Close, but no cigar: Climate Bill comes up short

My report on expert reaction to the eagerly awaited Climate Bill was published for a British audience on DeSmog UK in mid-October.

A DRAFT climate change bill designed to put Ireland on a path to net zero emissions has been criticised by leading climate experts as “weak” and full of “get-out clauses”.

The new bill was promised by coalition partner, the Green Party, as part of its pledge to deliver ambitious climate action within its first 100 days in office, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin describing it as “truly ground-breaking”.

But the reaction from climate advocates has been lukewarm. Maynooth University emeritus climatologist, Prof John Sweeney described the legislation as being full of “weasel words, loopholes and get-out clauses”.

Comparing the bill with the 2015 Act it is designed to strengthen, Prof Sweeney told a recent online seminar: “I’m looking at this new bill with a sense of deja-vu because I consider it contains a lot of the weaknesses of the previous bill”.

Sweeney noted that the phrase “have regard to” appears 11 times in the new bill, while there are 43 instances of the term “may”. This, he argued, provides “ready-made excuses” for a future government or minister to delay or fudge strong climate action.

Ireland remains among the highest per capita carbon emitters in the EU, with an average of 13 tonnes per person. In 2005, the EU set Ireland a 2020 target to achieve an overall 20 percent cut in emissions by 2020. However, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Ireland has probably achieved no more than a one percent overall cut in the last 15 years.

Lagging behind its neighbours

The preamble to the bill notes: “The State shall pursue the transition to a climate resilient and climate neutral economy by the end of the year 2050”. In an earlier draft circulated several months ago, this read: “The State shall pursue and achieve the transition”.

The removal of the requirement that the State actually succeed, rather than simply have an ambition to “pursue”, has caused widespread concern.

Dr Andrew Jackson, an environmental lawyer at University College Dublin who was involved in the successful action taken by Climate Case Ireland to the Supreme Court earlier this year, told DeSmog: “We’ve got one shot at this, one real chance to revise the weak 2015 framework. We need to get the governance framework right. We owe that much to ourselves and our kids”.

Dr Jackson described the new bill as “very weak compared to its international counterparts”, pointing to its lack of enforceable interim emissions targets. He added that it could “easily be strengthened” and claimed that both the 2008 UK and 2009 Scottish climate legislation were more robust than what Ireland is proposing in 2020.

Ireland is engaging in what he described as “symbolic carbon budgeting, which is simply not meaningful”. In contrast, Scotland sets annual targets, and ministers are accountable to the parliament for delivering them. The country achieved a 50 percent emissions reduction between 1990 and 2020, driven by enforceable legislation.

 The UK’s 2008 Act states that it is “the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the net UK carbon account for 2050 is at least 80 percent lower than the 1990 baseline”, increased last year to “net zero” emissions.

Ireland’s new draft bill, on the other hand, does not make the achievement of the 2050 decarbonisation target an explicit duty of either a minister or any future government, according to analysis carried out by Sadhbh O’Neill on behalf of the NGO coalition group, Stop Climate Chaos.

The repeated use of the term “have regard to” critically undermines the bill, she added. “This language must be strengthened to impose clear, unambiguous ex ante duties on the Minister and Government as is the case in the UK and Scotland Climate Change Acts.”

Preferential treatment for farming

Another major cause for concern is the special treatment given to the agricultural sector, which produces some 34 percent of Ireland’s total emissions and has been an influential opponent of climate action. The “special economic and social role of agriculture” is noted in the bill, the only sector to receive such preferential treatment.

The agri-industry and elements of the farming press in Ireland have been engaged in an ongoing campaign to downplay the climate impacts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas and by-product of ruminant agriculture, the dominant kind of farming in Ireland.

In response to this lobbying effort, the bill notes “the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane”, which the bill says is referred to in the IPCC special report published in October 2018. The report does not claim that biogenic or “enteric” methane is any less serious a problem for the climate than other forms of methane, however.

Speaking last week at the parliamentary committee on climate action, Dr Diarmuid Torney of Dublin City University noted that while the bill set out a clear procedure for setting five-yearly carbon budgets, there was “no clearly stated obligation on government to comply with these carbon budgets,” unlike in the UK.

He added that there was nothing in the bill to prevent a future government from setting carbon budgets that are “explicitly inconsistent with the 2050 objective”. Dr Torney also cautioned that the wording of the bill may not actually cover all forms of greenhouse gases.

Having been handed a painful defeat in the Supreme Court earlier this year, there is a suspicion in some quarters that much of the government’s work involved in drafting the current bill relates to preventing future legal challenges rather than achieving its objectives.

In his submission to the parliamentary committee, Jackson argued the bill had been “crafted with a view to avoiding legal accountability”. He added that “litigation based on fundamental rights cannot be avoided by adopting a woolly climate law framework.”

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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