Six Things to Look for When the Climate Bill is Published
Posted by Oisín Coghlan on March 22, 2021 at 08:32 AM
Media reports indicate that the Government’s revised Climate Bill will go to Cabinet for approval and publication on Tuesday. The Bill is a flagship commitment in the Programme for Government.
Climate legislation is about governance - about how we make climate policy and how we make sure policy is implemented. It is the framework to drive action rather than being a list of actions. Key elements include:
- a long-term (2050) target
- short-term (5 year) targets
- a duty on Government to produce an action plan to actually cut polluting emissions in line with the targets
- an expert council to provide independent advice to the Government and monitor progress
- robust parliamentary oversight and ministerial accountability
At first glance these elements appeared in the Government’s draft Bill in October but the language was vague and the links between the elements were weak, leaving obvious loopholes. At the time we commented: “The Government only has to pursue the 2050 objective not achieve it, the 5-year targets don’t have to be consistent with the 2050 objective, and ministers aren’t given a clear duty to achieve the 5-year targets when drawing up their plans." Since then, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (JOCCA) heard expert testimony on the Bill and agreed 78 recommendations to strengthen it.
Here’s six things to look out for when the revised Bill is published:
- What exactly does the Bill say about the 2050 target?
- Are the interim targets (e.g. 5, 10 years) set in the Bill itself, or will they be set by the Oireachtas on the advice of the Climate Council?
- Is there a clear duty on the Minister and the Government to produce action plans in line with the 5-year targets and the 2050 target? And are the provisions for parliamentary oversight and ministerial accountability robust?
- Does agriculture get special treatment or a separate target?
- Does the Bill deal with Just Transition?
- How does the Bill deal with Programme for Government commitments on fracking, LNG and new gas exploration?
1. What exactly does the Bill say about the 2050 target?
The Programme for Government promised to put a target of “net zero emissions by 2050” into law (net zero, or climate neutrality, means any remaining emissions are offset by new forests or peatlands to absorb the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide).
The October draft Bill said the state shall “pursue” the objective of climate neutrality by 2050. The JOCCA has recommended that should be revised to “shall pursue and achieve climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest”.
It’s clearly important the legal obligation is not simple to try to meet the target, but to actually achieve it. But the addition of “at the latest” is also crucial. While net zero by 2050 is in line with the new EU target and with the target put into the UK Climate Act in 2019, it is not line with Ireland’s fair share of the global effort to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. The will require full decarbonization much sooner. Putting net zero by 2050 in law helps to drive the ramping up of national action, but it essential it is seen as the floor not the ceiling for our ambition.
2. Are the interim targets set in the Bill itself, or will they be set by the Oireachtas on the advice of the Climate Council?
According to media reports and campaigners, the question of how our short-term 5 and 10 year targets will be set is the most hotly contested question about the Bill, with Fine Gael advocating a more conservative approach than other parties.
The most eye-catching climate commitment in the Programme for Government is to cut polluting emissions by 51% by 2030 (7% a year on average). But the Programme for Government does not commit to putting that 2030 target directly into the Climate Bill. Instead it opts for the model of the UK climate law where 5-year targets are proposed by the Government, on the advice of the independent Climate Council, and adopted by Parliament.
Like the UK law, the Government’s draft Bill mandated the Climate Council to propose three 5-year targets (called Carbon Budgets) at a time, giving policy-makers and the public a 15-year horizon on our pollution-reduction pathway.
But a key weakness in the draft Bill was that it did not mandate that the 5-year targets be consistent with the long-term 2050 target. That clear and direct relationship between the long-term target and the 5-year targets is the driving force of effective climate laws in other jurisdictions.
The JOCCA agreed unanimously that the 5-year carbon budgets must be consistent with the 2050 target, the Paris Agreement and the latest climate science.
A clear majority of the JOCCA went further - calling for the Government to put the 51% reduction target for 2030 directly into the Bill itself as a stand-alone 10 year target. We now know that Fine Gael are among the dissenting minority, as Richard Bruton told the Business Post “It certainly goes beyond what was agreed in the programme for government which was about a best endeavours approach.” We know from other reporting that some concerns about “achievability” where raised between the party leaders. We can only presume that the question of how to treat the commitment to 51% reductions by 2030 was one of those concerns.
While Richard Bruton is technically correct, the Programme for Government does not commit to putting the 51% target into the law itself, a communications strategy which amounts to “climate change is an emergency, but our commitment to cut pollution in half was only meant to be a political one not a legally-binding one” does not inspire much confidence. Indeed, it risks undermining the very policy certainty the law is supposed to provide.
So, what if anything the Bill says about 51% and 2030 will be the first thing many will look for when the Bill is published.
If it is absent, the obvious question is did Fine Gael veto its inclusion? And the obvious follow-up in that case is how does the Government intend to restore public confidence in the seriousness of their commitment to cut emissions by 51% by 2030.
3. Is there a clear duty on Ministers and the Government to produce action plans in line with the 5-year targets and the 2050 target?
And are the provisions for parliamentary oversight and ministerial accountability robust?
In the Government’s draft Bill in October the Minister preparing the Climate Action Plan only had to “have regard to” the targets established in and under the Bill. For critics that threatened to undermine the whole purpose of the Bill as it failed to place a clear duty on ministers to adopt policies and measures to actually achieve the targets.
The JOCCA recommended by consensus that the the Minister should be required to “adhere” to the targets when preparing action plans.
The draft Bill provided for annual reports by the Climate Council and annual oversight by a Joint Oireachtas Committee, acting like a Public Accounts Committee for polluting emissions, with relevant ministers required to come before the Committee to report.
However in the draft neither the Council nor the Minister have to do this until 2023! There is no way to spin that other than as delaying accountability, it should be 2022.
4. Does agriculture get special treatment or a separate target?
In the October draft one of the 25 matters that Ministers and the Government had to “have regard to” when “performing their functions” under the Act was “the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane referred to in the Special Report on Global Warming published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on 8 October 2018.”
It was unclear what the implications of that provision would be, it is after all simply a statement of fact that methane is different gas to carbon dioxide. However, there was also a vagueness of language in the draft Bill which suggested that the 5-year targets (i.e. the Carbon Budgets) may not have to include methane.
That would be unacceptable to campaigners: one of the central dynamics of successful climate legislation is that the existence of a single national emissions ceiling for the coming five years - in shape of the Carbon Budget - reframes the policy debate. The conversation becomes how much of the “pollution pie” each sector should be allocated and then how they live within that limit. Until now, the conversation tends to be what is each sector (or Department) comfortable doing and that has never added up to enough to meet our targets.
Having a single national Carbon Budget does not of course preclude a democratic government decision that one sector should do more or less than another - it simple makes the trade offs transparent and publicly accountable. Equally, under the overall Carbon Budget there could be a specific target for methane, just as there is a specific target of producing 70% of our electricity from renewables by 2030.
So watch the Bill to see if it’s explicit that the 5-year Carbon Budgets cover all greenhouse gases.
5. Does the Bill deal with Just Transition?
Remarkably, in October’s draft Bill, the list of 25 things Ministers must take into account when making climate action plans did not include the concept of Just Transition.
In its submission to the JOCCA the Irish Congress of Trade Unions urged the Government to rectify this omission and proposed the Bill include the following definition of Just Transition:
“Just Transition means the bringing together of workers and their trade unions,communities, employers and government in Social Dialogue to develop, agree and drivethe concrete plans, policies and investments needed for a fast and fair transformation to alow carbon economy; to ensure the establishment of appropriate training and reskillingprogrammes for affected workers and the creation of new and replacement jobs based onthe principles of Decent Work, jobs that are of at least the same quality as those that havebeen lost. Any such process should be based on and draw from the comprehensive InternationalLabour Organisation Guidelines on Just Transition.”
Activists will be watching to see how closely the revised Bill matches ICTU’s proposal.
6. How does the Bill deal with Programme for Government commitments on fracking, LNG and new gas exploration?
The Programme for Government made the following commitments on fossil gas:
“We do not support the importation of fracked gas and shall develop a policy statement to establish that approach.”
“As Ireland moves towards carbon neutrality, we do not believe that it make sense to develop LNG gas import terminals importing fracked gas. Accordingly, we shall withdraw the Shannon LNG terminal from the EU Projects of Common Interest list in 2021.”
“We will end the issue of new licenses for the exploration and extraction of gas”
As of now there is no sign of the Policy Statement on fracked gas imports. On Friday last, however, the draft of the new EU Projects of Common Interest list was published and Shannon LNG is not on it. And the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications says it has ended the issuing of new licences for gas exploration.
Campaigners have argued that the Government should use the Climate Bill to underpin these policy developments with permanent statutory force. On February 2nd it was announced that the Cabinet had approved a proposal to include the ban on new offshore licences in the Bill.
Campaigners will be watching to see if the Bill says anything on fracked gas imports and LNG more generally.