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Blog Post 3 August 2021

Climate change targets in Northern Ireland: progressing towards net zero

by Tom Shearman

Climate change targets, like so much in Northern Ireland politics, is hotly contested. At present, two separate but parallel Climate Change Bills are working their way through the Assembly, each with a different vision for climate action in Northern Ireland.

The first, backed by a cross party coalition of Assembly Members but crucially not by the DUP, calls for an extremely ambitious net zero by 2045 target, sectoral climate action plans that focus on green jobs and just transitions, and the creation of a Climate Commissioner to hold the Executive accountable.

The second, spearheaded by the DUP-led Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), charts a more conservative (but far more feasible) course towards emission reductions in Northern Ireland.

In terms of a headline target, the DAERA Bill proposes an 82% reduction in emissions by 2050. While this stands in stark contrast to the Assembly Bill’s ambition, this target aligns with the advice provided by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), who view this as a feasible and just share of the UK’s overall net zero by 2050 target.

Northern Ireland’s current carbon emissions

The world’s eyes will focus on all UK nations during November’s COP26 meeting in Glasgow. More than 190 leaders will discuss climate change and how to cap average annual global temperature rises to 1.5°C before 2050.

Northern Ireland’s 1.9 million population makes up 3% of the UK’s population but accounts for 4% of its emissions. However, Northern Ireland has seen a 20% reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions since 1990.

Unlike the rest of the UK’s devolved parliaments, Northern Ireland has complete control of its energy policy. It is a member of the all-island Integrated Single Electricity Market (I-SEM) with the Republic of Ireland. I-SEM states energy policies must provide efficient, interconnected energy to both sides of the border. The Republic and Northern Ireland also share an electricity grid.

The unique context of Northern Ireland — its extensive rural areas, less extensive gas network, reliance on personal vehicles, and strong renewable energy potential — are just some areas that provide both challenges and opportunities to cut carbon emissions.

Dependency on oil for heating

The elephant in Northern Ireland’s green emissions room is oil. Some 68% of homes use oil boilers for heating in a country where keeping the house warm accounts for around half of total home energy consumption. According to the most recent data available, oil dependency and its vulnerability to price fluctuations mean that over half of an average household energy bill is spent on heating. Around 22% of homes live in fuel poverty. This figure may be higher as a result of Covid-19’s impacts on household income.

Energy Saving Trust is the programme administrator — on behalf of the Utility Regulator — of the Northern Ireland Sustainable Energy Programme (NISEP). The aim is to help householders improve the efficiency of their homes. People on low incomes can access grants to help insulate their homes better, install energy efficient boilers, and more. Funding comes from an 80% share of a special levy on every household’s energy bills.

Northern Ireland’s Department for Economy (DfE) is proposing upping the funds available by ringfencing 100% of the levy to help alleviate fuel poverty through home insulation drives. The DfE estimates 50,000 Northern Ireland homes need to be retrofitted annually — three times more than at present — to hit carbon emissions targets. Retrofitting will require dedicated funding for all households, likely from a range of sources.

DfE is also looking to set up a ‘one-stop shop’ to provide impartial and expert energy advice to people to assist in this infrastructure priority.

Insulating homes is a no-regrets approach that can immediately make homes more comfortable and cheaper to run. Installing a heat pump can also dramatically reduce carbon emissions, especially when replacing an oil boiler. Support should be made available to households to invest in these technologies.

Gas boilers

Natural gas boilers are less polluting than oil boilers. They produce around 0.24kg carbon dioxide equivalent for every kilowatt-hour of energy delivered, compared to around 0.35kg for an oil boiler. The Northern Ireland Assembly has pledged to have 60% of customers, equal to around 200,000 homes, connected to the gas network by 2022.

While gas is cleaner than oil, it is still a fossil fuel that emits carbon dioxide when burned. There are several technical possibilities for providing low carbon gas as a heating fuel but, in Northern Ireland at least, it looks like hydrogen may be a key player in achieving an environmentally friendly gas grid.

Green hydrogen

Hydrogen is light, storable and energy-dense, and produces no direct pollutants or greenhouse gases. It can power hydrogen cell vehicles, be burned to create electricity, or transformed into methane to warm homes. It can also be blended in with natural gas in the mains network to help lower emissions.

Many plans for producing hydrogen fuel rely on natural gas as the feedstock. This can be converted to hydrogen relatively easily, and it is possible to capture the carbon dioxide given off in the process, and store this indefinitely to stop it entering the atmosphere. This is known as ‘blue’ hydrogen.

However, another option is to miss the ‘natural gas phase’ and use green hydrogen instead of natural gas to heat people’s homes. Green hydrogen is made via electrolysis — splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen. Suppose renewable energy sources like solar or wind provide electricity for the electrolysis process. In that case, the ‘green’ hydrogen produced is a clean energy source.

The CCC believes that hydrogen will be essential to reach net zero but that, in Great Britain at least, its role in heating homes will be minimal. The limited supply of hydrogen should instead be used for hard to decarbonise sectors, such as heavy transport and industrial processes. In Northern Ireland the outlook may be different. The limited and modern gas network and the huge potential for wind generation across Ireland mean that there is more potential for cheap, surplus wind generated electricity to be used to produce green hydrogen to feed into the gas network.

Transport

Northern Ireland has many remote areas, with 77% of its road infrastructure classified as rural. This topography helps explain why transport accounted for 23% of the country’s emissions in 2018, the second-highest emissions contributor after agriculture. Car dependency in the country is high, with many opting for cars over public transport, particularly in these rural areas.

There is enormous potential to reduce transport emissions in Northern Ireland. The average car journey is only 6.5 miles, making the country ripe for electric vehicle (EV) rollout, with fewer worries about driving ranges. Policy needs to lead to create an effective charging network. Longer trips will require both Northern Ireland and the Republic to design an all-island charging network.

EVs also offer vehicle-to-grid (V2G) possibilities via smart metering. Owners can charge electric cars during high renewable energy generation periods or when electricity is cheap, often overnight. The cars then release energy from their battery back into the grid at peak times, usually during the day or evening. V2G reduces costs for EV owners and helps to balance the grid.

The bus network is in public hands. Electric buses could replace ageing stock; Ulsterbuses are, on average, 10 years old, and Metros more than eight years old.

In addition to EV adoption, behavioural changes could offer emissions reductions. Only 5% of all trips are by public transport, 19% on foot and just 1% by bicycle.

Renewable electricity

Electrification appears key to Northern Ireland’s low emission future, from electric cars and buses to green hydrogen potential and heat pumps.

In 2020, almost half (49.2%) of Northern Ireland’s electricity came from renewable sources, smashing the Executive’s 40% target set a decade previously.

Wind power contributed 84.9% of the renewable electricity in 2020, with 80% of it from onshore wind farms. Ministers hope to push renewable electricity supply to 70% by 2030.

However, issues remain. Planning permission was recently refused (October 2020) for what would have been Northern Ireland’s largest onshore wind project at Doraville Wind Farm. The 33-turbine development was deemed to overly impact the local population in what is a designated area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Capturing excess renewable energy, either by converting it into green hydrogen, building utility-scale battery storage or wide-ranging V2G systems, will be vital to the net zero strategy. A coordinated approach with the Republic is required because they share the same national grid.

The spirit of sharing may also help Northern Ireland with its top greenhouse gas emitter: agriculture.

Agriculture

Agriculture makes up more than a quarter (27%) of the country’s greenhouse emissions — and it’s growing.

However, Northern Ireland exports the majority of food it produces. Nearly three-quarters of agri-food produce is sold to markets outside of Northern Ireland, with Great Britain the most significant consumer. Many of Northern Ireland’s emissions come from producing food for other countries.

Farming can lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions in several ways, but the main culprit in Northern Ireland is methane. Some methane is produced when manure or other organic waste decomposes. Good waste management practices can either reduce the amount of methane produced or can maximise its production while capturing and using the gas for electricity generation and heating. However, most of the methane produced by agriculture in Northern Ireland comes from animals, particularly cattle and sheep, and there are no easy technical fixes for this.

Other environmental ideas include restoring peatlands, which will be essential to meet climate targets, and planting 18 million trees in the next decade. Just 8% of Northern Ireland is forest, compared to 13% for the UK, which is itself one of the most environmentally depleted countries in the world.

In the meantime, executive departments may also consider carbon trading other industries’ lower emissions with the agricultural sector’s higher emissions. However, it is not clear how a mechanism like this can contribute to a net zero target.

Getting rid of the rubbish

Four in five people in Northern Ireland said they were very or fairly concerned about the environment last year. It’s backed by action, too, with recycling increasing from 42% in 2014/15 to 51.9% in 2019/20. Lessons can be learned from Wales, the third-best recycling nation globally, recycling an impressive 65% of its waste.

The amount of rubbish heading to landfills dropped to record levels in 2019/20, too, with 23.7% of household waste going to landfill. Each household generates around 1,160kg of waste per year, just under 20kg a week.

There are opportunities to create electricity via waste incineration, which didn’t exist in Northern Ireland before 2008. The latest figures show that in 2019/20, around a fifth of waste was incinerated to generate electricity and some district heat.

Again, there is work to be done; a controversial giant incinerator in Glengormley will have its planning application reheard anew following various legal wrangles. If approved, it will take 300,000 tonnes of black bin waste annually from six Northern Irish councils, burning waste to create electricity for up to 30,000 local homes.

While there are always concerns about the construction of new combustion plant, the alternative of landfill is almost inevitably worse. Landfill sites create methane, and while it is often possible to collect this and burn it to generate electricity, there is always a risk of methane leakage, as well as all the other potential issues with landfill.

How will net zero impact residents?

Northern Ireland’s Executive will be looking at the details before announcing their plans to reduce emissions from the range of sectors discussed here. An example of this is the recently closed Energy Strategy policy options consultation, which we responded to.

As we move towards net zero, commuters can expect to see more electric vehicles, with an increased campaign for public transport use, cycle lanes, and walking where possible.

People will soon be heating their homes in new ways, from gas boilers burning lower-emitting fossil fuel gas on the way to green hydrogen or via heat pumps – the route that most will take. Many homes will need to be better insulated.

Renewable capacity will have to increase, with new technologies offering opportunities to decarbonise rapidly. Recycling levels need to keep improving, packaging materials carefully selected, and people encouraged to send less waste to landfills.

Northern Ireland’s beautiful countryside may take on a new look, with more forests, healthy peatlands and a smattering of wind turbines.

Cultural shifts and changing tastes

Cultural shifts like increasing vegetarianism and veganism, or simply lower meat diets, could help reduce carbon emissions through lower demand for emissions-heavy livestock products.

Consumer behaviours relating to food will play a huge part in meeting Northern Ireland’s targets. Lord Denben’s letter to the Deara Minister states that in all of the CCC’s scenarios, for the country to meet climate targets, a 20-50% reduction in meat and dairy consumption will be required.

Policy and finance to drive net zero plan

Reducing emissions at the pace needed will require strong government support and financial backing. Schemes like the Northern Ireland Sustainable Energy Programme may need to expand to ensure everyone can do their bit on the country’s road to net zero. Tailored advice and financial support must be available for every household to allow an equitable and just transition.

While the scale of change is significant, every aspect presents opportunities for new and fulfilling work. There is a chance to create better communities and lifestyles and a strong economy based on renewable technologies and circular principles.

Last updated: 3 September 2021