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Climate Roadmap progressing, but draft Bill the key test

22 Oct 2012

The following piece by Friends of the Earth Director, Oisin Coghlan, appears in the October edition of Public Affairs Ireland Journal.

The "Roadmap for Climate Policy and Legislation" published by Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan T.D., last January lays out a detailed and methodical timetable for the development of a new National Climate Change Strategy (NCCS) and a Climate Change Act.

The key milestones laid out are as follows:

  • In the first half of 2012, a public consultation on policy and legislation to be carried out and published, and a report by the secretariat of the National and Economic and Social Council (NESC), on Ireland's policy options for meeting our 2020 emissions reductions targets.
  • By the end of 2012, the Government's initial response to the first NESC report, Heads of Bill approved by Cabinet and published, and a second NESC report on transition to a low-carbon Ireland by 2050.
  • In the first half of 2013, the Oireachtas committee considers the NESC reports and the Heads and produces a report.
  • In the second half of 2013, the Government is to produce a new NCCS and introduce climate legislation.

The initial reaction to the Roadmap of those of us who see a public interest in action on climate change in Ireland was one disappointment at the seeming lack of urgency.

Why the two year wait for a full climate Bill?

All six main parties expressly supported climate legislation going in to the 2011 General Election. And a lot of groundwork had already been done during the last Oireachtas which saw two climate Bills introduced in the final months of its tenure. One produced by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security with cross-party support. The other was the one produced by the FF/Green coalition, and therefore stress-tested (to the point of destruction some would say) by officials across Government.

Moreover, the current NCCS runs out at the end of 2012. Allowing a gap of almost a year before a new one is adopted appears complacent given the size of the emissions challenge Ireland faces. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is already estimating that, without additional action now, we will overshoot our 2020 emissions target sometime between 2015 and 2017.

And in the real word the case for urgent action builds month after month. During this summer's melt season arctic sea ice cover reached a new historic low. Normally half the sea ice melts in summer. This year it was three quarters. The latest science suggests that this rapid retreat of the arctic ice sheet is weakening the jet stream. The unusual behaviour of the jet stream this year brought the US its worst drought in 56 years and Ireland its worst summer since 1986.

These impacts are happening with less the one degree of global warming. According to the International Energy Agency current levels of emissions have us on a path to five or six degrees or warming. The political goal is to keep global warming to less than two degrees. We may regard ourselves as small-fry in Ireland, but we are the sixth most climate-polluting country per person in the OECD. If everyone polluted like the Irish we would need three planets to absorb it.

Since January the disappointment at the lack of urgency in the Roadmap has evolved into a determination to see the process through. One reason Minister Hogan gives for the methodical pace of the Roadmap is the negative legacy of the manner in which the previous climate Bill got entangled with the unravelling of the last Government at the start of 2011. There may be no alternative therefore to a policy-making process that is painstakingly transparent and accommodating.

The Roadmap may be "climate policy for slow learners" to paraphrase Seamus Mallon but, so far, it is delivering. We have the first two of the four outputs promised for 2012: the results of the public consultation and the first NESC report.

There were 623 submissions to the public consultation and the headline findings are encouraging:

  • 89.8% of respondents think Ireland should be "among the progressive vanguard of [EU] Member States ... presenting itself as a forward looking, progressive society with an economy that is sustainable on socio-economic and environmental grounds."
  • 80% of respondents or more, over various questions, want to see Ireland's climate targets enshrined in national law, not just for 2020 but for 2030, 2040 and 2050.
  • Over 92% support the establishment of an independent, expert body to advise Government on climate policy. Majorities in the high 80s want it to have "independent interaction" with the media, the public and the Oireachtas. Strikingly, a firm majority (55%) did not think it should be "representative of all major stakeholders".
  • 62.3% feel there is no role for carbon offset credits in meeting our targets, that is we should cut our emissions here in Ireland rather than spend taxpayers' money overseas on buying pollution permits, known as "carbon credits".
  • The majority of those responding to a question on targets referred to the need for a legally-binding "carbon budget ", possibly along the lines of the existing UK model, with monitoring built in.

In the Department's own summary analysis of what people said in the write-in sections the three most important initiatives to pursue in the next 5-10 years to begin the transition to a low-carbon economy by 2050 were

  • Introduction of climate legislation to provide certainty and encourage investment;
  • Strong policy and implementation, support for same at EU and International level; and
  • Additional policy measures on energy, transport and agriculture.

The main purpose of the first report by the secretariat of NESC, published on 1 October, is in fact to identify additional policy options to help meet our 2020 targets. NESC's headline finding is that we can meet our 2020 emissions target but we are not yet on track to. The study finds that:

  • Successful implementation of all currently planned Government policies would bring Ireland within striking distance of our EU 2020 emissions targets, but still off track for the longer term. The study also warns that successful implementation cannot be taken for granted.
  • There are significant additional opportunities for cost-effective measures to reduce emissions, especially in retrofitting for energy saving in buildings. This would also create jobs, increase energy security, reduce fuel poverty and improve health outcomes. Massive government spending is not needed but it will need more people working on developing effective policy responses.
  • We should focus in the first instance on achieving emission reductions in Ireland and only consider spending taxpayers' money on buying carbon credits overseas as an insurance policy.
  • Many Government policies are not on track. The recession may make our 2020 target easier to reach but without corrective action from next year we will be very badly placed in 2020 to meet our future targets.

For me, the takeaway message from the NESC report is that once again in is not a lack of policy options that delays climate action in Ireland, it is lack of implementation.

That is why the next step on Minister Hogan's Roadmap is the crucial one. The test of whether we are serious this time. The publication of Heads of a climate Bill are promised before the Dáil rises for Christmas and we expect them before Minister Hogan travels to the UN climate talks in early December.

The long promised climate Bill is not about setting new unilateral targets, nor mandating specific measures, nor least of all focusing on any one sector of the economy. It is simply about hardwiring timely policy-making, action and accountability into a political system that too easily gets distracted from strategic issues. It is also a cornerstone of a sustainable, low-carbon economic recovery. It can act as a signal that Ireland is positioning itself as a hub of green enterprise, investment and innovation. In the UK, the introduction of the world's first such law had the strong support of the CBI and was actively pushed by a Corporate Leaders Group. An equivalent group here has also recognised that putting our emissions targets into law will give businesses and households the certainty they need to invest in the transition to a low-carbon future. Moreover, a law is also the best way to make sure all departments across government and all governments across time take climate change seriously and take action consistently. A law can drive the innovation we need not just across public policy and private enterprise but also personal behaviour, as measures as diverse as the smoking ban and the SSIAs demonstrate.

The Department of the Environment is now drafting the Heads of the new climate Bill. Before being approved by Cabinet and published in December they will be considered by the senior officials group that works to the Cabinet Committee on Climate Change and the Green Economy. Many of the key elements of an effective Bill have already been raised and supported in the public consultation. The key benchmarks of a robust Bill are:

  • An 80% reduction emissions target for 2050.
  • A carbon-budgeting process that breaks the 2050 goal down into politically-relevant 3-5 year interim targets. These should be proposed by Government and, once adopted by the Dáil, become legally-binding.
  • An independent, expert, advisory body, with the authority of being a new stand-alone agency just as the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council is. It also needs the same courage of its convictions that Colm McCarthy's "special groups" have demonstrated in recent yeas.
  • A policy-making cycle that matches the Carbon Budget period and produces an action plan (an NCCS) informed by the advisory body. And an annual monitoring and accountability cycle that includes a progress report on implementation from the advisory body, a Government response in the Dáil and a Dáil committee that acts rather like the PAC does on foot of C&AG's report, calling in senior officials and Ministers to account for progress in their sector.
  • A "concrete ceiling" on the use of overseas carbon offset credits.

How the draft Bill measures up will be litmus test of whether the Roadmap is fact complex policy-making at its best, or simply one more detour in the face of the climate challenge.

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