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.
The long-heralded Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015 may or may not be adopted before the summer recess. The Bill purports to establish how our transition towards a low-carbon economy will be achieved.
While there are no explicit targets set out, the Bill obliges the State to “take into account any existing obligation of the State under the law of the European Union or any international agreement”. This compares with the 2008 British Act which provides for an 80% reduction by 2050. Regrettably overall the Climate Bill remains like a washout – of non-binding ‘commitments’, legislation that has none of the characteristics of legislation.
In essence it provides that government shall endeavour to achieve the national climate objectives’. A 2013 draft (and the British legislation) notably said ‘The Taoiseach (and the British 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 particular percentage 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 Bill required and the failure to provide teeth or new targets makes it useless. Agriculture, energy-supply and development interests know exactly what “shall endeavour”, “shall have regard to” etc mean in the context: nothing. 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.
As to the targets themselves in effect the Bill formally obliges, or rather reiterates the obligation, of the State to adhere to EU targets such as a 20 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 over 1995 (or is it 2005) levels. The legislation will offer formal recognition to Government policy on climate change, without specifying its carbon reduction target of 80 per cent by 2050, based on 1990 figures. The sole useful concession made during passage of the bill has been the formal incorporation of specific, minimum, national targets governing emissions reduction between now and 2050. Nevertheless ‘National’ ie vested interests especially agriculture and transport promoted by the IFA and IBEC will not be derailed by this government or any likely replacement or by any likely Act. The Department of Agriculture estimates that emissions from the beef and dairy sector will increase by about one-third by 2020. Irish farmers are efficient, low-carbon producers and milk output has already surged by about 16 per cent this year. Should production be increased – without carbon reductions elsewhere – if it adds to misery and dislocation in poor countries?
No Irish Government has ever specified how the overall 2020 EU-led target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% on 2005 levels is to be shared – i.e., what each sector must do to meet the required total reduction. Therefore we can only assume that each sector has the same 20% target as the National target. Ireland is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 to a level 20% lower than in 2005 in the buildings, transport and agriculture sectors combined. This is the so-called ‘non-ETS’ group of sectors that makes up the national emissions that are not traded within in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Agriculture comprises over 44% of Ireland’s non-ETS sector and transport 26%. In that light, it is shocking that the Departments of Transport and Agriculture in particular, appear to be already preparing to renege on such targets. Rather than the 20% reduction, transport is set to achieve nothing at all. Agriculture is set for only a 4% cut, which has been further reinforced by the publication of “Food Wise 2025”, a new “10-year vision for the Irish Agri-food industry”. Despite an entire chapter dedicated to “sustainability”, there is still no concrete sectoral commitment to absolute emissions reduction of any level – the spin is on reducing the emissions per unit of beef. And almost no-one in the environmental sector wants to tell the truth that, worldwide, people are going to have to get used to eating less beef because its production is necessarily environmentally profligate.
The Bill provides that 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). Following amendments, the timeframe for production of a National Mitigation Plan will be reduced to 18 months. Based on EPA calculations, however, the State will have exceeded its 2020 emission targets by the time that plan is made public. It will also have become liable to heavy EU fines.
These two plans will be renewed every five years, They will embrace tailored sectoral plans for all government departments.
So-called concessions, following criticism from environmental NGOs and Opposition parties in the Dáil, have inevitably been ‘welcomed” by the likes of Stop Climate Chaos, an umbrella group that specialises in welcoming governmental climate measures, even weak ones, and then applying a caveat, rather than deploring where appropriate – and applying a qualifier for anything positive.
An assessment of the Bill by Client Earth, a London-based organisation of activist environmental lawyers, whose terms of reference were amateurishly constructed by Stop Climate Chaos, concluded that the lack of a 2050 target for reducing emissions produces “critical uncertainty” for investors. It also finds the membership of the Expert Advisory Council undermines its independence and concludes that unless the Bill is revised at Committee Stage in the Dáil, the Bill will “do little to help Ireland meet its international commitments or move the economy onto a less polluting pathway”.
Nowhere does the assessment refer to the failure to make the bill justiciable, ie actionable by third parties such as environmentalists. As streetwise environmentalists know, in Irish environmental and planning contexts justiciability is the key to the implementation of all environmental legislation.
Stop Climate Chaos comprises a membership largely unversed in Irish environmental realities – in particular the governmental preference for rhetoric over action. Most of the SCC component groups are wedded to false welcomings, contrived optimism, legal amateurism and an obsession with images of alarms ringing and heads in the sand, as well as stunts on the sands of bourgeois Sandymount. Worse still Friends of the Earth (FoE), probably the lead group within SCC (An Taisce has a strong climate committee but its involvement in the alliance is weak), runs at a small annual deficit and depends on a loan from its British sister organisation. Dependent on membership support and increases, it has adopted a business model that depends on telling its members that just one push by them will get us where we want to be environmentally so its influence is imprisoned by false or contrived optimism. The official first goal for FoE is “to develop Friends of the Earth’s capacity, credibility and legitimacy”. To “move Ireland toward a sustainable and equitable level of resource use” comes in at number four. There is a danger that too much of the effort of activists is going into airy-fairy events and not enough into forcing politicians to change, through research, and aggressive mind-concentrating activism, including perhaps demonstrations rather than events.
Typical FoE press releases centre not on the overwhelming legal inadequacy of the bill but on the following ‘key’ issues: “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”.
Taking these in turn:
The definition of low carbon is definitively 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. In the end the Minister, following naïve lobbying of Enda Kenny by Mary Robinson, agreed to “refer to” climate justice, in the Act. But reference to anything in an act is meaningless unless the thing is made enforceable. Commenting on the appointment of a climate advisory council, Friends of the Earth decent and intelligent Director, Oisín Coghlan, said that: “The Minister named a strong line-up for this first Council today. The question now is will they be given the explicit legal protection to do their job independently and the resources to do it properly”. Coughlan knows well they will not all be independent and that they cannot hope to do their job properly in the absence of teeth for the Act they will oversee. He finishes with “This could be our last chance to improve the Climate Bill before it becomes law”. In fact toothless, almost targetless, legislation remains such whatever the improvement.
The ‘key issues’ isolated by the most prominent 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: the long-delayed bill contains no new targets and no teeth. •