The question of CO2 emission targets is central to debate on the climate change bill

By Will Goodbody, Science and Technology Correspondent


Amid the hullabaloo surrounding penalty-point-gate this week, another event in Leinster House, with arguably far greater long term consequences for our future, and the future of our children, got overshadowed.

On the day the people of Moore, Oklahoma began counting the human and economic cost of a terrifying weather event, the Oireachtas Joint Environment Committee began discussing the heads of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill.

This long awaited piece of legislation sets out to deliver on the government’s stated objective of balancing the challenges and objectives of a low carbon future, with delivering on both environmental and economic grounds.

But much more than that, on a practical level, this will be the framework for Ireland’s contribution – albeit small – to the international battle to contain the seeming unassailable march of climate change.

The draft legislation does many welcome things.

It places a statutory obligation on government to adopt and implement plans that enable the state to transition to what the Department of the Environment describes as a low carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy in the period to 2050.

Within each seven year period, the government will have to come up with a fresh roadmap to reach targets, and a progress report will have to be given to the Dáil each year by the environment minister.

There will also be an advisory group made up of experts from various state agencies which will assess and review compliance.

But for many interested observers, the proposed bill does not go nearly far enough.

The biggest issue for most is the absence of any hard or fast targets for CO2 emission reduction, like those adopted by the UK government.

The government here says this is because Ireland already has a binding EU greenhouse gas mitigation target for 2020.

However, many environmentalists and climatologists believe in the absence of any other obvious carrots to bring about a change, the stick is the next best option.

Nor does it raise the bar to a higher target of reducing CO2 emissions by 30%.

That may well be the next target adopted by the EU, depending on how events unfold at the next major intergovernmental climate change conference in Paris in 2015.

It also fails to go anywhere near meeting the aspiration of an 80% reduction by 2050 – the target recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change if a tipping point is not to be reached.

The absence of sectoral targets, particularly in the area of agriculture, climate change experts argue, means that by 2050, up to 90% of Irish emissions could be coming from farming here.

Critics also take issue with the advisory group concept, which they say will not be independent of government, and therefore will lack the clout to break down the walls within the public sector and bring about meaningful change.

The importance of getting this legislation right should not be underestimated.

Over the past century, global temperatures have already risen by 0.8ºC, with the bulk of that escalation coming since the 1970s.

Measured against pre-industrial levels, the rise is actually 1.3ºC. Remember, the IPCC says the point of no return is 2ºC.

It is true that Ireland, on its own, cannot even begin to reach the brakes in the climate change juggernaut, which it appears is careering down the road out of control.

The big developmed countries like the US and China, along with developing states in Asia and South America, are the biggest polluters, and have to lead the change.

But that isn’t an excuse for Ireland to not play its part, by setting a good example. In addition, every crisis creates opportunity.

And in the case of climate change and Ireland, the opportunity is the burgeoning green tech sector here, which holds huge potential for job creation and economic growth.

Plus, any uncertainty about future Irish plans in the area of emissions and carbon cutting would not be good for attracting inward investment.

These, and many other issues, are likely to be teased out over the coming weeks, as the Oireachtas environment committee carries out its analysis.

This week saw the turn of the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Economic and Social Council (which did the policy analysis underpinning the bill) and the Department of the Environment.

But the political temperature, like the global temperature, is likely to rise considerably when other bodies, more critical of the plan, are invited in to have their say.