The adoption of a Green New Deal offers the Government an opportunity to tackle environmental, economic and social issues currently facing our society.
In Northern Ireland we are almost completely dependant on imported fossil fuels to meet our energy needs and rely heavily on oil, an unregulated and rapidly depleting finite resource. This presents a number of risks for the future growth of our economy.
We are heavy polluters, lead unsustainable lifestyles and contribute disproportionately to climate change. If everyone in the world were to consume natural resources and produce carbon dioxide emissions at the same rate as a Northern Ireland resident, it would take over three planets to support our needs.
The impact of rising carbon emissions on our planet has been well documented. Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland will not be immune to these changes. Research has shown that the likely impacts of climate change include:
Rising annual temperatures.
Wetter winters and our summers drier. These changes will have consequences for agricultural production.
Rising sea levels that could result in areas of Belfast and Dublin becoming more susceptible to flooding.
Our energy costs are high and will continue to grow. The impact of rising fuel costs has translated into higher bills for consumers and we have the highest levels of fuel poverty in the UK . Approximately 45% of households in Northern Ireland are in fuel poverty, households here spend twice as much of their disposable income on energy than households in London and around 60% more than the UK average.
Fuel poverty is not a phenomenon restricted to people dependant on benefits (although they are greatest risk), with 27% of fuel poor households earning between £10k and £15k per year, the vast majority of homes in fuel poverty are owner occupied.
Energy costs are often cited by business as their greatest competitive disadvantage.
Our current sources of energy supply and levels of energy demand are simply unsustainable. The adoption of a Green New Deal can address these issues.
However, the Green New Deal is not purely about improving our green credentials and creating a more sustainable energy supply and demand network. A Green New Deal offers the Executive a viable job and wealth creation opportunity, this of particular relevance in this climate of austerity and rising levels of unemployment.
Potential employment opportunities range from high tech manufacturing jobs, to maintenance jobs at wind power plants or in sustaining and growing employment in the agricultural sector producing biomass.
In the short-term the retrofitting of our existing housing stock, through the implementation of cost effective energy efficient measures, would create and sustain jobs within the construction sector.
Opportunities for job creation have already been realised by a number of local businesses, including Harland and Wolff. These jobs represent only a fraction of what could be achieved if a co-ordinated and ambitious approach is adopted by the Executive. We are already behind our neighbours, European and International competitors and we urge the Executive to urgently prioritise this agenda.
On a positive note we believe that there are several factors that can make the growth of the green economy a reality. These include
-our large pool of highly qualified young people
-our strong manufacturing base
-our low cost base, in terms of our labour and physical resources
-the slack within the labour market, particularly in the construction sector
-our potential to generate renewable energy. Northern Ireland has the second best potential for wind energy -in Europe (second only to Scotland )
-Our strong research and innovation based within our universities
At the core of a Green New Deal is improved energy efficiency. It is estimated that the implementation of cost efficient measures could reduce final energy demand by up to one-third. Improved energy efficiency is the quickest, most cost effective means of reducing demand for energy, emissions and household bills and has a short lead in time in terms of job creation. Reducing demand also reduces the investment required in renewable energy provision.
With the domestic sector accounting for around 40% of our energy use, tackling energy efficiency in our homes should be a key priority. Government spends some £70 million per annum on energy efficiency measures. We welcome the fact that this funding is available and the consideration of a supplier obligation noted within the SEF. However, we call on the Executive to ensure that available resources are leveraged as much as possible to ensure maximum impact and reach. Additional sources of finance include the European Investment Bank, commercial and social finance institutions, with mechanisms such as pay as you save schemes potentially offering an alternative to a grant driven approach.
We call on the public sector to show leadership. Improved energy efficiency would not only reduce the proportion of public money spent on energy but may also help to drive down the cost of technologies for homes and business. The creation of a zero carbon public sector estate by 2015 was stated within the 2006 Sustainable Development Strategy, this target will not be met and the absence of a target for the public sector within the current SDS is disappointing.
With the transport sector accounting for 28% of our energy consumption, tackling energy use within this sector should be a priority. A current lack of emphasis on transport is disappointing and indicates a failure by Government to grasp the step change that is required to ensure sustainability.
In tandem with expanding renewable energy provision we must ensure that we have an infrastructure that encourages, supports and facilitates its growth. We support investment in the electricity grid, ongoing development of the single energy market on the island of Ireland and the development of the north-south interconnector. We also support the proposed EU-wide renewable energy super-grid. An efficient planning system is also required.
The enshrining of targets in legislation can drive action and encourage investment. We currently have a number of targets in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the proportion of electricity generated from renewable sources. Not only are we underperforming against our emissions targets but they fall significantly short of those set at international, EU and UK levels.
EU targets for 2020 include a 20% cut in greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption, and a 20% contribution to energy generation from renewable sources. Renewable energy has been broadened to include heat and transport fuels. To meet its obligations the UK has been set a target of 15% of energy from renewable sources by 2020 and has set a legally binding target of at least an 80 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
While we welcome the introduction within the SEF that 40% of electricity consumption will be from renewables by 2020 and the indicative target of 10% of renewable heat by 2020, the lack of clear targets in terms of transport fuels and no binding targets on energy efficiency is a weakness. A binding target is also required to ensure that we make a fair and proportionate contribution to the UK Greenhouse Gas Emission targets.
There is a clear need for co-ordinated action, no one Department has at its disposal the policy levers to ensure the step change required. The commitment within the SEF to encourage cross-departmental working is welcome but inadequate. Currently no clear ‘road-map’ exists on how the current targets with the PFG or SEF will be achieved and how each sector will contribute to achieving these targets. This is a significant weakness and failure to allocate responsibility and action represents a ‘get out clause’ for key sectors and could result in a missed opportunity for our economy.
We call for the Executive to display leadership. Government must send a signal that NI is open and ready for green business and ensure that the population is aware of the need for investment and the development of new infrastructure. We call for the Executive to develop a NI Climate Change Act, committing Northern Ireland to EU and UK targets. The development of this Act would also support the on-going work of the all-island energy framework. In the interim, and to ensure that the opportunities for job creation are maximised, the Executive should develop as a matter of urgency an overall strategy for the development of the green economy in Northern Ireland . This strategy should not only draw together existing policy levers and initiatives but also identify gaps and seek to address these gaps.
We call upon the Executive to make the development of a Green New Deal in Northern Ireland a good news story by providing consensus and leadership.