The Irish government recently published its long-awaited climate bill and at the same time launched a report by the National Economic & Social Council (NESC) on climate policy. The NESC report was specifically tasked with developing a sound basis for a climate policy that went beyond a “compliance-centric approach.” Thus, the NESC report purports to underpin the climate bill and to provide the conceptual support for the approach taken by the government in the climate bill.
I. The Climate Bill
Discussing the government’s climate bill —Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2013 — will not take long as it is noted more for what it does not say than for what it contains. The core commitment of the government for addressing climate change is found in Head, or section, 4 of the bill which commits “the State to pursue and achieve transition to a low carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy in the period up to and including the year 2050.” In effect, the government agrees to fulfill “existing and future obligations of the State under EU law and any international agreement to which the State is or may become a Party.” Explanatory Note to Head 3, “Effect of the Bill.” In other words, the state agrees to do what it is already or will be legally obliged to do under EU law. And not any more.
The state will achieve this goal through the adoption of national and sector “roadmaps.” The national roadmap will articulate a national vision for the transition to a low carbon economy, address any legal commitments under EU or international law, and incorporate Sectoral Plans. The Bill also requires relevant Ministers to develop and propose Sectoral Plans that will specify “the measures that they propose to adopt for the purpose of— (a) achieving sectoral emissions reduction, or (b) enabling the sectors concerned to adapt to the effects of climate change.” Emphasis added.
Finally, the Bill provides for the establishment of a National Expert Advisory Body on Climate Change. Certain heads of government agencies or authorities will serve as ex officio members and the other members will be appointed by the Minister of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG), with approval by the government.
Members of the environmental and other civil society groups had pushed for and hoped that the government would include, as the heart of the bill, specific, hard targets for reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by certain dates, over and above what Ireland is already obliged to accomplish, and a climate advisory board independent of the government, much like the Committee on Climate Change in the United Kingdom (UK). Instead they got no targets and a government-controlled “advisory” body that, in terms of the NESC report discussed below, will avoid an outside group with “… superior knowledge to second-guess the expert [governmental] agencies…”. At 45.
While Explanatory Notes are added to the text of the Bill, they do not add much to explain the government’s rationale for the approach taken in the Bill. As an example, to “explain” Head 4, the critical section of the Bill, it is noted that Ministers will “consider and have regard to” the ultimate objective of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and any other commitment under EU or international laws and then the Note quotes Article 2 of the UNFCCC. The explanation for the core of the Bill is simply a restatement of the 1992 UNFCCC, almost as if nothing has advanced since then, at least for this government.
Furthermore, the phrase “having regard to,” used frequently in the Bill, has an unfortunate history in Irish case law. In the Podcast video interview with John Sweeney in the April issue of irish environment, he refers to a High Court case that provided legal interpretation of the phrase “have regard to,” which phrase is used frequently in the Climate Bill. As Sweeney explains, the phrase means basically that the Ministers have to read the documents but are not bound by these other considerations in developing their climate plans.
The case is Tony McEvoy and Michael Smith v. Meath County Council (see below in Sources). In that case it was alleged that Meath Council failed to ‘have due regard to” the Strategic Planning Guidelines for Greater Dublin Area in adopting its county development plan. While the High Court found that certain provisions of the county plan did not comply with the Guidelines, and departed from the Guidelines’ policies and objectives, nevertheless the Council had “regard to” the Guidelines. The Court held that the phrase “have regard to” means that the Council could not simply ignore the Guidelines and proceed as if they did not exist, but based on case law the term “regard” is permissive and means that the Council was “not bound to comply with the Guidelines.”
Relying on this term does seem to send a message that any commitment under the Bill is indeed permissive and Ministers need not worry about actually complying with any other considerations in developing their plans.
II. NESC Report
For the rationale underpinning the Bill, we turn to a report by the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) on: Ireland and the Climate Change Challenge: Connecting “How Much” with “How To.” This report was issued at the same time as the climate bill and largely serves as the justification for the approach adopted by the government in the climate Bill.
Procedure for Production of Report
If the title to the report is elusive, so too is the argument. The first issue is how the NESC got the assignment to examine climate change, and how it managed that assignment.
In the “Preface,” the NESC states that the government asked the Secretariat of the NESC to produce a report on climate change rather than the entire Council. The author of the report labeled this request as “unusual,” and acknowledged that the Secretariat was “privileged” to be asked by the government. Presumably, the procedural device of asking the Secretariat rather than the Council, to produce the report avoided dissenting voices from the environmental pillar and other environment-friendly groups that are members of the NESC. See, also, Podcast video interview with John Sweeney in irish environment (April 2013).
While from the outset it is not clear who is the “Secretariat”, the “Acknowledgements” lists at the end a “Secretariat to the Project” and that includes the Project Leader and six others some of whom are listed elsewhere as members of the NESC Analytical Team or administrative staff. It seems from the profiles available that the report was produced by a group of economists within the NESC, apparently none of whom has any wide experience or expertise in environmental issues, and for this project this group was deemed to be a “Secretariat.”
Not only was the request to produce a report limited to the elusive Secretariat, but the direction from the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG) was to produce a report based on “a move beyond a compliance-centric approach” to climate change. The report explains that, “In our view, moving beyond a compliance-centric approach means thinking for ourselves.” With all due respect, this makes no sense. Do we need a slogan in order to get us to think for ourselves? Don’t the members of the NESC, all respected experts, always think for themselves? We certainly hope that they did when preparing this report! And what does thinking for oneself have to do with compliance? See, also, John Sweeney’s read on such a term in the Podcast video interview in irish environment (April 2013).
Certainly the phrase suggests the government should rely on voluntary action from companies and businesses and not put any stress on businesses to have to comply with governmental regulations — the so-called and familiar “softly-softly” approach to environmental enforcement in Ireland. Such an approach is not going to slow down the serious, adverse impacts from climate change.
The conceptual framework for the Report is based on an evaluation that the present work of international institutions is not producing a global agreement on climate change. Mainly this is an indictment of the UN-sponsored negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Note 2. Most would agree that the international efforts to agree on a global plan to mitigate climate change have not yet succeeded.
In light of this failure, the NESC Secretariat calls for Ireland to work out its own fresh course of action. All well and good, until we learn just what this “fresh” course is.
The fresh course is embodied in: one Vision, 3 ideas, 5 guiding principles, a 3-track approach, 5 strategic building blocks, and 6 Track-2 projects. This kind of language and approach may be what led Frank McDonald in the Irish Times to refer to the report as this “dismal technocratic document.” The language would also do Monthy Python proud.
Behind all the technocratic structure, there appear to be two central “ideas” behind the NESC approach: (1) Ireland needs a climate policy that is more “loop than line;” and, (2) there should be more focus on How To mitigate rather than How Much to mitigate.
The authors suggest that the current approach to climate change policies, as represented by the UN-sponsored international negotiations, is best described as a rigid line that starts with climate science, leads through “credible targets and timetables” (the How Much to mitigate), and ends with market-based ways of meeting the targets (the How To). Instead of a line the report suggests we need see climate policies as a loop where there is a dynamic relation between “How much” and How to,” where How To can determine How Much as much as How Much can drive How To. In other words, we should pay less attention to targets and timetables and more attention to methods for decarbonisation.
It all sounds a bit ethereal. The authors do not really explain just what they mean by this curious image of a loop, which opens it up to the characterisation that the proposed climate policy is loopy, or bizarre. In any case, the image of a loop versus a line is not very helpful here.
The implication of course is that if you have not yet figured out a way how to reduce GHG emissions, then you should not yet tie your hands with targets and timetables.
One cannot help wondering whether all this technocratic structure and loose metaphor is masking something else behind the report. We soon find a meta-message behind the report and government climate bill: “A central thrust of our report is a reframing of the way in which agriculture is considered in, and relates to, the climate-change agenda.” At 8, and at 70.
Agriculture is the classic example of a sector that has not figured out a way to reduce methane sufficiently to allow Ireland to meet its climate targets. The logic of the NESC approach, on which the government’s climate bill is founded, suggests that the solution is a loosening of compliance with any targets and timetables. Here perhaps is the actual meaning on its “beyond a compliance-centric approach.”
In discussing, in passing, how Ireland can deal with high GHG emissions from agriculture, how it can achieve a “carbon-neutral agriculture,” the NESC report states: “This can be achieved by adopting carbon neutrality as a point on the horizon for the country and industry to work toward.” At 61 (Emphasis added). So instead of hard, enforceable targets for mitigating climate changes, the NESC and government offer us “a point on the horizon.”
Imagine telling a plant operator, business owner, chairman of an international corporation, farmer or anyone driving a car that Ireland’s way to avoid the catastrophes from climate change is by asking us to look at a point on the horizon and head for it. Not only is it surreal, but unfortunately in many places in Ireland on many days the horizon is enshrouded in clouds, rain or mist.
NESC offers nothing concrete that has been proven to reduce GHGs from agriculture. There are lots of speculative areas of research that “may uncover” new approaches (at 62), but there is no discussion of how many of these approaches are now being implemented, or when they might be implemented, or at what cost, or who is going to pay for them. In the meantime, Harvest 2020 proceeds apace with a projected 50% increase in dairy production accompanied by significant increases in methane emissions from agriculture. As critical as Harvest 2020 is to Ireland’s ability, or inability, to comply with even existing climate change targets, the NESC report mentions it only in passing several times in the over 100-page report.
Finally, the report, and government, discussions of agriculture and climate change agenda almost always talk about it as a problem with achieving a low-carbon sector. But of course the prime problem with agriculture is not carbon emissions but methane. It’s almost as if the hope is to avoid mentioning methane so no one focuses too much on agriculture’s real challenge. Search for the word “methane” in the NESC report and it appears once, and “low-methane animals” once.
If methane emissions from agriculture cannot be significantly reduced, and there is little evidence that they can be, then Ireland will not comply with any climate targets. This may explain the concerted effort to redirect focus away from targets and timetables.
Agriculture is dominating Ireland’s climate change policies but the government is not forthcoming about this. If agriculture is to be protected against any substantial cuts in GHG emissions, and especially methane, in order to meet the goals of Harvest 2020, then we deserve a concrete and full explanation of how Ireland is going to meet its legal obligations to reduce GHGs. We need more openness on the real problems presented by agriculture and what will be done with those problems BEFORE increasing emissions are allowed under Harvest 2020 starting in 2015.
Any consideration of fracking on the island of Ireland also has to account for the impact on agriculture, and Harvest 2020, of the substantial methane emissions from fracking.
In his Podcast interview, John Sweeney calls for an open debate on how Ireland is going to meet its climate commitments, and particularly which sectors are going to absorb the drastic GHG cuts that will be necessary if agriculture grows unabated in Ireland. As Sweeney points out, if EPA is right that with a laissez faire approach to climate change, which the present climate bill most certainly is, agriculture will be responsible for 90% of Ireland’s GHGs in 2050. That leaves 10% to be shared by every power plant, every household in Ireland, every car driver in Ireland, and every business in Ireland. Sweeney rightly notes that that is a daunting prospect for any international corporation that is thinking about investing in Ireland.
1. One member of this “Secretariat” did write a report on ‘The Impact of European Environment Policy in Ireland’, Background Paper No. 5 for NESC study, Refinding Success in Europe, NESC Report No. 122, 2010.
2. This evaluation focuses on the work of the UNFCCC, and avoids any direct attack on the work of the European Union (EU) on climate change targets. While one can understand why the authors chose not to attack the work of the EU, it does undermine their criticisms of “international” negotiations.
Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2013 www.environ.ie/en/PublicationsDocuments/FileDownLoad,32468,en.pdf
National Economic & Social Council (NESC), Ireland and the Climate Change Challenge: Connecting “How Much” with “How To.” www.nesc.ie/assets/files/Ireland%20and%20the%20Climate%20Change%20Challenge_Connecting%20How%20Much%20with%20How%20To_Main_Report.pdf
UK Committee on Climate Change www.theccc.org.uk/
Tony McEvoy and Michael Smith v. Meath County Council, Irish High Court (Justice Quirk), 2nd September 2002. dcraweb.tripod.com/judicialreview.htm
Jeff Tollefson, “Methane leaks erode green credentials of natural gas: Losses of up to 9% show need for broader data on US gas industry’s environmental impact,” Nature (02 January 2013). www.nature.com/news/methane-leaks-erode-green-credentials-of-natural-gas-1.12123