On 27th February 2019, an eerily summery winter evening, Ards and North Down Borough Council passed Northern Ireland’s first Climate Emergency motion. Led by Green Party councillors Rachel Woods and Barry McKee, the motion was agreed without changes in a full meeting of the Council chamber.
This comes not a moment too soon for a region which is set to face major challenges over the next 10-20 years as temperatures, and sea-levels, rise. Parts of the Ards peninsula, along with much of the inner parts of Belfast, are likely to be underwater in our lifetimes. And perhaps a lot sooner than we expect.
A ground-breaking IPCC report in October 2018, amalgamating all the recent scientific research, found that on our current path, global temperatures will rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040. It gave societies 12 years to take immediate and drastic action to keep temperatures under this level.
But immediate and drastic action is not being taken. Global carbon emissions are rising not falling.
As such, subsequent and cascading climate developments now indicate that the pace of change may be much faster than this, with a rise of 1.5-2 degrees being fairly inevitable – perhaps as soon 2030 – and a rise of up to 4 degrees Celsius more likely by the end of the century.
Even at 2 degrees, life as we know it will be forever changed. These infographics from the New York Times give a flavour of what’s on the way. Or take a whirl around the science at 350.org. If you’re in rude mental health today and would like a more fleshed out version, check out David Wallace Wells‘ work, for example “Time to Panic”. Or Ron Meador on “near-term social collapse due to climate chaos.”
If that seems too abstract, you can enter your postcode in this map to see if you’ll be swimming to work in the near future (the image above is the projection for +2 degrees).
Ards and North Down Borough Council is part of a wave of dozens of councils across the UK, and many more globally, which have recently declared climate emergency.
According to the Climate Emergency Declaration website, as of February 27th, 38 UK councils have made a declaration. Ards and North Down makes 39. The pace of change is fast, with 10 declarations in the past week alone, and more motions on the way.
“Emergency mode or mobilisation is when councils allocate all discretionary funds available to the council to the task of community education, advocacy for action by higher levels governments, mitigation or resilience building and could include funding or undertaking the planning and research needed to implement full state and national emergency mobilisations.”
This is the Ards and North Down Council motion, which gives a pretty good idea of what concrete steps will follow:
That this Council notes the recent IPCC report on the impacts of climate breakdown; agrees that drastic and far-reaching measures must be taken across society to try and mitigate the risks and declares a ‘Climate Emergency’. It requests an urgent report to assess the impact of the activities of Ards and North Down Borough Council on greenhouse gas emissions, exploring what mitigation measures can be put in place and establishes a working group to bring the issues of climate breakdown to the fore in the council structures and actions, local communities and businesses, as well as formulating a climate adaptation plan.
This could well entail taking practical steps to protect air quality, water purity, to address pollution, protect local habitats, increase biodiversity by re-wilding spaces, streamline borough energy use, maybe even consider local renewable energy co-ops, and to generally make future-focussed planning decisions based on realistic climate projections.
Ards and North Down are not alone. Derry City and Strabane District Council have been leading the way on practical climate action for some time. They will host the first ever Green Infrastructure and Climate Change Conference in Northern Ireland this spring (tickets here). With a focus on developing green infrastructure, increasing green spaces, encouraging resilience to climate breakdown – for the sake of people’s health and the local economy.
In Belfast City Council, the Alliance’s Emmet McDonough-Brown’s successful motion at the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee in February 2019 committed to reducing Belfast’s carbon footprint and making climate a priority. People Before Profit reinforced this with a climate emergency statement, which passed through Belfast City council on 5th March 2019.
This is even more important in the context of Northern Ireland, where, as Friends of the Earth highlight “we have the least protected environment in the UK and Ireland. [We have] no independent Environmental Protection Agency. No National Parks. No law to cut climate-changing emissions.” And where “the planning system leans heavily towards new development.”
Of course, local Councils have limited power to tackle climate breakdown, which is a global problem and demands a national, as well as international, response.
This is exactly the route being taken in the Republic of Ireland. Daithí McKay highlights the most important pieces of Dáil legislation as Bríd Smith’s Climate Emergency Bill, which would commit Ireland to leaving fossil fuels in the ground; Sinn Féin’s Microgeneration Support Scheme Bill, which would enable local communities – households, farmers, co-ops – to produce their own energy and sell it back to the grid; and the Green Party’s Waste Reduction Bill. All are moving slowly and painfully forward with much prevarication from the Irish government. Although upcoming EU fines, for failing to meet climate targets, may force the government into action.
What is also significant, is increasing public understanding and concern about climate breakdown. It’s hard to avoid. There have been winter gorse fires this week in the Dublin mountains. Even Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood in Sussex was ravaged by fires this month. The fact that we’ve wiped out 60% of the world’s animal populations since 1970 and reports about collapsing insect populations, globally and across Ireland, are making their way into public consciousness. Ordinary people are talking about why there are no dead insects splattered on their windscreens anymore.
There’s a gnawing sense that paper straws and keep-cups aren’t going to cut it. That we’re on the cusp of something exponential.
This is reflected on the ground with school kids across Ireland and the UK joining their European counterparts, striking for climate justice, the civil disobedience of Extinction Rebellion, increasing calls for a Green New Deal.
Even more locally, we see residents of the Sperrins opposing industrial mineral mining; community protests which have stalled a planned industrial pig factory in Ballyclare; Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and others passing a motion opposing the dumping of UK nuclear waste in the Mournes (a similar motion was opposed by the DUP and fell in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council this week, but that’s another story); Green Party activists in Belfast measuring air pollution as it emerges that our air quality is almost as bad as London.
Across these islands and beyond there is a growing awareness that something has snapped, and that standing still is not an option.
On the same day as the motion was passed, MPs in the House of Commons debated climate breakdown for the first time in 2 years. This is better than nothing. But it was a quick and thinly attended debate, with no accompanying teeth. It is clear that Westminster is in no hurry to recognise the state of Climate Emergency that Caroline Lucas is calling for. Or indeed to do anything about it.
Local Councils are too small to solve global problems. We have top level calls to action from the UN and EU, and ground level calls to action from citizens. But, on these islands, we have a gaping space in between, where national action should be.
Given the heel dragging from both UK and Irish governments, perhaps Councils are one of the most effective political levers we currently have to begin the immediate practical work of climate action and regeneration.
Adapted from an article originally published on Slugger O’Toole on 28th February 2019.