State exposing citizens to unjustified danger from emissions, court told

National mitigation plan to reduce emissions ‘not fit for purpose’, High Court hears

Sadhbh O’Neill and David Healy of Friends of the Irish Environment outside the Four Courts on Friday. Photograph: Collins Courts

Sadhbh O’Neill and David Healy of Friends of the Irish Environment outside the Four Courts on Friday. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

Ireland has “exposed its citizens to risk and danger without justification” by not taking adequate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and failing to maintain an environment consistent with human dignity, the High Court has been told.

The State can take necessary measures to reduce emissions but it is “simply not doing so” and its national mitigation plan (NMP) to reduce emissions is “not fit for purpose”, Brian Kennedy SC, for Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), said.

Unless urgent measures are taken, emission levels will be higher in 2030 than in 1990, he said.

“Things are not getting better, they are getting worse,” he added.

The fact that society recognises environmental rights through the legislature supports the existence of a constitutional right to an environment, he argued.

Such a right has been recognised by the High Court’s Mr Justice Max Barrett, there is an international consensus in that regard and the right is consistent with other human rights, including to life, dignity and bodily integrity, he said.

The court was obliged to protect these rights given the “real and imminent threat” posed by climate change.

He was making closing submissions in FIE’s action aimed at quashing the 2017 NMP over alleged failure to comply with the Climate Change and Low Carbon Development Act 2015.

The four-day hearing concluded on Friday and Mr Justice Michael McGrath reserved judgment in what he described as a “very complex” matter.

The court was packed with supporters of the action, including Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, and the judge thanked them for listening attentively to the arguments.

FIE claims that because the State has not achieved emission reductions to which it has committed, it is contravening the constitutional and human rights of its citizens who will be exposed to “unacceptable risks” from climate change.

The group has suggested the NMP should be recast to achieve substantial emission reductions in the short and medium term in contrast to the plan’s target of an 80 per cent reduction by 2050.

Separation of powers

The State denies any breach of rights and insists what FIE seeks would involve the court “prescribing policy” in breach of the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and judiciary.

FIE wants emission reductions “unprecedented in an international context”, it contends.

In his closing arguments for FIE, Mr Kennedy said the State pays “lip service” to its carbon-reduction obligations and, on its own evidence, was “way off course” from meeting the 2030 targets.

The fact that climate change is a global problem did not excuse the State’s failures, he said.

FIE’s case is that it is not lawful to have an NMP that is not calculated to achieve substantial reductions in emissions in the short to medium term and the court should direct the State to come up with an NMP “worthy of the name”.

In closing arguments for the State, Rory Mulcahy SC said the NMP is one of seven NMPs and part of a wide series of measures adopted by the Government to tackle climate change.

The court was not obliged to follow Mr Justice Barrett’s recognition of a right to an environment because that recognition was “obiter” – a non-binding expression of judicial opinion, he argued.

Insofar as it could be said what a right to an environment involved, the State maintained that did not involve as much as Mr Justice Barrett had indicated and the latter had also recognised the difficulties in identifying the scope of such a right, he added.

Niamh Hyland SC, also for the State, said the FIE case was that the plan did not do what science required but the court could not examine the plan against a “science-based standard”.