The government’s latest Climate Action Bill may pacify some, but Bríd Smith argues the legislation goes nowhere near far enough to tackle the fossil fuel industries and growth-addicted economy at the heart of our climate crisis.
To much fanfare, PR spin and grand rhetoric, the Government have unveiled their latest Climate Action Bill. Having been savaged by many campaigners last year, the Greens hope this Bill will justify their participation in the coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Indeed, this bill is the justification for dumping various groups and causes ranging from student nurses, Debenhams workers, women on maternity leave and even endorsing the CETA trade deal. All were worth the sacrifice, apparently, because this bill is about saving the planet.
The Bill will do no such thing. It won’t deal with the climate emergency because it doesn’t address the cause of the crisis in any way.
Once again, this legislation sets up an elaborate infrastructure of governance to draw up budgets, plans, road maps and strategies. Stung by earlier criticism, this latest version now ticks a few more boxes, including an interim target of 51% reductions in emissions by 2030 and retains its overall stated objective of a “climate neutral economy” by 2050, while now committing to “pursue and achieve” its aims.
While this may be enough to convince some campaigners, the global economic and industrial forces driving climate crisis will not be too alarmed.
The first warning of the Bill’s weakness comes early where it announces an extraordinary legal disclaimer. It states:
“no remedy or relief by way of damages or compensation is available with respect to or arising out of any failure, of whatever kind, to comply with any provision of this Act or any obligation or duty created”
So much for any legal enforceability!
This is to ward off any future legal cases such as those successfully taken recently by campaigners. But the weakness is much deeper and fundamental.
Many campaigners have rightly attacked the bill for failing to ban Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminals or fracked gas imports, both of which are planned by several international corporations. The Greens claim the bill is just dealing with governance structures not specific policies. But the switch to gas and the proliferation of LNGs and fracked gas is driving spikes in methane level and accelerating the crisis. If we don’t deal with this now, then when?
The Greens say the bill will legislate for a ban on new oil and gas exploration licences. To the extent that it will this is a victory for the wider movement which has put massive pressure on the Government over this question. But it also leaves the existing licenses, that operate till 2035, untouched – and these licenses cover vast sways of the Irish ocean.
What’s in the Climate Action Bill?
The actual overall goal is “climate neutrality” by 2050. This doesn’t mean that we no longer emit CO2 or any Green House Gases (GHGs) by 2050. Instead it means that the emissions are “balanced by removals”, either through natural removals such as forests or new technological solutions. The Bill makes frequent mention of possible new technological solutions that might provide a way of removing GHGs.
The reality is that this leaves open the possibility of claiming your economy is “carbon neutral” while it is still emitting huge quantities of GHGs into the atmosphere. The past 30 years show the dangers of relying on various inventive accountancy tricks that use carbon offsets and market mechanisms to make it seem like emissions are lower than they truly are. These tools may fool some people and Governments, but it hasn’t fooled nature as levels of GHGs continued to spiral and drive catastrophic climate change.
The Climate Action Bill yet again holds out the prospect that the best way to deal with the crisis in emissions may be some future, as yet unfound, technology. But such hopes for the future are merely a way of allowing the fossil fuel industry to continue to drill for profit for oil and gas now.
The legislation retains a long list of items that a minister should “have regard to” when setting out his plans. It remains a mish-mash of contradictory things but prominent and decisive are standard neoliberal mantras like:
“best possible value for money consistent with the sustainable management of the public finances”;
“the attractiveness of the State for investment and the long term competitiveness of the economy”.
So we are saving the planet; provided it makes economic sense. It is difficult to see how the state would remain attractive to international (often tax-dodging) investors, if, for example, it banned Data centres, or increased duties on corporations to fund free public transport or retro-fitting programmes.
Yet those are exactly the kind of steps you would have to take to be serious about cutting CO2 by 51% in nine years. It’s worth saying, too, that this target is not what the science demands, despite what Ryan claims. The evidence requires much greater cuts, at least 80%, and it strongly suggests we cannot wait till 2050 to achieve zero emissions.
The new Bill retains the opt out clause for agriculture, noting “the special economic and social role of agriculture, including with regard to the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane”.
It’s important to understand that this isn’t a victory for farmers; it’s a victory for beef barons and big Agri-food interests who are doing nicely out of the current set up. As the Beef Plan Movement showed, smaller farmers and communities are struggling under the current system, not thriving. A commitment to treat “biogenic methane” differently to other GHGs remains just as alarming as before. There are no differences in terms of the atmospheric impact on climate of biogenic methane compared to methane produced by LNG terminals or gas fields.
This is why the Bill contains the extra opt-out clause of “carbon leakage” – the process of companies moving their production abroad to countries with less ambitious climate measures, leading to a rise in global emissions – big dairy interests have no intentions of reducing the herds. The pretence here is that if we don’t expand the market for dairy products someone else will and they may do it in an even more climate damaging way.
Supporters of the Bill may argue that this amounts to nit-picking as they secured a commitment to see real binding cuts of 51% of CO2 by 2030. Ryan heralded the pledge as historic and unique across the world.
How likely is it to deliver such a cut? Extremely unlikely to be honest.
Firstly, it is not a legally binding commitment. The Bill simply says that the Climate Advisory council should propose two budgets between now and 2030 that:
“provide for a reduction of 51% in the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the first 2 budgets”.
The Government can amend these budgets, while the Minister also has scope to revise them subsequently. The advisory body that is tasked with producing them must take account of that familiar refrain of “the attractiveness of the State for investment and the long term competitiveness of the economy”, and of course “the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane”.
There exists no certainty in the bill nor is there any actual enforcement mechanism for failing to hit the targets. Crucially, while the spin has been that the cuts are “front loaded” in the first 10 years, the bill does not demand any cuts at all during the lifetime of this government and indeed the connected Programme for Government target of 7% cuts over ten years explicitly stated that most of this would not happen until the later end of the ten years.
Does that matter? Yes, because it means that the current Government can claim each year’s failure to see the kind of cuts needed will be made up at a future date down the road and that their visionary policies will only bear fruit later on.
Much of the criticism of the first version of this bill concentrated on the lack of mentions of a just transition for those workers, rural communities and poorer groups that might be impacted by some of the changes. The new version corrected that by mentioning just transition just once. Even here it aims low, asking only that it is considered “as far as practicable” and only in order to “maximise employment opportunities, and support persons and communities that may be negatively affected by the transition.”
In an article I wrote in December 2020 about the previous version of the government’s Bill, I said that it would:
“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.”
Four months on, this much is still true. Eamon Ryan’s latest Climate Action Bill is a fudge.