Eamon Ryan Photo: Kayle Crosson

Some key things to look out for in the Climate Bill

2 October 2020

Climate governance can be a tricky thing to get your head around, but it’s incredibly important. It sets the stage for economy-wide emissions reductions and it puts in place accountability measures, to name a few of its functions. 

And we found out last weekend that one of the most important pieces of climate governance legislation is coming our way very soon – the Climate Action (Amendment) Bill. 

The Bill was promised to be published within 100 days of this new government, and it seems like that goal will be met, give or take a couple of days. 

It also will meet the Irish public after a momentous climate development this summer. The Supreme Court ruled in July that the State’s National Mitigation Plan – a statutory plan under the terms of the 2015 Climate Act – was inadequate and that a new, more specific one needed to be devised. 

Against that national backdrop is the overarching presence of a European Green Deal, which will call for a higher 2030 climate target and new goals for 2040 and 2050. 

Simply put, there’s a growing call and need for more ambitious climate policy. 

We don’t know what’s in the Bill right now, but we do know there’ll be a lot to wade through when it’s out. 

But in the meantime, what will be some key things to keep an eye out for when we do our first read? 

We called up and combed through papers by experts in the area – Diarmuid Torney, an Associate Professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University, and Sinéad Mercier, a law and policy analyst specialising in climate and Just Transition. 

Note: this list is not exhaustive, there are of course lots of things that will be crucial in this Bill, this is just a few to help us get started. Friends of the Earth also have a great list of criteria on the Bill that helped us pick out what to watch out for – you can find that in full on their website. 

We also recommend having a read of both Sinéad’s and Diarmuid’s papers in full.

And in no particular order, here we go. 

If agriculture has a separate target 

As all our climate hawks out there know, agriculture is our largest emitting sector. According to the latest data available, it now accounts for 34 per cent of total emissions. We’re an outlier in this area, as the European-wide average of this figure is 10 per cent. 

The Bill will set in motion the setting of economy-wide carbon budgets, which will run in 5 year periods starting in 2021. 

But will agriculture be included in this national target, or will it be sidelined to a separate one? Diarmuid Torney told us it’s going to be a key question for the Bill itself. 

What we do know so far is that the Programme for Government stated that agriculture has a “special economic and social role” and that its distinct characteristics of biogenic methane will be “fully recognised” in plans to achieve the outlined 7 per cent per annum emission reductions from 2021 to 2030. 

Will that mean a separate budget? We’ll have to see. But how we handle our biggest emitting sector and how we manage a Just Transition for farmers, undoubtedly, will be crucial. 

If the Bill enshrines a Just Transition 

And speaking of a Just Transition, we’ll need to see how often, if at all, the term is mentioned in the Bill itself. 

If you haven’t heard of it before, the concept originates with trade unions who want to ensure that the pathway out of high-carbon industries into sustainable jobs is one rooted in fairness, equity and cooperation. 

(Side note: There’s lots written about this topic, so we recommend doing a deep dive research of your own to get a full understanding of it). 

The government published its Heads of Bill (which is essentially a draft outline of the Climate Action Amendment Bill) last year, and Sinéad Mercier points out that not once did it mention a Just Transition. 

The lack of reference, she warns, is a “serious oversight”. 

Diarmuid Torney notes that a Just Transition is referred to in the Programme for Government, so now it should be enshrined in the revised bill.

And while we’re on the note of defined and enshrined terms, another thing to look out for is if the Bill defines climate justice. 

The 2015 Act and the 2019 Heads of Bill, Sinéad Mercier observed, use the expression “to have regard to” in relation to climate justice, but both documents fail to specify what is meant by the concept.

Knowing what the State perceives as climate justice will be telling and informative of any policy going forward. 

What the new Climate Action Council looks like 

So first: some background. Right now, one of the main bodies advising the Government on climate is the Climate Change Advisory Council. 

Under the 2015 Climate Act, changes to the role and composition of the Climate Change Advisory Council are established and when we move over to look at the 2019 Heads of Bill, we see the change is accounted for there too. 

The body will be renamed the Climate Action Council and it will provide recommendations to the Government on setting and monitoring the earlier-mentioned five year carbon budgets. 

Diarmuid Torney goes into more detail in his paper, but essentially the Climate Change Advisory Council is currently skewed in terms of expertise and gender balance. 

9 out of the 11 sitting on the Council are male, and 8 out of these 11 are economists. 

As Diarmuid notes, the discipline of economics “undoubtedly provides important insights to climate change policy”, but a broader set of perspectives is “surely warranted”. 

And while we know for sure the composition, role and title will change of the body, it will be telling to see who is appointed to the new Council. 

Sinéad Mercier also highlighted the need for more diversity of perspectives, particularly climate scientists and the inclusion of those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and climate action, in keeping with the ‘reach the furthest behind first’ approach of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Her proposal has a number of suggestions for Council members, including representation on the biodiversity crisis, energy poverty, disability, migrant and traveller representatives, trade unions on just transition and representation from a human rights body such as the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

Additionally, she reminds us that the 2019 Heads of Bill only requires a gender balance “as far as practicable”. 

“This is not acceptable and 50:50 balance is required,” she writes

If there are references to a “least cost” approach & cost effectiveness 

In the Heads of Bill published last year, one paragraph notes that “the need to achieve the objectives of a national long term climate strategy” should come to “the least cost to the national economy and adopt measures that are cost-effective”. 

Taking such an approach, Diarmuid Torney tells us, “puts a straight jacket on decision making that I don’t think is necessarily helpful”. 

For example, the “cost-effective” approach might look good on the balancing books, but it could also have social and environmental impacts that in the long-term will damage communities. 

A more nuanced way of phrasing it, Diarmuid Torney writes in his paper, would be an “acceptable cost”. 

Sinéad Mercier also notes that there is no scientific basis to conclude that “any delay in emissions reduction will be most cost-efficient”. 

Furthermore, she writes in her paper, a focus on cost-effectiveness is difficult to square with a governmental failure to “heed the IPCC’s advice regarding emissions reduction trajectories”. 

The government’s focus on ‘cost-effectiveness’ is within a narrow framework of current short-term benefits to the economy as is, rather than long-term benefits to all, including the climate, she adds. 

The language the government ultimately chooses to use in the Bill will be telling and could give us a clue into what future discussions around climate action (and how it’s financed) could look like. 

A limit on (or elimination of) borrowing 

And speaking of financial terminology, another thing to keep a look out for is references to borrowing. 

But in this case, borrowing doesn’t refer to national debt, but rather borrowing how much can be emitted from future national carbon budgets. 

The Climate Change Advisory Council said that “potential provisions for borrowing” initially proposed by the last Government needs more detail and requires further consideration and the body goes on to mention a cap on borrowing. 

Diarmuid Torney in his paper is suggesting a tight limit on such borrowing at just 1 per cent of any future budget, just like the UK Climate Change Act. 

Borrowing without limit, Diarmuid tells us, means that “there’s nothing to stop you” from borrowing indefinitely. 

Sinéad Mercier in her paper recommended removing future borrowing altogether from the Bill, but says “at the least” it’s worth copying the borrowing provision that Diarmuid referenced in the UK Climate Act.

What language is used in talking about actions & delivery 

And finally, no matter what is laid out in the Bill, the language around action and delivery is going to be crucial. 

Diarmuid Torney notes that where there is a reference to meeting carbon budgets in the Heads of Bill, the text is “lacking substantially in precision”. 

For example, one paragraph reads that the Government will “endeavour to achieve” the National Transition Objective of a climate-resilient economy. Another paragraph uses the language of the Government being “required to support delivery of”. 

The language used doesn’t demonstrate a clear obligation for the government. 

In order to ensure accountability, Diarmuid recommended that the Bill take another leaf out of the UK Climate Change Act. A section of the UK Act says not exceeding the carbon budget is “the duty of the Secretary of State”. 

Clear cut, plain and simple. The buck stops there, to put it colloquially. 

Sinéad also calls for the Government to use stronger phrasing in her paper, and suggests using language such as “comply with” or “shall be consistent with”. 

Hopefully that helped prep you for the big publication day of the Bill – we’ll be following it as it develops and will keep you updated as always on all things climate-related. 

About the Author

Kayle Crosson