The most important step in introducing carbon budgets in Ireland and applying CO2 limits across the economy will be triggered in coming days when the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) issues its key recommendations to the Government.
It is understood the council is set to have a meeting to finalise its recommendations on maximum CO2 levels that should be consistent with an already-adopted legally-binding cut of 51 per cent by 2030 – for the first two five-yearly budgets.
This initial recommendation will be brought before the Oireachtas and will be incorporated into a new climate action plan to be announced by the Government later this month.
It is then required to set out how the “carbon budget pie” is to be divided across sectors before final approval by the Oireachtas.
It will have to add up to a reduction of more than 30 million tonnes of CO2 based on current annual generation of 62 million tonnes to stick within Paris Agreement limits.
Sources have confirmed CCAC experts are evaluating likely greenhouse gas emission reductions based on specific ranged limits. As anticipated, the electricity sector will have to do most heavy lifting by cutting emissions by 70-80 per cent under the terms of two carbon budgets over the next 10 years with a 2018 baseline – as increased electrification will be the critical driver in decarbonising the economy over coming decades.
Agriculture faces an emissions cut of 21-30 per cent but a Government commitment to reduce levels of “superwarming” methane gas under an international EU-US pact means decarbonisation in the sector will have to be at, or close to, the higher figure.
Transport and housing have been set target ranges of 45-55 per cent, while carbon-intensive industry will need to cut emissions by 40-50 per cent.
Government departments are obliged to prepare detailed sectoral carbon budgets based on the CCAC’s headline recommendations and its technical analysis, which will then have to be approved in the Dáil. These will include demanding targets for households, farmers, manufacturing and businesses.
Land use and the forestry sector will be separate to agriculture, ie given its own targets for carbon removals through planting trees and rewetting of peatlands. It is understood land use proved to be the most challenging issue for the council in recent months, mainly because it is a significant net source of emissions, generating 5 million tonnes of CO2 a year, and it is difficult to establish that permanent carbon removals have taken place.
Meanwhile, an independent review of the new Climate Act has questioned the independence and resourcing of the council. Revisions to the previous act, which is the Government's main policy instrument on climate action, puts Ireland "in the realm of international best practice", though there are shortcomings, concludes Dr Diarmuid Torney of DCU Centre for Climate and Society.
The 2021 Act is reinforced by strengthened targets, notably the commitment to “climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest”, the review commissioned by Friends of the Earth (FoE) adds.
The main weaknesses, Dr Torney identifies, relate to the independence and resourcing of the CCAC, and particularly the role of Teagasc on the council.
Under changes to the legislation the heads of the EPA and Teagasc retained their position. The directors of the ESRI and Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland were removed and the head of Met Éireann was added.
“Given it took a 14-year campaign to get this climate law, it is good to see the study finds it is broadly in line with international best practice,” said FoE director Oisín Coghlan.
“The one place where the study finds the Irish law is an outlier is having the heads of state agencies like Teagasc on the CCAC, where it creates questions over the independence of the Council. As the Council is currently deliberating on momentous decisions about the carbon budget its independence is crucial and it will need to demonstrate it is free from the influence of any vested interest,” he added.
“And the study makes clear that the climate law is just the framework for action. Now the real work begins as the Government agrees the Carbon Budgets and the measures for every part of the economy and society to be supported to do its fair share to live within those budgets,” Mr Coghlan underlined.
The Council has been given a strong advisory role in the setting of carbon budgets, and by extension will play a stronger watchdog role in monitoring compliance with those budgets, Dr Torney acknowledges. “In comparison with other jurisdictions, however, the CCAC remains an outlier regarding its composition, which could undermine its perceived independence. These concerns remain unaddressed in the 2021 Act. Concerns persist also regarding resourcing of the CCAC, potentially undermining its ability to fulfil its remit fully, he adds.
Climate action at the scale and speed required to meet the State’s international obligations is much more than a technocratic exercise, Dr Torney says. “It requires sustained cross-party consensus on the direction and speed of travel, though of course parties may well continue to disagree on specific policy details. It also needs buy-in from societal stakeholders and citizens,” he notes.
While it represents an important development, the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 “should be viewed as the beginning and only the beginning of a new chapter in the story of Ireland’s climate action”.