Committee for the Economy: Energy Strategy Report

Part of Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 23rd November 2020.

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Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin 4:00 pm, 23rd November 2020

As other Members have done, I thank my party colleague the Chair of the Economy Committee for bringing the inquiry report to the Assembly for debate. Any energy strategy must be placed firmly in the context of the global climate and biodiversity crisis, and, therefore, for us in the North, the strategy must be an ambitious exercise in decarbonisation and radical climate action. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that two thirds of all fossil fuels that we know to exist must remain in the ground if we are to avoid irreversible climate change. Therefore, it is madness that we would even allow exploration for further fuel reserves in the North. Ireland's fossil fuels must remain in the ground. That is the view of the Assembly, as expressed clearly and loudly in a recent debate on fracking and petroleum licensing. It is a view that must direct the action, strategies and policies of the Economy Minister.

The Climate Change Committee requires at least a 35% reduction by 2030 to contribute to the fifth carbon budget, and we have modelled for a reduction of up to 45%. That 45% reduction should be the lower limit of our ambition; in fact, given our abundance of renewable resources, it is decidedly unambitious. As other Members have pointed out, the Scottish Government, for example, have committed to 75% reduction against the 1990 baseline by 2030 in their Climate Change Act; in fact, we in the North still do not have a climate Act and are the only jurisdiction in these islands with that dubious claim. That is, again, recognition that we need to catch up. A bespoke climate change Act must be devised and implemented as a matter of urgency to codify targets and lay out clear emission reduction milestones. It should also codify sectoral sub-targets for emission reduction.

To decarbonise rapidly, we must also tackle the issue of demand. The energy strategy should lay out clear sectoral energy-efficiency targets bound by an overall efficiency target, and it must do so in a way that is consistent with just transition principles. Any move to decarbonise cannot disenfranchise workers or their families or make their lives more difficult; otherwise the policy will be resisted and fail. If planned properly, though, a just transition could, in fact, positively transform the lives of people, rapidly reducing emissions while creating high-quality and secure green-collar jobs and warmer homes for all through retrofitting and other measures. It could develop more efficient ways of moving around through investment in active travel and public transport, helping to create a healthier lifestyle. It can produce a world-class digital and physical infrastructure, with an abundance of renewable and more affordable electricity from our common wind and tidal resources.

The Kilroot coal-fired power station, for example, must be closed by 2025 at the latest. However, in line with just transition principles, that should be done only with the necessary employment supports and retraining offers in place for workers and in full cooperation with trades unions. The closure of Kilroot should not leave any worker unemployed or any family worse off.

For both moral and practical reasons, we need an energy strategy based on the principles of just transition. The requirement to urgently transform our society and our economy away from fossil-fuel dependency and wastefulness presents an opportunity to tackle the economic status quo that caused the climate crisis in the first place. As we confront the climate crisis, we must also reshape our economy to create a more democratic, equal and sustainable society. That must be the guiding principle at the heart of any energy strategy.

An energy strategy should, as others have said, be rural-proofed and must take account of the specific issues facing rural areas that result in more carbon-intensive lifestyles, such as sparse connections to the gas grid, poor investment in renewable infrastructure and extremely limited public transport.

We must grow the economy through a green new deal. By 2016, more than 50 renewable energy companies were active in the North; as of March 2020, that figure stands at just five. Less than 1% of the private-sector workforce is employed in the green economy, which is accountable for 1·6% of the total turnover. Given the vast economic potential of our renewable resources and the opportunities for high-skilled jobs, high-value research and innovation, retrofitting and construction of green infrastructure that stem from them, that is a stark policy failure. Prioritising the green economy should guide energy strategy policy. An 80% target for renewable electricity by 2030 could result in £1·1 billion of new investment in the North. Climate change does not recognise borders. To be effective, the island of Ireland must operate together where possible to ensure maximum efficiency gains —