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Opinion: Time is running out to stop global warming - so we're taking the Irish government to court

Climate change is dangerous and poses a threat to us all, so we are taking a High Court case this January on behalf of all Irish citizens, writes Sadhbh O Neill.

Sadhbh O Neill

2019 WILL SURELY be the year of climate action.

Recent scientific reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave us just 12 years to make drastic cuts to the greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for climate change if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Human activities have altered the Earth’s living systems beyond recognition. We have left our mark on Planet Earth in seriously negative ways and climate change is the most visible and urgent threat that we humans have inflicted on the planet.

Ireland is among the poorest performers in Europe for tackling climate change. We cannot continue to hide behind the emissions of other countries and claim we have no duty to act. Individual action, no matter how well-intentioned, will have almost no effect without strong state leadership and multilateral cooperation.

That is why we must challenge our government in a historic high court case starting 22 January. 

Human Activity

Once an insignificant speck, humans are now in a sense responsible for the whole planet’s future.

Of course, ‘humans’ are not a homogeneous group. There are huge inequalities and injustices behind the climate story. Colonialism, greed and ideology have all played a role in driving up both emissions and exploitation all over the world and throughout human history.

Yet most inconveniently, climate change presents itself as the challenge we all face together now, and on behalf of future generations, regardless of our degree of responsibility.

Governments are supposed to plan for the long-term, and in the common interest. But as the Swedish 15-year old activist Greta Thunberg reminded UN negotiators, all of the burden, including that of telling the truth about the real and systemic crises that face us, is being left to our children.

While the international climate negotiations have indeed been painfully slow, there is a growing body of scientific evidence and international law that should be guiding our response to climate change here in Ireland.

The Climate Case

Ireland’s performance on climate change so far has been very poor in comparison to the rest of the EU.  Our government’s ongoing failure to bend the emissions curve has been repeatedly raised at national and EU level by both independent and state authorities.

The analysis produced by Climate Action Network Europe in June this year placed Ireland in second last in the EU for action and ambition on climate change. Just last month, the Climate Change Performance Index highlighted Ireland as being the worst performing country in Europe for action on climate change.

Citizens are no longer prepared to wait until the government wakes up to the challenge.

Friends of the Irish Environment under the banner ‘Climate Case Ireland’ is taking legal action against the Irish Government’s failure to take the required action to avert dangerous climate change.

Our case is inspired by global climate change litigation, including the 900 Dutch citizens of Urgenda who won their case against the Dutch Government in 2015. The District Court in The Hague ruled that the Dutch government must cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020 (compared to 1990 levels).

That ruling required the government to immediately take more effective action on climate change.

We have asked the court to quash the existing climate plan and to require the government to produce an ambitious emissions reduction plan which helps to avert dangerous climate change.

While our case does not specify the means by which targets should be met, there is plenty of research showing that we will all benefit from the energy transition. Climate action demands a mobilisation of both citizens and government actions alike if we are to avert disaster.

Instead, in Ireland, we will face fines for not meeting EU targets – the Institute of International and European Affairs have estimated that Ireland could face fines between €3-6bn by 2030.  

Why Ireland?

You might ask – but why Ireland? We are a tiny country, why should our emissions matter?

While China, the US and India are currently the world’s top emitters, the EU has contributed a much higher percentage of the total emissions released into the atmosphere.

And while US leadership would indeed make a big difference it should be noted that many US states are already taking decisive action to reduce emissions in spite of the federal government’s position.

Ireland’s emissions per capita are the third highest in the EU at 13.2 tCO2e per person.

Our energy, heating and transport systems, in particular, are highly dependent on polluting fossil fuels but government plans are not properly assessed for their climate and environmental impacts. 

As the 64th largest emitter of emissions in the world, we can hardly expect the 130 countries that emit less than Ireland, to reduce their emissions if we don’t do likewise.

We are among the wealthiest countries in the world with high rates of economic growth and employment. It is vital that we contribute our fair share of the global effort in solidarity with developing countries who will bear the brunt of climate damage.

We cannot afford to wait until there is political consensus for strong policy measures.

The courts have a special role in ensuring that government decisions are compliant with national, EU and international law and in ensuring that human rights are protected. The Dutch case showed that citizens can access the courts to effect a change of direction.

Our case will be heard in the High Court from the 22nd of January and we are taking it on behalf of everyone in Ireland, young and old. We hope that it will inspire the public into supporting our call for greater climate ambition.

Please sign our petition here, or donate here to support this historic legal case. 

Sadhbh O Neill is a spokesperson for Climate Case Ireland. She is a PhD candidate and part-time lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations at UCD. 

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Sadhbh O Neill

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