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Northern Ireland needs to catch up with rest of UK and Ireland on climate legislation

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Maeve Hunt

PEOPLE more than ever seem to have a better understanding of the urgency of climate crisis. That was especially evident in the aftermath of COP26 with so many commentators getting increasingly frustrated with the slow pace at which countries are moving to combat climate change.

Experts have long called for heat and transport to be decarbonised, food chain emissions to be reduced, electrical vehicle charging infrastructure to be enhanced to have some chance of meeting climate targets.

As it stands, Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK and Ireland without any legislation to reduce carbon emissions. How does this compare to the rest of the world?

The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit tracks the progress of almost 200 countries and 2,000 companies on their energy and climate policies including their net zero targets.

Of the 137 countries that have committed to net-zero, two countries, Bhutan and Suriname, have already achieved the status and are in fact removing more carbon than they emit. Some 90 per cent of these countries have pledged to be net-zero by 2050 with a handful pledging same by 2035. China, which accounts for around a quarter of global emissions has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060. The challenge in all of this will be to actually make progress towards the goal.

How serious these countries are about their carbon neutrality commitments, however, appears to vary. A minority of countries, including Britain and Ireland – which collectively account for 10 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions – are so committed to carbon neutrality that they have enshrined their pledges in law.

However, for more than half of the countries studied, carbon neutral targets are only under policy discussion, making them harder to act upon without an official standing. Worryingly there are some countries that have no target at all.

Latest studies show that we need to almost halve greenhouse gas emissions this decade to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement, adopted at COP21 in 2015, makes it mandatory that countries communicate the actions they will take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Unlike its predecessor the Kyoto Protocol, the Agreement is vague as to whether countries are legally bound to meet their prescribed goals. Penalties or embargos are not in place for parties that violate its terms and there is no court or governing body that will enforce compliance. It would seem that the processes to achieve targets are binding, while obligations to meet the prescribed goals, although politically encouraged, are not.

It's fair to say that delegates at COP26 last month made some progress on agreeing climate-saving measures.

The challenge with COP, though, is that it brings together almost 200 nations, rich and poor and each with competing interests. To make decisions requires consensus of all of them, a challenge that was very evident when the agreement to ‘phase out' coal and fossil fuel subsidies was reduced to ‘phase down' following fierce resistance from India, in particular.

Two Climate Bills are currently making their way through the Northern Ireland Assembly. One sets carbon reduction targets of 100 per cent by 2045 while the second is slightly less ambitious and contains an 82 per cent target by 2050. Politicians at Stormont will very likely need to agree on a way forward which results in a single Climate Change Bill for Northern Ireland. And then the important work on implementing the legislation and acting upon it will need to start.

In Northern Ireland, latest reports from the Department for the Economy show that 42 per cent of electricity consumed in the region for the 12-month period to September 2021 was generated from renewable sources located in Northern Ireland. This was down over 5 per cent on the previous 12-month period. The latest UK Budget also set aside funds for work on the electric vehicle charging network across the region.

There is a lot of work still to be done to decarbonise our world, and demands from citizens for meaningful change, as we saw at COP26, are only going to grow. Clear legislative targets and decisive action are needed urgently. In the words of US President, Joe Biden “Let this be the moment that we answer history's call”.

:: Maeve Hunt is chair of Chartered Accountants Ulster Society

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