Public Affairs

Action on climate

Oisin Coghlan head and shoulders 2012-1018 An improved Climate Change Bill will help to drive a recovery for future generations, Oisín Coghlan writes.

The heads of the Government’s Climate Change Bill were the subject of three full days of hearings by the Oireachtas Environment Committee in July. The committee’s report to Minister Hogan is due in September and the Government have promised to introduce the legislation in the Dáil before the end of the year.

Friends of the Earth sees the Climate Bill as both a key element of political reform and a cornerstone of a genuinely sustainable, low-carbon, economic recovery.

Our political system and public administration, with their origins in the 19th century, are not well suited to tackling a 21st century problem like climate change. Politicians are incentivised to think in five-year electoral cycles and the 24-7 news cycle and to prioritise the expressed immediate concerns of voters, as amplified by the media and interest groups.

Climate change, by contrast, seems remote and intangible. You can’t see the pollution and we imagine the impacts are either in distant lands (the Arctic or Africa) or in the distant future. Compounding the challenge is a public administration system entrenched in departmental silos, with an instinct for incremental change at best, and a risk of ‘regulatory capture’ by the vested interests active in their sectoral remit.

Climate change requires large-scale action now, across a range of government departments and sectors, to prevent disaster some way in the future. Those who see the short-term costs of adjustment are well concentrated, informed and organised. Those who will pay the price of inaction are dispersed, unorganised and, in the case of many, unborn.

Time after time, measures to meet our Kyoto target were discarded or delayed due to opposition or inertia and, crucially, there was no imperative to replace them with alternative measures. Only the economic crash ‘saved’ us from missing our Kyoto target and costing the taxpayer hundreds of millions of euro in ‘offset’ credits.

There are parallels between the economic crash and the climate crisis. Poorly understood risk, short-termism and ‘light touch’ regulation are common to both. Politicians often say to us that “nobody talks about climate change on the doorsteps”. Our reply is simple: nobody was talking about banking regulation on the doorsteps in 2002, or even 2007, but voters would have rewarded you if you had shown leadership in the face of the evidence of economic over-heating.

Effective climate legislation can help make Ireland a hub for green enterprise and innovation. Putting our long-term targets into law would give business and households the certainty they need to invest in the transition to sustainability. A law is also the best way to make sure all departments across government, and all governments across time, take climate change seriously and take action consistently.

The Oireachtas hearings showed up significant weaknesses in the Government’s outline Bill, however.

The ‘expert advisory body’ as currently proposed is not independent enough. It can’t even publish its own reports and it has a built-in majority of ex-officio public officials. There was a groundswell at the hearings to use the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council as a model and, encouragingly, Minister Hogan told the committee he was looking favourably at that.

The Minister also agreed that seven years is too long between reviews of national and sectoral action plans. A bigger problem is the proposal to do the sectoral plans first. A long-term national vision, driven by the public interest, should frame the work on sectoral plans. The national plan should not be a mere reflection of sectoral plans constrained by vested interests.

The biggest weakness, however, is that there is no 2050 target in this first draft. A climate law without a 2050 target is like a car without an engine – it will not get you where you want to go. All five climate bills initiated in the Oireachtas since 2009 have had an 80 per cent emissions reduction target for 2050, in line with stated EU objectives.

The question of how best to include and express Ireland’s ambition for 2050 in the final Bill will be the hottest topic as the Oireachtas committee writes its report and the Minister considers its recommendations.

Oisín Coghlan is the Director of Friends of the Earth.

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