In mid-July the European Commission will publish its “Fit for 55” proposals. They will set out how the EU’s climate policy framework will be revised to make sure the union can deliver its new commitment to achieve a reduction in emissions of at least 55 per cent by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest. It will be a historic moment.
This is the point when the EU decides between a smooth, fair, least cost, and orderly transition in which all countries move together – sharing the responsibility to take scientifically informed action on climate and the dividends of a net-zero economy – or a highly disruptive and far more expensive transition that could amplify the drivers of political fragmentation and even call into question the very rationale for the EU itself.
This crucial policy debate offers Ireland a unique opportunity to provide international leadership and demonstrate that it has finally turned the page on climate action. Despite its small size, Ireland’s voice is heard in Brussels. It is important to be clear on these key issues, a circumstance emphasised by a masterclass in misunderstanding by Michael McDowell recently published in these pages.
As developed nations, the countries of the EU have a moral and legal duty to take the lead on climate. Getting the EU to a smooth and least-cost net zero will require the Irish economy and its counterparts across Europe to change rapidly, radically and irreversibly. It will also require governments to adopt a “mission mindset” to unlock states’ unique capacity for policy innovation, market creation, problem-solving and public engagement – policy dynamics that will be crucial to getting to a net-zero economy in 30 years, at the latest. Transformation on this scale will be, by definition, a deeply political process and one that must be “owned” at national level because success will depend fundamentally on sustained political leadership, strong public support and a willingness across government to view the transition to net zero as nothing short of a national mission.
Although the EU has taken the important step of agreeing to adopt a climate law committing the union to achieve climate neutrality, this legislation says nothing about the quality and effectiveness of national arrangements for climate policy making. Member states at an individual level are not required to achieve net zero under EU law. This allows those that have not adopted a national commitment to net zero to distance themselves from the responsibility to take sufficient and effective climate action and to carry on believing that doing so is the responsibility of other governments. Achieving a least-cost, orderly and timely transition to net zero within the EU will require an urgent solution to this national ownership gap, which lies at the heart of EU climate policy.
Ireland is, however, one of a critical mass of European countries that have moved ahead of the EU in the years since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 and put in place a national 2050 climate law and supporting institutions. These function to foster the enabling conditions for national ownership of the duty to take scientifically informed climate action. National arrangements vary from country to country, but it is becoming clear that Europe’s “climate law countries” are already meeting or exceeding their existing EU climate targets – or like Ireland, are resetting national ambition.
Although the first version of Ireland’s national climate law was very weak, it did some important things. The legislation acknowledged that Ireland had a responsibility to implement the Paris Agreement, and created an independent expert advisory body whose annual reports provided a transparent and trusted analysis of the serious state of Ireland’s inaction on climate. Plus, it provided a legal framework that enabled an Irish NGO to successfully challenge the government’s National Mitigation Plan as unlawful, because the plan failed to explain how it would achieve the climate law’s 2050 target. In parallel, Ireland’s highly innovative Citizens’ Assembly on climate provided a best-in-class demonstration of how citizens can and should be engaged in a more nuanced discussion about the real policy options for climate action, which is now being copied by countries across Europe.
These developments led the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action to undertake a seminal cross-party investigation of what action should be taken by government to make Ireland’s climate law fit for net zero. This process provided the basis for the fundamental overhaul of this legislation, which is ongoing, and fostered political willingness within the national political system to support the reforms proposed.
As a result, Ireland’s 2015 Climate Act is being swept aside and reconstituted through a broad range of parliamentary amendments that open the door to real progress and are deepening Ireland’s national ownership of the Paris climate objective. These changes include a legally binding net-zero target for 2050, an ambitious 2030 target and a strengthened mandate for Ireland’s expert advisory body and the Oireachtas. A new Just Transition Commissioner has also been appointed – one of the first attempts in Europe at dedicated arrangements designed to ensure the national transition is fair.
Together these changes put Ireland in a strong position to lead – not only within its own borders, but in a way that can help build and lead a coalition of like-minded European climate law countries. These countries must be at the forefront of increasing awareness about the important lessons they have learned about the role national climate laws and supporting institutions play in fostering political leadership and public support for meaningful climate action, and how those lessons can be applied by the EU to ensure the EU-27 are fit for net zero.
The union’s “Fit for 55” debate must not be seen by Ireland as some far-flung technocratic EU process. This debate speaks to Ireland directly, particularly its governing institutions. And it needs Ireland to speak back.
The national ownership gap at EU level, where member states have yet to take the proper and much-needed level of national ownership over the EU’s 2050 goals, asks of Ireland whether it can sustain the national mission mindset needed to maintain national ownership of its climate agenda, and build a coalition of EU member states seeking to do likewise.
Now is the time for Ireland to answer in the affirmative.
Sharon Turner is visiting professor at the University of Sussex and expert consultant to the European Climate Foundation. Thomas L Muinzer is a senior lecturer & co-director of the Energy Law Centre, University of Aberdeen. Dr Ciara Brennan is director of Environmental Justice Network Ireland and a lecturer at Newcastle University