The planet experienced its hottest June on record, followed by the hottest July – both breaking previous records by large margins. Wildfires from Hawaii to Corfu, devastating storms in Libya and flooding in Asia, and this summer saw one third of humanity experiencing a heatwave at some point. Locally, we witnessed the real time devastation of Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in these islands, an ecological disaster unfolding before our eyes from which ecosystems, livelihoods and wildlife may take decades to recover, if recover at all. This is discussed in more detail both below and in other articles in this issue. We also have the implementation of NI’s first Climate Change Act, with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs establishing the first 5 years carbon budgets for different sectors of the NI economy. There is also the curious case of the ending of coal fired electricity production at Kilroot power station, but a worrying gap of at least 3 if not more months until the gas fired units are installed, raising questions of electricity security for the region. And finally, in this list, we can add what is perhaps most worrying, but has gone under-reported, that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) which by bringing warm water northwards keeps Ireland and Britain temperate, is showing signs of weakening. Why is this important? Belfast is further north than Edmonton and Calgary in Canada, where winter temperatures can go as low as minus 20 or 30 degrees Celsius. The AMOC contributes to Belfast or Dublin not experiencing such harsh sub-zero winters.
The strange times we live in can be seen by how in this article we wish to connect the worsening global planetary emergency, and its connection to the devastation locally of Lough Neagh, to something that would not normally come to mind when one thinks of the pollution of a lake. The unlikely pairing is with house insulation as a cost-effective measure that should be pursued by government in terms of addressing both the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis, and thereby potentially generating greater public support for climate policies. Both issues are connected as we point out below, and illustrate the importance of government intervention to lead and coordinate any ‘just transition’ from fossil fuels and unsustainable agrifood and land use practices towards the creation of a greener, cleaner economy and society. They also stand as examples of the devastating impacts on people and places when governments fail to act, something exacerbated when, once again, we do not have a functioning Executive.
Housing Insulation, the climate and cost of living crises
NI experiences high levels of energy poverty (defined as spending more that 10% of your income on heating), which results not just in financial stress, but also medical problems including excess winter deaths, in comparison with either the Republic or the rest of the UK. And, energy poverty is connected to the climate crisis, another not immediately obvious connection, but one that deserves more attention. With our relatively colder and damper climate compared to continental Europe the residential sector accounts for 14% of NI’s total greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through the use of fossil fuels for heating. For comparison, the agriculture and land use sector is the region’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs)– contributing around 27% (it’s 10% in the rest of the UK, but 40% in the Republic). And the agriculture sector in NI produces more than just GHG emissions, but also, as the Lough Neagh disaster illustrates, other forms of effluent and pollution.
68% of homes in NI are fuelled by oil, with 72% of the population using open or closed fires as secondary heating solutions such as coal, wood and peat. This statistic becomes startling when we compare it to other areas of the UK, where only 4% of households in England and Wales rely on oil for household heating. There are a variety of reasons why NI is so dependent on such carbon intensive heating sources, including a shortage of gas network infrastructure and a lack of forward planning and political will to decarbonise. It is also linked to the region’s lower level of income compared to the rest of the UK and Republic. Lower incomes mean that many householders in NI feel unable to pay the upfront capital costs for more efficient gas boilers or other low carbon heating sources (such as heat pumps or solar panels), so are forced to purchase small quantities of oil or solid fuels regardless of price, leading to the awful dilemma for many of ‘heat or eat’.
It is estimated that 50% of houses in NI were built prior to minimum building thermal performance standards in 1973. The poor energy efficiency within NI homes means that potential heat energy is lost at a disproportionately high rate (with climate, health and affordability implications). This not only increases the amount of fossil fuels being used to heat homes, but also means homeowners spend a significant amount of income on heating their home. This is linked to energy poverty which means 22% of NI households are classified as being in fuel poverty. This is the official Department of Communities figure, based on data from the mid 2010s, which, given the increase in energy prices since the war in Ukraine and the price gouging by oil corporations, means that the true figure is much higher than this.
So an overdependence in NI on oil for space heating, a high proportion of the housing stock being poorly insulated, coupled with lower wages and more households dependent on welfare transfers, helps explain high levels of energy poverty. So we can help reduce energy poverty by increasing wages or welfare payments, move people away from oil for space heating or insulate their homes, or some combination of all three. There are good reasons why we should focus on insulation, while also pushing for higher wages/welfare and decarbonising the residential heating sector, since an insulation programme would deliver multiple benefits, from local job creation, increase disposable income, reduce illness and stress and carbon emissions.
Another reason is more political in terms of generating democratic/popular support for climate policies. Across the Irish Sea (Border), as Unionists will so insist on constantly using, the way the DUP used to always say ‘Sinn Fein IRA’, this beleaguered and exhausted Tory government is weaponising its roll-back on climate policies in the name of ‘standing up’ for car users and ‘protecting working people’ (the Tories! Really??) from the financial burden of the green energy transition. This is all shameless electioneering in advance of the forthcoming general election, as they seek a ‘wedge issue’ to differentiate themselves from Labour. Here in NI, a policy for government led home insulation – as part of the delivery of the Climate Change Act and the new Energy Strategy, and perhaps led in the first instance by the NI Housing Executive – could be extremely popular amongst those struggling to pay food and energy bills. Not only would such a policy deliver reductions in energy poverty for the most vulnerable in our society, and at the same time reduce our carbon emissions, but such a policy would also deliver significant health benefits in terms of reducing people living in drafty, mould infested homes, thus reducing respiratory illnesses, decreasing the burden on our already stretched health system, as well as reducing the stress on people who are financially struggling, giving them more disposable income. An additional co-benefit of a ‘fabric first’ approach to the climate crisis is that as 2021 research, conducted by the Belfast Climate Commission has demonstrated, home insulation is both the most carbon and cost-effective measure. It is hard to think of another policy intention that could achieve so many pressing objectives and one that could be a ‘game changer’ in terms of demonstrating to working class communities that addressing the climate crisis locally is not only for the woke, educated, urban and guilty middle classes, but that climate action can improve their lives in the short term as well as reduce the threat of the climate crisis in the long term.
Lough Neagh – Extractivism, Sacrifice Zones and Community Action
So, from one ‘front line’ of the planetary crisis, home insulation, to another: the real-time ecological devastation of Lough Neagh. As Stormont remains empty of its democratically elected representatives, the people of Northern Ireland are cast adrift amidst a worsening cost of living/profiteering crisis, unravelling public services and a climate and ecological emergency that promises to leave no aspect of our future lives untouched, but which is yet to be taken seriously. Stormont may be empty but Lough Neagh is full of toxic blue-green algae. It is true that simply reconvening the Assembly will not lead to the instant resolution of these problems, many of which have deeper structural origins. What is often left unsaid, however, is that to deliver a truly just and sustainable future will require more deeply rooted systemic change in governance, the economy and relationship with the natural world.
In many ways, Lough Neagh’s now-toxic waters symbolise the problems of post-Agreement NI. As has been widely reported, unprecedented blue-green algal blooms have made it a site of environmental emergency and an acute threat to its wildlife and status as an important and expansive biodiverse habitat. However, it is also a public health crisis; as the largest freshwater lake in the UK and Ireland it provides 40% of NI’s drinking water. It is nothing short of devastating for the people that live and work in and around it, and those who enjoy it. Whether through the livelihoods its fisheries support or the opportunity it provides as a place for anyone to exercise or relax and connect with nature and each other, Lough Neagh is vital for the lives and livelihoods of many people. Yet tragically, in its current state it is now a hazard to human and non-human health and wellbeing.
This is not due to mere ‘misfortune’ or an environmental ‘accident’. It is the direct result of decades of mismanagement, including a lack of investment and regulatory oversight and relating the ‘environment’ to the bottom of the political ‘to do’ list. It is the outworking of an economy based on extraction and political neglect, which has transformed places of ecological importance and outstanding natural beauty into ‘sacrifice zones’. Ultimately, it is symptomatic of the destructive force and inherent unsustainability of a post-Agreement capitalist political economy that prioritises ‘economic growth’, in ways that incentivise the systematic exploitation of nature. While only a public inquiry (or a judicial review) can establish the causes of the crisis, it is not unreasonable to think that it’s a toxic combination of environmental malgovenance (the role of the Department and the NI Environmental Agency for example), nitrogen, slurry and phosphate run off from our industrial-chemical farming system (supercharged by the Department’s ‘Going for Growth’ strategy for example), the lack of adequate and safe sewerage treatment (Northern Ireland Water), and climate change which warmed the water to its highest levels ever. Welcome to Norn Iron 25 years after the Agreement!
Climate change and ecological shifts are an important part of the picture at Lough Neagh. Rising temperatures and an invasive mussel species that clears the water, making its depths more easily penetrated by sunlight, have made it more susceptible to algal blooms. Along with a recently published State of Nature 2023 report which identified Northern Ireland as one of the world’s most nature-depleted regions and the increasingly tangible, destructive instability of weather systems resulting from climate breakdown, this is indicative of the costs – environmental, social and economic – of failing to take action to mitigate the harm that the planetary crisis has caused and will cause. However, a long history of systemic negligence and political dysfunction have only exacerbated these problems, allowing the lough to be treated as a literal dumping ground for human and animal waste from septic tanks and agricultural run-off.
Worse still, this sacrificial treatment of our natural landscapes is actively, if indirectly, encouraged by government policies. In an economy where maximising profits is key to remaining competitive, intensive land use, low investment in infrastructure and neglecting to implement protective or preventative measures are all incentivised as ways to cut costs. With 25,000 farms spread across Northern Ireland, the environmental and public health emergency we’re faced with at Lough Neagh should therefore come as little surprise. Recognising the imbalance with which these often-contradictory concerns are treated, environmentalists have for a long time been campaigning for an independent environmental protection agency, something all parties committed to in the 2020 New Decade, New Approach document. Yet, in 2023, we neither have such a body, nor is anyone being held accountable or responsible for ensuring that our rivers, air and land are safe from pollution, and that the health of our environment, wildlife and people are protected.
Water is life. At an event the authors organised at Queen’s University on the crisis at Lough Neagh, it was clear that for those present the days of official political denial and delay are over, and the time for effective, collective, community action have arrived. There was a strong sense that if we do not come together to create change, these crises will increase, and lands and waters will become ecological deserts and spaces that serve as tragic reminders of what we could have done when we had the chance. For some at this meeting, the most important lesson that people can learn from this crisis is that we are the Lough, we are Nature and when we abuse, neglect, and destroy nature, we are destroying ourselves, but most tragically we are leaving our children a poisonous legacy.
There is still some hope that the Lough can be saved, but the lack of political will means it is up to communities to decide on its future and ultimate fate. Perhaps the most poignant comment that was made at that public meeting came from a young child who regularly swims in the Lough. With the childlike truth-telling that cuts through the ambivalence and qualification that usually characterises how adults communicate, this child simply asked: ‘Why is the government allowing poo to go into the Lough? This means animals are dying and I cannot swim there.’
At the heart of both the issues covered here, home insulation and the killing of Lough Neagh, are issues of ill health on multiple levels. The ecological disaster (or crime scene) at the Lough is an obvious case of a failure to maintain ecological and human health, given how it is a public/human health and animal health issue, while the failure to insulate homes has led to entirely avoidable physical and mental health problems for large numbers of our citizens. And government failure to act on either is increasingly leading people to question the health of our democracy and political system. Particularly in relation to the Lough, concerned citizens are understandably cynical about the public bodies charged with protecting it, political parties, agencies and the public sector, with many having little faith in the ability of the state to do the right thing. The crisis at Lough Neagh demonstrates what happens when the health of ‘the economy’ is prioritised above the health of people and planet. We need to rethink how we live and relate to the natural world and each other. There is widespread anger and disillusionment about NI, and the sense of public services falling apart, as Belfast Telegraph journalist Sam McBride has recently written, with many sharing his view that having a functioning Executive in Stormont may make matters worse. Sadly, whether it’s governance neglect that has turned an ecological jewel into an open sewer, or the lack of government action to reduce energy poverty, these issues reveal just how broken this place is, and how we need to look to citizens to say ‘enough is enough’, roll up their sleeves and begin to put things right.