But the episode is also a reminder that Northern Ireland is in the midst of a lost decade when it comes to fighting climate change. The root causes of the Lough Neagh disaster are the same as those underlying why Northern Ireland has gone AWOL, at best, on tackling global warming.
Last year there was a political kerfuffle, and an eventual compromise, on the extent to which there would be an agriculture carve-out in Northern Ireland’s Climate Change Act. The argument was over whether we could realistically enshrine a 2050 net zero target while remaining disproportionately reliant on agriculture.
In a net zero state of affairs, any unavoidable emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane will have to be offset by negative emissions – somehow capturing, removing and storing gas in the atmosphere. The Westminster government’s climate change adviser, the Climate Change Committee, conceded that Northern Ireland’s out-sized agriculture sector meant that methane emissions would be hard to squeeze without a drastic reduction in livestock numbers.
But the politics, as is often the case, distracted from a more fundamental and pressing problem. We had allowed the decarbonisation of our electricity grid to peter out without much complaint from the major parties. Discussing methane emissions from livestock two decades hence was beside the point. Whether we aim for Net Zero or the DUP’s Net Zero Lite, we have to stop burning coal and gas to keep the lights on pretty sharply. It was as though we were squabbling over how quickly we could run a marathon before we had bothered to haul ourselves off the couch to start training.
The numbers are staggeringly bad. Since 2018, a grand total of 23 wind turbines just east of Dungiven represent the entirety of our new renewables in Northern Ireland.
In the same period, Scotland added about a hundred times the renewable electricity capacity Northern Ireland has managed and the Republic, even by the summer of 2022, had added about ten-times that of Northern Ireland (the gap will have grown since then).
The explanation is simple and familiar: political dysfunction. Northern Ireland has lacked any price support for renewable energy since 2017, chiefly because of the political impact.
Planning permission and construction take several years, so the cliff edge drop-off in support meant that even before the end of the previous scheme, which was called the Northern Ireland Renwables Obligation, the pipeline was drying up.
Steven Agnew, the former leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland and now the chief executive of the industry group RenewableNI, reckons we are ten years behind where we should be. Indeed, those 23 wind turbines outside Dungiven are a minor miracle. The investor that constructed them, the Italian company ERG, is basically taking a bet on future electricity prices, estimating that it will get its money back by selling electricity to the grid faster than the giant turbines deteriorate and it pays interest.
The good news is that a replacement renewables support scheme is expected to be put in place through Westminster in the coming months, most likely an extension of the Contracts for Difference model that underpins large-scale renewable projects in Great Britain. The Republic has a similar system. This scheme works via a reverse auction, where prospective providers of low carbon energy, including nuclear plants, compete to submit a guaranteed minimum price, called a strike price, they will receive for electricity. If the market price is above that level, they pay back into the system.
Recent events have shown that even this scheme is not immune from political myopia. The Conservative government conspired to run an auction that attracted no bids to build offshore windfarms because it set a maximum strike price that had not taken into account recent inflation.
And in the meantime, Northern Ireland’s grid is operating on a tighter basis than is ideal. Kilroot power station’s coal units are due to shut down shortly. As the Belfast Telegraph’s Sam McBride has reported, a delay in converting Kilroot to run on gas means that the buffer of spare electricity capacity protecting Northern Ireland from unexpected blackouts will be threadbare. More renewables alone would not plug the gap, because they are intermittent by nature, but it would have helped. Instead, years of paralysis have left us even more exposed to events
In this context Lough Neagh serves as a warning. The choices that turned it into a gutter for the agrifood industry are also dictating Northern Ireland’s response to the escalating problem of climate change. The lack of an independent environment agency means that those in charge of safeguarding the environment are ultimately answerable to the ministers whose role is cheerleading for agriculture.
A carve-out for methane emissions was eventually secured in the Climate Change bill, neatly assuming away the question of whether current levels of meat consumption can be reconciled with a world only moderately warmer than today. Put bluntly, the waste produced by the agrifood industry will continue to be everyone else’s problem.
Soni, Northern Ireland’s grid operator, is owned ultimately by the Irish state. The Republic of Ireland has been gripped by the same debate over how Net Zero commitments can be reconciled with agriculture. But the difference south of the border is that they have at least been doing the necessary groundwork by building more windfarms. Arguing about the difficult work is more forgivable if you’re getting on with easy bits.