Emission impossible? On a journey to a low carbon lifestyle

Noel Williams is a man on a mission: to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by taking Northern Ireland on a journey to a low carbon future. Owen McQuade met up with the Head of the Energy Saving Trust in Northern Ireland to discuss the move towards a low carbon economy and what we need to do to get there.

When the Energy Saving Trust was formed 17 years ago, it was the only organisation set up to provide solutions for saving energy and to tackle the climate change issue. Although there are now several government and private initiatives operating in the same ‘green’ space, the Energy Saving Trust has become the single most important access point for individual consumers to get the advice and information they need.

Williams outlines the organisation’s role, saying that it is an independent, UK-wide organisation focused on encouraging consumers not to waste energy and by doing so promoting actions that will lead to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, “much of which is of course a key man-made contributor to climate change.”

The Energy Saving Trust is a source of free, impartial and independent advice and information for people in Northern Ireland who want to save energy, travel sustainably and generate renewable energy. It also helps promote water conservation and waste reduction, and works with like-minded organisations in the public and private sector, who wish to tackle energy challenges. He summarises what they are all about: “We are here to mitigate the damaging effects of climate change. We inform people and then encourage them to act on that information so that they don’t waste energy or money and in doing so help to protect the environment.”

Williams goes on to explain the scale of Energy Saving Trust activities. With teams based in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales (and an office in Brussels), the Energy Saving Trust delivers UK-wide programmes that can be national as well as region-specific. There are 21 local advice centres which offer tailored bespoke advice, based on where you live, home type, circumstances and household budget. The Northern Ireland Energy Saving Trust advice centre directs people to relevant and available grants “to make change happen; from cavity walls, to loft insulation, and installations of renewable energy technologies.”

With much of the media attention focusing on the economic downturn, Williams believes that the UK government has “a unique opportunity to bring forward a ‘green new deal’ to stimulate growth. Over the last few years the government has promised to make a huge commitment to greening our economy and, with the recent budget announcement that £1 billion will be used to combat climate change by focusing on low carbon technologies, and £435 million extra support for energy efficiency measures in private, public and businesses, this could be a major step in the right direction.”

“I believe that the transition to low carbon is not just based on environmental or economic urgency, it is also inevitable. We can be absolutely sure that there is no ‘high carbon’ future,” he adds.

“Business and the public sector could save billions in the form of energy and resource efficiency, if they shifted to low carbon. Although the initial cost to switch to greener options could be high, it would pay for itself quickly and many times over. Presently our focus is on the day to day reality of the recession and job security.”

“If the government plans for the future based on a low carbon economy, thousands of new jobs can be created in the building trade, renewables manufacture and installation, transport,energy efficiency, carbon capture, waste, water, research and development. A low carbon future can provide the boost the global economy needs. However, long term measures need to be implemented to reach this pathway to a low carbon lifestyle. We need to take a concurrent approach, creating green jobs long into the future with a nation embracing state-of-the-art technologies. More importantly it would ensure that people in Northern Ireland have mo re employment opportunities,” he continues.

Turning to the Northern Ireland Executive, Williams states: “It must lead on climate change, providing a vision and lead by example. Working with the UK and Irish Governments, where necessary, it must also set the policy framework through incentives for low carbon citizens in possible future schemes; support for both low carbon citizens and the technology they will need.”

“People do not want to damage the environment. They expect government to regulate to prevent the production of damaging products and to incentivise ‘green’ behaviour. The new Northern Ireland Energy Strategy is due to be published later this year and when the consultation begins in the summer I hope as many people and organisations as possible will participate.”

Energy policy

On the practicalities of energy policy, Williams would like to see fewer departments dealing with energy. At the moment there are seven government departments dealing with energy issues. He sees the solution being one department: “At Westminster they set up a new Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) last year. A Northern Ireland ‘sustainability’ department could potentially bring all energy-related matters under one roof. The Welsh Assembly has done this to great effect by establishing the Environment, Sustainability and Housing Department.”

When asked about his main priorities, Williams is clear about what is on his list: “My top priorities are to continue to encourage the Northern Ireland Executive to address reducing emissions from the transport sector. In the rest of the UK we are funded to provide advice on green transport to fleets and individuals, and we have the expertise to provide this service in Northern Ireland; invest in new technologies for hard-to-treat homes (there are approximately 75,000 solid walls that could be insulated but as yet no acceptable or affordable solution for many); to use building regulations to drive down carbon emission reductions in new homes to reach a zero carbon standard by 2016; to encourage the use of exemptions for the lowest carbon vehicles in any possible future schemes for congestion, parking charges and low emissions zones; increase the size and maintain the flexibility of the Energy Efficiency Levy [now renamed the Northern Ireland Sustainable Energy Programme (NISEP)]; to provide economic incentives for all those who help reduce carbon emissions from Northern Ireland homes; to promote micro-generation (particularly by planners); and new local councils being encouraged to take the lead. I also welcome the Executive’s proposal for ‘green’ rate rebates for energy efficient measures which could be in operation by 2010.”

Williams sees local communities playing a key role in helping the Energy Saving Trust deliver the key messages: “I believe that local communities are at the heart of reaching citizens and can help us provide reputable information and advice on low carbon households and transport. I will continue to press for Northern Ireland funding for those who can deliver practical support at a local level.” He wants to make carbon reduction in the community a target for the new councils, and to work with the Northern Ireland Energy Saving Trust advice centre to engage with people and communities locally, with practical impartial advice and support for action on sustainable energy. He also wants to encourage the voluntary sector to commit to reduce carbon emissions, and ensure that training is available for developing new skills in energy efficiency and micro-generation needed in a low carbon society. Williams also recommends that local energy service companies should provide commercial packages of energy saving and microgeneration.

With the 11 new local councils having responsibility for promoting energy conservation at a local level, and the Housing Executive remaining as the Home Energy Conservation Authority, the Energy Saving Trust has a range of tools to assist councils with energy conservation and is in a unique position to assist the new councils develop their energy conservation portfolios.

Turning to the work of the Energy Saving Trust’s advice centre, he adds: “There are some very easy ways to save energy in your home, but sometimes these might not be obvious. That’s why the Energy Saving Trust advice centre is here. Members of the public can lift the phone and ring us free on 0800 512 012 to get impartial and practical advice on how to save energy. Our freephone number is also used by NIE Energy, Phoenix Natural Gas and Firmus Energy on their energy bills and is also promoted by the Housing Executive. With high energy prices and concern about our environment, there is no better time to reduce the amount of energy you use, and the advice centre is on hand to help you do it.”

Over the last two years 138,000 householders used the Energy Saving Trust’s advice service in Northern Ireland.

The advice centre acts as a one-stop shop for people to access information “on the simple things that can really make a difference, like switching appliances off stand-by, insulating the loft or even installing solar panels. It also offers a ‘drop in’ facility where personalised advice can be sourced and the public can speak to an energy advisor face to face.”

Climate change

The UK has set challenging climate change targets which go beyond its commitments under Kyoto, and seeks an 80 per cent reduction by 2050. In order to achieve this it was announced in the budget that the UK would commit to cut CO2 emissions by 34 per cent by 2020. Williams goes on to say: “Northern Ireland ought to make an equitable contribution to the delivery of those targets, and to do that we need ‘low carbon citizens’ both to change behaviour and to drive the shift to a ‘low carbon society’. We all need to believe that reducing carbon emissions is normal and part of a desirable lifestyle and that wasting energy is socially unacceptable, not just financially unwise.”

To achieve these targets Williams sees working with partner organisations as being “crucial” in Northern Ireland. The Energy Saving Trust works with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to support their role as Home Energy Conservation Authority. It also collaborates in a marketing campaign with the Housing Executive, with TV, radio and other advertising, including their latest marketing campaign entitled ‘the power to save is at your fingertip’.

The Energy Saving Trust also works with local business through its employee engagement programme to reduce carbon emissions. Williams explains: “We work with commercial organisations for example Procter & Gamble, Tesco and PriceRunner on joint promotional activities which enable them to help their employees and customers save energy. We can provide support on internal communications, advertising campaigns, direct mail, web, in-store promotions, amongst others, as well as providing robust statistics, supporting evidence and evaluation service. Organisations that want to add real credibility to their environmental activities and still meet their commercial objectives should come to us."

During 2007-2008 the Energy Saving Trust launched the ‘Green Barometer’, a quarterly national index of consumer attitudes and behaviours relating to environmental issues. Alongside the index, they have since released eight associated reports covering topics such as patio heaters, waste and recycling, word of mouth, and smart metering.

The Green Barometer provides a unique insight into public attitudes to environmental issues and climate change. As well as securing national press, television and radio coverage, the reports also achieved a large amount of coverage on a regional basis.

Williams expands on this: “It was our intention to create stories that were relevant to people based on where they lived and their personal circumstances. The reports also helped us to strengthen our policy and strategic positions with key stakeholders in government, business and local authorities. It also reinforces our status as the leading authority on understanding consumer views of environmental issues. Our Green Barometer PR activity achieved industry recognition when we secured the award for the best consumer campaign at the 2008 PR Awards.”

Looking to the future, Williams i s optimistic, despite the huge challenges around energy use and climate change: “I believe that the shift to a low carbon economy represents a huge opportunity for Northern Ireland.”

“The long-term goal of stabilising the climate will require carbon emission reductions in excess of 80 per cent. This is still compatible with a high quality of life, but not with ‘lifestyle choices’ that waste energy. Radical alternatives are likely to be needed. For Northern Ireland these might include mandating the insulation of homes at or before the point of sale and preventing landlords letting out energy inefficient homes.

“I firmly believe that it is up to government to set the benchmark for people to aspire to. In order to make a difference, people just need to action small changes to their lifestyles in order to have an impact for future generations. The Energy Saving Trust will continue to encourage consumers by providing advice, information and practical support on how to save energy and money. This way we aim to create a mass movement of low carbon citizens.”

Profile: Noel Williams

Noel returned to Northern Ireland after a career abroad in aviation, where he was an airport operations director and latterly managed a department within the Civil Aviation Authority in central London. He has been in his current role for five years and has successfully raised the profile of sustainable energy both in the local media and by engaging with the newly devolved administration which “has been good for Northern Ireland, with our local politicians being more accessible and keen to listen and engage with us.”

Outside work his interests include golf at which he claims to be a ‘hacker’. His life-long hobby was refereeing soccer and has ‘graced’ the likes of Highbury, White Hart Lane, Upton Park etc, but he confesses only at reserve team level.

He lives in Carrickfergus, is married to Sheila and spends a considerable time “trying to keep up” with his young children, Scott (12) and Megan (9). His New Year’s resolutions were to use the train more, which he is doing regularly, and to get to the gym more often: “There are entries in my calendar for the gym twice a week, but sadly my attendance has not kept up with expectations.”

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