Opinon piece by the Head of RenewableNI, Steven Agnew.

This week world leaders have been meeting in Glasgow for COP26 to outline their policies which they hope will prevent the global temperature rises from exceeding 1.5°C.  Given that we have already reached 1.1°C warming it is a significant challenge.

The risk is great.  As Tina Stege, the Marshall Islands Climate envoy, outlined on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, going beyond 1.5°C is unthinkable.  Sea level rises have already turned their well water brackish and some estimates predict the islands will be uninhabitable by 2080 if global warming is not abated.

Last year wildfires in Australia and this year’s devastating heat wave in North America brought home to us that climate change is no longer a theoretical notion that may occur in the future but is a reality now in places familiar to us.  Northern Ireland is far from immune, having ourselves broken our record temperatures three times this summer, coupled with increased flooding across the province.  What were once extreme weather events are becoming the norm.

In some respects Northern Ireland has a good story to tell.  Currently 46% of our electricity is being generated by renewables.  Along with Ireland, Scotland, and Denmark we are leaders in onshore wind with approximately 1.4GW currently installed.  However, we risk going from leaders to laggards with no new large scale renewables connecting in the last three years.

This week at the RenewableNI Smart Energy conference, KPMG presented figures showing that between now and 2030 the wind industry alone could contribute over £3bn to our local economy, creating 750 additional jobs.  If, and it’s a big IF, if we set targets and corresponding policies that would see us increase our onshore capacity to 2.5GW, in line with SONI’s ‘Accelerated Ambition’ scenario and RenewableNI’s own targets.

Northern Ireland has effectively been without a renewables policy since the Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation (NIRO) closed to new entrants in 2017.  While we eagerly await the publication of a new Energy Strategy and corresponding action plan, our Economy Minister will today (Thursday 4 November) attend the COP26 Energy Day with literally no policy to speak of.

Climate bills in Northern Ireland are like buses, you wait around since 2008 for one to be published and then two come at once.  However, while the Assembly works out what to do with the two competing bills, we have no local emissions targets in place.  Those who cry “what about China!?” should note that China has set a net zero target, something which our own Environment Minister is resisting.

Northern Ireland spends over £2bn on imported fossil fuels, money literally up in smoke.  A clean, green, energy system ‘made in Northern Ireland’ is within our reach and will help power a green economic recovery, as well as reduce our impact on the climate.

RenewableNI members are ready to make a huge investment in a zero carbon electricity system.  We’re just waiting on the signal from our politicians to get started.