It is two years since Northern Ireland plugged a significant renewable energy project into the electricity grid; two years in which catastrophic weather and rising temperatures across the world have reinjected urgency into tackling global warming.
Dysfunctional politics have left a gaping void where a climate policy should be. Much hangs on the next few months.
The Cop26 climate summit, which begins on October 31 in Glasgow, is billed as an opportunity for governments to redouble their efforts to avoid the most extreme outcomes predicted by scientists: large swathes of the world rendered uninhabitable, sea rises measured in feet rather than inches, once-in-a-century inundations becoming annual events.
But by then there is also a chance we will have a good indication of whether Northern Ireland intends to be a reluctant passenger or a driver in the voyage to a future where average global temperatures rise no further than 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.
It is worth recapping just how far adrift Northern Ireland is. We have had no subsidy regime for green electricity generation since the end of the Northern Ireland Renewables Obligations scheme in 2017, because Stormont was mothballed while Westminster legislated to replace it elsewhere.
While the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales have binding net-zero targets over and above the UK Climate Act 2008, Northern Ireland has not acted. With the Irish government having enshrined its target in and overhauled its subsidy regime in 2019, Northern Ireland is an outlier in these islands.
Edwin Poots’s most significant contribution so far was to obtain what in effect has been a doctor’s note from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) excusing Northern Ireland from the most strenuous steps in combating climate change.
Meanwhile at Stormont, the DUP is haggling with the Greens over combining two rival Climate Bills. Edwin Poots, the DUP’s environment and agriculture minister, had baulked at a Green-sponsored private members bill and its proposed target for Northern Ireland to become net-zero in carbon emissions by 2045. The private members bill is backed by all of the major parties bar the DUP, so it looks likely that Poots will have to give ground somewhere.
Poots is motivated by a desire to insulate Northern Ireland’s food producers, our biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, from any stringent measures. That translates into an 80 per cent reductions in emissions by 2050, in line with the CCC’s recommendation.
The negotiations continued as Fortnight went to press. But there is also movement on a potentially less controversial, but no less vital, front on the struggle against climate change: the power sector. The Executive is due to reveal its energy strategy in November, but may do so before Cop starts.
Steven Agnew, head of RenewableNI, an industry group, said that whatever the content of the eventual climate bill and the requirements it makes of the agrifood industry, decarbonising the power sector is an essential first step.
‘Northern Ireland has done nothing effectively’, he said of the lack of incentives for new renewable energy projects. ‘We met the 2020 target around 2018’ and the response seemed to be, ‘we don’t need to do anything else’. We should have been preparing for the next round [of targets].
‘It’s only now that we’re anticipating an energy strategy, hopefully ahead of Cop, that will start to address the policy gap.’ In practice, he says, a net-zero electricity grid will mean the closure of two of Kilroot, Ballylumford and Coolkeeragh power stations and the conversion of the eventual remaining plant to hydrogen to provide a clean back-up to wind and solar power when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.
Despite the hard choices ahead, Agnew, a former leader of the Green Party Northern Ireland, believes that there ought to be consensus around the power sector. ‘Whether you’re going to net-zero in 2045 or 80 per cent by 2050, the first part is going to be decarbonising power’, he said.
RenewableNI says that the grid operator, System Operator for Northern Ireland or Soni, is already adept at handling the intermittency of renewable energy sources. Soni, owned by Eirgrid, the Republic’s state-owned operator, reckons that by 2030 it is feasible that renewables could generate 95 per cent of our electricity at any given moment, up from 65 per cent today. In the jargon of the sector this is called the system non-synchronous penetration, or SNSP, and it is an important metric because it underlines how much the grid can rely on variable generation, like wind, solar or interconnectors taking electricity from Great Britain. The more the system can deal with variable sources of electricity, the less it has to rely on fossil fuels or hydrogen as a back-up. ‘In that sense we’re world-leading’, said Agnew. ‘Other networks are looking to what we’re doing.’
Getting there requires political ambition. Stormont has a track record of treating renewable energy subsidies as a boondoggle. Support for the Renewable Heat Incentive and for biogas produced by anaerobic digestion was characterised by extravagant spending that benefited the agrifood industry, smuggled in under the auspices of tackling climate change. Internally, civil servants at the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) referred to the lucrative subsidies for biogas as evidence of the Executive’s support for the poultry industry rather than as a green energy scheme. It is that department, under Edwin Poots, that is now leading Northern Ireland’s participation in the Cop process.
Yet there are signs that the politics are shifting around the Department. The Executive endorsed a proposal by Nichola Mallon, the SDLP infrastructure minister, to hold a pre-Cop climate summit in Northern Ireland. Details are scant but the fact of it happening indicates that the political market has moved.
A spokesperson for Daera highlighted the Department’s work on developing a future peatlands strategy and a multi-decade Green Growth Strategy as evidence that it was not shirking as Cop26 approached. A Department insider has previously told Fortnight of how within the department the Green Growth Strategy is often muddled with the earlier Going for Growth Strategy, which was pilloried by environmentalists as setting and cementing unsustainable business-led growth targets for the agrifood industry.
When Cop26 opens in Glasgow we should be able to tell whether Northern Ireland’s new climate policy is worthy of the name, or whether it amounts to an old one with a thin daub of green paint.