Public Affairs

2021 can be the year of faster and fairer climate action

I have lost count of how often over the years I have written the line “this year is a pivotal one for Irish climate policy”. Too often. And more often than not we have not pivoted towards action. Oisín Coghlan, Director of Friends of the Earth, writes.

This year feels different. Here’s the evidence that’s informing my gut.

Based on last year’s Programme for Government we’ll see a stronger climate law, a stronger Climate Change Advisory Council, a stronger commitment to social dialogue and public engagement and what really matters in the end, a new action plan to cut emissions twice as fast as the previous government planned.

But I’m taking nothing for granted. What determines which way a pivot turns is pressure. As the head of a campaigning organisation, we’ll keep pushing not just until these commitments are delivered but until Ireland is actually doing its fair share to contain climate breakdown.

The first draft of the new Climate Bill wasn’t good enough. To name just one example, it made no mention of Just Transition. So we coordinated online constituency meetings between over 1,000 voters and over 100 of their local TDs.

Most of our demands were endorsed by the report of the Oireachtas Climate Committee, which finished its expert-led scrutiny of the Bill in December 2020. Minister Ryan has now said the Government will accept the vast majority of its recommendations.

If so, we can expect a climate law that includes: a legally binding commitment “to pursue and achieve” net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest; five-year emissions ceilings, known as carbon budgets, in line with that 2050 target, adopted by the Dáil, and allocated into sectoral limits by government; a duty on ministers to produce action plans that deliver those targets; and much tighter parliamentary oversight under an Oireachtas committee doing for pollution what the Public Accounts Committee does for public money.

We also expect the Bill to mandate climate action based on global justice, just transition and protection of biodiversity. One key test is whether the Bill reflects and underpins the Programme for Government commitment to a 51 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030. Given that it has been already agreed politically, any reluctance to give it a legislative mandate will be regarded as backsliding by the three coalition parties.

Just as important as the governance framework provided by the Bill is the preparation of the new Climate Action Plan to actually achieve that 51 per cent reduction in climate pollution, due to be published this summer. The process, due to be launched in Spring, must go beyond conventional public consultation to include a roundtable dialogue among national stakeholders and facilitated public participation at local level. The plan itself needs not only to deliver immediate emissions reductions but also fairness and transparency.

One indication that the Government means business is the appointment of Marie Donnelly as the new Chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council. A former head of renewables in the European Commission she is a no-nonsense straight-talker who has also been a consistent champion of community energy and citizen participation in the transition. And the climate council finally has an actual climate scientist on board in the shape of Professor Peter Thorne from Maynooth University.

These elements: a stronger Bill; a better plan; and a new council, only get us to the starting line. A decade of dodging and delaying has turned a marathon into a sprint. But if we get them right then we’ll be ready to join the rest of the world, including a refocused US under Biden, at the crucial UN climate summit in November 2021. COP26 in Glasgow is the starting gun in the race of a lifetime; the race to get to zero emissions fast enough to prevent complete climate breakdown and fairly enough to leave no one behind.

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