By Michael Smith.

Climate change is the biggest issue of our age. It seems likely to leave a legacy for future generations that will mean our epoch will be remembered primarily for its stupidity and spendthrift environmental profligacy. It is generally accepted that to stabilise CO2 concentrations about 450ppm by 2050, which might avert runaway global warming, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60% of their 1990 level by 2050. 

Because rich countries have spent the proceeds of two hundred years of carbon-squandering in enriching their societies and their infrastructure it is generally accepted they must reduce by at least 80% over the period. Ireland is a rich, educated country blessed with a youthful, dynamic and imaginative population. Young people are our future and climate change is our legacy to youth. So what does the climate bill, its once-in-a-generation incarnation – delayed now for seven years since the Greens first put it in a Programme for Government, and having been through at least four iterations, do about it?

The Bill purports to establish how our transition towards a low-carbon economy will be achieved. There will be a National Mitigation Plan (to lower greenhouse-gas emissions) and a National Adaptation Framework (to deal with the changes that climate change will bring). These two plans will be renewed every five years,  They will embrace tailored sectoral plans for all government departments.

While there are no explicit targets set out, the legislation obliges the State to “take into account any existing obligation of the State under the law of the European Union or any international agreement” – a reiteration of mandatory EU targets to which all Europe is bound.

The Bill formally obliges, or rather reiterates the obligation, of the State to adhere to EU targets such as an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050 over 1990 levels and a 20% reduction in emissions by 2020 over 1995 levels. But it allows for a delay of up to two years before any plan is instigated: fully nine years after the UK Act.

This compares with the 2008 UK Act which provides for the 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050, but also that emissions reduce by 26% by 2020. Regrettably overall the Irish Climate Bill seems like a washout – of non-binding ‘commitments’, legislation that has none of the characteristics of legislation. Homeopathy for the truly sick. Gratuitous and cynical.

In essence it provides that Government shall endeavour to achieve the national climate objectives’. The UK legislation notably says: “The Environment Minister has the duty to ensure” objectives. The nub of the matter is that if the Taoiseach (or Environment Minister) has a duty to ensure 3 percent reductions every year (say) then individuals and worthy groups can probably sue the Taoiseach (or Environment Minister) for failures, possibly even injuncting her.

Clear, aggressive targets, and teeth are basically all that this Act required and the failure to provide either makes it useless. The drafters of the bill and the vested interests who lobbied for it to be toothless must know it is froth so it’s not helpful or credible to pretend otherwise. Agriculture, energy-supply and development interests know exactly what “shall endeavour”, “shall have regard to” etc mean in the context: nothing.

Climate Act wording which stated “The Taoiseach has the legal obligation to ensure compliance with the strict targets set out in this Act” and which could include the  phrase “for the avoidance of doubt, applications for judicial review  of compliance with the targets set out in this bill, including for injunctive relief, may be made by interested parties”, or some such would present third parties with a right to go to court if the targets referred to are breached. The risk of litigation would concentrate official minds on compliance.

In passing it is worth pausing to note that the Greens’ bill, about which much was made in the dying days of the 2007-11 coalition, was not much better.

Illegal behaviour can already expressly be challenged in the courts by third parties in the case of planning legislation and under EPA and water legislation.

The Bill also proposes the establishment of an expert advisory council of between nine and 11 members which to make recommendations to the Minister for the Environment.

Its chair will be independent but it will include the top officials from the EPA, Teagasc, Sustainable Energy Ireland and the ESRI, but not campaigning environmentalists such as the Irish Environmental Network, at least ex officio. Unlike the Fiscal Advisory Group the legislation does not even bother to state that the council will be independent. The Minister will not be obliged to follow its advice although he or she will be required to make an annual transition statement to the Dáil.

Environment Minister Alan Kelly said the Bill gave a “solid statutory foundation” and noted: “It is important that developed countries such as Ireland provide leadership in terms of their contribution and the framework underpinned by this bill will enable such a response to be developed well into the future”.

On the other hand spokesman  for Stop Climate Chaos (SCC), the leading climate NGO alliance,  Oisin Coghlan, said: “This legislation is urgent, Ireland is already off-track and without climate action plan. It’s now up to TDs and senators to fix this bill and pass it into law as quickly as possible”.

Aid agency Trócaire also criticised the bill, with executive director Eamonn Meehan saying a national mitigation plan would not be produced until 2017. Indeed this two-year delay is arguably the only substantive change from the draft Bill produced by Phil Hogan a year ago. The Government has delayed the adoption of a national mitigation plan with sectoral policy measures by at least another two years.

Oisín Coghlan said it was deeply disappointing the Bill had ignored the proposals of the Oireachtas Committee. “The Bill does not include a definition of low carbon, it doesn’t guarantee the independence of the Council, and it doesn’t include the principles of climate justice,” he said. His comments are reflected in the press releases of SCC. An Taisce took some weeks to think about the situation and then followed the SCC line.

The comments are tangential to the main issue which is the failure to provide teeth for the enforcement of aggressive targets.

The views are amateurish which is surprising coming from groups which, if they stand for anything, oppose amateurishness in climate science. No-one thought to get a legal opinion on the matter. An interesting opinion for those concerned is that of Dr Peter Doran for Ceartas, though for some reason he works on the premise that justiciability is not desirable.

So, for example, the definition of low carbon is significantly less important than, indeed a subsidiary component of the need for, aggressive targets; the Council itself and its advice would be of little interest if the Government was legally obliged to meet aggressive targets and risked being sued for failure; and justice, though crucial, is hardly a central issue when the Bill aspires to so little environmentally about which it would be imperative to be just. The “key issues” isolated by campaigners are in fact a sideshow.

It is not surprising government feels it can pander to vested interests, and that the public feels unscandalised and confused, when the campaigners are not conveying the central message: no new targets and no teeth Not of course that the task is easy or that it is done better in other countries.

The Bill now goes to the Dáil in the week of February 9.

As the Government has ignored the recommendations of the all-party Oireachtas environment committee, SCC says it will be calling on TDs and Senators to fix the Bill and pass it into law as quickly as possible.

Friends of the Earth wrote to its members advising that “the Government published its long-awaited Climate Bill last week. Thanks to you. Only the pressure of our collective campaigning has kept climate change on the political agenda during the recession”.

If indeed that is true, remaining on the agenda has not been enough. If we divorce ourselves from the need for self-gratulation and voguish positivity the Climate Bill, in the absence of any focus on targets and teeth, achieves precisely nothing. •