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Andrew Webb: Tackling climate change requires urgent clarity and coordinated efforts

'There is a definite intention to act in the north but a distinct lack of certainty on how much funding is available to do anything. '

Andrew Webb

THE Irish government’s recent introduction of minimum unit pricing on alcohol caused a media stir and divided opinion.

One group whom I’m sure welcomed the move were Northern Ireland based off-licences the length of the border. Such is the price differential between north and south, the flow north for cheaper drinks should boost the coffers of the off-sales trade here.

This highlighted a broader point for me – how both parts of this island can skew things when policy in one jurisdiction moves dramatically out of step with policy in the other. Conversely, there are many policy areas that benefit from an all-island approach, and more could.

We have cross border bodies for trade and business development, tourism, waterways etc and from any logical viewpoint, collaboration in these areas has benefited both jurisdictions.

These cross border bodies have been with us since the Good Friday Agreement but that shouldn’t mean they are the only ones we ever have. Time moves on and contexts change, and in that vein, an area which seems like an obvious candidate to benefit from having a cross border body is climate change.

Actually, there is an increasingly compelling argument to have a dedicated climate change agency here but for now I’ll keep the focus on all-island collaboration.

It seems sensible that, given the urgency in addressing climate change, a coordinated and collaborative approach across the island should be formalised, especially as areas where big gains can be made in de-carbonisation (eg the electricity grid and agriculture are already heavily integrated sectors across both parts of the island).

The climate challenge has been recognised for decades but a renewed urgency appears to have emerged. Indeed, more extreme and more frequent weather events act as a reminder that urgent change is required.

Last year’s COP26 provided a focus point from which to drive on but it is actually two years on from the Northern Ireland Assembly declaring a climate emergency. So, where are we on the whole climate issue? Well, as with most things here, it’s not straightforward.

We actually have two competing climate bills moving through the Assembly. One, being moved through the Assembly as a private members bill, aims for net zero by 2045. The second bill, being moved forward by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, calls for an 82 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Whichever bill emerges, it is clear that significant change needs to occur to reach either 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 five per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, compared to approximately three per cent of the UK population. Agriculture (26 per cent), transport (20 per cent) and residential buildings (14 per cent) 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, it notes an ambition to deliver energy savings of 25 per cent from buildings and industry by 2030, and to meet at least 70 per cent of electricity consumption from a diverse mix of renewable sources by 2030.

There is a definite intention to act in the north but a distinct lack of certainty on how much funding is available to do anything. Take domestic heating. There is a stated need in the new Energy Strategy to phase out home heating oil and solid fuel home heating, but no mention of what incentives would look like to achieve this. A strategy without funding is just a wish.

Looking south, it seems that intention is backed by firmer funding plans. Ireland’s Climate Action Plan 2021 provides a plan for taking decisive action to achieve a 51 per cent reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by no later than 2050, as committed to in the Programme for Government and set out in the Climate Act 2021.

Some 475 actions are backed by estimates of €125 billion of capital investment low-carbon technologies and infrastructure. This includes over €50 billion in transport and €35 billion in buildings. Aside from the environmental need to do this, the economic benefits from this scale of investment are potentially massive.

There’s no time to waste on climate change. It will be disruptive and challenging and will require massive investment. Plans without costed action are meaningless at this point. At a minimum, we need clarity on which climate change legislation is going to be adopted, and we need to find ways of making the scale of investment required to achieve these aims.

We also need to make sure we are collaborating across the island – it might even spur us to be better.

Andrew Webb is chief economist of Grant Thornton

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