Revisions to the Climate Bill put in place foundations for effective climate action but more ambition is needed on implementation and on securing public engagement, according to a coalition of leading Irish environmental groups.
Stop Climate Chaos (SCC) acknowledged the potential for the Bill published on Tuesday “to shift Ireland’s approach to climate change from rhetoric into action”.
It was also encouraged by the progress in establishing “robust governance mechanisms to ensure coordination and accountability across Government”. The fact that carbon budgets explicitly cover the whole economy and all greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane, “is particularly welcome”, it added.
It warned, however, that net-zero 2050 targets were increasingly inconsistent with climate science, as they provided no guarantee of holding global warming to below 1.5 degrees.
“Some weaknesses in the Bill mean that there is a degree of discretion available to Ministers in sticking to the carbon budgets, and there are no penalties if targets are missed, or if the budgets are exceeded. The burden of failure will simply be passed down to the next government and the next generation of Irish citizens,” it said.
SCC policy co-ordinator Sadhbh O’Neill acknowledged the revised Bill seemed more robust in relation to 2030 and 2050 targets, while “the new carbon budgeting process can focus minds and ensure that all sectors play their part in reducing emissions”.
She added: “We should be clear however that this is just the starting line. Targets are only as good as the actions taken to meet them, and the upcoming national action plan needs to outline the changes that will deliver rapid and sustained emissions reductions of 7 per cent every year.”
SCC had campaigned for faster and fairer climate action for over a decade, alongside a growing network of civil society organisations and activist groups, she noted. “Our campaigning and advocacy work has driven home the message to political leaders that the public is watching, the climate movement is growing and that people will not stand by while the planet burns,” Ms O’Neill said.
Fergal Costello of the Dublin Friends of the Earth accepted the Bill had potential to significantly reduce emissions. "We are strongly of the view that the key to further improvement to bring us in line with our commitments under the Paris Agreement is continuous public engagement in the ongoing process of climate policy formulation and implementation," he added.
Some researchers estimated Ireland’s fair share of the global carbon budget will run out as soon as 2024, after which it would be in significant “carbon debt”, SCC said. Furthermore, “net” targets relied on unproven speculative technologies, purchasing offsets or large-scale biomass projects, it said.
“The IPCC’s landmark 2018 report makes clear that even 1.5 degrees of warming poses unacceptable risks and threatens livelihoods and lives everywhere in the world. However, climate change does not affect us all equally, impacting first and most profoundly on poor countries and communities who have done least to cause the problem and who have the least resources to cope,” it noted.
Conor O'Neill, policy adviser at Christian Aid Ireland, highlighted the risk climate change could push a further 132 million people into poverty over the next 10 years, undoing hard-won development gains. "There's a clear global justice aspect to this, and as a wealthy, high-emitting country Ireland has a duty to significantly up its ambition. We have to get our emissions down quickly."
He added: "A target of net-zero by 2050 is simply too late, flying in the face of scientific advice presented to the Oireachtas and our fair share of the global effort needed to deliver on the Paris Agreement. This must be the floor rather than the ceiling of our ambition if we're to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown and protect the most vulnerable, at home and abroad."
Oonagh Duggan of BirdWatch Ireland welcomed improved focus on protecting and restoring biodiversity and on nature-based solutions to climate action, but warned much more needed to be done. "We must not worsen the biodiversity emergency as we seek to tackle the climate emergency, with for example, forestry destroying high nature value farmland. Improvements must be made in the Bill to ensure that protecting biodiversity is copper fastened in law."
IFA president Tim Cullinan said that while meeting targets in the Bill would be a challenge, farmers were ready to play their part.
“The Government must recognise Ireland’s position as a world leader of sustainable food production. We must balance achieving environmental targets with the sector’s competitive role in producing high-quality, nutritious food at a reasonably low cost,” he said.
"Farmers are already doing a lot, and the sector has a roadmap set out as part of the Teagasc MAC Curve. They have invested over €80 million in low-emission slurry spreading equipment, while sales of protected urea have more than doubled in 2020. With the right supports and incentives, farmers will continue to play their part in the national effort by improving the carbon efficiency of our output," he added.
Farmers must be supported, however, as they transition to a more sustainable agricultural sector to meet the targets, he said. “Farming must be treated fairly in the climate mitigation debate. Current government policy does little to reward farmers for the role they are playing in sequestering carbon with the sole focus on emissions. IFA will not allow Irish farm families to be blamed for inaction in other areas.”
The IFA leader welcomed acknowledgement of methane's cyclical nature in emissions accounting methodology. "The Climate Action Bill must follow the New Zealand model and ensure that methane is treated differently from other emissions," he said.
ICMSA president Pat McCormack said the objective of transitioning Ireland’s economically critical farming and agri-food sector to a low emissions basis was feasible and already underway.
But he cautioned that the sector’s carbon budget “has to be realistic and proportionate to the fact that our farming and food sectors were the economic and social backbone of most of the State outside of the cities and larger towns”.
Mr McCormack said the Bill seemed to recognise preservation of Irish commercial farming was not a sectoral plea, “it was, instead, a blunt acknowledgement that ability of many areas to function economically, socially and demographically rested completely on the transition of our commercial farming sector to a lower emissions basis that maintained incomes and opportunities”.
On strengthening the Climate Change Advisory Council with additional expertise, Mr McCormack said: "We'd like to assume that the Minister [for Climate] will actively strike a balance between those who want faster progress on lowering emissions and those, like ICMSA, who see the need to maintain the operating and commercial heart of our farming and agri-food sector, while that lowering is in progress."