As the Covid-19 pandemic in Northern Ireland reduces in severity and we move towards recovery, climate change is becoming the dominant political issue for the next decade. While the need to avoid and reverse the damage associated with climate change is clear and obvious, politicians must also have a selfish interest in having coherent policies on the environment. Ahead of the last general election, when surveyed, three quarters of voters under-25 said that climate change would influence how they would vote, so those seeking election should ignore this issue at their peril!
Last week we saw the UK Government strengthening its commitment to move towards net-zero, putting into law it proposals to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. This new target – which now includes aviation and shipping emissions - is ambitious, and will take the UK more than three-quarters of the way towards reaching net zero by 2050, which would consequently end its contribution to climate change. The new Biden Administration in the United States is similarly ambitious and has referred to a "decisive decade" in terms of climate action. This is positive.
So amongst this huge global effort, where does Northern Ireland stand? Currently we are the only part of the UK without Climate Change legislation in place, which is partly due to the three-year hiatus of the devolved institutions. A Private Member’s Bill has been brought forward by Green Party Leader, Clare Bailey, which potentially has enough support to pass through the Assembly. Separately, the Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is seeking to bring forward an alternative Bill, though with limited legislative time available it is unclear how this will conclude and which targets will ultimately take hold. Climate change is a problem, but it is also an opportunity that the whole Executive must rally behind. We see evidence of this through multiple strategies, such as energy, green growth and the circular economy that, when combined, will help get us where we need to be.
Small businesses are keen to play their part in combating climate change, and many are already embracing and utilising the new technologies that are available, through solar power, battery storage and electric vehicles. It is crucial that net-zero policy is done ‘with them’ and not ‘to them’. Central to this is good governance and a roadmap that helps small businesses understand how things will need to change. This will lead to greater engagement, greater confidence in what the future holds, and greater investment to help the transition.
FSB has been engaging with key stakeholders behind the respective Climate Bills which are at the door or on the floor of the Assembly, to ensure small businesses are at the forefront and are specifically referenced in the legislative framework. FSB, along with other business organisations, has come together to propose five ‘fairness’ principles to be embedded into all climate related legislation and policy. Fairness of ambition refers to the need for clear, scientific, evidence-based climate change policies that demonstrate the gravity of the challenge. Fairness of accountability expects that all Departments within the Executive will work together to ensure that all environmental policies are coordinated, and accountabilities are clear. Fairness of delivery requires government not only to support, but actively to incentivise businesses to work independently towards net-zero, recognising that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to tackling climate change. Fairness of opportunity refers to the need for a level playing field for businesses of all sizes and in all sectors to benefit from such investments. Finally, fairness of cost dictates that the costs of shifting to a low-carbon economy are spread equitably among different parts of society, from government to businesses to consumers, based on a number of factors such as their environmental impact, ability to pay and to adapt to new methods of working.
Adherence to these common-sense principles in Northern Ireland’s legislative framework for tackling climate change would provide a solid basis to engage, encourage and enable small businesses to play their part to tackle this most significant of challenges. But regardless of which legislation is put in place or what targets are agreed, we cannot lose sight of the fact we need to make a change and act on climate. Just as government has collaborated with large and small businesses and with the public on solutions to fight coronavirus, the same winning formula must be utilised if we are meaningfully to address the climate emergency and seize the opportunities that tackling it can bring.