The path to net zero

With Northern Ireland set to publish its first three carbon budgets by December 2023, Director of Green Growth and Climate Action in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), Kevin Hegarty discusses the importance of policy in achieving net zero.

Consultation on the legally binding limits of the amount of greenhouse gases that Northern Ireland can emit for three consecutive five-year periods closed in October 2023.

Also up for consultation was the emission reduction targets for both 2030 and 2040. The first three carbon budgets for Northern Ireland must be set by the end of December 2023, as dictated by the Climate Change Act. However, hopes that the budgets would be accompanied by a Climate Action Plan are unlikely, due to the absence of an Executive.

The Director of Green Growth and Climate Action says that frustrations around the Executive’s absence are shared by policymakers, but issues assurance that constant dialogue is ongoing with political parties to ensure climate policy is being shaped by those most likely to make up any future Executive.

“We are constantly engaging and sharing our policy proposals to make up the action plan with the parties so that when they come back, there will be no surprises in terms of the scale of the challenge and the types of decisions that need to be taken,” Hegarty explains.

“Producing Northern Ireland’s first Climate Action Plan remains a high priority for all Northern Ireland Civil Service departments.”

Hegarty acknowledges that the relatively recent publication of Northern Ireland’s Climate Change Act in June 2022 means that Northern Ireland’s policy development has started later than counterparts in the Republic of Ireland or Wales, for example. However, he says that his department is embracing the opportunity to learn from those other jurisdictions and is engaged in constant dialogue.

This engagement helped shape the consultation document that not only fulfilled the legislative requirement of the Climate Change Act to outline proposed 2030 and 2040 interim emissions targets for Northern Ireland and proposed carbon budgets for the first three periods: 2023-2027, 2028-2032 and 2033-2037, but also seek the public’s views on the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) recommendations for sector pathways that Northern Ireland might adopt in order to reach net zero.

“We are not formally consulting on CCC advice, but we are taking the opportunity to encourage and facilitate an early and informed discussion on climate action,” he explains. “The feedback that we receive from this exercise will inform the Climate Action Plan development and will be used to provide advice to incoming ministers.”

While DAERA is required to prepare, publish, and set the carbon budgets, while also leading on the development of the Climate Action Plan, the Climate Change Act gives statutory responsibility to a number departments, mandating them to identify policies and proposals for the sectors that will ensure targets are met.

Hegarty explains that the “bottom-up” approach to policy development is in part due to the nature of Northern Ireland’s mandatory-type coalition government, which historically, has not lent itself to cross-government collaboration.

“Producing Northern Ireland’s first Climate Action Plan remains a high priority for all Northern Ireland Civil Service departments.”

“This piece of legislation forces us to do that. It is purposedly organised on a sectoral basis, as opposed to a departmental basis, which has been the norm for policy development here in Northern Ireland,” he states.

While this is the case, Hegarty explains that it is the cumulative impact of reductions in emissions across each sector which will enable a carbon budget to be met.

Contextually important, the Climate Change Bill originally sponsored by the Department aligned with advice from the CCC that Northern Ireland reach an 83 per cent emission reduction, as part of a UK-wide net zero approach. A Private Member’s Bill, which moved through the Northern Ireland Assembly in parallel, pushed for a much more ambitious net zero target, a target which was eventually subsumed into the then-Minister’s legislation.

Hegarty acknowledges that without the Private Member’s Bill and the role of smaller parties holding larger parties to account, Northern Ireland “probably would not have gotten as ambitious a piece of legislation as we did”.

Net zero

Subsequently advice sought from the Department of the CCC on Northern Ireland’s new emission targets saw the publication of the CCC’s advice report, The Path to a Net Zero Northern Ireland, in March 2023.

While the recommendations within the report do not necessarily represent the position of the Department, the recommendations have formed a large part of the consultation, most notably that the first carbon budget should be set at a 33 per cent average annual reduction, the second carbon budget at a 48 per cent average annual reduction, and the third carbon budget at a 62 per cent average annual reduction, in order to keep emissions consistent with the 2050 net zero target.

Also, the advice from the CCC recommends that targets consistent with the 2050 net zero target would be a 48 per cent emissions reduction against the baseline for 2030 and a 77 per cent emissions reduction by 2040 against the baseline.

Hegarty acknowledges that the scale of the challenge “is huge”. Recommendations for the first carbon budget period suggest that the maximum total greenhouse gas emissions should be 93.8 MtCO2eq.

Hegarty says: “To put this in context if we did nothing, our emissions would be approx. 110 MtCO2eq. To help explain how much of a challenge that is, in 2022, 51 per cent of total electricity consumption in Northern Ireland was generated from local renewable sources. The target set in the Act is 80 per cent.
If renewable electricity reached 80 per cent, we would save 1.3 MtCO2eq per year. In comparison, the projected savings for the first carbon budget period is 1 MtCO2eq.

“Equally, the reduction in emissions from transport in Northern Ireland in 2020 during the Covid pandemic was approximately 1 MtCO2eq, demonstrating the scale of action and change needed to achieve the reduction needed in the first five-year period.

“Essentially, we we have to reduce our emissions over this decade by 24.8 per cent, which is approximately the same level that was achieved in the last 30 years from 1990 to 2020 (23 per cent).

Significant recommendations proposed by the CCC for net zero and consulted on by the Department include but are not limited to measures such as deploying direct air capture with carbon capture and storage; halving livestock numbers by 2050; and increasing annual afforestation rates to reach 3,100 hectares by 2035 and 4,100 hectares from 2039 until 2050.

Hegarty accepts that “tough decisions” lie ahead but welcomes the consultation’s role in beginning important conversations with the public and stakeholders on the action needed for Northern Ireland to reach net zero by 2050 and inform a climate action plan.

Concluding, he optimistically points to his previous role in the energy sector just over 20 years ago when renewable penetration was less than 1 per cent. “The scale of the challenge is significant but in just over two decades we have switched from less than 1 per cent of renewable penetration on our electricity system to over 51 per cent. The increase was underpinned by good policies, and highlights that with good policy, bringing the economy and society with you, significant change can be delivered in a relatively short space of time.

“That is the ambition and mission we have.”

DAERA says that following the completion of the consultation process, views will be considered to help inform decisions on the appropriate emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2040, and the level of the first three carbon budgets. Once published, each Climate Action Plan will be accompanied by the relevant impact assessments, which will provide more detail on the expected impacts of the policies and proposals.

The Department adds that it anticipates that the draft Climate Action Plan 2023-2027 will be issued for consultation as soon as possible after Executive consideration. Targets and carbon budgets must be set through regulations which need to be agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive before being laid in the Assembly for debate and approval.

Show More
Back to top button