Climate Bill a chance to set new anti-fossil fuel norms

[Published in the Irish Times on Friday March 26th 2021]

While the Cabinet was busy finalising the Climate Bill on Tuesday last, over in the Dáil chamber members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action were being treated to a vision of what climate action might actually look like. Expert witnesses described a possible future in which 98 per cent of Dublin’s households would not need to own a car; one where the drop in car ownership freed up space for more cycle lanes and public transport.

Reallocating road space for shared mobility instead of individual vehicles would be the norm, leading to all sorts of benefits including more active lifestyles, lower air pollution and household costs and the possibility of much denser urban forms that in turn, could make high-quality housing more affordable. While the Bill is full of dry abstractions in comparison, it provides the very framework for turning that vision into reality, if it is implemented.

The Bill is undeniably ambitious in setting an interim target of a 51 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 via instruction to the Climate Change Advisory Council in how it goes about proposing carbon budgets. The Government parties deserve some credit for agreeing to include a target that reflects the programme for government commitment, especially as it leaves just nine years to reverse decades of policy failure and poor implementation.

From a climate science point of view however, achieving the promised 7 per cent annual reductions from this year onwards is actually more important. We have an impressive record in Ireland of using distant targets as an excuse to postpone action and in the hope that a magical technology will appear, or better still, a different government with fewer financial constraints on public expenditure.

The 2030 target is ambitious, nonetheless, and Ireland will be among the first countries in the world to deliver such emission reductions in less than a decade. By way of comparison, it took the UK government 12 years to reduce emissions by 40 per cent and that was in no small measure helped by the relocation of heavy industry and a shift from coal to North Sea gas. However, one of the inconvenient truths about climate action is that the timescales for political action, including electoral cycles, do not match those of physics. Setting a target of net zero for 2050 is increasingly out of synch with climate science, as it provides no guarantee of holding global warming below 1.5 degrees.

Ireland’s climate law should be guided by the Paris Agreement obligation to limit global warming below 2 degrees and pursue a 1.5 degrees target. This would require us, as a wealthy developed country with high per capita emissions, to achieve complete decarbonisation much earlier than 2050.

Furthermore, “net” targets essentially rely on unproven speculative technologies such as carbon capture and storage, or offsetting (purchasing carbon “credits” from other countries to offset emissions at home). Here in Ireland much will be made of the potential for soils, forestry and hedgerows to “offset” emissions so that by 2050 soils and trees are “drawing down” and sequestering at least as much carbon as Ireland is emitting. However, this would not be a reliable or permanent way to handle emissions from fossil fuels, especially when one considers that land use is currently emitting more greenhouse gases than it draws down at the moment.

What is really significant about the Bill is that it puts the State firmly in the driving seat of change. Only the State has the resources to invest in green infrastructure, research, innovation and financial supports to households and businesses. It is pointless to expect the private sector or local authorities to reduce emissions unless there is a level playing field and unless government policies support decarbonisation instead of its opposite.

Just as the Government is currently backing capital projects such as roads under Project Ireland 2040 that will likely lead to more emissions, a shift in priorities towards climate action would focus those expenditures in grid improvements, offshore wind and public transport and away from road developments altogether.

That is the context in which the Bill must be viewed: as a framework for policy-making that ensures all sectors, public bodies and State agencies are bound by the same rules.

Setting climate targets in law is also an opportunity to establish new anti-fossil fuel norms, in the same way that struggles for social justice and civil rights have over time transformed rhetoric into rights.

As we consider the potential for the Bill to reduce emissions by 7 per cent per annum or 51 per cent by 2030, we need to start thinking about how that number translates into concrete actions that inspire the widespread changes to consumption and production patterns throughout the economy – from agriculture, heating and buildings, transport and power generation, down to community level engagement and public participation.

This will require a holistic and coherent framework of actions that maximise the benefits of early action. No one should feel threatened by these changes and they should be seen as opportunities to design a new, clean and renewable energy system, restore nature, build a world-class public transport system and invest in innovative industries that will generate jobs for generations to come.

The fact that the carbon budgets must cover the whole economy and all greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane, is welcome. This will shift the political debate into the concrete steps that all sectors will be required to take, within a carbon budget that covers the whole economy. Exceptionalism cannot be the default position any longer for any sector, especially agriculture.

There will be much discussion of the Bill by policy and legal experts over the forthcoming weeks when it is debated in full by the Oireachtas. It should be strengthened at committee stage. We should be clear, however, that this is just the starting line and the race has already begun. Targets are only as good as the actions taken to meet them, and the upcoming national action plan needs to outline the changes that will deliver rapid and sustained emissions reductions of 7 per cent every year.

Sadbh O’ Neill is policy co-ordinator for the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition.

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