[Published by the Irish Times on the 8th October 2020]
Yesterday, 102 days after the formation of the Government, we finally saw the publication of the government’s Climate Bill. It should represent a milestone in Irish climate policy, and an important early achievement of the new government. But does it deliver on the commitments made in the Programme for Government and the recommendations of the landmark Citizens’ Assembly and subsequent Oireachtas report on climate action?
A key weakness in the current Climate Act – passed in 2015 – was the absence of a legally binding numerical target for emissions reduction. Does the new Bill rectify this? Well yes and no. The Bill does propose 2050 as the target date for achieving the transition to climate neutrality, where greenhouse gas emissions are balanced by ‘removals’ such as sequestration from land-use, forestry or even negative emission technologies, though these remain speculative at best.
The goal of climate neutrality by 2050 is a clear improvement on the 2015 Act but unfortunately the Bill’s target is not evidence-based in a world of accelerating ecological and climate crisis. Ireland is currently blowing through its fair share of the global budget that would keep global warming below 1.5°C or even 2°C. The target date of 2050 does not reflect the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) science which would require Ireland to contribute to the global effort by reaching net zero emissions much earlier than 2050.
The Bill does go a considerable way to implementing the recommendations of the cross-party Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action published in 2019 by strengthening the functions of the Climate Change Advisory Council and by empowering it to recommend carbon budgets, with a more diverse and gender balanced membership drawn from different disciplines.
It is welcome that the expert advisory body is empowered with the mandate to devise and propose five-year carbon budgets, but the Bill does not specify that these must be consistent with the trajectory of emissions that will achieve the 2050 climate neutrality goal and align Ireland with our obligations under the Paris Agreement.
Unfortunately the Bill does not propose to make the Council a fully independent body like the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. It is likely therefore that the Council will remain embedded within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the time being, which must not constrain it from finding its voice, and speaking ‘truth to power’ when needed.
The Council will be required to have regard to a range of criteria in drawing up a programme of three five-year carbon budgets which are then approved by Government and by a motion passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. This mechanism will be critical to the success of climate policy. A budget sets a ceiling on allowable emissions over a five-year period, which is then divided out between various economic sectors, such as transport, agriculture and so on. All sectoral budgets (referred to confusingly as decarbonisation target ranges in the Bill) must ‘add up to’ the overall carbon budget. As drafted, the budget will apply across the entire economy to all sectors and gases. But there is considerable scope for slippage and dodgy carbon accounting in the way the process is defined. These loopholes must be eliminated to avoid the backsliding we witnessed in the past decade as target after target passed by.
Unfortunately, the Bill does not follow the example of the 2008 UK Climate Change Act by requiring the Minister to prepare policies and proposals that enable the ultimate target to be met. This suggests that the Bill consists of several elements that are ‘free floating’ and not joined up properly to ensure policy coherence and accountability. Whether these are drafting errors or deliberate omissions, they need to be rectified by way of amendment as soon as possible in the forthcoming legislative process. The duty of the Minister to achieve the target must be firmly established in law.
This is one of the most important issues that the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action should consider during its scrutiny of the draft Bill. Otherwise the Bill could create a circular set of responsibilities with no-one ultimately accountable for achieving anything at all.
What must be avoided, at both national and local level, is the creation of legal obligations that only leave us, as Dr Cara Augustenborg has commented, drowning in toothless plans as if plans by themselves do the trick of reducing emissions. They don’t.
We need a strong legal framework, followed by extensive public engagement and sectoral dialogue as we move to the next phase of climate action where we actually roll up our sleeves at all levels of society and start a just transition towards an economy with zero emissions. It should have started over a decade ago, but it must start today.
Sadhbh O Neill is Policy coordinator of Stop Climate Chaos coalition