Climate change targets may cause problems in the future
Should Stormont approve a Climate Change Bill committing the Executive to take action to reduce local carbon emissions by 80% by 2050? Have ministers taken advice on how difficult, or unpopular, reaching that obligation would be?
Environment Minister Mark Durkan has serious policy questions on environmental and economic issues to resolve. He deserves commendation for taking the lead. However, he also deserves a critical response, since he confuses desirable statements of ambition (worthy) with ill-defined policy objectives, some of which may be unrealisable.
There is little doubt that Northern Ireland should, alongside all other areas and countries, make a serious contribution to ameliorating the impact of climate change. That ambition is not in doubt. However, expressing the ambition in terms of a specific Green House Gases (GHG) target merits careful assessment and carefully stated practical performance measures.
In general terms, the UK government has acknowledged a target of reducing GHG by 80% in 2050 against a baseline set in 1990. In an interim target, the aim is to reduce GHG by 34% by 2020. By 2013, a reduction of 30% had been achieved.
The less practical danger is that Northern Ireland might buy into the same targets without acknowledging that this would be too simplistic. By 2013, Northern Ireland is estimated to have created a reduction of 16%.
Northern Ireland is starting from a poorer score. There are several reasons for this, but two stand out.
First, Northern Ireland generates 29% of GHGs from farming, particularly cattle, which reflects the greater importance of farming here. Second, 18% of our GHG comes from energy supply (mainly power stations) where fossil fuels are needed.
If Northern Ireland was to have a GHG target on the scale of UK, then the economic and social adjustment would be (at least) difficult. There is an arguable case that in a UK context, Northern Ireland should not be assessed on a stand-alone basis.
More can be achieved in terms of renewable, but economic, energy supplies, but the future evolution of the UK energy market does not sensibly sub-divide into regional targets.
In what may be a relevant comparator, the Irish government appears to have avoided any firm statistical target for GHG reductions.
Before the minister asks the Executive and Assembly to endorse local climate change targets, the minister needs to spell out operationally how policy changes will deliver the GHG reduction target adopted.
The minister is also showing persistence in repeating his arguments for the creation of a stronger, more independent, stand-alone environmental agency. His analysis fails to acknowledge in a workable way the need to reconcile environmental objectives with other social and economic imperatives.
There is no doubt that Northern Ireland ministers, singly and collectively, must take account of the wide range of policy questions that emerge in the discussion of climate change.
Equally, there is no avoiding the need for sensible environmental governance institutions and rules which take account of the full range of environmental, social and economic issues.
In the implementation of environmental protection policies, there can be little dispute that Northern Ireland must make progress. However, that progress must reconcile conflicting ambitions and avoid a one-sided dictatorship, even if administered by a specially created (so-called) independent body.
If the minister continues to favour the setting up of an independent environmental agency, then he risks continuing controversy where environmental wishes clash with economic and social.
He also risks trying to take from the Executive (as a collective group with collective responsibilities) decision making that should involve politicians making difficult collective decisions.
If the minister persists in advocating an independent agency, with a primarily environmental agenda, then the least that might be done to make it acceptable would be to give it an agenda and a membership including well informed business people and leading people in determining social policy.
Climate change policies do not stand in isolation, separate from other inter-related questions.