The government’s climate strategy: optics over outcomes

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Killian Conyngham discusses the Irish Government’s Climate change approach in light of recent criticisms of the Climate Action Bill.

The Irish government has not done enough to combat climate change. This should hardly be a controversial statement. The upcoming Climate Action Bill is emblematic of the government’s fundamental failure to legislate for a just, effective and timely climate transition. The bill, included in the Programme for Government, sees a continuation of the business as usual approach to climate action. The scarce mention of climate justice and biodiversity loss demonstrates a disregard or unwillingness to adopt internationally agreed-upon best practices for climate action.

In a statement to the Joint Committee on Climate Action, Dr Andrew Jackson of the UCD Sutherland School of Law described the bill as “very weak when compared to leading climate laws adopted elsewhere”. He also mentioned how “to stand a chance of limiting heating to 1.5°C, our emissions need to fall very deeply, very rapidly, starting immediately.” It bears repeating that 1.5°C is not the point at which climate change suddenly becomes bad. Climate change is already affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. 1.5°C is simply the point, as ‘The Climate Reality Project’ puts it, “where many climate impacts – on balance – go from destructive to catastrophic.” Doing our part to avoid crossing this boundary is not just a nice objective, it is a moral imperative. And with the current approach, Ireland won’t even come close.

The problems of the government’s climate change approach go deeper than just this recent bill’s failure to set sufficiently ambitious or legally binding targets

In an analysis submitted to the same Committee, Professor Kevin Anderson outlined the emissions reductions Ireland would have to undertake in order to be compliant with the Paris Agreement. The analysis mentions that “As a minimum, Ireland needs to reduce its emissions of CO2 by 12% year on year”. This rate of reductions is far higher than the 7% included in the Programme for Government. The analysis also mentioned that to be Paris-compliant Ireland would have to achieve carbon neutrality between 2035 and 2040. In contrast, the Climate Action Bill sets out that the state should “pursue” neutrality by 2050. And just to clarify, holding to our Paris Agreement commitments would not be an act of altruistic climate progress on the part of the Irish state. As Professor Anderson explains: “Let’s be clear, the Paris Agreement is unjust. Holding to 2°C or 1.5°C will still see a significant rise in climate-related deaths and suffering across those poorer communities living within climate-vulnerable parts of the world”. A statement from the Department of the Taoiseach claimed: “The Climate Action Bill will make Ireland a leader when it comes to climate action.” In reality, the bill makes Ireland nothing other than complicit in the global catastrophe.

In reality, the bill makes Ireland nothing other than complicit in the global catastrophe

The problems of the government’s climate change approach go deeper than just this recent bill’s failure to set sufficiently ambitious or legally binding targets, however. The fundamental philosophy behind the type of legislation we are seeing from the government is flawed. Climate change is a systematic crisis. Resolving it requires a systematic approach and not stop-gap measures. We are yet to see any of the truly transformative policies being called for across the world under banners such as the Green New Deal. 

This flawed approach is perhaps best exemplified in Ireland’s carbon tax on fuels. A cornerstone of Ireland’s environmental policy, the fuel tax was increased to €33.50 per tonne in Budget 2021. At its basis, this policy is limited as it places money at the centre of the proposed solution, rather than considering the substantial evidence of how inequality, wealth and emissions are related. As our climate efforts get serious, and we are all asked to do our part in the fight for our planet, does it really seem just that those with enough disposable income can simply pay their way to continue living a wasteful, polluting lifestyle? 

The important take-away here is not that carbon taxes cannot be included as part of a broader climate strategy, but that they cannot be solely relied on

More immediately, the issue with such charges is that they are regressive, meaning they hit the poorest the hardest. This is almost self-evident, as incremental increases in price are much more likely to be felt by those already struggling to pay for essentials such as heating and transport. As stressed by an ESRI report from 2019 on the effects of raising the tax, it is essential that the revenues raised are used on targeted redistribution measures to offset this regressive nature. Although originally not ringfenced, the recent increases in the Irish carbon tax have been. These revenues have been directed by the government at redistribution measures such as the fuel allowance and retrofitting of housing, as well as more general green policies such as cycling infrastructure and Electric vehicle grants. It is unclear whether these measures will result in the overall policy being regressive or progressive as the ESRI study modelled all the revenue being spent on redistribution policies. 

The important take-away here is not that carbon taxes cannot be included as part of a broader climate strategy, but that they cannot be solely relied on.  The goal of encouraging people to stop driving as much is unlikely to be achieved if public transport options are underfunded or prohibitively expensive. It is not enough to punish emission-heavy behaviour without ensuring there are viable and affordable green alternatives. Carbon taxes may disincentive emissions, but they fail to strike at the heart of the crisis. They fail to address the inherent inequality of emissions, both within Ireland and across the world. They fail to address the fundamental disconnect between large business' focus on short term profits at the expense of all else and a world trying to ensure its continued survival. They fail to recognise that climate change is not just a natural disaster, but a symptom of fundamental flaws in our economic system. And ultimately, they fail to provide any notion of a sustainable future to strive for. In all this, they reflect the government’s approach precisely. The Taoiseach is willing to state that climate change is “a defining challenge to Ireland and the world as a whole”. And yet, the government is unwilling to legislate accordingly. Rather than the transformative policies that are much needed, all we are seeing is an uninspired approach which tiptoes around disrupting the status quo. Even while that very status quo catapults us towards disaster.

In the most telling part of his analysis of the Climate Action Bill, Dr Jackson mentions how there was 97% support from the Citizen’s Assembly for an independent body to hold the state accountable on climate change with legal proceedings. And yet, in spite of this, he notes that the Bill “appears to have been crafted with a view to avoiding legal accountability”. It would seem the government is well aware of their failure to rise to the challenge of climate change, and this most recent bill is as much about wiping their hands of the issue as it is about making a difference. As Dr Jackson points out, however, even this bill cannot prevent the state from being sued on the basis of fundamental rights.

Let us hope we don’t have to wait until it is too late - that those fundamental rights infractions haven’t already occurred before an Irish government realises a different approach might be in order.