Q and A: What are the implications of the Climate Bill?

Legislation clears a major hurdle by getting through the Dáil, but at what cost?

 

The Climate Bill has cleared a major hurdle by getting through the Dáil. It now goes to the Seanad and is likely to become law within weeks. In spite of the concerns of some rural TDs and last minute histrionics in the chamber, it had a thumping majority, being passed by 129 votes to 10.

The legislation will have far-reaching consequences for every section of the economy, across government and ultimately all communities throughout the country including households and individual consumers.

A critical element is legally-binding carbon emissions reductions, especially a 51 per cent reduction of carbon emissions by 2030, paving the way for the country to achieve “net-zero” emissions by 2050.

Enacting the legislation will trigger a series of actions to enable the country’s first five-year carbon budget come into force later this year – including agreed sectoral cuts in emissions up to 2025. It will be just as important as the annual fiscal budget.

A strengthened Climate Change Advisory Council will propose the carbon budget to the Government, which has to draw up of a new climate action plan setting out how cuts will be achieved.

A carbon budget represents the total amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that may be emitted in the State over five years, measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Once the overall budget is adopted. Government Ministers will be responsible for achieving legally-binding targets for their own sectoral area.

What were the most divisive aspects of the Bill?

The two most contentious aspects were the extent to which the Bill provided for “a just transition” in supporting communities and sectors that will be impacted by a radical transformation in how the economy operates, and the likely impacts on farmers and, by extension, rural communities.

Midlands communities are already experiencing the consequences of Bord na Móna getting out of peat extraction. Arguably, farmers will in a great many instances have to change how they operate and will need supports to ensure their farms have a lower carbon footprint.

What are the big implications for farmers?

With agriculture responsible for 35 per cent of national emissions, business as usual cannot continue. Emissions in the most carbon-intensive sectors – dairying and beef production – have to be reduced.

Agricultural emissions are almost entirely methane and nitrous oxide, driven mainly by animal numbers, manure management and use of chemical nitrogen in fertilisers. As things stand, reducing the national herd is the single most effective measure.

After decades of intensification, especially in dairying after the ending of milk quotas in 2015, this aspect is bitterly contested by farmers. IFA president Tim Cullinan claimed their concerns about the Bill were not taken on board, and relevant amendments were not allowed in “an affront to democracy”.

Farmers will continue to play their part on climate action by adopting technologies which reduce methane and contribute positively to water quality and biodiversity, “but targets for our sector must be realistic and achievable”, he warned.

The sector has to accept methane’s significant impacts, economist Prof Alan Matthews said this week. “Its concentration in the atmosphere must be reduced if we are to achieve the Paris Agreement’s temperature target. But it does not have to be reduced to zero.”

The bottom line is that the combination of this Bill and imminent common agricultural policy (CAP) reforms, which will reward environmental management over productivity, will force change.

What are the consequences for other sectors?

The legislation has immense consequences for the transport sector and how we heat buildings in particular. In Ireland, dependence on the private car, facilitated by low-density urban sprawl, is all too obvious.

Halving emissions by the end of the decade means more than 500,000 houses will have to be deep retrofitted and fossil fuels replaced by renewable energy and clean technologies such as heat pumps in homes.

Having close to a million electric vehicles on Irish roads will be a key requirement though it won’t be a silver bullet and such vehicles are currently prohibitively expensive. In major urban centres, traffic reduction and scale-up of public transport using renewables and rollout of safe, enticing walking and cycling options will need to be accelerated.

Changing consumption patterns by consuming less, increasing energy efficiency and addressing high levels of food waste will all play a part.

Is it enough to meet Ireland’s commitments to reduce emissions?

The 51 per cent target is ambitious and no other country in the world apart from Denmark has committed to halving emissions in a decade based on 2018 levels. In the past two years, Irish emissions have fallen by 4 and 6 per cent, but the Bill commits to a doubling of efforts to reduce emissions by at least 7 per cent per year. This cannot be “back-loaded” to the end of the decade, climate campaigners warn.

The problem is delivery. Ireland has missed 2020 targets with the notable exception of enabling more than 40 per cent of renewable energy to be accommodated on the power grid; a world-leading achievement.

But there is a fundamental problem in terms of “carbon budget” in the sense of a limited amount of carbon that can be generated. To limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees – a key Paris agreement target – the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say an immediate decrease in methane is required. Ireland’s methane emissions, mainly arising from farming, have increased by 20 per cent since 2010 and are at record levels.

Based on current plans, including the Department of Agriculture’s AgClimatise strategy, the rest of the economy and society would have to slash emissions by 73 per cent to meet our national target of halving emissions in that time. “That’s not fair on anyone and would be particularly hard on low-income households,” according to Sadhbh O’Neill of Stop Climate Chaos.

Analysis by the Irish Farmers Journal suggests the target of cutting methane by 10 per cent by 2030, as proposed in a draft agrifood strategy to 2030, would translate into a cut of up of 400,000 cattle and slash fertiliser use on farms. The analysis also concluded prioritising 10 per cent of farmland for biodiversity would equate to the total land area of Tipperary.

In their response to the proposed strategy, 70 environmental and climate groups called on the Government to provide a detailed framework for the agricultural sector, setting out how environmental targets and commitments as they relate to biodiversity, climate, soil, air and water quality “will be met and enforced, and how primary producers will be supported in achieving these targets”.

Irish farmers have a long record in environmental management and are prepared to do their bit in decarbonising Ireland. But the figures as outlined need to be reconciled, and the only way that can be done is for the Government to get all stakeholders around the table and to set a clear course for future land use.

Will it mean higher costs for consumers?

That is a considerable prize for embracing the inevitable disruption that will come with abandoning fossil fuels and embracing sustainability.

Yes, for many there will be financial pain, as year-on-year increases in carbon taxes will penalise polluting activities. This will apply to all forms of fossil fuel heating in the home and in driving petrol and diesel vehicles.

As well as stick, there will be carrot with a wide range of incentives to change behaviour. But supports for the most vulnerable will be critical to public acceptance. The rewards will be significant as the green alternative will soon be the cheaper option.

Friends of the Earth director Oisín Coghlan recently called on the public to participate in a public consultation process provided for in the Climate Bill. “Now the real work starts. The climate dialogues are the chance for a national conversation about exactly how we cut our polluting emissions in half in a decade and grasp the opportunities for cleaner air, warmer homes, more liveable cities, and green electricity,” he declared.

The climate law is the starting gun for the race of a lifetime, he added. The race to zero pollution must be fast enough to prevent complete climate breakdown and be fair enough to leave no one behind.

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