Political reality stymies action on climate change

Tue, Feb 26, 2013, 00:00

Analysis:When recession hit hard in 2009, climate change plummeted down the political agenda as quickly as shares in Anglo Irish Bank. An indication of its marginalisation has been the spectacular decline in media coverage – the total number of articles on climate change in Irish newspapers fell from 2,780 in 2009 to only 972 in 2012.

Yet, at the same time, the recession, especially the fall in activity in the transport sector, helped Ireland to meet its Kyoto targets by the end of 2102. But with far more daunting reductions in greenhouse gas emission cuts in prospect – and evidence of accelerating global warming – climate change campaigners have accused the Coalition parties of political inertia, and of backsliding on commitments they made before the elections.

In Ireland the political response to climate change in recent years has centred largely on legislation and the notion of statutory targets that are legally binding on government.

The inspiration for this came from Britain where a climate change Act was enacted in 2008. It set down binding (and ambitious) targets of 34 per cent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050.

It also put annual carbon budgets (commitments to reduce emissions by a specified amount) on a statutory basis. And the law paved the way for an independent climate change committee which would monitor progress and make recommendations.

Putting what were essentially policy goals on a statutory footing was novel but, overall, the legislation seems to have been broadly effective. The commission last year reported a 7 per cent fall in emissions but also did not pull punches when saying it was only a quarter of what was required for future carbon budgets. The Bill is also seen as an effective foil to more reactionary views from the Conservative Party.

Such a law became the Holy Grail for the Greens in the last government. But Fianna Fáil dragged their heels for more than three years. In the meantime Labour and an all-party committee came up with their Bills. By the time the Climate Change Response Bill materialised at the tail end of 2010 it was too late and the government collapsed before it could be made law.

Political sphere

The doomed Bill set targets compared to 1990 levels: 20 per cent-plus reductions by 2020; 40 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050. It also provided for a national climate-change plan and an annual transition plan (a carbon budget) with yearly reporting requirements to the Oireachtas.

One unusual aspect is that the targets were described as “nonjusticiable”. In essence, that was a dilution, very much retaining them in the political sphere. It is believed the Attorney General’s office in the current Government was unsure about the legal soundness of this concept when the issue of targets arose with the current legislation.

With a change of government, there was a change in policy and a compromise between Labour’s greater ambition and Fine Gael caution. A Bill was promised but the programme commitment went no further than saying emissions reductions would be “in line with negotiated EU 2020 targets”. In other words, targets for 2020 but not beyond.

New Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan was described as a politician who had not bought into climate change. That wasn’t quite true, but neither was he a supporter of statutory targets or, in particular, of what he considered as over-onerous burdens being placed on the agricultural sector.

The heads of Bill for the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2013 are due to be published today following the weekly Cabinet meeting. The document is, apparently at Labour Party insistence, much stronger than the iteration that appeared before Christmas.

The Bill will make the EU targets for 2020 the national targets, obliging the State to show it will comply. It also creates a legal onus to comply with “future obligations of the State under any international agreement”. The aspiration for 2050 is a general one, of a transition to a low-carbon economy.

Every seven years or less, the government will be required to produce a plan to meet targets. The minister for the environment will be required to account to the Dáil each year on progress. The Bill does provide for an expert advisory group to review compliance. It will be set up within Environmental Protection but include heads of other key State agencies.

The ultimate purpose of the legislation is to make government accountable to the Dáil for the achievement of the targets – not to make government accountable to the courts for what is, ultimately, an inexact science, said a source.

It is the lack of longer-term targets, however, that have raised most ire, with detractors accusing the Coalition parties, especially Labour, of reneging on goals.

Prof John Sweeney, president of An Taisce, is critical of a law that is target-free beyond 2020. “We have seen in Ireland that ‘light touch’ and ‘aspirational’ policies have not worked where regulation is essential. This is true from planning to banking to protection of our natural resources. We know the disastrous consequences.”

Former Green Party TD Ciarán Cuffe has argued: “Without targets, without limits, we have nothing. A Bill with no targets is like a budget without the figures, or an emperor without clothes.”

Agrifood industry

The prevailing view within Government is that commitment to long-term targets is premature, especially in the absence of solutions or technology to make it happen. The agrifood industry is a case in point. It is a much bigger component of the Irish economy than of many other EU states – meeting the targets would necessitate a mammoth downsizing of the sector.

The Government argument is that an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 means annual emissions of 11 million tonnes of carbon equivalent, for everything. But agriculture alone accounts for 19 million tonnes at present. That means if everything else was reduced to zero, Ireland would still need to substantially reduce the amount of food, or dramatically cull national herds.

That is not a feasible solution, practically or politically, it is argued. Nonetheless, it is inevitable the draft Bill will be roundly criticised by campaigners and the Opposition for its lack of targets for 2030 and 2050 and, generally, for waving a carrot rather than wielding a stick.

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