‘Ambitious’ Climate Act signed into law

“The journey to net zero emissions has begun,” the Government said after the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act was signed into law, setting Ireland a legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.

The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 was signed into law by Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D Higgins on 23 July. The legislation’s enactment means that Ireland is legally obliged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, but also to achieve a 51 per cent reduction in emissions by the end of the current decade. The Act provides the framework for Ireland to meet its international and EU climate commitments.

Speaking upon the signing into law of the Act, the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Eamon Ryan TD, said: “Today is a landmark day, as we turn climate ambition into law, and set out on a journey to net zero emissions. The extreme weather events around the world over the past month have shown us all that we must act quickly, to protect ourselves and our planet.

“Our immediate target of halving emissions by 2030 is challenging, but it is also an opportunity to transform our economy, create new jobs, protect our environment, and build a greener and fairer future. We will all need to work together to achieve this, in renewable energy, active and sustainable travel, in business, agriculture and across government. But the signal we are sending today is that now is the time for action.”

The next stage on the journey to net zero will be the preparation of regulations on carbon accounting, which will be developed in consultation with the Climate Change Advisory Council and consistent with the Paris Agreement and EU rules. Following this will be the production of carbon budgets by the Climate Change Advisory Council; these budgets will then be presented to the Oireachtas and approved by Government. It will then fall on the Government to set sectoral emissions ceilings, which will determine how each sector of the economy will contribute to the achievement of the budgets.

Highlights of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act

  • The Act embeds the process of setting binding and ambitious emissions-reductions targets in law, providing for a national climate objective, which will commit the State to pursuing and achieving the transition to a “climate resilient, biodiversity-rich, environmentally sustainable and climate-neutral economy” no later than 2050.
  • The Act lines out that the first two five-year carbon budgets proposed by the Climate Change Advisory Council will equate to a total reduction of 51 per cent over the period to 2030, relative to a baseline of 2018.
  • The role of the Climate Change Advisory Council has been strengthened, enabling it to propose carbon budgets to the Minister which match the ambition laid out within the Act and the State’s international obligations. The Government is also given the power to appoint an extra three members to the Council.
  • The Government must adopt carbon budgets that are consistent with the Paris Agreement and other international obligations. All forms of greenhouse gas emissions including biogenic methane will be included in the carbon budgets, and carbon removals will be taken into account in setting budgets. However, the decisions on trajectories for sectors remain the Government’s to make.
  • Following consultation, the Government will decide how to apply the Plan across the sectors and how each sector will contribute to given five-year budgets.
  • Actions for each sector will be detailed in the Climate Action Plan, which must be updated annually.
  • Government ministers will be responsible for achieving the legally binding targets for their own sectoral area with each Minister accounting for their performance towards sectoral targets and actions before an Oireachtas Committee each year.
  • Local authorities must prepare individual Climate Action Plans which will include both mitigation and adaptation measures and will be updated every five years. Local authority development plans must be aligned with their Climate Action Plan.
  • Public bodies will be obliged to take account of Climate Action Plans in the performance of their functions.

The Climate Action Plan 2021, where the path towards these goals will be laid out, is expected to be published “in early autumn”. This Plan will include the measures to be taken in order for these sectoral targets to be met. The Act also provides for the appointment by the Government of an extra three members to the Climate Change Advisory Council, whose new Chair, Marie Donnelly, was appointed in February 2021, along with climate scientist Peter Thorne and economist Ottmar Edenhofer, both appointed as members.

The Act was passed in the Dáil in June by a majority of 129 votes to 10. It has, however, come in for criticism from opposition TDs and campaigners, particularly after a number of amendments were passed in the Seanad on 9 July, just two weeks before the signing of the Act into law. These amendments revised how emissions will be calculated for the different sectors, particularly around land use for agriculture.

“It is a very important bill and we all wanted to work with the minister to make it stronger and to future-proof it to make it a bill for future generations and governments,” the Social Democrat TD Jennifer Whitmore said. “Unfortunately, these amendments have undermined that completely.” Climatologist Professor John Sweeney of Maynooth University also opined that the Act had “taken the guts out of the Climate Bill and destroyed the principles under which it was established”.

The Act will have its greatest implications across the transport and agriculture sectors, which count for over half of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions when combined. Minister Ryan has said that success of the Act will be dependent upon collaboration “in renewable energy, active and sustainable travel, in business, agriculture and across government”. While the reception has not been unanimously positive, some environmental campaigners have been optimistic about the potential the Act has to affect change in Ireland’s climate performance.

“This is an historic day for Irish climate policy and a landmark reform of public administration in Ireland,” Friends of the Earth Director Oisín Coghlan said. “Now the real work begins.”

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