Northern Ireland will not meet its net-zero emissions target by 2050 unless “radical action” is taken, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) says.
The CCC says measures such as a one-third reduction in livestock and an increase in electric vehicles will not be enough within a decade.
Stormont set the net zero target in 2022.
In a report, the CCC proposes an alternative option of cutting 83% of emissions, but says even this would be “extremely challenging”.
The committee advises the government on emission targets and reports to parliament on progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The most recent advice is that it has seen insufficiently ambitious policies in Northern Ireland to meet net-zero or intermediate targets.
“That has to change,” warns the committee.
One of the options proposed by the CCC, called the “updated balanced trajectory”, would see most sectors completely decarbonised by 2050.
That path includes reducing livestock by nearly a third, decarbonising power generation and meeting rising demand, significantly increasing peatland restoration and requiring new cars and vans to be available by the early 2030s. must be emission-free.
But the commission says this will not be enough to reach full net zero by 2050 due to residual emissions from the agriculture sector, which is more important economically in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK.
The commission has also developed a so-called “stretched ambition” plan that achieves a 93% reduction from 1990 levels.
But again, that’s still less than the net-zero target set in the climate change bill passed by Stormont last year.
To achieve a 93% reduction, the number of trees would have to be increased to 3,100 hectares per year, six times higher than the rate reported in 2021-2022.
It would also include “engineered disposals” based on carbon capture and storage, which the commission said would require significant investment and infrastructure development.
To balance residual emissions from agriculture, two “speculative routes” have also been considered – one involving the deployment of Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology and another involving cutting livestock in half.
But the commission warns that DAC technology is expected to be costly and challenging to deliver.
It is estimated that “some DAC input would be necessary”, but reducing herd numbers would significantly reduce that need.
The commission adds that it is up to Northern Ireland to decide whether to pursue other speculative options besides DAC.
Based on the speculative DAC option and with no further reductions in herd size, the committee has set the following targets consistent with the statutory net-zero target:
the first, second and third carbon budgets should be set at levels with an average annual reduction of 33%, 48% and 62% respectively compared to 1990 levels
the intermediate targets for 2030 and 2040 should be set at reductions of 48% and 77% respectively from 1990 levels
The commission’s advisory report says there are “essential new policy requirements” for the Northern Ireland executive to meet the net-zero statutory target and interim targets.
Analysis: Failure has consequences
When Stormont politicians voted to set a net zero goal despite warnings it wasn’t possible, they may have thought of that quote from Beckett’s Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. Doesn’t matter. Try again. Failed again Fail better.”
But the problem with legally binding targets, especially with climate change, is that you don’t get a switch.
This report makes it clear that the Assembly’s decision to limit the reduction in methane emissions, mainly caused by agriculture, to 46% has had a real impact on the likelihood of getting quite close to net zero.
That’s not to say efforts aren’t being made – they are, across all sectors, and many are commendable in their vision and courage.
That view may be part of the reason why the balanced trajectory now represents an 83% reduction, instead of the 82% the committee previously believed possible.
But the lack of policy can only hinder the very rapid scale-up needed to move forward.
The commission’s report is stern in its language, highlighting that the net-zero target is now legally binding – failure will have consequences.