change”, she affirms and asserts.

“If we do not change, then we will be faced with rises in sea levels, more extreme weather and temperature rises. This is already affecting energy prices, crop yields and food and water supplies across the globe, which will lead to food and water shortages, political instability, conflict and the mass movement of people”.

Though it is not just legislation and future promises. The MLA says that a “proper investment in renewables will contribute greatly to the reduction in emissions that need to mitigate Climate Change”. Though it comes with this green political endorsement, what are the renewable energy programmes in Northern Ireland?

“We’re called the RenewableNI now”, Steven Agnew corrected, having previously been known as Northern Ireland Renewable Industry Group or NIRIG. They sought to transfer to this title. The former head of the aforementioned Green party spoke over the phone, which is fitting for the time of Covid-19.

“I suppose just in the time of COVID, when there’s a lot of talk about the green recovery, a lot of industries unfortunately find themselves struggling to survive”, the head of the renewable energy organisation explained solemnly.

Though there is a bit of (renewably sourced of course) light at the end of the tunnel, “the renewable industry is ready to thrive”, Steven Agnew states. Renewable energy is generating around 2000 jobs, and when the transition to low-carbon is noted, “the renewable low-carbon energy sector, if you take it at its broadest, equates to about 5,400 jobs”.

The gigantic glacial gales which batter our country in an almost too frequent basis has now turned into an advantage in a battle against climate breakdown, “for 2020, 49% of our electric was generated from renewables”, the renewable leader explains, which is a massive jump from 2005, which was just 3%. “Our goal for renewable energy production for 2020 was 40%, so we have exceeded our target”, the former Green party leader explains with pride; with the goal for 2030 being 80%. The cost of this renewable energy is noted by Mr Agnew as “£31 per consumer per year”.

 The Climate Change bill which passed its second stage in the assembly on the 10th of May 2021, as well as the ambitious goals of RenewableNI all of this shows that many do not plan to leave the planet in the scorching red.

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Journalism bachelors graduate form the class of 2021. Interested in current affairs and Northern Irish politics and social issues.