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VOICES

Column Climate report is a key test of Government’s political reform

We cannot let the climate crisis become a crash. As the slogan puts it “nature doesn’t do bailouts”, writes Oisín Coghlan.

THIS GOVERNMENT PROMISED a “democratic revolution”. And they have made tentative moves towards political reform.

The bluntest – abolition of the Seanad – was rejected. The latest – reform of the FoI legislation – has run into difficulties over costs. And they’re just beginning to address the real challenge of Dáil reform. One of the first steps they have taken on that has now thrown up a real test of their seriousness.

The Oireachtas environment committee last week produced a report recommending significant changes to the Government’s draft Climate Bill. Sending draft Bills to Committees for consideration and consultation with stakeholders before ministers and parties get entrenched in political positions is the key parliamentary innovation of this coalition. Ministers made much of it as the way to involve experts and civic groups in the legislative process.

Climate change

The environment committee took its role seriously. It considered over 40 written submissions, heard four full days of evidence from academics and interest groups, and hired Ireland’s leading climate scientist, Professor John Sweeney, to advise it.

And now its report has proposed a series of changes to the Bill.

The Stop Climate Chaos coalition of 28 overseas aid, environment, youth and faith groups had called the Government’s first draft of the Bill “too weak to work”. Having heard the evidence, the Committee has sought to address a number of those weaknesses.

Advisory body

The most absurd was the fact the “expert advisory body” – proposed to advise Government and monitor progress – was stuffed with State officials and couldn’t even publish its own reports; it could only hand them over quietly to Government.

Now, the Committee proposes that it should be modelled on the Fiscal Advisory Council, with independent members and proper monitoring and reporting powers. That in itself would contribute to political reform, enabling the Oireachtas to better hold the executive to account.

Some of the recommended changes are simply good housekeeping.  Do your national action plan before your sectoral ones. So you don’t just get each department promising as little as possible. Do a new plan at least every five years, not every seven, which is just too long to enable political accountability.

The most controversial aspect of the Government’s draft Bill was the absence of any target for emissions in 2050. This was welcomed by IBEC and the Irish Farmer’s Association (IFA), but described by Friends of the Earth as like a car without an engine: it might look nice but it won’t get you where you want to go. The 2050 target is what drives the rest of the policy process.

Targets

The majority of witnesses before the Oireachtas Committee supported a 2050 target. The Irish Corporate Leaders on Climate Change – a group that includes Diageo, Bord Gáis, Siemens and Vodafone – called for a “strategic goal” that would give greater certainty to investors.

The Committee report came up short of recommending a specific numerical target. Their alternative is to incorporate into the Bill the objective the Minister for the Environment himself set out when he addressed the Committee. That is “near zero emissions from buildings, energy and transport and carbon neutrality for agriculture”. Carbon neutrality simply means that for every burping cow, there would be a new tree or some restored bog to absorb the pollution.

IBEC and the IFA welcomed the Committee’s report, with IBEC commenting on its “inclusive” nature. Stop Climate Chaos welcomed the report overall, but expressed its disappointment at the lack of a clear numerical benchmark for progress.

The key question now is what will the Government do? Minister Hogan has repeatedly described the central role this committee process has in shaping the climate Bill. Well, they have done what was asked of them and examined the draft closely in the light of evidence from stakeholders. Will the Government take on board their conclusions? That is a test of their commitment to political reform.

The new law itself will also be a key contribution to political reform. Since Stop Climate Chaos first called for a climate law in 2007, politicians have often lamented that “nobody asks about climate change on the doorstep”.

Acting now

Our answer is simple: nobody on the doorsteps was asking you about banking regulation in 2002, or even 2007, but they would have rewarded you if you had shown leadership on foot of the evidence of economic overheating and managed the risk by strengthening the regulatory framework before the crisis hit.

Indeed, we see parallels between the causes of the financial crash and the causes of the climate crisis: poorly understood risk, a short-term focus on “business as usual”, and faith in “light-touch” regulation. We cannot afford to repeat those mistakes. If we let the climate crisis become a crash, there is no way back. As the slogan puts it “nature doesn’t do bailouts”.

Stop Climate Chaos sees the Climate Bill as both a key element of “never again”, post-crash, political reform and a cornerstone of a genuinely sustainable, low-carbon, economic recovery.

Oisín Coghlan is Director of Friends of the Earth and a member of the Steering Committee of Stop Climate Chaos. @OisinCoghlan. www.stopclimatechaos.ie

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