Beyond Academic Silos: Collaboration for Climate Action

Beyond Academic Silos: Collaboration for Climate Action

Dr Amanda Slevin*

In the midst of our world’s triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and air pollution, one can, understandably, feel overwhelmed about the scale of the challenges we face. Some people can feel powerless and unsure about steps we can take to address these pressing socio-ecological crises. Meanwhile others engage in climate denial and political point scoring, contributing to societal divisions that hamper climate action.

The extent and urgency of the entwined climate and ecological emergency necessitate new ways of thinking about, and acting upon, the biggest challenges humanity has ever faced; these issues are highly pronounced in Northern Ireland where the legacy of prolonged conflict has culminated in a divided society.

In this article, I share some insights from collective climate action in Northern Ireland, which not only contributed to enactment of NI’s first climate act but also served as a mechanism for unprecedented cross-party, cross-community collaboration as a crucial pre-requisite to commence our transition to a sustainable, net-zero future. I conclude by proposing those of us who work in universities have multiple responsibilities to go beyond academic silos and use our research, expertise and skills to collaborate with communities and the wider public to support socio-ecological transformations.

Limited climate action in Northern Ireland

The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) heralded a new era in global climate awareness and action and its groundbreaking Paris Agreement (2015) saw 196 nations commit to ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its consequences. Many countries implemented national climate legislation and policies, including the UK, which was one of the first to introduce a dedicated climate act. Despite the UK’s Climate Change Act (2008) providing a ‘legal duty to act’ upon climate breakdown, notably seeking net zero emissions by 2050, as a devolved nation Northern Ireland was not obliged to follow the UK’s path and it has historically been an outlier that lags behind neighbouring countries’ net zero commitments.

A series of Northern Ireland Assembly collapses is posited as a reason for NI’s lacklustre climate commitments, however, NI’s inaction goes deeper than political struggles.  Since 2008, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC, the UK’s independent advisory body) has advised the Northern Ireland Assembly (NIA) on greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets. Indeed, Building a Better Future, the 2008-2011 Programme for Government identified protection and enhancement of the environment and natural resources as a priority and referred to plans to reduce emissions. Limited progress followed and NI’s climate inaction saga also encompasses a NIA ‘Inquiry into Climate Change’ (2009); CCC recommendations for emission reduction targets (2011), sent to the Minister for the Environment Edwin Poots (DUP MLA, a farmer by background) that were not pursued; and, further advice on legislation and reduction targets from the CCC in 2015.

When the NIA collapsed in 2017 over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, NI did not have dedicated climate legislation. The Assembly’s return in 2020, premised upon the New Decade, New Approach deal, offered hope for climate action, not least as the Executive committed to introducing a climate change act. The Assembly also declared a climate emergency on 3 February 2020. Yet, by, July 2020, there had been no progress on climate legislation. After Edwin Poots (by then Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs) rejected an Assembly motion to pass urgent climate legislation (21 July 2020), civil society groups began to consider other options to progress climate action.

Multi-partner collaboration for climate action

In January 2020, Northern Ireland Environment Link convened the first meeting of Climate Coalition Northern Ireland (CCNI) and, on 21 July 2020, as the Assembly debated possibilities for urgent climate legislation, I was elected as CCNI’s first Chairperson (2020-2022). The DUP Minister’s long-running resistance to climate legislation, in tandem with growing public appetite for climate action, led CCNI members to consider how a climate act might be advanced. We reached out to Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from across the political spectrum, political party members, and independent legal experts in order to explore options for climate legislation. 

So began an incredible journey of extraordinary collaboration between CCNI (Northern Ireland’s largest civil society network for climate action), cross-community, cross-party MLAs, their advisers, and independent legal experts around the development of NI’s first climate change bill. Hand in hand with our engagement with MLAs, we met with a wide range of groups from across the public, private and third sectors, inviting their views and sharing these with MLAs and legal drafters. On the three-month anniversary of when Minister Poots refused to entertain urgent climate legislation, NI’s first climate change bill (a Private Members’ Bill, PMB) was submitted to the NIA Speaker’s office. In an exciting precedent, the PMB was co-sponsored by Green Party leader Clare Bailey (lead co-sponsor), Philip McGuigan (Sinn Féin), Mark H. Durkan (SDLP), John Stewart (Ulster Unionist Party), John Blair (Alliance Party), Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit), Claire Sugden (Independent) and Trevor Lunn (Independent). DUP MLA Jim Wells also supported the PMB throughout different stages of the bill’s progress. Not only had we co-developed NI’s first climate bill, we did so in a participatory manner that transcended traditional political divisions.

The PMB had passed first stage (22 March 2021), second stage (10 May 2021) and committee stage (8 December 2021), when Minister Poots decided to introduce his own less ambitious climate change bill. As colleagues and I discuss elsewhere, Poots’ bill benefitted from extensive examination of the PMB and his bill leapfrogged ahead, reaching final stage on 9 March 2022. The bill was sent for Royal Assent before the most recent NIA collapse and the Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) was enacted on 6 June 2022.

Our multi-partner collaborations, hand in hand with research we shared with cross-community MLAs, meant NI’s Climate Change Act featured many elements not contained within Poots’ original bill. For example, Poots’ bill entailed 82% emission reductions by 2050 (compared with the PMB’s target of net-zero by 2045) and gave the Department power to amend targets and created requirements for carbon budgets. Following wide-ranging cross-party amendments to Poots’ bill, the Act encompasses core aspects of the PMB such as a net-zero target (although by 2050 instead of 2045); sectoral plans; carbon budgets; just transition principles. The Act also mandates the establishment of an independent Northern Ireland Climate Commissioner, a Just Transition Commission, and a Just Transition Fund for agriculture. Furthermore, the Act incorporates a concern for nature-based solutions to ‘protect, restore or sustainably manage ecosystems’ and seeks to reduce inequalities as core elements of a just transition. In summer 2022, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) opened a public consultation on key climate policy aspects such as emission reduction targets and carbon budgets.

Beyond academic silos

The PMB and subsequent deliberations behind NI’s first climate change act, symbolise a novel approach to legislation and policy development that surpassed the usual written submissions on policy options. Influenced by Sherry Arnstein’s seminal ladder of citizen participation, CCNI’s collaborations with MLAs and diverse civil society groups shaped NI’s Climate Act and evolving policy context. We also developed connections to maintain diverse voices within in policy formation, for example, SECA recently co-hosted with DAERA a public consultation event on policy options, and we made a written submission to the carbon budgets consultation. Whilst there is a long way to go until active citizen power is the preferred model for decision-making and policy-formation, our experiences illustrate new, inclusive possibilities that are important for generally accepted transitions to a sustainable, healthy and fairer future. The value of such approaches cannot be understated in an era when some governments seek to criminalise climate protestors and rollback on climate commitments. In addition, the ongoing lack of a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly makes citizen participation in policy formation and decision-making vital.

Readers of this article may be surprised at an academic being actively involved in climate action and suggest policies and politics be left to politicians, not involve academics or everyday people in society. However, the accelerating planetary emergency leaves us with little choice – either we act now to slow down unimaginable socio-ecological consequences for current and future generations or we dither as our world burns and millions of people and other species suffer. As an environmental social scientist and educator, I believe science is not neutral and hold a Freirean-inspired stance that regards participative, interdisciplinary approaches to praxis (a continual cycle of research and practice/ reflection and action) as essential for just transitions to an actually sustainable future.

Academics hold important roles in society and we have responsibilities, within and beyond our universities. Many higher education institutions have declared a climate emergency yet failed to implement widespread changes across their myriad practices (for example, teaching, research, operations, staff and student travel), thus serving to reproduce unsustainability. In the context of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced, there is an onus upon all of us to move beyond academic silos and academia’s dominant emphasis on publications in order to prioritise public actions for a better future, undertaking interdisciplinary collaborations with each other and wider society. We have no time to waste.

*Dr Amanda Slevin is Director of the Centre for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action (SECA) in Queen’s University Belfast and she works as a Research Fellow with the GroundsWell Consortium.