Northern Ireland declares 'climate emergency' as UK moves coal phase-out forward
In the same week that the UK Government announced green policy changes around coal and electric vehicles, the Northern Ireland Assembly has declared a 'climate emergency'.
The declaration was put forward by Sinn Fein and the Green Party, receiving 48 votes in favour compared to 27 against after talks on Monday night (3 February).
Under the declaration, the Assembly will create a new, independent body to hold policymakers and businesses to account over the environmental impacts of their actions. The body is due to launch within a year and will be called the Environmental Protection Agency. In the months leading up to its launch, Assembly members will determine its remit and its funding model.
The declaration also binds Agriculture and Environment Minister Edwin Poots to request specific advice on the net-zero transition from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). The CCC has already provided specific recommendations for the UK as a whole, Scotland, and Wales.
Poots said he wants the CCC to take into consideration Northern Ireland’s role as a food-producing region with a livestock focus into account in its recommendation. The body notably published its land use recommendations for the UK last month, including measures to reduce red meat and dairy consumption per capita by 20%.
"We don't want to be bounced into decisions that we later regret," Poots said.
Aside from agriculture, the debate heard calls for new region-specific targets and supporting policy structures on renewable energy and road transport. Representatives from Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) called for these changes to be made soon, to avoid the risk of the declaration being seen as "turbo-powered virtue signalling" backed up by "puny legislature".
But Green Party representatives insisted the declaration is the beginning of a journey, rather than an end-point.
The UK’s central Government declared a ‘climate emergency’ last year. Since then, similar declarations have been made by around two-thirds of local authorities. But the Northern Ireland Assembly only resumed on 11 January, after collapsing in January 2017.
At the coal face
The move from the Northern Ireland Assembly comes in the same week that Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed a string of green policy changes, to be made ahead of COP26.
The national ban on new petrol and diesel car sales has been brought forward from 2040 to 2035, in line with CCC recommendations, while the 2025 deadline for taking all domestic coal generation of the UK’s electricity grid has been shifted forward to 2024.
On the latter, the UK is now home to just four operational coal-fired power plants. SSE closed its Fiddlers Ferry plant in June 2019. Then, three months later, EDF closed the Cottam coal plant.
In order to bridge the generation gap as these facilities come offline, the UK Government is backing offshore wind, nuclear and gas, which it claims could account for 18%, 18% and 42% of the national energy mix by 2025 respectively.
Critics, however, have said policies are currently too weak in the onshore wind, solar power and nuclear power sectors to bring about this shift. The Government has also faced criticism over its decision to grant permission for a new deep coal mine in Cumbria. It has defended itself by highlighting the fact that the facility’s coal won’t be used for domestic electricity generation and touting economic and social benefits for the local area.