What Northern Ireland needs to do to decarbonize its economy

Following from the speech given by environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg at the UN General Assembly in New York this week, there has been a significant amount of discussion about the failure to respond to the world’s unfolding climate crisis.

Northern Ireland contributes to greenhouse gas emission to a much greater extent than its small size would suggest. The charts at the top of the page show Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2017, compared with the target of an 80% reduction from 1990 levels.

Northern Ireland emits 22 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases, equivalent to 11.8 tonnes per person. If it was an independent country, it would be one of the world’s most polluting countries, ahead of Germany (11 tonnes per person) and Japan (10.6). In absolute terms, Northern Ireland (1.87m people) emits more greenhouse gases than the combined totals of Malawi, Rwanda, Burundi and Liberia (over 45m people).

The figure of 22 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent is higher than the 20 million stated by the government because the figures above have been adjusted for emissions from degraded peatlands. From the 2020s onwards, peatland emissions will be included in emissions figures, which will have the effect of increasing Northern Ireland’s stated greenhouse gas emissions by around 10%.

Land use (including peatlands degradation) is one of the reasons that Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions are so high. The other main reasons are high levels of car use, a reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation, the widespread use of home heating oil, and cows. There will need to be drastic action taken in all of these areas if there is any chance of Northern Ireland meeting its carbon reduction targets.

After transport, cows are the single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Northern Ireland, having overtaken electricity in 2017. Northern Ireland’s 1.67m cows emitted 3.45 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases in 2017, of which 81% was “enteric fermentation”, i.e. burps and farts. Contrary to popular opinion, the vast majority (~95%) of enteric fermentation emissions are due to cow burps rather than cow farts. The remaining 19% of cow-related emissions are caused by manure management. By comparison, aviation-related emissions were 5% of cow-related emissions.

Reducing cow-related emissions is arguably the single most important problem that needs to be solved to address Northern Ireland’s contribution to climate change. However, there could be a solution to the belching cow problem; seaweed.

Researchers have found that feeding Asparagopsis, a species of red algae, to ruminants such as cows could reduce enteric emissions by as much as 98.9%. If even 1% of a cow’s feed is comprised of Asparagopsis, it could have the effect of reducing emissions by half.

Even a 50% reduction in cow-related methane emissions would have a profound impact on Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions. A 98.9% cut in cow-related enteric emissions would reduce emissions by 2.8 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases, broadly equivalent to taking every single car in Northern Ireland off the road (2.9m tonnes).

However, there is not remotely near enough Asparagopsis, which grows in tropical areas, in the wild to meet the needs of the global agriculture. The race is currently on to harvest the algae in sufficient quantities.

Transportation is another key reason why Northern Ireland emissions are so high, and it is high levels of private car use that are mostly to blame. In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, there were 17.7 billion km of road journeys, or 9,625km per person. This was higher than any other UK region; the South East of England was behind on 9,500 km per person, and the East of England third on 9,397 km per person. By comparison in the Republic of Ireland, excluding Dublin, private car journeys were equivalent to 11,223km per person.

The appalling state of Northern Ireland’s public transport system is a key reason for this. In terms of emissions per capita made by cars on minor roads, three of the top five areas in the UK were rural areas in Northern Ireland (Fermanagh and Omagh, Mid Ulster, and Causeway Coast and Glens).

The extremely low incidence of commuting to work through bicycle is another factor. In England, 4% of journeys to work are made by bike, in Northern Ireland the equivalent figure is 2%. By comparison, the equivalent figure in Copenhagen is 37%, and in Amsterdam it’s 34%. Roads will need to be entirely redesigned in urban areas, with an emphasis on facilitating bicycle traffic rather than cars.

To have a chance at meeting its emissions reduction targets, Northern Ireland will need to entirely eliminate internal combustion engines from its roads. The ban on internal combustion in new cars intended to come into force from 2040 should be brought forward to 2030, as is the case in Denmark. The ban should be extended to all vehicles, with all vehicles electric, powered by hydrogen fuel cells or other carbon-neutral technology by 2040. Depending on how green electricity will be at that point, entirely eliminating combustion engines from Northern Ireland’s roads could reduce emissions by between 3 and 4 million tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases.

With regards to home heating, the fact that comparatively few Northern Ireland homes are on the gas grid means that the scheme that replaces the failed RHI scheme should focus exclusively on heat pumps rather than biomass boilers, and eliminate the perverse incentives that characterized the previous scheme. A target date should be set (ideally in the 2030s) to entirely eliminate the use of oil fired boilers, and biomethane should be introduced into the natural gas mix to reduce emissions for homes connected to the natural gas grid. Combined, these could reduce CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases by around 2 million tons of CO2 equivalent.

Peatland degradation is a particularly important source of greenhouse gas emissions. The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology have set out a “Stretch” target for Northern Ireland peatland management to 2050, which would have the effect of reducing emissions by 685 thousand tons of CO2 equivalent. To achieve this, all peat extraction needs to cease, with 100% restoration by 2030, in addition to ambitious targets of restoration of lowland and degraded upland peat. In addition, Northern Ireland needs to massively increase the rate that it has been planting trees, which has fallen dramatically behind targets.

Electricity generation is a particularly difficult area for Northern Ireland to reduce its emissions. The rapid growth in renewable electricity over the last decade is not expected to continue into the 2020s, and the existing fossil fuel burning power plants are needed to ensure stability of supply. If intermittent renewables accounted for 60% of supply, this would lead to a 2 million ton reduction in CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases.

Taken together, these initiatives (virtually eliminating cow methane emissions, banning internal combustion engines, eliminating oil heating, restoring peatlands, increasing the renewables mix to 60% of electricity supply) would eliminate 11 million tons of CO2 equivalent. The required reduction is 16.7 million tons. Even these dramatic changes would only get us two thirds of the way there. A range of dramatic changes would need to be made by business, non-bovine agriculture, waste management and land use to get close to the 80% reduction target by 2050.

The challenges ahead are massive, and the changes required will touch every area of peoples’ lives. Similar changes will need to be made across every corner of the globe, or the effort will have been for nothing, and it is quite possibly too late anyway. The fact that Northern Ireland doesn’t have a functioning government makes matters even more difficult.

However, the choice is no choice at all. The alternative is the collapse of civilization by the time children born in this decade reach middle age.