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A ‘just transition’ to net zero in Northern Ireland

The role the housing sector can play in mitigating against climate change. 

Blog by Natalie Whelehan, Head of Policy and Development, Housing Rights.

12 February 2024

January 2024 saw confirmation from the Met Office that 2023 was the warmest year on record, driven by human-caused climate change. Scenes of devastation from across the world of the damage caused by climate change and global inaction have now become commonplace. We are seeing its effects with increasing frequency and severity, posing serious risks to lives, livelihoods and homes. There is no doubt that the issue of climate change and its potentially devastating consequences require urgent prioritisation and decisive action by governments and policy makers alike.

Housing plays a vital role in climate change mitigation and has been recognised by the World Health Organisation as an increasingly important determinant of health in the context of climate change. Timely and effective housing interventions can save lives, increase quality of life, reduce poverty and help mitigate against the impacts of climate change.  While the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly undoubtedly means burgeoning lists of issues competing for the attention of Ministers and the NI Executive, the urgency and seriousness of the consequences of failing to address climate change means that this issue must be at the top of all agendas.

The housing sector accounts for around 14% of Northern Ireland’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The passing of the Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) in March 2022 was a significant milestone for Northern Ireland in terms of tackling climate change and decarbonisation [1]. The Act puts Northern Ireland on a par with other UK regions by putting in place the necessary legislative basis for effective target setting for the years 2030, 2040 and 2050. Specific targets and an agreed action plan have yet to be finalised, however the legislation is an important step in establishing the policy framework to support and enable decarbonisation within the housing sector. Significant progress in this area is vitally important as according to the World Economic Forum, full decarbonisation of our energy systems is the only solution to climate change stabilisation.

As is the case around the world, it is the poorest in society who face housing crisis that are also hit hardest by the climate emergency. Housing Rights’ interest in this area is rooted in the experience of people using our services. Affordability concerns and issues with poor housing standards are consistently amongst the top issues that low-income households in the private rented sector contact us for help with. Despite making up approximately 17.2% of the total housing stock in Northern Ireland, tenants who live in the private rented sector are consistently overrepresented in the number of calls to Housing Rights’ advice services. Some of the most common issues raised by clients who contact our advice service are damp, mould, cold due to poor thermal performance and affordability issues which have been exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis.

Additionally, for homeowners struggling with mortgage repayments, there is unlikely to be money to pay for home improvements which would reduce carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency. Homeowners w3ho contact our helpline have very little disposable income and high heating and electricity costs due to inflationary increases and poor home insulation. Low income homeowners, particularly those in housing debt, are often unable to carry out housing repairs and are extremely unlikely to be able to meet the costs associated with retrofitting and decarbonisation. Just as we have heard the argument made at successive COPs on climate change that the poorest who did not cause this problem must not bear the personal and financial costs of fixing it, we must take the same approach in our own country.

Published in December 2021, the draft Housing Supply Strategy (2022-2037) is a long-term framework for enabling transformational change across the housing sector. The Strategy refers to the, ‘just transition,’ in moving toward carbon neutrality. It highlights the crucial role the housing sector must play in meeting overall decarbonisation targets and in tackling fuel poverty. While the strategy provides a framework for progress, there is little detail on incentivisation for retrofitting, particularly for the homeowner and private rented sectors.

Significant progress in decarbonisation of energy in buildings is vital to achieving Northern Ireland’s climate targets. Not only does Northern Ireland’s housing stock have the worst thermal performance in the UK, there is also high dependence on oil heating and significant gaps in gas infrastructure. With 22% of Northern Ireland’s population in fuel poverty, this task must also be balanced with the need to bring everyone along to access the health, financial and environmental benefits of warm and efficiently heated homes.

In May 2023, the Forum for a Better Housing Market published a report, New Foundations: The route to low carbon homes.’ The report identified major challenges to Northern Ireland’s prospects of meeting climate targets in the realms of policy, delivery of retrofitting services and incentivisation. While it identified a commitment on behalf of social housing providers to embrace a low carbon agenda, recognising plans already in place to progress efforts to decarbonise its housing stock, it also identified challenging complexities for the homeowner and private rented sectors due to the diverse range of ownership and varying degrees of willingness and capacity. The report highlighted a knowledge gap due to a lack of data and information about associated savings and accurate payback periods.

Ongoing research by the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland on the views of and the impact on consumers as a result of working towards achieving net zero targets by 2050 has found that the public want assistance, honesty, and protection, in exchange for taking part in the energy transition and that a better understanding of consumers is required in Northern Ireland if the net zero goal is to be reached.

With the vast majority of 2050’s building stock already in existence, the Climate Change Committee advises that significant retrofitting of buildings is required to improve energy efficiency, reduce demand, and adapt energy sourcing. This is particularly important in Northern Ireland, where research from the Department of the Economy suggests that homes currently use more energy than anywhere in the UK or the Republic of Ireland.

To date, Northern Ireland has been the least responsive of the UK regions in terms of strategic governance and a coordinated policy response to the decarbonisation challenge for the housing sector. Housing Rights is keen to play our part in assisting Government though the provision of a robust evidence base upon which to develop policy in this area to meet the identified needs of some of our most vulnerable households.

For Northern Ireland to meet climate targets legislated for in the Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, our housing stock will need to undergo a transformation of retrofitting, connection to the renewable energy grid and standards. In making this transition, we must ensure that fairness and equality are central considerations. It is vitally important that everyone in Northern Ireland enjoys fair and equal access to the benefits of warm and efficient homes.

 

[1] ‘Decarbonisation’ refers to the process of reducing ‘carbon intensity’, lowering the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the burning of fossil fuels. This involves decreasing carbon dioxide output and is essential to meet global temperature standards set by the Paris Agreement (2015) and the UK government. 

 

Invitation to tender

We have issued an invitation to tender for a research project on a ‘just transition’ to net zero for low-income households in the homeowner and private rented sectors.