Sanctions for failing to meet targets might not be “implementable”

28 October 2020 

Sanctioning government departments for failing to meet their carbon budgets under the new Climate Bill might not be “implementable”, the Chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council said today. 

Speaking before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action as the Bill goes through its pre-legislative scrutiny, Professor John Fitzergald weighed in with his opinion on the prospect of sanctions if five-year set budgets fail to be met. 

“The sanction is you, the Oireachtas, saying, ‘you’ve failed’. Looking for sanctions on Departments because they’ve failed, I’m not sure that that is implementable or makes sense. 

Ultimately, if we don’t make the 2030 target it will be because the people of Ireland have not supported an Oireachtas that was there to make the decisions,” Prof Fitzgerald said, speaking to the Committee in a personal capacity. 

“I see this as a political process, where you the politicians deliver, and if you fail, well it’s for the electorate to say what they think about it,” he added. 

In response, Independent Senator Alice-Mary Higgins noted that having been an Oireachtas member with the “unfortunate experience of saying you’ve failed on multiple occasions”, it is not an adequate sanction.

Professor Fitzgerald later elaborated on how departmental target failures could be met, and suggested internal mechanisms such as top-level government involvement in these instances as a remedy. 

Cost effectiveness 

In his opening statement, Prof Fitzgerald noted that the list of 25 criteria that policymakers must “have regard to” according to the language of the Bill, is “lengthy” and would make “Council deliberations very difficult”. 

The criteria includes government climate policy, climate justice, the need to promote sustainable development, the protection of public health, and “the special economic and social role of agriculture”.

Critics of the Bill have also pointed out that the term “have regard to” is weak and would not guarantee that these criteria were incorporated. 

Prof Fitzgerald stressed that it would be “essential” to retain criterion (e), which requires the Council “to consider the cost effectiveness of policies”. 

“Its exclusion would make it extremely difficult for the Council to make recommendations that were sensible or workable,” he said.

Climate justice, which remains undefined in the Bill, while “very important”, must ultimately be before the Oireachtas to “consider and resolve”, Prof Fitzergald added. 

If the government fails to take on the recommendations and advice from the Climate Change Advisory Council, they should provide their rationale for doing so, as done in the Scottish Climate Act, Professor Fitzgerald also told the Committee. 

Prof Fitzgerald’s testimony comes just a day after the Committee heard that the Bill in its current state cannot be expected to drive necessary emission reductions. 

Climate Accountability lawyer Jonathan Church from Client Earth warned that the Bill in its current form means “the government is not required to produce plans adequate for meeting targets” and that “nothing substantive is required” if it falls short. 

Pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill will continue tomorrow, where the Committee will hear from Professor Yvonne Buckley, a Professor of Zoology at Trinity College Dublin, and Dr James Glynn of the MaREI Research Centre in Cork. 

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Kayle Crosson