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Climate change should be prominent on Northern Ireland Executive agenda

Compared to the Republic, Northern Ireland has actually reduced greenhouse gas emissions by almost a quarter since 1990

In 2022 the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a Climate Change Act, which set the very demanding objective of reaching net zero for all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC), the official advisory body on climate policy, formally wrote to question the feasibility of this target for the North.

Such a target could imply that, either the North would get rid of all its cattle by 2050, because they emit the greenhouse gas methane (an unlikely scenario), or else invest in huge industrial plants to suck carbon directly from the air. While eliminating all carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 is an appropriate objective, the CCC suggested that it would be unreasonable to expect the North to get rid of all livestock.

The committee suggested that setting an impossible target was bad for the credibility of climate policy and it advised that the Northern administration should concentrate on implementing tangible measures today that would hasten the process of decarbonisation. In 2022, the Northern Ireland Assembly probably had other things on its mind, and it did not heed that advice.

Compared with the Republic, where greenhouse gas emissions today are 10 per cent higher than in 1990, Northern Ireland has actually reduced greenhouse gas emissions by almost a quarter over the same period. The North’s more rapid reduction is partly because of greater progress in the electricity sector, and partly because of a better performance on land use.


Because of much higher population growth in the south the gap in emissions per person is smaller: emissions per head fell by 35 per cent in the North compared with 25 per cent in the Republic since 1990. However, in both parts of the island, agricultural emissions are about 15 per cent higher than in 1990, posing a major challenge for policymakers.

As in the Republic, Northern Ireland faces a difficult task in rapidly decarbonising its economy. The energy strategy adopted in 2021, when the Assembly was previously working, suggested a range of new policy measures. However, with the absence of an Executive, there has been little progress on implementation.

Probably the North’s biggest climate challenge will be retrofitting most of its housing stock to reduce energy use and dependence on oil for home heating

Andrew Muir of Alliance is the new minister of agriculture, the environment and rural affairs in the North, with responsibility for tackling climate change. He has a difficult task ahead of him. Some in the DUP don’t believe climate change is a problem. Sinn Féin in the Republic have, to date, been unenthusiastic about implementing essential measures to hasten decarbonisation.

His department’s website doesn’t list “climate change” as one of the headline topics it is responsible for – you have to search in the subtopics to find it. However, hopefully the new minister will put climate change high on his agenda, and his department officials will, of course, step up to the task.

But no one Northern Ireland department has exclusive responsibility for climate matters – the economy ministry deals with energy supply, where decarbonisation is crucial in tackling climate change. As I argued in last week’s column, building the necessary north-south interconnector could both reduce carbon emissions and cut the cost of electricity on the island. Hopefully the new minister there, Conor Murphy, will show enthusiasm for this vital project.

Probably the North’s biggest climate challenge will be retrofitting most of its housing stock to reduce energy use and dependence on oil for home heating. North and south, our households emit on average 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year to keep our homes warm, compared with one tonne in Britain. There, emissions from residential energy use have fallen by more than 20 per cent since 2000, primarily because of the almost universal adoption of natural gas for heating, whereas on this island, north and south, such emissions have hardly changed.

Retrofitting the North’s homes will be an expensive business. The North’s energy strategy estimated that the required investment would amount to about £250 million (€292 million) a year. In turn, the cost saving for households from that investment would amount to about 10 per cent of the upfront cost.

With 15 per cent of Northern Ireland’s housing stock in public ownership, a great deal of the funding must come exclusively from public funds. Even for private households, many of them would not be able or willing to finance the necessary investment, so additional public subsidies will be required to make it happen. This will be a big challenge, given the major finance shortfalls across the Northern Ireland public sector.

The new Executive faces many challenges after two years of political standstill, with lots of pressing issues competing for attention. Let’s hope tackling climate change features prominently on that agenda.