As Eamon Ryan’s Climate Action Bill is due to go before the Dáil, Bríd Smith TD exposes its multiple weaknesses and argues that it will do very little to tackle the planet’s greatest crisis.
The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill (the Climate Bill) was supposed to be the the Green’s justification for going into a coalition with Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael.
But even if it is significantly amended, the Bill will do little to address the climate catastrophe or achieve the kinds of cuts needed in Co2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs).
The bill is vague in its language, has numerous ‘get-out’ clauses, relies heavily on speculative, currently non-existent future technology to remove carbon and appears worded to allow for continued rises in agricultural emissions. It mainly seems to have been deliberately drafted to avoid any future legal challenges to Government inaction and failure. If the Bill represents the Greens pay off for getting into bed with FF/FG, it is an exceptionally bad bargain.
The Bill comes at a key moment in the climate crisis. The Green Party were elected on a wave of concern from young people and from the wider climate movement that demanded the “radical, far reaching” action that the 2018 IPCC report said was needed. The Bill is far from radical. It makes no demands on private industry and will do nothing to address the relentless search for profits that drives the fossil fuel cabal and is at the root of the failure to date to cut CO2 to the levels required.
Ryan and others may claim that the Bill is historic as it commits the state to pursuing a goal to be a “climate resilient and climate neutral economy by the end of the year 2050”. But stating an end goal is not the same as achieving it -and, anyway, this is not an adequate goal.
The following sections will detail the five major problems with the Climate Bill.
2050 target date
The target date of 2050 is hopelessly inadequate. According to Kevin Anderson, Ireland (and most of the Western World) needs to see 80% cuts in actual emissions by 2030 to have any realistic hope of complying with the Paris Treaty targets of limiting global temperature rises to under 1.5 degrees. That would mean annual emission cuts immediately of around 12%; something this Government is not even attempting with its own targets of 7% annual cuts. Indeed, these reductions are based mostly on wishful thinking around cuts in the longer term but with little if any emission lowering delivered in the next 5 years.
“Get out clauses” and vague language
The language of the Bill is so vague as to be meaningless and imposes no real obligation, legal or otherwise, on Government or private industry. In fact, the Bill does not set out any actual policies just a series of plans, budgets etc. over 5 years, then 10 years and out to 2050.
In drawing up these plans the Minister is meant to “have regard to” a total of 25 criteria, many of which are contradictory to one another.
The Bill uses language such as “the Government will pursue” its goal, rather than more concrete words such as “achieve”.
It littered with phrases such as “have regard to” (11times) and “may” (43 times) as opposed to terms such as “be consistent with” or “shall”. The latter are more common in legislation when a Government wants to spell out or make something explicit.
Across the Bill, the language used puts no legal obligation on a minister to deliver the objective mentioned. Many campaigners have pointed out that in other countries the language used is much more insistent and places obligations on future Ministers and Governments.
Reliance on new Technology
Even more ominous for any hope for real climate action is the implication in the Bill that some future technology will be our saviour. Among the list of criteria meant to govern the plans and budgets, it says the government shall have regard to:
“the requirement for flexibility in order to take advantage of opportunities, arising in light of innovation, evolving scientific consensus and emerging technologies, to accelerate the removal of greenhouse gases; and “science and technology, taking into account that the means of achieving a climate neutral economy… may not yet be fully identified and may evolve over time through innovation, evolving scientific consensus and emerging technologies”.
While the language is obtuse and confusing the intention is clear. These criteria are designed to allow for some future hoped for invention that may magically remove vast quantities of GHGs from the atmosphere or from the industrial processes that emit them. This can then be used to justify continued use and reliance on fossil fuels in the here and now.
As Kevin Anderson has said, we may be able to fool ourselves with this form of accountancy trickery, but it won’t fool physics or nature. If we keep emitting CO2 it will keep accumulating in the atmosphere and it will keep driving dangerous climate change.
The special role of agriculture?
In agriculture, to protect the policy of appeasing beef barons and the big Agri-food interests, the Bill makes specific mention of “the special economic and social role of agriculture” with “the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane” and the dangers of “the risk of substantial and unreasonable carbon leakage” referenced as key criteria in making policy.
All of these are essentially ways in which the Government can try to justify the continued growth in the Dairy herd and the massive exporting of milk and dairy products to new markets. Carbon leakage is used as a justification on the often-spurious grounds that if we don’t produce the products someone else might but with even more GHGs produced.
The reference to “biogenic methane” is an astonishing attempt to pretend this gas is not as important as, or should be counted in a different way to, other GHGs because it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as, say, Carbon. The only thing special about methane is that over a 20-year period it is about 80 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon, making immediate reductions in its emission more important, not less.
No Just Transition
The Bill doesn’t even mention the idea of a Just Transition, one of the key demands of the climate movement. The large-scale changes needed will result in many sectors and industries needing to close with many workers and communities facing major losses. A just transition is essential not just to make sure communities such as those based around peat harvesting or coal mining aren’t left behind but because the kind of societal changes needed can’t be made without the support and mobilisation of ordinary people.
If climate action just means carbon taxes and job losses to be replaced with lower paid precarious work, then it will face mass rejection. The Bill has nothing to say on a just transition and, coming in the wake of the treatment of Bord na Móna, workers last year, it sends a clear message that workers cannot look to FF/FG or the Greens to defend their interests.
Elsewhere a bizarre section of the Bill allows a Minister to “bank” any reductions greater than the carbon budget in one five-year period for the next period. But any overshoot in emissions in one period will only see the next periods budget reduced by 1% of that overshoot. It’s hard to see any logic or rationale for such measures other than an utter lack of understanding of the urgency of immediate GHGs emission reductions.
This Climate Bill will make little contribution to achieving the reductions in GHGs we need. The fight for real change will be vital, as will be every campaign against the fossil fuel industry and for a just transition as the climate crisis accelerates. At some stage the mass climate movement will return to the streets and the failure of parliamentary moves in a neoliberal coalition will highlight the need for far more radical politics to address the crisis.