The increased ambition in the revised Climate Action Bill and its strengthened legal provisions on critical targets – over the next decade and out to 2050 – could not be clearer. The overall targets are unquestionably onerous.
What's more, setting a legally-binding target to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 will rank Ireland among the most ambitious countries in the world on climate action.
It could be the key mechanism that gives the country a real chance of shedding its infamous “laggard” status in responding to the impacts of the climate and biodiversity emergency.
The Bill is “a legal framework” to make this happen, the Government insists, but it is not about setting out what any sector should do.
The Government has resisted putting sectoral targets into the Bill, especially with problem areas of agriculture and transport. However, it will require carbon budgets over the next decade that are in line with the target of a 51 per cent cut in emissions by 2030, with obvious implications for every part of the economy.
The Government will determine, following consultation, how to apply carbon budgets across relevant sectors, and what each sector will contribute in a given five-year period. Actions will be detailed in a climate action plan to be updated annually.
The Bill does not provide for penalties if targets are not met, but it is understood that where actions fall short in particular sectors, Ministers with responsibilities in these areas may in future face budget reductions.
Currently, where climate and energy EU targets are not met, relevant departments have to buy “compliance”. New more demanding EU targets under the European green deal will come with financial penalties if not achieved.
The scale of suggested amendments from the all-party Climate Committee and the huge implications for the economy meant getting it across the line in recent weeks was tricky, with particular tensions arising between Fine Gael and the Greens. This was not helped by Green TD Patrick Costello challenging the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (Ceta) between the EU and Canada.
Asked about this, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said his party wanted safeguards on its implications for jobs, trade, public finances and rural communities, before going on to underline that failure to tackle the climate crisis would have negative impacts under these headings.
For the Greens there will be considerable relief that climate NGOs are broadly happy – the Bill was a key element in the party agreeing to participate in government.
“The first draft had too many loopholes. Now targets are tighter, the duty to act is stronger, and the language is clearer,” says Friends of the Earth director Oisín Coghlan.
Furthermore, the Bill is justiciable so the Government can be brought to court if targets are not being met. This will provide considerable comfort to climate campaigners who have successfully pursued such a course previously.
The draft referred to a commitment to “pursue” climate neutrality (net zero) by 2050; that has now been altered to “pursue and achieve by no later than” 2050. The addition of “no later than” is also crucial, according to Coghlan, given what climate science is indicating.
While net zero by 2050 is in line with the latest EU target, it is not line with Ireland’s fair share of the global effort to achieve Paris Agreement goals. “This will require full decarbonisation much sooner. Putting a climate neutral by 2050 target in law helps to drive national action now, but it is essential it is seen as the floor, not the ceiling, or our ambition,” Coghlan says.
The Bill recognises the “distinct characteristics of biogenic methane”.
However, there will be a single national carbon budget and all sectors and government departments will have to bid and negotiate for their share of the “pollution pie”, says Coghlan.
Trade-offs will have to be made in public as they are when the government prepares the fiscal budget – if one sector gets more, another gets less. “If one sector does less to reduce emissions, the rest of us has to do more.”
DCU climate policy expert Prof Diarmuid Torney confirms few if any countries have made a legal commitment to halve emissions by 2030 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. In fact "no country is attempting such a steep decarbonisation over one decade, let alone enshrining it in law".
“Some view the Bill as not doing enough to fulfil Ireland’s share of the global climate action challenge. Others say the targets, particularly the 51 per cent, are very challenging. It’s perfectly possible to hold both of these views at once: to say that it is both very challenging and not enough,” he believes.
The most important thing is for the Government to get on with the business of delivering decarbonisation.
As Torney puts it, “the Climate Bill is important, but it’s only the framework for climate action”.