Sunday, January 24, 2021

Thoughts of Climate Change Bill consultation


Currently the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is consulting on a Northern Ireland climate change bill,  

not a deep and meaningful consultation on the details of such a bill but merely on a broad-brush outline.

The discussion document suggests that Northern Ireland’s GHG emissions are relatively small at 4.3% of UK emissions, this assertion however ignores the fact that Northern Ireland population is 3% of the UK total. In fact per head of population Northern Ireland’s emissions are nearly 50% higher than our UK counterparts. Taking responsibility to address the causes of anthropogenic climate change will not be served by trying to make a case that we should be excused due to population size. The challenge is not that we should do less than others but that we should do more than others.

The discussion document presents two options regarding the introduction of Northern Ireland specific climate change legislation.

Option 1: Northern Ireland Climate Change Bill setting interim emission reduction targets and a long-term target of Net Zero emissions in Northern Ireland by 2050 (long term target does not consider expert climate change advice); and 

Option 2: Northern Ireland Climate Change Bill setting interim emission reduction targets and a long-term target for Northern Ireland by 2050, the long-term target is an equitable contribution to achieving UK-wide Net Zero by 2050 (long term target considers expert climate change advice)

It seems strange that the development of a climate change bill is delayed in order to publicly consult on these two options.

Obviously the quickly changing environment where knowledge about the impact of climate change is becoming clear it seems only rational that going forward consideration of the best available scientific evidence on mitigation, greenhouse gas reduction and potential impacts leads to the conclusion that option two is the easy choice. That is until one reads in detail the differences between the two options where the Department makes it clear as a priority that the independent expert advice and evidence will include consideration of the likely capability of Northern Ireland to meet that particular target due to its unique local characteristics/profile and it is clear that Northern Ireland’s focus will be on avoiding taking any difficult decisions as part of our responsibilities to address climate change.

We have had some insight into the approach that will be taken by some politicians, in the recent debate on ammonia levels in Northern Ireland it was made clear that addressing serious environmental concerns would not be allowed to interfere with the financial well-being and growth of the major agri-food sector.

We live in a very well-developed society with all the benefits of a welfare state, a robust education system and potentially a flexible economy. We are not in the front line in dealing with the consequences of climate change immediately but we are in the frontline of causing consequences elsewhere. We can change our impact on the environment by changing our activity, it will not be easy, it may not be cheap, but we are better placed than many others.

Consider a family subsistence farming in Bangladesh, they face and currently suffer from rising sea levels, tides, which progressively cover their land which leave the ground salted and dead. The freshwater rivers are progressively suffering from salination, their wells are becoming undrinkable and like millions of others displacement becomes their only hope for survival. They did not cause the problem but they are among the 1st to suffer the consequences of anthropogenic climate change. Our responsibilities stretch far beyond our shores and in the discussion on climate change and our responsibilities we must understand what the impact is of our actions globally not just locally. We must be better citizens of the world and less selfish about not sharing the burdens that will face us all.

The consultation paper also talks about the action the government departments can take to address climate change and example they give is flood defences. Given that we face a future where the melting of the Greenland ice sheet would on its own raise sea levels by 7 m the fact that our government considers that building flood defences is the strategic way forward raises grave concerns that they have not yet understood the scale of the issues that face the planet let alone Northern Ireland. A forward thinking, strategic planning administration would consider all elements of our infrastructure and ensure that progressively we move as much as possible out of danger. It doesn’t require massive new investment but a better understanding of how we can use future investment to reduce risk.

There are many simple actions that can be taken to help society change, actions which help people change behaviour, ensuring every new domestic property has an accessible EV charging point will add nothing to the bill cost but will make it easier for people to make the change to using electric vehicles. We could provide grants to support the replacement of oil-fired boilers with air source heat pumps and ending grant support for those heat systems which contribute to the problem rather than the solution. There are many others and all it requires is a will to change, quickly in recognition that the earlier the action the greater the impact.

The consultation paper discusses the need for public bodies to report on their actions to mitigate climate change. The paper outlines the departments thinking “the departments view would be that it would be disproportionately onerous to place a reporting duty on all of them”. This is one of those issues which has infected Northern Ireland society for many years, nobody is accountable, again down to the argument “the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland”. It’s disproportionately onerous if due to the actions of those living in an advanced society halfway across the world your farmland is flooded with seawater, your well is too salty to drink, your home is underwater and you and your family must pack up your meagre possessions and trek many miles possibly to a refugee camp. It is not disproportionately onerous to fill out a form.

If this consultation is anything more than what appears to be, a simple exercise to delay taking any action, then the views that underpin the meagre thoughts within it have no place in developing a robust and sustainable response to the challenges of anthropogenic climate change. It rests, possibly unfortunately, with all of our politicians to grasp the challenge that faces us and develop, promptly, the actions which will make a difference not just to those in other parts of the world now but those future generations in Northern Ireland who need us to act with conviction and commitment.

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