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What could the absence of a replacement for the NIRO scheme mean for NI's 2035 carbon reduction targets?

- categories: blog

What could the absence of a replacement for the NIRO scheme mean for NI's 2035 carbon reduction targets?

31st March 2017 will forever be known as the day the Northern Ireland Renewables Obligation (NIRO) scheme officially closed to new applications. Since then, the renewables industry in Northern Ireland has not implemented any further policy or legislation that has incentivised home and business owners to undertake a project involving the production of renewable energy. This in turn has and will affect the emission targets for NI in the years to come.

The NIRO scheme: an introduction

The primary purpose of the NIRO scheme was to incentivise the installation of renewable technologies, to produce renewable electricity in order to offset carbon emissions and to help meet the EU emission targets by 2030. In return, for a significant investment, the generating station would receive Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) on a monthly or annual basis which would then be monetized as part of the scheme.

2018 saw a dramatic increase in electricity consumption from renewable sources across Northern Ireland. Approximately 7816 GWh (Gigawatt hours) of electricity was consumed in Northern Ireland, of which 2984 GWh was generated from renewable sources such as wind turbines, anaerobic digestion plants and solar photovoltaics (PV). This led to an increase of 3.5% of renewable energy consumption from 2017, the highest on record. This is an example of the positive effect the Renewables Obligation had on Northern Ireland’s renewables industry.

What are the EU's current emissions targets?

If we look at the current targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the European Union (EU) set the target of reducing these by 20% by 2020 and 35% by 2030. The overall aim is to reduce GHG emissions by 80% by 2050. However, with the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, it remains unclear whether the UK will be further bound by these targets.

According to a report published by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in February 2019, nearly 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Northern Ireland came from the agricultural industry - in comparison to that of 10% for the remainder of the UK. Although significant progress has been made through energy efficiency modifications to dairy farms, the agricultural sector is rapidly becoming the most difficult industry to de-carbonise in years to come.

How can Northern Ireland tackle its carbon emissions levels?

The key issue that needs to be addressed in Northern Ireland is the implementation of policy for the reduction of carbon emissions, to meet the required targets by 2035. According to a recent projection published by Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) (Figure 7.1) Northern Ireland is not on course to achieve its target of 35% carbon reduction by 2035 with the current policies in place. This also shows that there is a significant policy gap in both the agriculture and transport industries.

The CCC has investigated and recommended key areas to policymakers in Northern Ireland to reduce carbon emissions, to achieve the 2035 target, however, it needs to go further than just 2035. Robust policies need to be put in place, which are effective, not only on a cost basis but on a renewable emissions basis, spanning multiple decades.

Addressing key issues:

Some of the key issues to be addressed are shown below. If addressed correctly, these will not only aid NI’s emission targets, but will also incentivise renewable energy production for the Northern Ireland homes and businesses. These are excellent opportunities which are a cost-effective means of potentially achieving a 40% emission target by 2035, instead of the proposed 35%:

  1. The lack of a route to market for new, low-cost intermittent renewables, especially onshore wind, in the electricity sector.
  2. Emissions from agriculture have risen year-on-year since 2009 in Northern Ireland despite efficiency improvements in dairy farms. The post-CAP framework is an opportunity to more closely link financial support to agricultural emissions reduction and increased carbon sequestration, including afforestation.
  3. The current rate of tree planting falls short of meeting the Committee’s recommendations for the fifth carbon budget or the average rate targeted in Northern Ireland’s most recent Forestry Strategy.
  4. There is no policy support to incentivise consumers to install low-carbon heating, especially heat pumps, in homes off the gas grid. There is considerable potential to switch households off the gas grid from use of oil boilers to heat pumps.
  5. Policies to incentivise energy efficiency improvements in homes are largely targeted at low-income households. Northern Ireland should consider policy options to deliver an attractive package for able-to-pay householders aligned to trigger points (such as when a home is sold or renovated).
  6. More rapid deployment of electric vehicles, tighter conventional vehicles standards, and transport behaviour change.

The cost associated with meeting the fifth carbon budget in 2030 is less than 1% of GDP for the whole of the UK. Although, there are certain factors which will be difficult to monitor, including; technology costs and types, fossil fuel prices, and the behaviour of consumers in the market.

Where are we now?

At present, the future of the renewables industry in Northern Ireland remains cloudy at best. Significant steps were taken in the past decade to reach the EU emission targets by 2035, with the introduction of the NIRO scheme. Northern Ireland is on track to meet these targets, but what lies beyond 2035 is anybody’s guess. If greater leaps forward are going to be made, then our policymakers need to take the required action to not only introduce ways and means of reducing our carbon footprint but also to incentivise its implementation for the public. It is an area we are lacking in collectively and with the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the pressure for climate change legislation, time is quickly running out.

To find out more about where Northern Ireland currently stands in combatting climate change, take a look at the CCC's latest report (February 2019), below: 

Committee on Climate Change: Reducing emissions in Northern Ireland
Shane Hanna

Shane Hanna
Project Manager


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