Oisín Coghlan: New Climate Bill scores 3 wins, 2 losses and a draw on our tests

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The head of Friends of the Earth says the Bill does well on targets but falls short on just transition and fracked gas.

THE GOVERNMENT’S REVISED Climate Action Bill is a big step in the right direction. Climate legislation is about governance – about how we make climate policy and how we make sure policy is implemented. It is the legal framework to drive action rather than being a list of actions to cut emissions.

The key elements should include:

– a long-term goal for 2050
– short-term targets for the next five or 10 years
– a duty on Government to produce an action plan to cut polluting emissions in line with the targets
– an expert council to provide independent advice to the Government and monitor progress
– robust parliamentary oversight and ministerial accountability.

When the Government produced the first draft of this Bill back in October these elements were there in outline but the language was vague and the legal links between the elements were weak, leaving glaring loopholes.

The Government only had to “pursue” the 2050 target not achieve it, the five-year targets didn’t have to be consistent with the 2050 goal, and ministers weren’t given a clear duty to achieve the five-year targets when drawing up their plans.

TDs and Senators on the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA) heard expert testimony on the draft Bill and just before Christmas agreed 78 recommendations to strengthen it. As the Government prepared its response Friends of the Earth posed six tests for the revised Bill. 

1. Does it oblige the state to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest?

There is real improvement here. The state will now have to pursue and achieve net-zero emissions by no later than 2050. It’s clearly essential that the legal obligation is not simply to try to meet the target but to actually achieve it.

But the addition of “no later than” is also crucial. While net-zero by 2050 is in line with the new EU target and with the target put into the UK Climate Act in 2019, it is not in line with Ireland’s fair share of the global effort to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.

That will require full decarbonisation much sooner. So, while putting a net zero by 2050 target into law helps drive national action now, it is imperative it’s seen as the floor not the ceiling for our ambition.

2. Are the short-term targets in the Bill itself, or left to the Government to decide? 

This is the big development. The Programme for Government commitment to cut emissions by 51% by 2030 is now included in the Bill. We know from reports that Fine Gael in particular was reluctant to translate that political promise into a legal obligation so this is welcome progress.

The strengthened Climate Change Advisory Council will now divide that 10-year target into two five-year “carbon budgets” which will be debated and adopted by the Oireachtas, not just by Government. And all future carbon budgets have to be consistent not just with the national 2050 goal but with the international Paris Agreement. 

3. Is there a clear duty on Government to produce action plans in line with the targets?

There is clear improvement here too. The October draft said the Minister shall “have regard to” the carbon budgets when preparing climate action plans. Now the action plan has to be “consistent” with the carbon budgets and all ministers must then work in a manner consistent with the plan. And there is a strong role for an Oireachtas Committee holding ministers to account. 

4. Does agriculture get special treatment or a separate target?

The Bill recognises the “distinct characteristics of biogenic methane”. However, there will be a single national carbon budget and all sectors and Government Departments will have to bid and negotiate for their share of the “pollution pie”.

The trade-offs will have to be made in public as they are when the Government prepares the financial budget, if one sector gets more, another gets less. If one sector does less to reduce emissions, the rest of us will have to do more.

5. Does the Bill enshrine climate justice and just transition?

The Bill does say that ministers must have regard to the principles of climate justice and just transition but the definitions are very weak.

There are clear international definitions available and they were ignored.

Mary Robinson is a world leader on climate justice, the principle that the poorest countries in the world who have done least to cause climate change are being hit first and hardest and we should act accordingly.

And the Irish Congress of Trade Unions proposed wording on just transition which is the principle that there should be support and dialogue with the workers and communities most affected by the move away from polluting industries. I’m sure TDs and Senators will try to amend these parts of the Bill.

6. Does the Bill deliver on Government commitments on fracked gas and LNG?

The Programme for Government promises a Policy Statement to ban the importing of fracked gas. The Government says it’ll be ready in six weeks but that legal advice says they can’t put it into law. A legal ban is much stronger as a new government could just reverse a policy, whereas only parliament can change the law.

Meanwhile, the company promoting the idea of an LNG terminal on the Shannon estuary to import fracked gas announced this week that it is preparing to apply for planning permission again. No wonder activists on the ground are disappointed and frustrated.

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So that’s three wins, two losses and a draw on our six tests: wins on the 2050 and 2030 targets and on the duty to act, losses on just transition and fracked gas and a draw on agriculture.

Of course, the law is just the beginning. Now the real work starts, to cut our polluting emissions in half in a decade and grasp the opportunities for cleaner air, warmer homes, more liveable cities, new jobs and green electricity.

Passing this law is the starting gun in the race of a lifetime. The race to zero pollution fast enough to prevent complete climate breakdown and fairly enough to leave no one behind.

Oisín Coghlan is the Director of Friends of the Earth.

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