The consultation out on the implementation plan for the new draft Sustainable Development Strategy offers a timely opportunity to review progress on moving Northern Ireland away from its unsustainable development path.
As an example of the challenge ahead, in July it was confirmed that recycling rates in Northern Ireland have shown no sign of improvement over the past 12 months. Households here are currently recycling less than 30 per cent of their waste, considerably short of the 40 per cent target we must meet by the end of 2010. And against the backdrop of cuts in government expenditure and the local impacts of the global economic recession, where is Northern Ireland in terms of sustainability?
The deep public sector cuts that the coalition Conservative-Liberal Government wish to impose will of course negatively impact on the execution of sustainable development. An example is the Coalition Government’s decision to axe the Sustainable Development Commission, although it is up to our local administration whether the local SDC unit survives.
And this from the ‘greenest government’ ever. But the reason for the negative impacts of the cuts on sustainable development is not necessarily to do with the lack of funding. Rather what is telling and frustrating at the same time is that with political and policy leadership supportive of sustainable development, funding (or at least large amounts) is not necessarily the main issue.
What is equally if not more significant is the failure of local ministers and the Executive as a whole to see that a way out of the recession, to provide local, ‘non-outsourceable’ employment, lies in grasping sustainable development as heralding the greening of the regional economy and planning for and incentivising the inevitable transition to a low carbon society.
Starting the shift
While the Executive may not be showing leadership on this issue, outside the Executive, within civil society and indeed within the Assembly, there may be the beginnings of a shift towards grasping the opportunities of sustainable development within the context of a recession.
Within civil society, the Northern Ireland Green New Deal Group – made up of representatives from the environmental, trade unions, community and voluntary, farming, academic, further education and business sectors will soon be launching their business plan for housing in Stormont.
As they put it: “Focusing on a comprehensive programme of retrofitting the domestic building stock is the most cost-effective place to start to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Such a programme would sustain significant employment particularly in the hard-pressed construction industry, deliver cost savings to householders, help to eliminate fuel poverty, improve health, increase Northern Ireland’s energy security, help achieve Government’s emissions targets, and help create a competitive low-carbon economy.”
Their costed proposals offer the Executive the chance to create new and innovative policies for regional social and economic development, including innovative financing options though “adding value to Government investment by leveraging significant additional finance from other sources such as the European Investment Bank and commercial or social finance institutions”. A good example of this is the recent breakthrough ‘Green New Deal’ in Birmingham.
The £100 million ‘Birmingham Energy Savers’ project is jointly funded by Birmingham City Council and investment from energy suppliers and commercial banks and will retrofit 10,000 homes. Under the scheme, the commercial banks will provide half the up-front investment, supplemented by £25 million from the energy companies and £25 million borrowed by the council. Consumers will pay a levy on their energy bills to repay the loans but households would pay lower bills after the retrofit.
Within the Assembly there are some positive signs as well on translating ‘sustainable development’ into a green new deal. On 5 October, the Assembly voted in favour of the following private members’ motion a ‘Green New Deal’ for Northern Ireland. Seán Neeson’s proposal was overwhelming supported.
So far so good, not least in seeing cross-party support. However, the real issue is whether the Executive can match the cross-party support demonstrated in the Assembly and key to that is the executive seeing that sustainable development is not an ‘environmental’ issue that can be simply siloed away, or a ‘luxury’ or ‘distraction’ we can’t afford in these difficult economic times, but represents powerful cross-cutting policy agenda than can modernise and transform Northern Ireland economy and society.
Given the pressures on the executive to provide jobs, tackle fuel poverty, comply with EU climate, environmental and carbon regulations as well as reduce Northern Ireland’s carbon emissions under the UK Climate Change Act, it would seem a ‘no brainer’ that our regional administration should follow the lead of Birmingham.
It remains to be seen however, whether the Executive has the imagination and courage to move away from the dominance of an outmoded economic model and way of economic policy-making to embrace viewing sustainable development as a way of greening the regional economy and society.
Hard times require new thinking, innovative thinking. While there is some evidence that this is happening, as of yet we do not know if the Executive will grasp this opportunity and run with it, or look on as others such as Birmingham and Scotland gain first mover status and all the advantages that go with it.
Dr John Barry is director of the Centre for Sustainability and Environmental Research at Queen’s University Belfast.