Cross-border cooperation necessary to combat climate change

Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are both transitioning towards green economies, and with respective goals of reaching net zero by 2050, cooperation on energy policy will be crucial going forward.

The National Economic and Social Council (NESC) released its comprehensive Shared Island Shared Opportunity report, which has recommended a close level of cooperation between the two administrations on the island on a number of key policy areas.

The report, which was commissioned by the Department of the Taoiseach, whilst not commenting on the constitutional settlement of Northern Ireland, emphasises the importance of cooperation between the two states for their mutual benefit across various policy areas, notably climate change and economic development.

Chaired by Martin Fraser, former Secretary-General of the Department of the Taoiseach, the report is a collaborative effort between various sectors in Ireland including agriculture, environmentalists, community groups, trade unionists, public servants, and business representatives.

Overarching conclusions

First, “there is very significant support, in practice, for an all-island approach to key economic, social, environmental, and wellbeing challenges. A solid foundation for the Shared Island Initiative exists. This foundation is made up of working connections and relationships operating and evolving at various levels, from formal institutions to community-level networks,” the report states.

Second, the report outlines that combatting climate change will require “clear and urgent” cross-border cooperation.

“The council believes that this area is now ripe for further ambition, collaboration and action. Given the urgency and scope to protect and enhance the island’s environment, and to maximise the available opportunities.”

Third, the agendas of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are becoming increasingly aligned with one another, thus requiring a closer level of cooperation between the two states.

“The council argues that, in the period ahead, the main political actors – the Irish and UK, governments and the Northern Ireland Executive – should seek and prepare for an opportunity to reset the context and agenda for north-south and east-west cooperation.”

Conclusions by policy area

The report reached conclusions on five key areas. These were: the economy; social policy; climate and biodiversity; wellbeing measures and; data coordination.

Climate and biodiversity are areas with the widest potential scope for cooperation between the two states, given that both states have wide circularity gaps in their respective economies (98 per cent in the Republic of Ireland and 92 per cent in Northern Ireland), with reforms to agriculture required in order to increase the circularity of their economies. The report recommends achieving this by further developing initiatives such as Farming for Nature. It also advocates cross-border ‘networks for nature’, which aim to build on the progress of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan.

“The council argues that, in the period ahead, the main political actors – the Irish and UK, governments and the Northern Ireland Executive – should seek and prepare for an opportunity to reset the context and agenda for north-south and east-west cooperation.”

On the economy, the report has recommended increased infrastructure investment on an all-island basis, particularly in the border regions. There is also a necessity for cooperation on the two states’ energy policies, with EirGrid and SONI hoping to become 70 per cent reliant on renewable energy to supply electricity, with additional goals for joint approaches for offshore wind, solar, wave, and tidal energy. In addition, the report has advocated for “a more structured basis for consultation, cooperation, and action by the two administrations on enterprise policy, and other economic development issues,” such as tourism and trans-border workers’ tax relief. This would require the dual consent of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of Ireland.

On social policy, the recommendations included providing specialist services on an all-island basis, with the goal of reducing costs, increasing accessibility and increasing standards. It also advocates for increasing the viability of cross-border social enterprises as well as a cross-border basis for reducing poverty.

“The role of the annual summer school collaboration, between the Department of Social Protection (DSP) in Ireland and the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland, could be explored as a means of initiating this dialogue,” the report states.

Developing wellbeing measures in an efficient and cost-effective manner will require further cross-border cooperation. The report has called for the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and the Northern Ireland Research and Statistics Agency (NISRA) to cooperate in the development and application of wellbeing measures, to ensure that wellbeing in the two states is measured beyond narrow economic measures, and take a wider focus on other areas of wellbeing such as health, happiness, and education standards.

Shared Island Shared Opportunity emphasises the potential to use wellbeing frameworks as a tool to facilitate engagement with a wide range of stakeholders across the island, inform priorities in relation to key challenges, and to learn from each other. Ensuring that there is a north-south and east-west element built into groups will be crucial to advancing wellbeing.

Going forward

The report states that funding cross-border economic projects, particularly in infrastructure and energy, is the most effective way to enhance all-island cooperation. It states that ‘substantial funding’ is now available to take forward infrastructure programmes.

“Time will now be devoted to ensuring that this report – and its ambition to help identify scope to improve all-island ways of working, and areas where such cooperation seems likely to bear useful fruit – is widely shared,” the report states. However, realising these goals will require the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland.

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