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Analysis of the Oireachtas climate Bill hearings

Posted by Oisín Coghlan on July 22, 2013 at 09:31 AM

Umbrella Day 2008 Irish Times photo - The photo from the front page of the Irish Times on 16th June 2008 depicting the Stop Climate Chaos Umbrella Action Day
The photo from the front page of the Irish Times on 16th June 2008 depicting the Stop Climate Chaos Umbrella Action Day

This is the unedited version of my opinion piece published in the Irish Times on Monday 15th July.

As the country experienced its most intense heatwave so far this century, the Oireachtas environment committee has been holding intensive hearings on the Government's proposed climate change Bill.

Despite the weather, and the fractious nature of the debate on the last Government’s climate Bill, nobody got hot under the collar in Committee Room 4. Instead, it’s been a positive, serious and constructive engagement, modelled on the health committee hearings on X legislation earlier in the year.

The Committee has had in-depth discussions with an array of stakeholders from the business, farming and environmental sectors as well as overseas aid agencies and economic and legal experts.

A number of key issues have emerged with the outline Bill, with varying degrees of consensus and difference among those taking part on how to best deal with them.

Many stakeholders felt the Expert Advisory Body in the Bill isn't independent enough. As currently proposed it can't even publish its own reports without Government permission, and has a built-in majority of ex-officio state officials. A high degree of consensus emerged that the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council was a good model for climate policy too. The fiscal council is explicitly independent in law, has no ex-officio members, and has to publish its reports. Moreover, while the Government can reject its recommendations the Minister has to transparently explain why to the Dáil. Encouragingly, when Minister Hogan addressed the committee he said he was looking favourably at the fiscal council model.

The Minister also agreed that 7 years is probably too long for each National Low Carbon Roadmap. Friends of the Earth and many others argued that 5 years, which is more in line with the electoral cycle, is the most a roadmap should last. Otherwise no Government can ever be held accountable for the implementation of the action plan it adopts. We would go further and argue that each 5-year national climate action plan should be adopted by the Dáil to increase its authority and to generate as much cross-party support for action as possible.

The Irish Corporate Leaders on Climate Change - a group which includes Bord na Mona, Diageo and Vodafone - argued, as did others, that the national plan must come before the sectoral plans for energy, transport, agriculture and so on. This national-first approach “is more likely to yield a coherent, strategic approach, reducing costs and ensuring that all opportunities are fully exploited” according to the group. The current proposal to let line departments develop sectoral plans first “creates a possibility that an Ireland Inc. perspective may not be adequately represented in sectoral roadmaps” they concluded. Like many others they also argued that Ministers must consult the advisory council before drawing up the plans, not simply “may consult” as the draft proposes.

The area of most controversy is whether the Bill should include targets for emissions reductions. On this question those of us proposing progressive, reforming legislation have already ceded much ground. When this debate began in 2007, Friends of the Earth, and the Stop Climate Chaos coalition, were pushing for 2020 targets that were tighter than our EU targets (to be more in line with the science) and included sectors that participate in the EU emissions scheme. And we argued that using taxpayers’ money to buy overseas credits to “offset” any overshoot of the targets should be ruled out. None of this will make the final Bill. Nor is there a 2030 target of the kind  in the Fianna Fail / Green Party Bill of 2010. Instead, the current draft simply requires Ministers to “have regard to” our EU targets for 2020 and 2030 when drawing up action plans. The plans must have measures that “in the opinion of the Government” are enough to achieve compliance. This is a weak formulation and should be strengthened.

What remains is the issue of a 2050 target. The 5 climate Bills introduced in the Oireachtas since 2009 have all had an 80% reduction target for 2050. The Government’s current draft has none.

The rationale for a target is simple. It provides the long-term certainty about the direction of Government policy that both business and households need to invest in the transition to a low-carbon economy and society. It provides a clear benchmark against which to measure our progress. The target is what drives the rest of the policy cycle. It provides a legal impetus for timely and adequate action to cut emissions. Ultimately, it will be a driver of the innovation in public policy, private enterprise and personal behaviour we need “to achieve transition to a low carbon, climate resilient” Ireland: the stated objective of the Bill.

Media reports suggest the Government is concerned about ending up in court for missing the target. But the legal experts at the hearings felt this fear was unfounded. The Bill can be quite clear that the target is to drive political action and parliamentary accountability, not legal action and judicial review.

Other stakeholders have expressed concern that a 2050 target is an imposition on their sector. But we are talking about a national target that our democratically-elected Government would decide how best to allocate among departments and sectors in the overall public interest.

Finally, some worry that an 80% target would tie our hands in long-term negotiations inside the EU. But EU leaders have already agreed that Europe will have to achieve 80-95% cuts, so we would simply be showing we are ready to come to the table.  Moreover, the Government could decide to include a target in the Bill and ask the new advisory council to propose the precise level.

Once the Oireachtas committee concludes its deliberations and publishes its report, the ball will be back in the Cabinet’s court to decide the shape of the final Bill, which is due in the Dáil before the end of the year.

Full coverage of the Oireachtas hearings is here.

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