August 14th, 2017
The Irish Citizens Assembly will be putting deliberative democracy to the test very soon in relation to Ireland’s implementation of environmental policy. The Assembly closed submissions for ‘How the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’ last Friday.
The Environmental Pillar made a detailed submission and sent out a biting press release criticizing the government for failing to deliver on environmental targets and policy commitments. The submission calls upon the assembly to recommend a constitutionally protected right to Irish citizens to live in a healthy environment. Ireland is one of only a handful of European nations not to have some form of environmental protection.
Poor Track Record on Implementing Environmental Policy
Environmental Pillar spokesperson Donna Mullen criticised the government’s recently published National Mitigation Plan stating that in Ireland we are environmental “laggards” and not leaders and that the government’s new plan fails to address key issues.
Donna identified the failure to set an end date for peat burning and coal-fired electricity generation as particularly egregious inadequacies of the mitigation plan.
Renowned Irish climate scientist John Sweeney summed up the current government’s climate change actions as “weak” and “inadequate”. He said: “The Government introduced legislation for Climate Action in 2015 which doesn’t even cover a number of semi-state bodies, including many of our major energy producers such as Bord
“The Government introduced legislation for Climate Action in 2015 which doesn’t even cover a number of semi-state bodies, including many of our major energy producers,” he said. “The decisions of these companies are key to Ireland’s emissions and our contribution to climate change, and the fact that they are either partially or explicitly exempt shows that the Act is a weak and inadequate piece of legislation.”
The Climate Action Act merely specifies that certain public bodies “have regard” to adaptation and mitigation objectives. The obligation to “have regard to” has been interpreted by the courts to mean that a public body is not bound to comply with the matters it must have regard to.
The Environmental Pillar hopes to convince the citizen’s assembly that by amending the Constitution to reflect a right to a healthy environment, we could feed political will to take real-long term actions.
Current and Future Effects of Climate Change in Ireland
Ireland is currently 0.5 degrees warmer than 30 years ago, and may face the following issues in the coming decades:
- Increased flooding: the winter of 2014/15 was the wettest ever recorded over half of Ireland. Flood frequencies will increase, and peak flood levels will increase above previous record levels. Furthermore, we can expect areas that have no history of flooding to become vulnerable.
- Adapting to higher water tables will require stringent controls on septic tanks and planning restrictions in vulnerable areas.
- Increased coastal flooding as a result of higher sea levels and changing storm intensities. Insurance against these risks will become increasingly costly and difficult to obtain.
- Water is likely to become an expensive resource for agriculture in dry summers.
- Vulnerable species such as the curlew and cold-water fish may go extinct. Invasive species of plants will thrive in warmer temperatures.
In 1995, the Irish Government established the ‘Constitution Review Group’ to review the constitution of Ireland and make recommendations to the State. A report by the Group, published in 1996, favoured “a basic constitutional statement of the State’s responsibility in relation to the environment”.
The report recommended that the statement be incorporated in article 10 or a new article of the Irish Constitution. This would bring Ireland in line with other European nations. The intended amendment would also address the fact that, at the time of its writing in the 1930’s, Ireland had not yet undergone large-scale industrialization.
The relationship between public health and the environment has been clearly established and demonstrated in Ireland with the smoky coal ban and later with the banning of smoking in the workplace. The fundamental right to environmental protection is too important to be left to the courts to establish and should be specifically identified in the Constitution.