Leading experts warn landmark Climate Bill has fundamental flaw

Aspects of Bill ‘not scientifically well grounded’ and ‘entirely lacking in legal certainty’

Leading climate experts have written to the Government to warn of “a fundamental flaw” in the Climate Bill, which means a commitment to halve emissions by 2030 is not sufficiently robust – a 51 per cent reduction is a key target in the programme for government.

How intended greenhouse gas reductions will be managed as outlined in the legislation, which is about to go through the Oireachtas, is "ambiguous and liable to [legal] challenge should the wording remain as is", they warn in a letter to the three Coalition leaders.

The letter from climate scientist Prof John Sweeney of Maynooth University, expert in energy decarbonisation Prof Barry McMullin of DCU and environmental law specialist Dr Andrew Jackson of UCD has also been sent to the chairs of Oireachtas Climate Action Committee and the Climate Change Advisory Council which have enhanced roles under the Bill.

Aspects of the Bill are “not scientifically well grounded” and “entirely lacking in legal certainty”, they contend.



This Bill is intended to provide legislative backing for the agreed programme for government which says: "We are committed to an average 7 per cent per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030 (a 51 per cent reduction over the decade) and to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. The 2050 target will be set in law by the Climate Action Bill, which will be introduced in the Dáil within the first 100 days of government, alongside a newly established Climate Action Council. The Bill will define how five-year carbon budgets will be set."

“It is our belief that this was also the intention of the Joint Oireachtas Committee in their consideration of the draft Bill,” the experts underline.

“However, in transposing these intentions into the wording of the Bill, the substantive element of how the greenhouse gas reductions intended will be managed is in our view ambiguous and liable to challenge should the wording remain as is,” they note.

The current wording of section 6A(5) in the Bill reads: “The first two carbon budgets proposed by the Advisory Council shall provide for a reduction of 51 per cent in the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the first two budget periods ending on December 31st, 2030, from the annual greenhouse gas emissions reported for the year ending on December 31st, 2018, as set out in the national greenhouse gas emissions inventory prepared by the agency.

“The issue of a 7 per cent year-on-year reduction is now absent from the Bill, and this creates a serious flaw,” they contend.

Clarity required

The experts suggest two possible interpretations of the clause:

– The total amount of greenhouse gas emissions over the period 2021-30 shall be reduced by 51 per cent on what would have been the case had 2018 emissions continued at that rate for the decade, or

– It makes little difference to what emissions are like over the coming decade as long as the figure for 2030 is 51 per cent less than that of 2018.

“There is . . . a major difference between these two valid interpretations and legal clarity is required. The environmental as well as political consequences are potentially highly significant,” they say, “We believe the intention of Bill is to achieve a 31.4 per cent reduction in total emissions over the 2021-30 period relative to what would have occurred with a continuation of the ‘status quo’.”

They suggest alternative wording “to copper-fasten this target, if it is in fact the objective sought”.

The experts acknowledge the Bill “has benefited greatly from pre-legislative scrutiny and is a very considerable improvement over the preliminary draft released in October 2020”.

They accept it is “a step change” recognition by the State of the global climate and biodiversity emergency and proposes fundamental improvements in governance of Irish climate action.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times