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5 Tests for the Climate Action Bill

28 Sep 2020

Friends of the Earth sets Five Questions for the new Climate Bill, as Minister Ryan announces it will be published next week

Responding to the announcement from Minister Eamon Ryan over the weekend that the outline of the Climate Action Bill has been approved by Cabinet in advance of its publication next week, Friends of the Earth today laid out the five questions the Bill needs to answer.

Commenting, Friends of the Earth Director, Oisín Coghlan said:

“The approval of the Climate Bill by Cabinet is welcome step. Friends of the Earth has been campaigning for a strong law to drive climate action for 13 years.

“When it’s published next week we’ll ask the same the questions we’ve asked of every Climate Bill. If the answers are positive and the Bill is in line with the recommendations of the special all-party Oireachtas committee last year, then we support the Minister’s call for the Bill to be passed by Christmas."

Friends of the Earth has laid out the 5 questions it will use to assess the Climate Action Bill:

  1. Does it put the Government's target of net-zero emissions by 2050 into law?
  2. Does it create a fully independent expert Council to advise Government and monitor progress?
  3. Does it mandate Government to propose 5-year pollution limits that will be legally binding once adopted by the Dáil?
  4. Will the 5-year pollution limits include all greenhouses gasses and all sectors of the economy?
  5. Does the Bill provide for robust Ministerial accountability to the Oireachtas for keeping within the legally-binding pollution limits?
  1. Does it put Ireland’s 2050 target into law?

Ireland’s previous emissions reduction targets for 2010 and 2020 were agreed international commitments but were not given the force of national law. As a result our political and administrative system did not gear up to plan to meet those targets in a timely manner. The cornerstone of framework climate laws in other countries is to explicitly put an agreed long-term target into law, to make sure all Departments across Government take climate action seriously and all Governments across time take action consistently. The Programme for Government adopted a new national target of “net-zero” emissions by 2050. This is in line with what the EU is also planning to adopt as its target. It still falls short of what climate science and climate justice demands, however. It is essential therefore that the law says Ireland will reach net-zero emissions by 2050 “at the latest”. It is a legal backstop, the floor not the ceiling for our ambition.

  1. Does it create an fully independent expert Council to advise Government and monitor progress?

The current Climate Advisory Council, chaired by Prof John Fitzgerald, has too many economists, too many men and isn’t independent enough. The new Council should be fully, legally, independent, like the Fiscal Advisory Council. And the new law must mandate that the Council will have climate scientists, social scientists and ecologists as well as economists and engineers. There should be no ex-officio members representing state agencies as at present (EPA, SEAI, Teagasc, ESRI), their expertise should be available to the Secretariat and presented as appropriate to the Council.

  1. Does it mandate Government to propose 5-year pollution limits that will be legally binding once adopted by the Dáil?

The centrepiece of an effective climate law is a mandate for legally binding 5-year emissions targets. The law should provide for the 5-year targets to be proposed by the Climate Council, approved by the Government and then adopted by a vote of the Dáil making them legally binding. These targets must be expressed in terms of the total amount of greenhouse gases Ireland can emit over a five year period. That is called a Carbon Budget, which is nothing to do with money, it is a budget in the sense that it is a limit on how much pollution we can emit in the way that a financial budget is a limit on how much money we can spend.

  1. Will the 5-year pollution limits include all greenhouses gasses and all sectors of the economy?

In due course, when it comes to the actual plan to reduce emissions there may well be different policies and measures for different sectors. But the law must specify that the overall 5-year target will be a cumulative national one, covering polluting emissions of all greenhouse gases from all sectors of the economy. When the first 5-year pollution limit, the Carbon Budget, is being adopted next year, the share of permitted emissions allocated to agriculture may well be bigger than the share for transport or energy but it all has to be negotiated and agreed as part of a single overall national emissions cap. Nobody is expecting farmers to reduce their pollution as fast as other businesses, commuters and householders but their emissions will have to start coming down rather than rising like they are at the moment.

  1. Does the Bill provide for robust Ministerial accountability to the Oireachtas for keeping within the legally-binding pollution limits?

The Bill needs to be clear about the duty it places on Ministers to keep Ireland’s emissions within the 5-year pollution limits set down in the Carbon Budgets adopted by the Dáil. The Bill must give an Oireachtas Committee the mandate to act like a Public Accounts Committee for climate-polluting emissions, holding ministers and officials to account.

The new Bill must also preserve the same right for citizens to take the Government to court that led the Supreme Court to quash the 2017 National Mitigation Plan in its landmark judgement in August. In addition to these 5 questions, recent research by Friends of the Earth concluded that State bodies with significant responsibility for emissions, such as Gas Networks Ireland, the ESB and the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities should be reformed to ensure they are legally mandated to comply with the Government's overall ambition to reduce climate polluting emissions and align with the Paris Agreement.

The Programme for Government committed to publishing a new climate law in the first 100 days of the new administration. Day 100 is next Monday, 5th October. Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil last Wednesday that “the objective is to have the Bill ready and published within 100 days, give or take a day or two”. That suggests it won’t be published until after the weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday 6th.

The Climate Bill is only the first piece of the jigsaw of climate policy commitments made by the new Government: a new Climate Council needs to be appointed by January, that Council will need to start work immediately on proposals for the five-year emissions targets known as Carbon Budgets, and a new climate action plan will need to be produced next year, to replace the 2017 plan struck down by the Supreme Court in August. The Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, of which Friends of the Earth is a member, laid out 5 principles that should guide all climate action last week.

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