Flooding is our canary in the coal mine for the impact of climate change, says Sinéad McLaughlin

Belfast, Derry, Strabane and much of Ireland have suffered severe flooding problems in recent days and weeks. We know this will get even worse – with flooding become more intensive and more frequent. A new report says that climate change will be a particular problem for the West of Ireland, with even higher rainfall, leading to even more flooding. 

These are not problems we can ignore. I am discussing with the insurance industry how to ensure homeowners, tenants and businesses get the support they need. And I have worked closely with SDLP colleagues to improve our local water system to deal with the problems of flooding. SDLP infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon has agreed substantial capital investment in sewerage and water infrastructure.

For those residents and businesses in my Derry constituency, flooding is a risk that must be taken particularly seriously. Parts of the city and district are low lying, with a risk of flooding from the rivers Foyle and Faughan. The perceived flooding risk from local reservoirs is delaying construction on one of the city’s most important development sites, at Fort George. I have been pushing hard for a year and a half for the local council to resolve this issue and to do so with greater urgency. 

While it is essential that we mitigate the impact of flooding, it is inevitable that there will be more occasions when flooding occurs. Alongside measures to help us cope with that, we must act to limit the climate change that causes more flooding. Above all, we must change how we use energy and the type of energy we use. 

SDLP party leader Colum Eastwood has tabled in the House of Commons a Bill to bring forward the date by which we become net zero in carbon emissions. The Bill would declare a climate emergency, create new green jobs and increase taxation of large companies to generate revenues to tackle climate change. 

As a society, we have no alternative but to move away from the energy sources we have been using for so many years and replace these. That means, most urgently, ending our use of coal and peat, which not only release carbon that changes our climate, but also release particulates that are a major factor in lung disease and other life-limiting illnesses. Our burning of coal for home heating is a major contributing factor to shorter life expectancy in the North, especially in poorer areas. 

We must also move away from dependence on the other fossil fuels of oil and gas, finding different ways to heat our homes. It is essential that we reject proposals for gas exploration in Fermanagh that would make the climate emergency worse.  

We have already embarked upon an important journey to replace petrol and diesel powered cars with electric vehicles. I am pleased to have played my role by arranging with ESB to replace EV charging points in Derry over this summer. Infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon is pushing ahead with more EV charging points across the North – recognising that a start should have begun several years ago, at a time when Stormont was suspended. 

Homes, too, will increasingly be powered and heated by electricity produced from clean, renewable sources, such as onshore and offshore wind, plus solar, tidal and wave power. We potentially have access to all these resources locally, as well as to geothermal (heat from the earth underneath us) which is used in much of the world for district heating schemes. 

These energy sources create opportunities for our local economy and for job creation. Exploiting cheap, clean, renewable energy is at the heart of the SDLP’s job creation plan for the North. We want it to create thousands of new well paid jobs. 

The move towards heating homes using electricity, heat pumps and solar panels requires a big improvement in home insulation. This needs financial support from government – we must not allow the climate crisis to lead to even worse poverty. 

Schemes already exist to support homes to reduce carbon emissions. But these are not focused enough on home insulation. I have therefore pushed government departments to change these schemes, concentrating on good quality, effective insulation to cut fuel bills and carbon emissions. Reducing our consumption of energy is the first step towards cutting our carbon footprint. We need to learn from elsewhere – including the South – in providing financial support to improve home insulation. 

We don’t have a choice about whether we act – the choice is how quickly and how effectively we do it. The terrible fires raging in Greece, Turkey, the United States, even in Russia’s Arctic, are a graphic illustration of the scale of the crisis that is hitting us. 

The immediate challenge is how we embrace change. That is why my colleague Nichola Mallon has pushed, successfully, for Northern Ireland to host our own Climate Summit, prior to the UK government’s upcoming COP26 in Glasgow in November. 

We in the North can be leaders in making the changes needed for sustainability. This is not just the right thing to do, but can serve us well. But while we need to grasp the opportunities, we must also act quickly to mitigate the damage from climate change – such as severe flooding. 

 

Sinead McLaughlin, Foyle MLA and SDLP spokesperson on energy