There is a sense of renewed focus regarding challenges and opportunities that comes with a new year as the slate is wiped clean and visions are mapped out for the months ahead.
At a local level there is a renewed momentum driving meaningful cross-party discussions, offering reasons to be hopeful that the continued lack of a local executive will come to an end sooner rather than later.
Whilst businesses have demonstrated the ability to continue carving out success in recent years, the return of the Assembly with a ‘back to basics’ agenda supporting economic, social and environmental prosperity locally will be warmly welcomed by the business and wider community.
There will be no shortage of ‘big ticket’ items for incoming ministers that will require immediate intervention and systemic reform in areas that are baring the wounds of operating without elected representatives for far too long.
Whilst not perhaps the first priority, such is the immediate urgency of other areas such as health and education, climate change will certainly feature highly on the Executive’s plans.
At a global level, the climate change discussion has reached new levels with broader political and social acceptance of the extent and urgency of this issue.
At a national level, in June 2019 the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050. The target set will require the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
Locally, Northern Ireland contributes 4% to the UK Greenhouse Gases emission total across a range of different polluting sectors. In recent years there have been a number of successes driving greenhouse gas reductions locally, including the conversion of over 250,000 homes and businesses to natural gas as well as the generation of 40% of renewable electric locally.
Energy policy is a devolved power here which is no surprise given the unique energy landscape, such as the continued dominance of oil as a domestic heating fuel, with 65% of homes in Northern Ireland heated by this carbon intensive fuel, compared to less than 10% of homes in Great Britain.
It is timely therefore that as Northern Ireland grapples with the challenge of how it will realise the next stage in its move towards becoming a carbon neutral economy, the local government department charged with producing an updated energy policy has recently released it’s ‘Call for Evidence document’ with a final policy due for release in the second half of 2020.
The drafting of this policy has many challenges, not least in providing cohesion to a subject that whilst being headed up by the Department for Economy spans across a range of different government departments, societal and utility sectors.
In addition, there has never been a greater need for energy policy to demonstrate a pragmatic balance to the equally important aspects of decarbonisation, affordability, security of supply and social responsibility.
Social responsibility is perhaps the latest addition to this list of policy drivers and very much reflects that delivering an impactful energy transition may require significant social and behavioural transformations. In other words, whilst there may be technological solutions that support decarbonisation, these solutions need to demonstrate that that they are viable locally and capable of meeting the wider needs of our society.
The one certainty about climate change solutions is that no one size fits all. Different countries, regions and jurisdictions must have policies that reflect the specific needs of their communities. The end goal of net carbon zero is the right objective, the only danger is that industry, academia and policy makers get so focused on finding the silver bullet solution, which may or may not exist, that they fail to take reflect on the full range of immediate and realistic actions that can be undertaken to reduce carbon now while bringing society on the journey and which help close the gap in reaching the net zero goal.
Energy users switching from home heating oil to natural gas reduce their carbon emissions by around 50% through the introduction of a carbon cleaner fuel and the associated efficiencies of a highly efficient boiler and controls. These are impressive carbon savings which complement the lifestyle and convenience benefits that make moving to natural gas a desirable home improvement.
By the end of 2022 there will be 230,000 homes in Northern Ireland that have access to the natural gas network but will continue to be heated by oil fired boilers. These homeowners have a sizeable opportunity to reduce their carbon heating footprint by 50% and in turn add to the 1.1m tonnes of carbon that natural gas users in NI are currently taking out of our atmosphere on an annual basis.
Those connected or connecting to the natural gas network here can do so in the knowledge that from the outset they are reducing their carbon emissions by 50% and furthermore they are connecting to an infrastructure that is also striving to be carbon neutral before 2050.
Trials are already well underway across the natural gas industry in the UK to blend natural gas with up to 20% Hydrogen, which produces zero carbon at the point of use, into the existing network which would offer further carbon savings without need for any change to consumer behaviour or appliances. Further advancement in this area could eventually see natural gas networks carry full hydrogen solutions, removing carbon from the network entirely.
There is no doubt that we are entering into a period of transition where things will have to change from an energy usage perspective as well as wider society practices if we are to realise our full net carbon zero potential. Whilst Northern Ireland’s journey in this regard will be challenging, we are poised to make immediate inroads through the full utilisation of the natural gas networks locally.