Responding to climate change requires unprecedented and concerted responses across all sectors of economy and society. Framework climate laws are an increasingly common governance response to the challenge of achieving the scale of transformation required. They can provide an overarching framework to coordinate government responses to the climate crisis, send a clear signal to all sectors of economy and society about a collective commitment to climate action, and make it politically more difficult to backtrack on policy commitments. Framework climate laws have been enacted across a growing number of countries in Europe and beyond.
In a new research report, I undertake a comparative assessment of Ireland’s Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021. I assess the extent to which the new Climate Act delivers eight core components that have been identified in international comparative research as key features of national framework climate laws. The key findings of the assessment are as follows:
- Long-term targets: The 2021 Act strengthens significantly the provisions of the 2015 Act by adding a specific decarbonisation target of climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest, with the addition of a recognition of the importance of protecting biodiversity. This brings Ireland’s approach into line with the EU commitment to climate neutrality by 2050 as enshrined in the European Climate Law of 2021, and also into line with many other climate laws, although some have earlier target dates for climate neutrality.
- Intermediate targets: The 2021 Act represents a significant strengthening in terms of intermediate targets relative to the 2015 Act. It introduces a system of carbon budgeting and makes provision for the setting of the first two budgets at a level consistent with the Programme for Government (PfG) commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 51% over the course of the current decade. The amendments bring Ireland’s legislative framework broadly into line with international best practice and provide for a level of decarbonisation that is extremely ambitious by international standards. The language regarding how sectoral targets are to be set and ministers’ duty to comply are somewhat lacking in clarity.
- Arrangements for policy planning: The 2021 Act strengthens provisions for climate mitigation policy planning. The requirement to produce an annually updated Climate Action Plan has been placed on a statutory footing, and a requirement to produce a Long Term Strategy every five years has effectively replaced the obligation under the 2015 Act to produce a National Mitigation Plan. Both the Climate Action Plan and the Long Term Strategy are required to be consistent with the carbon budget programme as well as the state’s EU and international obligations. There is minimal change to adaptation policy planning. By combining requirements for long-term and short-term policy planning that is consistent with EU and international obligations, these changes place the Irish legislative framework towards the front of the pack in international terms.
- Incorporation of expert advice: The 2021 Act strengthens the role of the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) as both an advisor and a watchdog. The Council has been given a strong advisory role in the setting of carbon budgets, and by extension will play a stronger watchdog role in monitoring compliance with those budgets. In comparison with other jurisdictions, however, the CCAC remains an outlier regarding its composition, which could undermine its perceived independence. These concerns remain unaddressed in the 2021 Act. Concerns persist also regarding resourcing of the CCAC, potentially undermining its ability to fulfil its remit fully.
- Public participation: The 2021 Act does little to change the provisions for public participation in national climate policy planning, though such provisions are somewhat stronger in respect of the preparation of local authority climate action plans. However, Climate Action Plans produced under the Act are required to include provisions on public dialogue. The Irish legislative approach is broadly in line with other jurisdictions, as most framework climate laws do not contain strong provisions for public participation.
- Institutional arrangements and responsibilities: Institutional arrangements and responsibilities under the 2021 Act represent a progression on the 2015 Act, but are still somewhat lacking in clarity. Coordination mechanisms are largely absent from the Act itself but have been significantly strengthened in recent years on a non-legislative basis. The provisions regarding responsibilities of local government have been significantly strengthened. International practice in respect of institutional arrangements varies considerably, making international benchmarking on this dimension challenging to undertake.
- Progress monitoring and reporting: The 2021 Act significantly strengthens progress monitoring and reporting. Reporting by the CCAC is strengthened by virtue of the fact that it must now report on progress against the national climate objective and the carbon budgets. Ministers are now required to be accountable to a joint committee of the Oireachtas, and to respond in writing to any recommendations of the joint committee within 3 months. Additionally, the annual update to the Climate Action Plan is required to address any shortfalls in meeting the carbon budget and sectoral emissions ceiling. These changes bring the Irish legislative framework broadly into line with international best practice.
- Enforcement and sanctions: The 2021 Act creates a range of new obligations on government, creating new opportunities for accountability. It does not include explicit provisions for sanctioning and enforcement in the case of failure to meet GHG reduction targets. This is partly a function of the particular types of duties imposed by climate laws in general, but is intensified by certain provisions of the Act. The absence of explicit provisions for sanctioning and enforcement is a common feature of framework climate laws internationally, and thus Ireland’s legislative framework is broadly consistent with international practice in this regard.
The research was commissioned and funded by Friends of the Earth Ireland. The researcher retained full academic independence and editorial control throughout.
The full report is available to download here.