Ireland's first ever Carbon Budget is due this month. Tough choices are being made and backlash is almost inevitable. This is now a numbers game - and the only trajectory for emissions can be downwards.

The Carbon Budget is a technical device which has been created with the not insignificant aim of helping to save the planet.

It is designed to put a limit on how much we pollute, in the same way the fiscal Budget puts a limit on how much we spend as a country.

Effectively, it is a green garrotte, which seeks to squeeze greenhouse gases out of our economy, and society, to the point where we are carbon neutral by the year 2050. It has nothing to do with money per se.

I will use an inappropriate petrol-head expression: the Carbon Budget is 'where the rubber finally hits the road' for this and for future governments.

'The days are over when ministers can pay lip-service to emissions reduction targets'

The days are over when ministers can pay lip-service to emissions reduction targets but then proceed to behave like laggards, if not delinquents.

This is now a numbers game - and the only trajectory for emissions can be downwards.


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The Government's new Climate Action and Low Carbon Development legislation has a startling but legally binding mid-term objective: to reduce Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions by 51% by the year 2030, from a 2018 baseline.

It is startling because this will require an average 7% reduction in emissions, every year, for nine years in a row.

To put that in context, Ireland reduced its emissions by 5.9% in 2020 - but only because Covid-19 forced vast parts of the economy to be shut down.

Ireland's first draft Carbon Budget is only a matter of weeks away

Three main stages

There are three main stages to the Carbon Budget.

First, the independent Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) will produce a draft Carbon Budget. This will propose a limit, or ceiling, on the quantity of greenhouse gases that Ireland can emit over three 5-year cycles.

Second, this plan will then be presented to the Cabinet for finalisation and be brought to the Dáil for its approval.

Third, the Climate Action Minister will propose to Cabinet how each sector of our economy will be required to reduce their emissions to achieve the overall national target.

Environmentalists have long tired of commentary which equates emissions reductions with either "pain" or "cost"

If the Government is honest about achieving its targets, it will need to act immediately.

The CCAC says its work on the Carbon Budget is "far advanced" and they are just waiting to see the detail of the regulations.

Government sources say that these regs will go to Cabinet "this month" and, preferably, in the next fortnight.

In other words, Ireland's first draft Carbon Budget is only a matter of weeks away.

Climate and investment projections

When writing up its plan, the CCAC is obliged by law to take into account existing and projected greenhouse gas emissions; relevant scientific advice on "biogenic methane", such as methane produced by cattle, and international best practice.

So far, so expected.

However, the CCAC must also "as far as is practicable" take into account the need to maximise employment; attract investment into the State; and the competitiveness of the economy.

Just exactly what that hop-skip-jump means will remain unclear until the Carbon Budget is revealed.

Sector-by-sector reductions are unlikely to be uniform

Ireland emits roughly 60 million tonnes of Co2 equivalent each year. So, a five-year budget, in which we aimed to make no change, would have a ceiling of around 300 million tonnes.

We know that the CCAC must significantly reduce that total - the big question is: by how much?

Cut too little in the first five-year cycle, then the heavy lifting has to be done in the second. So, the CCAC will have to explain the logic of the choices it makes.

Friends of the Earth argues that a 250 million tonne target, for the first five-year cycle, would be appropriate. Will the CCAC view it that way?

Climate Action Minister Eamon Ryan

Backlash is inevitable

But the real craic comes when Climate Action Minister Eamon Ryan moves to slice-up the emissions cake, which has been baked by the CCAC.

This is the point where things get very political. That is because the sector-by-sector reductions are unlikely to be uniform. There will be "winners" and there will be "losers".

Should the Government, for example, decide that agriculture is not required to make substantial emissions reductions, for whatever reason, then other sectors will have to pick-up the slack.

As tough choices are made - a backlash is almost inevitable.

There does not appear to be a political escape hatch either. After all, the law states that the Government must not just "pursue" net zero status, it must also "achieve" that onerous goal.

Environmentalists have long tired of commentary which equates emissions reductions with either "pain" or "cost."

They assert that countries which are so-called "first movers" stand to make substantial economic gains, as the green revolution kicks-in hard.

The concept of a "Just Transition" is embedded in the new law

And they also point out that the concept of a "Just Transition" is embedded in the new law. The aim of this is to ensure that people worst affected by such changes will not be left behind.

Despite that, it is an inescapable fact that there will be a political bloodbath should the Government institute such substantial changes without having prepared the ground adequately.

On that critical question, the jury is very much out.

Most robust emissions reduction legislation

But what happens if, perish the thought, a minister is derelict in their duty or simply wants to avoid a hard choice?

Under the legislation, they have to provide an annual report on their actions to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action.

Ministers have made solemn promises before

If the Committee isn't happy, the members can draft a report on the perceived inadequacies and the relevant Minister must respond within three months about what corrective action s/he is going to take.

With clear targets, hard data and tight scrutiny, the aim is to compel ministers, their departments and stakeholders to abide by the plan or face being placed in the stocks.

The long-in-the-tooth cynics may well scoff. Ministers have made solemn promises before, only to find multiple reasons afterwards not to do what they had committed to do.

It is an EU objective and linked to the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015

But this emissions reduction legislation is the most robust ever to be enacted here. It is also an EU objective and linked to the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015.

It is not as if we should need much convincing, following the latest grim report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as record summer temperatures, flooding and forest fires.

Those tangible impacts of climate change this year reminded me of 2009 when, as RTÉ Environment Correspondent, I conducted an interview with scientist Dr James Lovelock.

He was promoting his latest book which argued that climate change was worse than had been believed; the planet was entering a permanently hot phase; and humanity itself was under threat.

At the end of our meeting, and with a smile, he handed me a copy of his book with the following acid inscription: "To Paul: Enjoy it while you can. Jim"