Northern Ireland is entering a critical phase in its net zero transition – and it is time to begin turning challenges into opportunities.

The region’s drive towards meeting net zero and renewables targets has not been smooth, hindered significantly over the last two years by the absence of a functioning Executive.

The recent return of the Northern Ireland Assembly, therefore, has the potential to provide a much-needed shot in the arm for all energy stakeholders as they continue to embrace decarbonisation and help the region to meet its targets.

While those of us immersed in the sector have increased renewable generation, decarbonisation of the gas network and the electrification of vehicles at the forefront of our minds, people sometimes need something tangible to fully appreciate how urgent it is for Northern Ireland to decarbonise its energy system, economy, transport and buildings.

The change in weather patterns that the region has been experiencing could be a help in this regard.

Northern Ireland experienced its warmest year on record in 2023, according to the Met Office, with an average temperature of 10.17C, beating the previous record of 9.83C which was set the year before.

Indeed, eight out of Northern Ireland’s top 10 warmest years since records began in 1884 have all been recorded this century, which is a sure sign of the changing climate that the region is experiencing.

Senior scientist Mike Kendon told the BBC last month that he expects this pattern to continue, adding, somewhat significantly, that this is “a result of human-induced climate change”.

A stark warning if ever one was needed.

While they have been discussed widely, it is perhaps timely to provide a reminder of those looming 2030 targets that Northern Ireland is facing.

The Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 states that 80% of our electricity consumption must come from renewable sources by 2030 and sets a target of net zero emissions by 2050, but with an interim target of at least a 48% reduction in net emissions by 2030.

Northern Ireland has a long way to go to meet these targets. Indeed, 47.4% of its total electricity between October 2022 and September 2023 was generated from renewable sources, which represented a 1.6% decrease on the previous 12-month period.

Going from 47.4% to 80% in six years will be challenging. However, with Ministers and MLAs back at their desks, the opportunity now exists to inject new life into Northern Ireland’s net zero transition.

The absence of both a regulatory framework and a platform for key policy decisions to be made, including in relation to a new renewables support scheme, has significantly hindered the energy sector, causing frustration for current energy market participants and acting as a deterrent to private companies considering investing in the market. That fog will hopefully now begin to lift.

The electricity network infrastructure urgently needs significant investment to facilitate increased renewable generation.

Meanwhile the planning delays experienced in Northern Ireland comparative to the rest of the UK is another barrier that urgently needs addressed if the targets are to be met. Planning permission for renewable energy projects in Northern Ireland can take three years or longer, while similar projects in the rest of the UK can get the go-ahead in a year. These significant pieces of infrastructure cannot be built overnight, which underscores the impending approach of the 2030 deadline.

Northern Ireland is a relatively small country and a lot can be done here quite quickly. There have been success stories in the past and there is still a very real chance for the region to become a world leader in the net zero transition, generating the economic benefits that would bring. A collaborative effort between all key stakeholders can make that happen.


By David White, Partner, Arthur Cox