The carbon limits recommended by the independent Climate Change Advisory Council to the Government this week mark the first big tangible step in introducing five-year carbon budgets. They will have far-reaching implications throughout the economy for decades to come – while forcing consumers and householders to change lifestyles and purchasing patterns, such as how they heat their homes and how they travel.
For politicians under pressure to revert to more benign forms of emissions management, they should realise the carbon budget mechanism is a robust way to achieve CO2 reductions. This is the quickest and most orderly way to transition to a green economy while ensuring climate threats are minimised. As Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth (FoE) remarked: “If we stick to [these budgets] we will all be winners, with a cleaner, healthier, safer future . . . if we fail we will all be losers, facing accelerating climate breakdown with all the costs and destruction that will bring.” Negotiating this course will require deft political management. The council estimates the additional upfront cost is €5 billion a year, much of which has to come from the public purse.
The carbon budgets hinge on two overall emissions ceilings relating to the 2021-2025 and 2026-2030 periods. Based on these, the average year-on-year reductions in the first budget to 2025 is set at 4.8 per cent, while the average year-on-year reductions in the second budget to 2030 is 8.3 per cent. Wisely, the council has concluded “backloading” is justified to get key infrastructure in place to enable big emissions shifts towards the end of the decade.
Though individual sectoral ceilings have yet to be set by the Government – the next politically contentious step – many have now realised increased climate ambition as set out in the programme for government has hard short-term consequences. At this point farmers, because of the methane issue associated with dairying and beef production, and those in carbon-intensive industries who are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, are most concerned. There are obvious threats to their bottom lines. Though the power generation sector is being asked to do most of the heavy lifting, decarbonising electricity production brings economy-wide benefits and it is already well down that path.
Overriding these budgets is a legally-binding 51 per cent cut in overall emissions. This means every Government decision – and every business decision – has to be weighted towards cutting emissions. Inevitably, the conversation up to now has been dominated by targets and failure to achieve emissions reductions. The Government has yet to communicate the full implications and the opportunities in a transformation that has to happen in securing a sustainable future for Ireland.