QUB 'green economist' Professor John Barry on how pandemic can help us tackle climate emergency
Ahead of his appearance at the NI Science Festival to discuss climate emergency, Green Party activist and environmentally concious academic Professor John Barry chats to David Roy about how the pandemic offers valuable lessons on how to deal with climate change
"I THINK I might be the token 'social scientist' at the Northern Ireland Science Festival," jokes Professor John Barry of his forthcoming 'in conversation' event, an hour-long virtual chat with Sorcha Ní Cheallaigh of Re-imagine Re-make Replay (RRR) which will stream live at midday on Friday February 19.
However, since the topic under discussion will be our planet's ongoing climate emergency – the potential low-carbon based solutions to which will require political bravery to implement due to their socio-economic ramifications – Barry is certainly well-equipped to provide valuable insight.
Former joint leader of the Green Party in the north (and also a former Green Party councillor for North Down), Co Down-based Barry (54) is professor of Green Political Economy with the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast.
He's also the director of QUB's Centre for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action and co-chair of the recently formed Belfast Climate Commission – a body established by Belfast City Council and QUB which aims to "translate climate policy into action 'on the ground' to bring about transformative change".
As far as Prof Barry is concerned, that transformative change needs to happen right now if the north is to help the UK and Ireland achieve their goals of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.
When the global pandemic first hit us last year, he wrote a paper titled This Is What A Real Emergency Looks Like, suggesting that governments which simply declare a 'climate emergency' without actually taking action are merely engaged in "cheap talk".
Instead, a pro-active response similar to how Covid has been tackled is what is required.
"The Dáil declared a climate emergency in May 2019 just after the British parliament did," explains Barry, whose books include Rethinking Green Politics: Nature, Virtue and Progress (1999) and The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability: Human Flourishing in a Climate-Changed, Carbon-Constrained World (2012).
"The Northern Ireland Assembly declared one around this time last year and Belfast City Council declared one in October 2019 – but sure how would citizens know? What difference did it make to their lives?
"The pandemic is what an emergency looks like, where the state moves in with social distancing and so on. When people are faced with a clear and present danger, there needs to be decisive political leadership and support for people in making the transition [in behaviour].
"I think that's the type of communication our government needs on the climate emergency, to explain to people 'listen, we have to make these changes' and to bring people along with them. That's where the pandemic does have some lessons for us."
He adds: "It's almost like exercising a muscle – the pandemic has meant that the state, which has kind of been asleep for decades, particularly under neo-liberal capitalism where 'the market' is the most important actor, it has moved in to protect people, furloughed workers and so on.
"That's the kind of action we're going to need when we're dealing with the planetary climate crisis."
As you might have guessed, Prof Barry is a self-described 'watermelon green' whose own politically active roots can be traced back to the Workers' Party and Democratic Left. However, you don't have to share his political outlook to recognise that pandemic restrictions like lockdown have had a beneficial environmental impact thanks to a knock-on reduction in carbon-rich commuting.
"There have been positive ecological benefits in terms of people driving and flying less, particularly in terms of air quality in major cities like Paris and Milan and even here in Belfast," he says.
"In Venice, sea life is now returning after having been gone for decades because of the pollution caused by water tourism."
Eleven months of remote working combined with a new focus on maintaining physical and mental wellbeing via carbon-neutral activities such as walking, cycling and enjoying outdoor green spaces have already provided most of us with a tantalising glimpse of an alternative, healthier and more environmentally friendly work-life balance.
This could, Prof Barry argues, be a template for a future which doesn't involve a complete return to what he calls "the BC economy – Before Covid".
"Why on Earth would we want to go back to that?" he asks. "I hope that it makes a lot more people realise that their health is their wealth. People have rediscovered their gardens and a lot more people are growing food. If you're lucky enough to have a park nearby or, for me, living on the shores of Belfast Lough, we're all rediscovering the importance of outdoor green and blue spaces.
"They have a lot of ecological benefits as well as being good for our mental heath: they are habitats for wildlife and they sequester carbon. We should be demanding more from our councils.
"We've also seen the minister for infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, following the likes of Dublin, Milan and Barcelona putting in more cycle lanes. Milan are actually going to repurpose quite a lot of their roads now for walking and cycling, so the cars are going to be gone.
"So we've had this short-term benefit in terms of the climate and ecological impact."
Of course, at the moment, we're also all burning more fossil fuels to stay warm. While the north currently generates around 50 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar power, we are also hugely oil-dependent in terms of how we heat our homes – many of which are, according to Prof Barry, inadequately insulated to the point that some residents are literally paying "to heat the street outside".
He argues that putting these problems right could be part of a carbon-reducing job creation initiative based on a "building back better" recovery from the pandemic.
"I just hope to goodness that we don't see businesses, politicians and particularly our policy makers wanting a standard 'growth-led' recovery," explains Barry.
"What we desperately need now is a jobs-led recovery. The work that we've done at the Belfast Climate Commission is pretty conclusive in terms of how Belfast can get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
"Our biggest 'carbon hit' is in domestic space heating. We're the most oil-dependent part of Europe in terms of how we heat our homes, and we also have some of the crappest insulated houses in Europe and some of the highest levels of fuel poverty in the western world – 42 per cent of people in Northern Ireland are living in fuel poverty, which is astounding.
"So we'd get an economic bounce from retro-fitting those homes to make them more thermally efficient: it would provide jobs, while at the same time giving low-income households more disposable income which they tend to spend locally, so you get a 'local multiplier' effect.
"We could also create jobs to tackle our ecological problems by paying people to re-wet the bogs and plant trees to create natural sinks for carbon, which all requires labour."
As a veteran educator, green economy specialist Prof Barry is particularly heartened that the generation who have mobilised against climate change as part of Greta Thunberg's 'extinction rebellion' are increasingly coming round to his way of thinking.
"Although the pandemic kind of put a damper on it, this year I've had the highest ever uptake for take my courses," he tells me. "There's no doubt that students are demanding more knowledge on these issues."
With a chuckle, Prof Barry adds: "I'm an overnight success after 30 years."
RRR in conversation with Professor John Barry, Friday February 19, 12pm. Free event, more information at nisciencefestival.com