Opinion: the comprehensive framework for climate action contains over 40 recommendations covering a wide range of issues

After seven months of hearings and deliberation, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action signed off on a landmark climate change report yesterday. It sets out over 40 priority recommendations to steer Ireland towards a low carbon future. The committee’s important work was not before time. Over the years, Ireland has gained a well-deserved reputation as a climate laggard.

Responding to climate change is the most profound and urgent challenge facing society. In one of the starkest climate science reports to date, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—a UN body tasked with collating the latest findings of climate science—warned last October that failure to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would result in catastrophic climate impacts. We have already warmed the planet about 1 degree Celsius.

Although climate impacts will be felt more severely in some parts of the world, no region will be left unharmed. The impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world and are accelerating. According to the IPCC, we need a radical change of direction that will bring us to zero net greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century in order to have a reasonable chance of making 1.5 degrees.

From RTÉ Radio 1's CountryWide, an interview with the Vice Chairman of IPCC, Mark Howden

But dealing with climate change is challenging politically. Climate change stretches across policy spheres and deep into all aspects of our modern society and economy. Additionally, our democratic political structures are ill-equipped to deal with climate change.

Responding to the climate challenge requires long term policy frameworks that stretch across electoral cycles. A common refrain from politicians is that climate change doesn’t come up on the doorsteps. Put another way, our political system fails to adequately reward politicians for taking bold steps on climate change.

This is why the work of the Joint Oireachtas Committee has been so welcome. Through its deliberations over the past seven months, the Committee has provided a forum for serious and sustained political engagement on climate change in a way that was profoundly lacking in the past.

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, an interview with Hildegarde Naughton TD, the chairperson of the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action

The Committee was tasked with considering the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on the topic of "How the state can make Ireland a leader on climate change". Those recommendations—more far-reaching than many expected—risked falling into obscurity once the Assembly concluded its work. The establishment of an Oireachtas committee was crucial in giving legs to the Assembly’s recommendations.

The Committee’s report represents a landmark in Ireland’s response to climate change. It is detailed, ambitious and far-reaching, and provides a roadmap for climate policy and governance. Much media attention has focused on political disagreements over a proposed increased in the carbon tax. This is understandable, but unfortunate. It masks the fact that there is cross-party agreement on the vast majority of the committee’s proposals.

These include a range of measures to deal with greenhouse gas emissions from the key sectors of agriculture, energy, transport and buildings. Moreover, it sets out important recommendations for a just transition towards decarbonisation so that, for example, workers whose livelihoods depend on peat extraction are provided with new job and training opportunities.

From RTÉ One's Six One News, a report on some of the recommendations of the all-party climate action plan

The report also emphasises the importance of enabling citizens and communities to participate in the low carbon transition. It sets out measures to strengthen significantly how climate change is taught in our schools and communicated through mass media, including a review of primary and secondary curricula. It also recommends that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland should develop guidelines and measures to improve climate change coverage in broadcast media.

But given the political challenges of responding to climate change outlined above, one of the most important elements of the report is its recommendations for a new framework for governing the response to climate change.

The Committee proposes a new climate law that would set a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, an interim 2030 target, and an ambitious 70% renewable electricity target by 2030. The proposed law would also provide for successive five-yearly "carbon budgets". These would place an overall cap on emissions and would be set up to a decade in advance. This would help to set a medium-term decarbonisation trajectory and would provide confidence and certainty on the direction of travel.

Although ambitious and wide-ranging, the Committee’s report is only a start

The proposed law would replace the existing Climate Change Advisory Council with a new Climate Action Council (CAC) with enhanced functions and resources. The CAC would have a central advisory role in setting the five-yearly carbon budgets. Government would be required to follow the CAC’s recommendations or else explain publicly why it chose not to do so.

Also included in the proposal is the establishment of a permanent Oireachtas Standing Committee on climate change. This would be the main mechanism for holding government departments and public bodies to account for their climate targets. It would help to ensure that the current Oireachtas Committee would not be simply a flash in the pan, and would keep climate change on the political agenda in the years ahead.

The governance framework proposed in the Oireachtas Committee’s report is modelled closely on the 2008 UK Climate Change Act. Recent research by the London School of Economics has shown that this model, while not perfect, has helped to drive decarbonisation of the UK economy.

From RTÉ One's Six One News, a report on countrywide climate change protests by students

Interestingly, during the framing of Ireland’s existing climate change law, the UK model was considered but rejected because of objections by political parties and interest groups. In fact, Ireland’s law differs from most other similar laws by not having any targets for emissions reductions, not even for 2050. When I tell audiences abroad about this, I am met with incredulity.

That the proposed governance framework mirrors so closely the UK model is highly significant. It reflects the extent to which the political context has changed and, indeed, the role of the Oireachtas committee in bringing about that change. The mass mobilisation by thousands of school students earlier this month indicates a growing desire on the part of the Irish public for stronger climate action.

Although ambitious and wide-ranging, the Committee’s report is only a start. The government will shortly publish a much-anticipated "all of government plan" for climate change, and government is required by the end of the year to submit to the EU a "National Energy and Climate Plan with a 2030 perspective. It will fall to government to ensure that these plans are in line with the recommendations of yesterday’s report.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ