The North finally has a Climate Act – now what?

Sean Fearon is a post-growth political economy researcher

The passing of a Climate Act in the North comes in a month during which even the most pessimistic members of the climate science community were profoundly shaken by developments at our planet’s northern and southern poles. Temperatures in Antarctica peaked at a staggering 40 degrees above normal levels this week, in a jolting reminder of the climate and ecological crises looming over us.

It’s clear then that recent, albeit modest, advances in our climate politics have arrived not a moment before time. After more than 20 years of our post-Good Friday politics, the Assembly has finally recognised the climate and ecological emergency in formal terms through the passing of a Climate Act.

By way of brief summary of the main provisions of the Act, the Assembly has now adopted a net zero by 2050 target and related interim targets (48% emissions reduction by 2030, for example), an independent Climate Commissioner, and a Just Transition Commission (in line with the successful Scottish model ).

But the cornerstone of the Climate Bill is its 2050 net zero target, a commitment in line with the Paris Agreement which seeks to give us a chance of avoiding global heating beyond 1.5 degrees, a chance the world has almost certainly missed through inaction since 2015.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are explicit in their assessment of what is needed to achieve a net zero target: “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems. These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale” .

The Assembly is not exempt from the requirement to lead on this ‘unprecedented’ economic and infrastructural transformation. Importantly, the only means of achieving this target is a corresponding sea-change in the political priorities and policy consensus in the Assembly.

There must be an understanding that a net zero shift means a transition in how and in what sectors we are employed, in our economy’s metabolism with the energy and resources it consumes, and in prioritising long-term eco-social goals over short-term political objectives.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the policy direction embraced by the Assembly in recent years: a new growth-based ‘10X’ economic strategy based on industrial agriculture and energy-intensive services; squandering vast sums of investment capital on politically popular cash payments; prioritising huge new roads projects above public transport investment; persisting with an impossible belief that agricultural emissions will plummet at the rate now demanded by law whilst output and exports expand forever.

Perhaps the most important effect of the new Climate Bill, therefore, is that political approaches such as these can now be formally exposed, in public discourse or through the Climate Commissioner established by the Act.

There are no more hiding places for climate double-speak now that legally binding obligations for emissions reductions are now in place. If, and perhaps when, business as usual inevitably fails to bring down emissions, hard ecological realities will speak louder than policies which seek to ‘have your steak and eat it too’.

This is not to say that the change required, and the political alliances needed to drive them, are necessarily negative or regressive. On the contrary, an Executive-led Just Transition can dramatically improve our health and wellbeing, social equality, and nurture ecological restoration .

Nature-friendly farming methods, and the use of public subsidies to incentivise them, can give us all food security, nature restoration, and a more jobs-rich agricultural sector rooted in rural communities (in an increasingly intensive and concentrated agri-sector, employment has been declining for decades alongside the numbers of small and medium sized farms ). This is indeed a departure from the present and unsustainable model, but an unavoidable and necessary one for people and planet.

Ireland’s vast renewable energy potential, from wind to more predictable sources like tidal power, can be unleashed. The new Climate Bill brings into law a target for 80% of electricity to be sourced from renewables by 2030, a target long advocated for by both environmentalists and the bodies charged with the transmission (SONI) and distribution (NIE) of our power.

Fuel poverty, a long-standing social ill in the North, can be eradicated. Research by the Belfast Climate Commission shows that half of the city’s emissions stem from the residential sector through poorly insulated homes and buildings. Thousands of skilled green construction jobs could be created by conserving energy in this way , plunging the emissions curve in the years ahead while bringing down household bills dramatically .

The passing of the Climate Bill now shines a light on a previously marginalised policy space at the Assembly. The coalition of parties who backed more ambitious climate policy commitments throughout the bills process must retain their unprecedented climate policy momentum to facilitate this long overdue shift in political ideas, and to make up for lost time.

A recent IPCC report does not dwell in ambiguity in laying out what is at stake: “Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on [climate] adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

As previously the only region across Britain or Ireland without a Climate Act, this window has been closing in the North for some time. The world has just over seven years before we exhaust our carbon budget to prevent 1.5 degrees of global heating . It goes without saying that the next five-year Assembly mandate will be critical in setting a policy course worthy of our new net zero target, and it will require a humble reckoning with new ideas and non-negotiable ecological realities if it is to be reached.

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