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Sunday 24 September 2023 Dublin: 16°C
Shutterstock/Lukas Jonaitis
Analysis Can Ireland tackle climate change without a credible medium or long-term plan?
Assistant Professor in climate law, Dr Orla Kelleher looks at Ireland’s record on climate and finds we’re coming up short.

IT WILL COME as little surprise to anyone that another report has highlighted just how perilous a time we are living in as we face the effects of climate change.

This week, the World Meteorological Organisation released its State of the Global Climate report for 2022 and its findings are worrying. It found that the last eight years were the warmest of modern records, despite the La Niña weather phenomenon that would have had a cooling effect. The WMO says the global average temperatures last year were 1.15 degrees Celsius higher than the 1850-1900 average.

Ireland is not immune to the growing impact of planetary warming. Last year was this country’s hottest year on record, according to Met Éireann, with all-time highest maximum temperature records for July and August both broken (at Phoenix Park on 18 July with 33.0°C and Durrow, Co Laois on 13 August with 32.1°C).  

NO FEE OIREACHTAS PRES BIDEN VISIT MX-2 TONY MAXWELL Joe Biden as he arrives into Leinster House ahead of a joint addresses to the Houses of the Oireachtas meeting Catherine Connolly, Leas-Cheann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann. TONY MAXWELL

In his recent address to the Dáil, US President Joe Biden described climate change as the ‘single existential threat to the world.’ He spoke of a shared commitment between Ireland and the US to tackling the climate crisis to preserve our planet for future generations. He praised Ireland’s ‘famous 40 shades of green’ which he said ‘are being supplemented by green energy, green agriculture, green jobs.’ But does Ireland deserve this accolade? Are we living up to our climate commitments?

Meeting targets

The Irish government has been keen to change its reputation from a climate laggard to a climate leader. Irish politicians have been quite good at signing up to international climate commitments and more recently setting numerical emission reduction targets.

One such example is how Ireland ratified the Paris Agreement in 2016: an international climate accord which requires governments to set nationally chosen targets reflecting equity and their differentiated responsibility for climate change and capacity to act with a view to limiting global heating to +1.5°C.

Ireland is supposed to contribute to the Paris Agreement through the EU, which recently increased its climate ambition by committing to reduce its emissions by at least 55% by 2030 relative to 1990 levels and reaching climate neutrality by 2050.

Ireland has also had a national climate law on its statute books since 2015. The 2015 Climate Act did not set numerical emission reduction targets or provide for carbon budgets but instead introduced a requirement to produce national mitigation and adaptation plans every five years. In 2021, the Irish government strengthened the Climate Act by enshrining into law a carbon neutrality by 2050 target, an interim target of a 51% reduction by 2030 relative to 2018 levels, a system of carbon budgets and sectoral emissions ceilings, and climate planning measures.

The improvements to Ireland’s climate law came in the wake of the ‘Climate Case Ireland’ decision. In this landmark ruling, the Supreme Court struck down the government’s flagship climate policy, the National Mitigation Plan, because it did not provide enough detail on how the government planned to achieve its 2050 national transition objective.

Hard choices

Making commitments is easy, but following through is the challenge. Emissions were projected to rise rather than rapidly fall over the lifetime of the plan but the Irish government has not been as good at translating these commitments into climate plans and policies, which result in substantial emission reductions.

Almost three years after Climate Case Ireland, the government has not yet adopted an up-to-date, long-term climate plan as required by our own and EU climate law.

Under the revised Climate Act, the government must adopt a national long-term climate strategy which specifies how the government plans to achieve net zero by 2050.

Under the EU Governance Regulation, Member States are required to produce medium and long-term plans, national energy and climate plans (NECPs) and national long-term strategies (nLTS). NECPs are 10-year plans setting out the policies and investment needed to deliver the EU’s climate and energy 2030 targets. The nLTS cover a 30-year horizon to 2050. The setting out and following of these plans is meant to help Member States to plan to contribute to the EU bloc’s climate neutrality by the 2050 target.

The Irish government has still not published the national long-term strategy three years after the deadline. This is despite the fact that the State is being taken to court by Friends of the Irish Environment and the European Commission for failing to produce an nLTS. 

It seems the intention of the government is to produce one single long-term strategy, but the final version is not expected until the end of 2023.

As for Ireland’s medium-term climate plan, the government prepared an NECP in 2018 but the document is now severely outdated and falls dramatically short of the level of ambition needed to meet our targets. That plan is currently being revised and a draft must be submitted to the European Commission by 30 June of this year. This deadline is fast approaching.

What’s the plan?

In the absence of a credible roadmap for how Ireland will achieve emission reductions necessary to meet our 2030 climate and energy targets and net-zero by 2050 target, we are essentially rudderless.

We do have the annually updated Climate Action Plan, but this is a short-term planning mechanism and is insufficient by itself to get us to our 2030 and 2050 targets. From a good climate governance perspective, medium and long-term climate plans should be informing the production of shorter-term plans like the Climate Action Plan and not the other way around.

Having medium and long-term climate plans in place would embed a long-term climate vision into policymaking and limit the risk of policymakers backtracking on their climate commitments.

Medium and long-term climate plans would also prevent us becoming locked in to high emissions activities like developing new fossil fuel infrastructure. This NECP revision process will be one of the last opportunities to plan for orderly and socially just emissions reductions.

EU law requires Member States to set out more than just climate and energy targets and objectives in their national energy and climate plans. They must also detail the enabling social policies the Member States are planning to ensure a just transition, mitigate social and employment impacts of decarbonisation and reduce energy poverty. Done well, the NECP is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to build public support and foster a sense of national ownership over the decarbonisation process. This can obviously be achieved through enabling social policies but also through early and effective public participation, which is mandatory under EU and international law. 

This is the most critical decade for climate action. How the government approaches the national energy and climate plans revision process will be the litmus test for whether Ireland is serious about getting climate policy right. All eyes should be on the government in the coming months to see if it delivers.

Dr Orla Kelleher is an assistant professor in climate, environmental and human rights law at Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology. She is currently conducting research on EU and Irish climate law on behalf of Environmental Justice Network Ireland.


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