I thank the committee for the invitation. I am a lawyer at ClientEarth, an environmental law charity with offices in London, Brussels, Berlin and Beijing. Since 2014, I have worked on climate governance, focusing, in particular, on the UK Climate Change Act and its implementation. I am speaking today as a lawyer and an advocate for effective climate change legislation.
I echo widely expressed concerns that the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2020, as it stands, represents a step backward – as compared with laws such as the UK Act – in presenting only a loosely defined "national 2050 climate objective" and in not tying its carbon budgets strongly to that. Likewise, it is regrettable that there is no duty for the objective or carbon budgets to be achieved.
To speak more generally, it is natural that legislatures will be cautious about imposing broad legal duties on governments to meet ambitious targets years in the future. If so, however, the solution is not to compromise on these laws by making them weak or unenforceable. Rather, it is to have them focus on guiding government action effectively over time so these targets will not, in fact, be missed. National climate laws need to put in place systems of governance that, through frequent and focused moments of accountability, bake in a need to course correct if ever progress is falling behind.
The UK Act offers a cautionary tale in this respect. In June 2011, the UK set in law its fourth carbon budget, thereby setting a limit on UK greenhouse gas emissions for the five-year period centred on 2025. At that time the UK Government's emissions for the fourth carbon budget period were projected to be much higher than the budget allowed but the fourth carbon budget was then some 11 years away, apparently ample time to close this gap. Even so, the Committee on Climate Change, CCC, was already stressing "the need for a step change in the underlying pace of emissions reduction in order to meet carbon budgets". In the years since 2011, the CCC has continued to highlight – in increasingly strident tones – the need for the UK Government to do more to get on track in meeting its carbon budgets. Opposition MPs and civil society organisations have highlighted the persisting policy gap. The UK Government has published new policy plans – in theory required to meet the fourth carbon budget and, indeed, the budget following, but to little avail. UK Government policy has not been brought into line with the fourth carbon budget. All indications are that the fourth carbon budget, now only two years away, will not be met in full. The UK Climate Change Act has failed what could be considered its first real test.
Turning to the Bill, it seems less well equipped than the UK Act to deliver policy progress that will deliver emissions targets. I shall identify the weaknesses in this regard. First, the Irish Government's climate action plans are never required to be adequate for meeting the carbon budgets. The Minister sets out a roadmap of actions that, in the opinion of the Government, "should be pursued" to remain within the carbon budget but that plan is then "subject to such modifications" as the Government considers "appropriate", without any apparent constraint.
Second, the Climate Change Advisory Council's annual review and report appear to focus on the progress made towards meeting the current carbon budget, but attention must be focused on future carbon budgets and the actions being taken now to meet them.
To this end, emissions projections provide a critical basis for timely accountability and course correction. The advisory council’s annual report is required to include at least a summary of projections as prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, but this would be inadequate. Projections must make clear by how much the Government’s current plans and policies are expected to satisfy, or miss, forthcoming carbon budgets. As drafted, the Bill does not even require climate action plans and strategies to include their projected impact on future emissions.
Third, accountability is weak. The Government is not required even to respond to the advisory council's annual report. Where a response is required to a report of the joint committee, there are no requirements as to what that response must include. No corrective actions are required. Finally, there is no duty for either the climate action plan, or the long-term climate action strategy, to be implemented.
In summary, the Government is not required to produce plans adequate for meeting targets, scrutiny mechanisms are not focused on assessing whether progress is adequate, and nothing substantive is required of Government, even where it falls short. I cannot see how the Bill, as drafted, can be expected to drive the emissions reductions needed. I thank the committee for the opportunity to assist today.