Opinion: while there are many welcome elements in the Climate Action Amendment Bill, a number of important issues have not been addressed

This week, Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton published an outline draft of legislation to amend Ireland's 2015 climate law. The Climate Action Amendment Bill will significantly strengthen the legislative basis for climate action and is to be welcomed. Nonetheless, the draft raises important questions that should be addressed before enactment.

Last year’s Climate Action Plan, published by the minister in June, was a landmark development. Although some of the sectoral chapters (particularly those on agriculture and transport) could have been stronger, the provisions on governance were a major step forward. Significant revision of the 2015 climate law is a central element of this strengthened governance framework.

Better governance

The amended law will set a decarbonisation target for 2050 and will provide for the setting of five-year "carbon budgets" to be proposed by government and adopted by the Oireachtas. These will place an overall limit on permissible greenhouse gas emissions for a five-year period. In principle, these will be set ten years in advance, though this is not possible for the first two carbon budgets (2021–25 and 2026–30).

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke Show, Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment Richard Bruton discusses the Climate Action Amendment Bill

The Climate Change Advisory Council, established under the 2015 climate law, is to be strengthened and renamed the Climate Action Council. It will be tasked with providing advice to government on the setting of the five-year carbon budgets. Government will be required to explain to the Oireachtas any departure from the Council’s advice. Another important advance on the 2015 law is the inclusion of specific provisions regarding the role of local government in climate action, spanning both adaptation and mitigation.

Perhaps the most striking element of the proposed law is the inclusion of a ban on the sale of new fossil fuel cars from 2030, and a commitment to stop the granting of NCTs for fossil fuel cars from 2045. Although putting this on a statutory basis provides certainty to the market, it is arguably out of place in a framework climate law and has the unfortunate effect of signalling that electric vehicles are somehow the central climate policy priority of the state.

The proposed strengthening of the climate law is particularly noteworthy because many of these provisions were considered but rejected in the process of framing the 2015 climate law. What changed? Some of the origins of these reforms can be traced to the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations on climate change. These were in turn elaborated by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, whose work significantly underpinned the Climate Action Plan. All of this took place against a backdrop of growing public awareness and concern, illustrated most strikingly by the school strike movement.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Della Kilroy reports on climate change activism in 2019

Long term targets and carbon budgets

Nonetheless, the published draft leaves a number of important questions unanswered. For example, the draft specifies that setting the greenhouse gas reduction target is yet to be determined. A key question is how methane emissions from agriculture. Prof. Peter Thorne from Maynooth University and colleagues have argued that there is no compelling reason to give Ireland’s emissions a pass. All countries have special circumstances, but the brutal maths of climate change mean that all need to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions within a generation.

The proposal as currently drafted provides significant latitude for government to revise a carbon budget under specified circumstances. Some of these are warranted but others are more questionable, such as the possibility of revision where "there is a requirement to act quickly in response to economic and environmental circumstances". This goes against the whole logic of carbon budgets, which are supposed to provide long term certainty to investors, businesses and citizens.

The Climate Action Council

Further consideration needs to be given to the composition of the Climate Action Council. Currently, the CCAC consists of 11 members, including four ex-officio members (the heads of the EPA, SEAI, ESRI, and Teagasc) and the remaining seven members appointed by government. All but one of these seven at present are economists. While the discipline of economics undoubtedly provides important insights to climate policy, a broader set of perspectives is surely warranted. Including a climate scientist would be a good start.

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, how much progress has been made by the Government on its Climate Action Plan?

The Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action recommended that the council should contain "a mix and balance of both gender and expertise". While the proposed revision specifies that the council should have a balance between men and women "insofar as is practicable", it is less satisfactory in terms of broadening expertise. The director of Met Eireann is to be added as an additional ex officio member in order to "provide more scientific expertise". Ireland’s climate council is unique internationally in including such ex officio members, and this seems a curious measure to broaden expertise. Moreover, the revision as currently drafted could allow for the five ex officio members to constitute a majority of the eight to 11 members.

The road ahead

The Minister has signalled his desire that the amended climate law would be enacted prior to the forthcoming general election. While not impossible, this is a tall order. Pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft legislation will be crucial, and it is important that the issues above are teased out and their implications well understood. On the other hand, it is to be hoped that this climate law will have a shorter gestation period than its predecessor, which took eight years to enact. Time is most definitely not on our side.

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