Government publishes much-anticipated Climate Bill

7 October 2020

The Government has published its much anticipated Climate Bill today with a number of features that aim to set out and strengthen national climate policy. 

The Climate Action (Amendment) Bill 2020 was promised within the first 100 days of the new Government’s term, and is contains a series of amendments to the statutory Climate Act of 2015. 

In addition to pursuing climate neutrality by 2050, according to the Government, the Bill maps out setting of five-year carbon budgets, annually revising the Climate Action Plan from 2021 onwards, and strengthening the role of the Climate Change Advisory Council. 

The Bill, the Department of Climate Action noted, “reflects and remains faithful” to the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action report published last year, which both called for greater and swifter action on the climate crisis. 

Features of the Bill 

One of the main features in the Bill is the setting of carbon budgets, that will start its first five-year term in 2021 and will, according to the Government, include all greenhouse gases. 

Each sector will have “emission ceilings” under the budgets and will be passed by the Oireachtas based on recommendations from the Climate Change Advisory Council. 

At the launch of the Bill today, Taoiseach Michael Martin said “meaningful measures” will be in place to ensure limits within each budget are not breached. 

Such a limit includes a provision on limited borrowing from future carbon budgets, which will be capped at 1 per cent. 

The 2019 Climate Action Plan will replace the former National Mitigation Plan, which was notably quashed by the Supreme Court earlier this year, and will be annually revised starting next year. 

Additionally, an element of the Bill will allow for National Long Term Climate Strategies, which will focus outward to at least 2050, and will outline how the Government intends to meet the national 2050 climate objective. 

The language on these strategies has remnants of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in favour of Friends of the Irish Environment, and during the Bill’s press conference Minister for Climate Action Eamon Ryan noted that the legislation was “drafted in response to the recommendations of the Supreme Court”.

The Climate Change Advisory Council will also be diversified in both expertise and gender, according to the Bill, and Government appointees must have expertise in climate science, transport, energy, agriculture, behavioural and communication science, biodiversity and ecosystem services, economics, finance, and/or political sociology or ethics in relation to climate. 

The ex-officio members of the Council will now include the Director General of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Director of Teagasc, the Food Development Authority and the Director of Met Eireann. 

Previously, four ex-officio seats were on the Council and were held by the EPA, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, the Economic and Social Research Institute, and Teagasc. 

Improvement but “substantial” weaknesses 

Stop Climate Chaos welcomed the publication of the Bill but noted that “substantial weaknesses” remain and must be fixed by TDs and Senators in its upcoming pre-legislative scrutiny. 

“Moreover, we’re acutely conscious that this Bill is just the framework for action. It’s the rules of the game, not the result,” Stop Climate Chaos coordinator Oisín Coghlan said. 

“Passing it is the starting gun in the race of a lifetime, the race to eliminate our polluting emissions fast enough to avoid complete climate breakdown,” he added. 

Obvious weaknesses in the Bill, according to Stop Climate Chaos Policy Coordinator Sadhbh O’Neill, include the Government only having to “pursue the 2050 objective, not achieve it” and the fact that carbon budgets do not have to be consistent with the 2050 objective. 

Theresa O’Donoghue of Feasta stressed that comprehensive public participation is absent from designing climate plans, and that it is “essential that the Government launch a proper national dialogue on climate action immediately”. 

Sinn Fein Senator Lynn Boylan also welcomed the Bill but noted that it contains “zero references” to a Just Transition, amongst other social justice issues, and said “real scrutiny” is required at the Committee level. 

Environmental Policy Fellow Dr Cara Augustenorg said the legislation was a “60 per cent improvement on existing climate legislation”, but that without a legal obligation to prepare policies that meet carbon budgets, “there’s not enough substantial change to force Ireland’s emissions curve downwards”. 

“Here’s hoping opposition parties and civil society force some very necessary improvements to the Bill during pre-legislative scrutiny”, Dr Augustenborg added. 

The Bill will now go to the Oireachtas Committee of Climate Action for pre-legislative scrutiny and will be debated and voted on by the Dáil.

It will find its way back to the Oireachtas Committee for consideration of amendments.

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Kayle Crosson