Hoping for a Covid and green recovery

With the vaccine rollout now underway and the suggestion that Covid may finally be in retreat, the prospect of looking to the future with a measure of optimism feels like it will soon be within our grasp.

Tuesday, 6th April 2021, 6:00 am
Adrian Doran, CBI Northern Ireland Chair

With the vaccine rollout now underway and the suggestion that Covid may finally be in retreat, the prospect of looking to the future with a measure of optimism feels like it will soon be within our grasp.

We can’t forget however that the price of the pandemic has been enormous: too many lives, jobs and livelihoods have already been lost, and an uncertain few months still lie ahead. NI’s business community has undoubtedly been scarred by the experience, with the remainder of the year set to be spent in recovery and rebuild mode. That other challenges – some of them perhaps even greater – lie ahead, feels like a daunting prospect. But face them we must. One of those challenges is climate change. No longer an issue on the back burner, business, government and consumers are united in recognising the existential threat posed by the climate emergency and stand ready to take action.

With business ready to play its part in meeting global climate commitments, leadership from government – in terms of clear policy – is needed to turn ambition into action. That’s why the Department for the Economy’s Energy Strategy, currently out for public consultation, is so important. It will provide the blueprint for decarbonisation action across NI.

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So how much work needs to be done? The answer, sadly, is a lot. While renewable energy generation continues to grow at pace, NI still remains hugely reliant on fossil fuels. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, we need to turn crisis into opportunity, to create a truly green recovery. From large scale manufacturing sites to replacing home boilers or moving to electric vehicles, decarbonisation affects every aspect of our lives.

While there will undoubtedly be challenges in decarbonising homes and businesses, CBI research has shown that the process can also be a driver of new jobs. We will need an army of trained professionals doing everything from replacing outdated systems to designing clean alternatives to deliver on proposals – there is no reason why many of those jobs shouldn’t come to Ballymena, Belfast or elsewhere in the region.

The recent award of £11.2m UK government funding to Wrightbus to develop hydrogen-fuel technology, one of only three such awards across the UK, shows there is no reason why NI can’t lead the way. With NI’s legacy in manufacturing and heavy industry, decarbonising the local economy will be a major part of our net-zero challenge. Many industrial processes can’t currently be electrified or make use of low carbon fuels. Where they can, firms are likely to incur significant upfront costs. However, with UK Government targets already in place to reduce industrial emissions by two thirds by 2035, and by at least 90 per cent by 2050, there is no time to waste for NI firms to start exploring alternative routes to decarbonisation.

But decarbonisation doesn’t begin and end in the workplace or home. Infrastructure, a longstanding challenge in NI, represents another key part of the puzzle. Getting people and goods moving around NI is vital priority for firms across the country, with proposals like the York Street interchange essential to delivering better connectivity. By building-in low-carbon elements to those proposals, as seen in our hydrogen bus network, we can offer consumers and businesses a wealth of sustainable alternatives to more traditional haulage and transport options – while also bolstering productivity across NI.

Perhaps one of the best examples of NI’s race to decarbonise comes in the form of the North-South interconnector – a high capacity and resilient link between the respective energy grids of NI and Ireland. Not only will it offer the potential to reduce energy waste, secure NI’s long-term electricity supply and drive down consumer costs, it will also see a significant flow of renewable electricity across the border – delivering enough green energy to power 600,000 homes. But that’s just one project, we also need to look at capture, use and storage (CCUS) technologies, alternative fuels, such as bioenergy and low-carbon hydrogen, alongside improving energy and resource efficiency.

While these are clear examples of climate change and decarbonisation, we must also consider the indirect impact from more extreme weather events and natural hazards. How many of us have been thankful for NI’s amazing natural environment during the pandemic? Whether that’s Glenariff Forest, the Murlough National Nature Reserve or the Belfast Castle Estate. We need to consider the threat that climate change poses to our environment – with landslides already thought to be putting the world-famous Giant’s Causeway at risk. These sites aren’t just essential to cultural life, but support crucial industries like leisure, retail and tourism.

While it might seem strange to be talking about anything other than the pandemic right now, the truth is that decarbonisation and Covid-recovery are intrinsically linked. Building back better means implementing a truly green recovery that starts now. The UK really is in pole position to lead the world in green tech – hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, floating offshore wind – and NI has the science, ambition and expertise to capitalise. But local leadership is needed to give firms the confidence to commit to decarbonisation and a net-zero future. At a time when we need jobs and growth more than ever, a green recovery represents the best possible investment we could make for NI’s future.

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