Late changes to Climate Bill undermine its thrust, claim environmental groups

Climate scientist claims independent advisory council undermined by amendments

Environment groups have broadly welcome the Bill but in a statement criticised a range of weaknesses that were not addressed. Photograph: iStock

Environment groups have broadly welcome the Bill but in a statement criticised a range of weaknesses that were not addressed. Photograph: iStock

 

The Climate Bill has cleared its last major hurdle in the Dáil though last-minute changes have led to accusations by An Taisce “amendments were hasty, ill-considered, and risk seriously undermining the scientific integrity of Irish climate action”.

Environment groups have broadly welcomed the Bill but in a statement criticised a range of weaknesses which they believe remain unaddressed.

Most controversially, the changes introduced by Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan included recognition of “carbon removals” associated with agriculture, and requires they be included in emissions accounting.

The Bill returns to the Seanad on Thursday for a vote on a minor amendment and is due to be submitted to President Michael D Higgins for signature and enactment on Friday.

Mr Ryan said the amendments provided clarity on how the carbon accounting systems will be developed. “Most importantly, the regulations must be set within the overall framework of the Bill, and must be consistent with the Paris Agreement” which makes explicit provision for “carbon sinks and removals” in seeking to achieve climate neutrality, he told The Irish Times.

This would also facilitate farmers being paid for nature-based solutions including payments to sequester carbon – and generate carbon credits. The Bill requires farmers to embrace very significant change with “no easy exit clause”, he insisted.

Climate science undermined

Prof John Sweeney warned Seanad amendments on carbon removals including one introduced by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil senators had “taken the guts out of the Climate Bill and destroyed the principles under which it was established” and had “undermined the scientific basis of any Climate Bill”.

“They depart from the scientifically established methodology and give discretion to the Government to decide what to measure, how to measure it, and what the removals will be and how they are counted,” he said.

“This undermines the scientific basis completely of any climate Bill by putting it under the political control of a Government who are subject to pressures and lobby groups who seek to dismantle and render the Bill ineffective,” he told Greennews.ie.

The advisory council will also be “rendered toothless” by the amendment, Prof Sweeney believed, as their capacity to use the best available science is “now also compromised hopelessly”.

An Taisce’s natural environment officer Elaine McGoff welcomed the passing of the Bill but added: “The last-minute Government amendments were hasty, ill-considered, and risk seriously undermining the scientific integrity of Irish climate action and the independence of the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC)”.

While it represented a sea change in how Ireland proposes to tackle the greatest problem of the 21st century, “clarity regarding the extent to which steady annual progress towards the 51 per cent reduction target is specified in the Bill is missing and responsibility for ultimate compliance surrendered to the CCAC”.

This potentially facilitated taking the radical steps necessary being left to another government at a time when the window within which we can avoid dangerous climate change is closing rapidly, she claimed.

The late inclusion of a “non-justiciability” clause would hamper citizens’ rights to see their expressed wishes enforced through the courts if necessary.

Stop Climate Chaos said it was is a historic moment that signals the Government’s commitment to act decisively and comprehensively on the climate crisis by undertaking steep and rapid emission reductions.

But it was only the starting line, it added. “Targets are only as good as the actions taken to meet them, and the upcoming national action plan needs to outline the changes that will deliver rapid and sustained emissions reductions of at least 7 per cent every year.

“The climate law can only be deemed successful if it transforms the policy landscape, by establishing clear and legally binding targets that apply economy-wide and that bring about real ‘system change’ and break our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Fair share issue

“Even 51 per cent reductions, while challenging, will be far short of Ireland’s fair share of the global effort required to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. We need to up our ambition,” said Conor O’Neill of Christian Aid Ireland,

While weaknesses remain in the Bill, inclusion of a more comprehensive definition for “just transition” was welcome, said Dr Ciara Murphy of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.

“This Bill does not exist in a vacuum. Our lethargic response to the environmental crisis sits alongside, among other things, a housing and homelessness crisis and intensifying inequality and economic injustice,” she noted.

Davie Philip of Cultivate: the Sustainable Ireland Cooperative said a focus on individual behaviour change over systemic and community approaches to climate action was shortsighted.

“To accelerate carbon reductions and strengthen local resilience we need investment in community-level climate action plans and transition programmes, along with support, training and capacity building for community activists and facilitators to engage citizens, especially those marginalised, in local level dialogue and collaborative action,” he underlined.

Climate race

Friends of the Earth director, Oisín Coghlan said enactment of the Bill would mark “the start of the race of a lifetime to eliminate our polluting emissions fast enough to prevent complete climate breakdown and fairly enough to leave no one behind”.

“This law isn’t perfect but no climate law would guarantee success. No climate law would automatically reduce pollution. The law sets the rules of the game but it can’t determine the outcome. We still have to campaign for every progressive policy change, vested interests will still resist disruption to business-as-usual, elements within the civil service will still drag their heels and parts of the media still don’t get climate risk.”

The law levelled the playing field between those pushing for climate action in the public interest and those resisting action on behalf of vested interests, he added.

“It enshrines radical reform in how climate policy is made and implemented, along the lines FoE has been campaigning for 14 years. It puts our long-term policy goal into law and gives legal underpinning to the short-term targets...It ensures climate policy will be decided in public based on independent expert advice, with a strengthened role for the CCAC, whose membership is broadened and deepened.

It means Ireland’s five-year targets had to be voted on by the Dáil and Seanad, based on proposals from the Council. It obliges ministers to produce action plans in line with targets and sets up a system of robust parliamentary accountability based on reports from the CCAC, Mr Coghlan said.

He said he could not think of any other area of policy where government action was so tightly prescribed and monitored by law.

“Is the final Bill written exactly the way I would write it? No... It’s worth remembering that after four years of campaigning Fianna Fáil support for a strong climate law ago crumbled within weeks 10 years ago in the face of pushback from vested interests. And then Fine Gael simply refused to produce a strong climate law; four years of campaigning produced the 2015 Climate Act with no targets at all in law.”

What’s changed over the past four years of campaigning since the Citizens Assembly was “the emergence of a political consensus on the imperative to act and the recognition that a strong law can help that”.

He concluded: “This Bill does a decent job of translating the current level of political consensus around climate action into an enduring legal framework of government policy making and public and parliamentary accountability. As campaigners we bank it, celebrate, and move on to use the law as a lever to drive the climate action we need and a platform from which to build the next level of political consensus on the scale and urgency of the action we need.”