The 19th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) wound up in Warsaw on 23 November with the organisers proclaiming a success of sorts. “Governments on a track towards 2015 climate agreement” read the UN headline. Here “On track” suggests the heavy sense of a long road ahead. Ireland is hitched to the EU carriage on this path but can we show climate ambition above and beyond our European obligations? A recently published report by a legislative committee on our own Climate Bill may hold some indication. See Source.
The 2013 conference concluded that, by April 2015, countries “who are ready to do so” must present their contributions to global reductions of greenhouse gas emissions that will come into force from 2020. These contributions (note contributions not commitments) will be the foundations of the new universal climate agreement that the UN hopes will be signed at COP 21 in Paris in 2015. The information that countries will need to provide with their contributions will be decided by the time of the next UN climate change conference a year from now in Lima, Peru. The conference also agreed to ways of accelerating emission cuts over the rest of this decade, and to set up a mechanism to address losses and damage caused by climate change in developing countries.
Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner for Climate Action, claimed some sense of European triumph over the strategy, “The EU wanted the stepwise approach that is now agreed as the way forward: all countries must contribute to the future reduction efforts, and already now all countries must go home and do their homework in order to table their contributions.” She also gave a nod once again to the frustratingly slow nature of the process, “For sure there will be faster and less bumpy ways to Paris but now the journey has started. We must make it there. And congratulations to the most vulnerable countries, as Warsaw agreed to establish a mechanism to promote approaches to address loss and damage caused by climate change in vulnerable developing countries.”
Regarding the EU contribution, at this stage, the European Commission would like to propose a 40% cut in emissions, relative to 1990 levels, by 2030. However not all member states will be easily persuaded on this. The Polish government, this year’s COP hosts for example, are openly opposed to higher emission reduction targets.
Whatever is concluded at EU level will be the guide for Ireland. But are we willing or able to show more ambition than our obligations demand? Our climate legislation, expected to be published by the Minister for the Environment in 2014, offers some insight.
Much of the discussion surrounding Ireland’s Climate Bill comes down to the question of whether to include 2050 targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. We are already bound by EU targets up to 2020. The recently-published report, examining proposals for legislation as well as 45 submissions and 30 delegations’ oral presentations, reaches no conclusion on the issue.
Most groups named in the report called for a statutory 2050 target of emissions reductions of at least 80 per cent below 1990 baseline levels. Some, such as Trocaire, Stop Climate Chaos and Bird Watch Ireland, stretched this to the upper limit of 95 per cent. The report also recalls a public consultation on the issue in which 90 per cent of the 623 submissions called for emission targets to be enshrined in legislation. It is argued by NGOs and some business groups that binding targets would underpin business and investor confidence, and that the absence of legal targets flies in the face of climate justice, especially when viewed from the Developing World. Meanwhile employer and agricultural organisations counter that the existing target regime is sufficiently robust. The agriculture sector in Ireland is particularly implicated in the issue in Ireland as its contribution to national emissions is approximately 30 per cent, as opposed to an EU average of less than 10 per cent. The report notes that achieving carbon neutrality for the agricultural sector by 2050 is the best possible scenario, while the energy, buildings and transport sectors should be near 100 per cent decarbonisation by the same date.
The full legislation is yet to be drafted but many would argue that a lack of legally binding targets will render it impotent. These observers can take some comfort: if ambition is lacking in Dublin for 2050 targets, it may not be so in Brussels for the 2030 targets. Encouraging ambitious agreement among 28 member states won’t be easy. As Commissioner Hedegaard herself said, the real work is only beginning now.
Aoife O’Grady is an Irish, Brussels-based journalist focusing on environmental issues
Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Report on the Outline Heads of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2013 (November 2013).