Opinion: Paradoxically, climate change is better tackled in a bottom up fashion through a variety and range of activities across different scales of governance. 

It has been clear for quite some time that international, European, and Irish climate change law and policy is not delivering the emissions reductions that are required.

This has received considerable media attention in recent weeks, perhaps because of the protests spearheaded by the activist Greta Thunberg and led by children worldwide. The Irish government is promising a radical new and comprehensive plan to revitalise our efforts to reduce emissions.

However, climate change is a complex and challenging area with significant vested interests who block progress. Nonetheless, there is an urgent need for fresh ideas and meaningful innovation if we are to avoid the potentially catastrophic implications of climate change for Ireland and elsewhere.

Because climate change is a global problem, it is easy to conclude that global solutions are the only way forward. However, climate change is also a very difficult collective action problem, and working through international institutions, such as the United Nations or the European Union, often results in movement at the pace of the slowest and least interested.

On RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Colman O'Sullivan reports on what a phasing out of domestic heating boilers could look like.

Sometimes even that progress is held hostage by this who would seek to block any movement on the issue, particularly the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with a significant vested interest in the existing energy infrastructure.

Paradoxically, climate change is better tackled in a bottom up fashion through a variety and range of activities across different scales of governance.

Irish Climate Policy Institutions Are Inadequate

Although Irish institutional frameworks have been moving towards a more networked architecture, they are not adequately prepared for this. We have a planning code and planning system that is manifestly not fit for purpose, with overly complex laws, a lack of capacity by both elected representatives and civil or public servants, and a poor understanding of the underlying issues by decision- and policy-makers.

There is therefore a need to rethink these to simultaneously redress two issues. The first is the fragmentation of planning by stronger central policies such as the National Planning Framework.

The second is encouraging local authorities to support and develop a range of initiatives that will allow communities to experiment with responses to climate change mitigation and adaptation. The latter will make available templates which can be re-used in a variety of locations.

Innovation in Climate Law and Policy is Essential

We should also think about how we can encourage innovation in implementation within Ireland. The EPA report, ‘Addressing Climate Change Challenges in Ireland’ states that ‘[r]esearch and innovation are crucial to advancing [the] transition to a low-carbon economy and green economic growth.’

For lawyers, one of the chief concerns for research and innovation is with public institutions and governance, a topic which is dealt with in the National Economic and Social Council report on the climate change challenge:

Ireland is formulating its strategy for transition to carbon neutrality at a time when we recognise that our public institutions and system of governance, at a range of levels, have weaknesses that have led to profound economic, social and fiscal crisis.

Our work, on this and other projects, confirms that Ireland has many of the micro-economic requirements for a vibrant economy and a high degree of social capital; these can only combine to create overall success, where public systems of governance, resource allocation, conflict resolution and policy learning are effective.

All our goals, carbon neutrality included, depend on successful, deep, public reform; … 

New Climate Institutions: National and Local, Public and Private

There is therefore a need to examine our national and local institutions to see what can be done. Nationally, the Climate Change Advisory Council is not an adequate vehicle to achieve the level of economic and social transformation that is necessary.

Although it has been sounding the alarm in very clear terms, stating in its most recent report that ‘Ireland is completely off course in terms of achieving its 2020 and 2030 emissions reduction targets’, it can only make recommendations and conduct reviews.

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It has no powers to impose penalties for failure to achieve targets. It should be enhanced or replaced with a body which is sufficiently well-resourced and endowed with the statutory powers necessary to encourage and require compliance with ambitious targets. This was one of the key recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly when it considered climate change.

Regionally and locally, there is a need for cross-cutting networks linking public administration and civil society. Local energy agencies exist in some parts of the country and some, particularly Tipperary Energy Agency, have done very commendable work. Every local authority should be required to create one, in collaboration with nearby third-level institutions.

Consider also what could be achieved if the ‘Transition Towns’ network was placed on a proper statutory footing, with deep integration of climate change into the drafting of development plans?

In addition, learning and education initiatives such as Cloughjordan ecovillage are few and far between; tax incentives, subsidies, and other government support could encourage the development of further similar projects across the country.

On RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Richard Bruton, Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and Micheál Martin, Fianna Fáil Leader, discusses Ireland's ban on smoky coal and why there are areas of the country not covered by the ban.

There are also considerable opportunities to involve the private sector and develop entrepreneurship in climate-aware products and services.

Sustainable Nation Ireland manages the Irish office of Climate-KIC (which is a European knowledge and innovation community, working to accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon economy), although this is Dublin-based and would be more effective if it is was regional and distributed.

Climate Policy Must Be Plural, Polycentric, and Hybrid

The complex nature of the issue means that top-down frameworks with inflexible mechanisms and targets do not work well. There is a need to move beyond these approaches without ignoring the work that has been done to date.

Effective climate change law and policy will have to emerge from a hybrid web of policy tools, legal instruments, and multi-layer governance arrangements.

This is particularly important when thinking about adaptation rather than mitigation, which will require greater diversification and decentralisation. We need to think about climate law as plural, polycentric, and hybrid.

Will the promised all-of-government plan incorporate such innovative thinking, or will it simply repeat the same empty promises, centralised planning, and reluctance to really change what has characterised Irish climate change law and policy since the first national strategy document in 2000?


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