Part Two: Tackling unsustainability with John Barry: 'What is in it for us?' and the importance of creating a buy in for people. (2/2)
Following on from Part One of our interview with Professor John Barry on tackling unsustainability in Northern Ireland, in Part Two of our feature, we discuss NI's prevalent fuel poverty issue, why individualised responses to climate change are not enough, and how ultimately creating a buy-in for people will be key to showing citizens how they can benefit from the renewable transition, and become an owner of energy instead of a passive consumer.
Q1. Northern Ireland’s progress on greening our economy, environment and ultimately our behaviours seem contradictory. On one hand, we are on target to meet our goal of 40% of electricity from renewable energy by 2020, yet we have one of the highest rates of fuel poverty in Europe. Is it a case that we are simply not measuring what matters? And what do you think is needed to cause a shift towards placing sustainability before profit?
The issue of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland is an absolute moral abomination. We are a wealthy society, but the problem is that we are so oil-dependent, and the most oil-dependent part of the UK and Ireland, particularly in terms of home heating which rises to 60% dependency in rural areas. Furthermore, oil is a particularly volatile fossil fuel and when the price of oil goes up, many are in danger of going into fuel poverty. We also have a problem with our housing stock, in that we have some of the worst, thermally inefficient housing stock in Europe.
Part of a Green New Deal and a ‘Just Transition’ is how the state is to manage, for example, a programme of retrofitting public and private housing stock, to bring it up to standards so that people are not heating the street. In fact, colleagues here at Queen’s have conducted research, where they were out on the streets of Belfast with a thermal monitor, identifying all this red leaking out of people’s windows because of bad insulation. So why are we not investing in providing local jobs to people, to retrofit our homes? This would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, keep people out of fuel poverty and increase their health and quality of life.
Part of the energy transition is almost the complete electrification of our lives, in terms of heating and transportation. So why are we locking our citizens into a carbon-based, home heating system, whether it is gas, oil or coal? We should have a state-managed approach of bringing our abundant electricity from renewable sources to the people who need it. Yet, we are producing renewable electricity that is most likely, being consumed predominantly by businesses. Why is this not going to help meet our local communities' needs? Because I think that this is what is needed in terms of a just energy transition.
Part of why I think people object to renewable energy is that they ask, what’s in it for us? If we had a programme outlining how the state is providing the capital at cheap cost and legal expertise to enable farmers and local communities in rural areas to own, manage and control renewable energy – I think we would overcome a lot of opposition. And I have the evidence, as I did a piece of research with a colleague, Professor Geraint Eilis over 10 years ago. We were looking at why people were objecting to wind farms in North Antrim. It was a very complex issue, where some of it was aesthetic and so on. However, most of the feedback was that people felt, well what’s in it for us? There must be a buy-in for local people, so how can every citizen benefit from the renewable energy transition, and become an owner, instead of a passive consumer? I think that the ability for local communities to own and control renewable energy sources, particularly in rural areas, would overcome a lot of the opposition. Not all of it, but quite a bit of it.
Q2. In a recent interview with BBC Radio Ulster, it was raised that climate change is associated with food, with heavy meat and dairy-based diets exacerbating these changes. German politicians have now proposed raising the VAT on meat, from 7%-19%, to combat climate change. What is your opinion on this approach?
I can understand where they are coming from, but it is a bit like putting taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, and things that we have decided are bad for our health or the environment. However, I am against these individualised responses, in terms of putting it on the consumer. This is where the state should be joining forces with companies in the food sector, to redesign our food system. The fact is, the UK wastes nearly two million tonnes of food produced every year, and yet we have some of the highest levels of people in food poverty. We are a rich society, producing more than enough food for our population, and that is where I think, we need to look at the structure of our food system. It is incredibly carbon-intensive, so rather than taxing the consumer at the end of the process, why are we not taxing and regulating the producers of food, to make sure they are doing so in a low carbon, environmentally friendly manner.
We cannot forget about the incontrovertible truth, that one of the things we can do as a society, or as individuals, reduces our red meat consumption. It is particularly carbon-intensive, as it takes a lot of water, creates pollution, and is an inefficient way of providing protein for humans. Never mind the horrendous animal rights abuses of a factory farming system. I think there are moral, economic and scientific reasons to move away from a heavy meat-based diet. However, this should not just be taxing individual meat consumers. It surrounds a much bigger change to our food system and food culture, which requires education, government action, and citizens demanding how our food is made, produced and distributed.
Q3. According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), agricultural land accounts for over 75% of Northern Ireland’s land area. It is evident that we need more local, regional and national conversations about our agricultural future and land management practices. What would you like to see those conversations prioritising?
There must always be a balance between the capacity of the land to provide food and other benefits to society. I think that a lot of our farming community has become locked into an industrialised, globalised system, where their margins are declining. They are becoming increasingly dependant on fossil fuels, fertilisers and an industrialised system of agriculture. I think we need to balance that now, with the need to decarbonise the agricultural system. This is particularly important on this island because even down south, agriculture is one of the biggest sectors that emits greenhouse gases. Indeed, the methane from cows is over 20 times more potent as a climate-changing gas than carbon dioxide. So, the cattle herds in Ireland and Northern Ireland are a major issue that we are going to have to get to grips with, where we have a sustainable agricultural system that strikes a balance between the need for farmers to have a decent livelihood, in a way that is reducing our use of carbon, reducing fossil fuel inputs and reducing pollution. My proposal is that we must move towards a system of agro-ecology and consider different ways of producing food that is less carbon and environmentally intensive.
Furthermore, we need to plant more trees. Rewilding parts of our rural landscape will help repair our damaged ecosystems, because the issue does not only concern climate and energy, but also the ecosystem destruction that we have seen both here, and across the world. So for me, these would be the broad outlines: how we grow food in a way that is less carbon-intensive and ecologically friendly, that we are rewilding and repairing damaged ecosystems by bringing back habitats of creatures and plants that are under stress, and finally, that we are finding ways that we can use the land to farm carbon. We should be paying and finding methods, in which our farming communities are getting a decent wage out of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, through things like planting native species of trees and other forms of ecological restoration. However, for me, whilst the mass planting of trees is not the silver bullet, and it is not going to solve the climate crisis, it is the only form of geoengineering that makes sense and is morally and technically legitimate.
Click the button below, to take a look at some of Professor John Barry's recommendations, on how to make a change and help address climate breakdown.