Strength of Climate Action Bill defended at committee hearing

Members criticise vague language and failure to include key emissions targets

Former minister for climate action Richard Bruton (Fine Gael) said for the first time carbon budgets were being introduced with binding targets. Photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times.

Former minister for climate action Richard Bruton (Fine Gael) said for the first time carbon budgets were being introduced with binding targets. Photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times.

 

Kevin O’Sullivan

Environment & Science Editor

Claims that the Government’s Climate Action Bill is “full of loose language” and fails to incorporate demanding national targets to reduce carbon emissions were rejected when it came before the Oireachtas Climate Action Committee.

The committee is undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2020, which is enshrining Ireland’s climate ambitions in law. It also is the mechanism to introduce binding five-year carbon budgets that will apply emission limits on major sectors of the economy.

Former minister for climate action Richard Bruton (Fine Gael) said for the first time carbon budgets were being introduced with binding targets. Critically, these would be incorporated into the first two carbon budgets running up to 2030 and tie in increased climate ambition.

There was a defect in approach for many years which allowed climate issues to be overlooked by policymakers, but this was no longer the case and the Bill was “a vehicle to drive change”. Any issues around language could be addressed when the Bill reached committee stage, he believed.

Independent Senator Alice Mary Higgins suggested the text was “walking back from concrete climate commitments by Ireland”; strong 2030 targets should set out in the Bill as well as UN sustainable development goals.

Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly said a comparison with Scottish climate law was revealing. It stated ministers “must ensure”, whereas Irish legislation refers to “shall pursue”.

She was supported by Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore who noted the 2015 Climate Act referred to “pursue and achieve”, while the Bill referred to “having regard to the Paris Agreement”. It was full of loose language and needed to be strengthened by including interim targets, she added.

Department of Environment, Climate and Communications assistant secretary Brian Carroll rejected claims the language was vague and that the Bill was designed to create loopholes. 2030 targets and a requirement to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 were linked and clearly laid down, he said.

Once carbon budgets were in place next year for 2021 to 2025, and 2026 to 2030, it would “lock in ambition that is in the programme for government” – a 7 per cent a year reduction in emissions averaged over the decade.

The only provision to change budgets was exceptional circumstances, notably a change dictated by the latest climate science or new international climate targets, which were likely to be even more ambitious.

If budgets were missed, the minister for climate action had to account for this and the Oireachtas had to introduce additional measures. At EU level, it meant Ireland would have to “purchase compliance”, with obvious knock-on consequences for relevant sectors.

The Bill “binds the State, not a particular government”. That meant “this Government and every other government”, he underlined.

Where there was outperformance on “carbon ceilings” that this could be carried forward as a credit into a subsequent budget because “it incentivises early action”. Where ceilings were exceeded there was a 1 per cent carryover limit, as allowed in other jurisdictions.

Work was ongoing on “decarbonisation bands” for individual sectors, and he agreed with Mr Bruton that if they were too broad it could reduce ambition, and if they were too narrow they risked being “overly prescriptive”.

He stressed EU climate law allowed technical solutions, yet to be determined, that would enable net-zero emissions to be achieved by 2050 but there would still be residual biogenic methane, mainly arising from agriculture, and NOx emissions to be addressed.

They “must be balanced by use of carbon sinks, nature-based solutions and other ways of removing them from the atmosphere”, Mr Carroll explained.

Speaking after the first session examining the Bill, People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith said she was underwhelmed by its “frequently very vague” elements and added it “hasn’t a hope in hell of cutting Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions on the scale or at the pace needed”.

She added: “It is incredible that activists were sold the idea of the Greens entering this conservative Coalition on the basis that they would win concrete gains in legislation and just transition measures.”

It was clear from the budget and “Minister [Eamon] Ryan’s set piece Bill” that basic just transition principles were being abandoned.