The Government's Bill to enshrine in law a commitment to decarbonise Ireland by 2050 in its present form will not drive down carbon emissions to the level required, according to an international climate legislation expert.
Jonathan Church, a climate accountability lawyer with Client Earth, told the Oireachtas committee on climate action on Tuesday the Bill lacked accountability.
National climate laws needed to put in place systems of governance which, through frequent and focused moments of accountability, “bake in” a need to “course correct” if ever progress is falling behind, Mr Church added. These were absent in the proposed legislation.
The committee is undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill which proposes Ireland move to a climate neutral economy with net zero emissions by 2050 and facilitate five-yearly carbon budgets by imposing sectoral ceilings on emissions.
He echoed widely expressed concerns that the Bill, as it stands, is weak – especially when compared with more robust laws like the UK climate Act.
It presented only a loosely defined “national 2050 climate objective” of achieving carbon neutrality and in not tying its carbon budgets strongly to that objective. “Likewise, it is regrettable that there is no duty for the objective or carbon budgets to be achieved,” Mr Church added.
He said it was natural that legislatures would be cautious about imposing broad legal duties on governments to meet ambitious targets years in the future. But the solution was not to compromise on climate laws by making them weak or unenforceable; rather it was to have them focus on guiding government action effectively over time “so these targets will not in fact be missed”.
On the Irish Bill, he noted: “It seems to me less well equipped than the UK Act to deliver policy progress that will deliver emissions targets.
“Accountability is weak. The Government is not required even to respond to the advisory council’s annual report. Where a response is required to a report of the joint committee, there are no requirements as to what that response must include. No corrective actions are required,” he said.
Former minister for climate action Richard Bruton (FG) questioned if there was a risk that governments would be in the courts regularly if, for example, there was a "lock-in" of annual emissions reduction targets, at the very time there was a need to "socialise" decarbonisation actions and to get buy-in.
Mr Church said in his view the more vague and “the less well targeted” the legislation, the greater the risk of litigation. He advocated being clear and concise which would reduce the likelihood of being brought to court.
Having sanctions and focus on what the government needed to be doing in keeping on track towards targets, combined with regular intervention, prevented problems building up over time, he said – especially when carbon budgets were being exceeded.
Carbon budget levels
Dr Thomas Muinzer, a specialist energy transition lawyer at the University of Aberdeen, said the Bill "amounts to progress of a kind" compared to the 2015 climate Act, but "it does not develop the original Act in a substantial enough manner to neutralise the weaker and more ineffectual aspects of its legislative character".
The relatively soft language of the 2050 “objective” should to be replaced by a 2050 “target” – as is the case in the UK Climate Change Act – “if the legislation is to drive a meaningful emissions reductions trajectory”, Dr Muinzer said.
“The carbon budget levels would need to be fairly stringent, and subject to a less flexible and fluid design than is currently applied; and these budget levels in turn should be ideally pegged to interim targets that drive an emissions reduction trajectory towards the 2050 target,” he added.
Other desirable components underpinning climate legislation including sanctioning mechanisms and enhanced public participation and engagement could also be included, Dr Muinzer believed.