The need for climate change legislation, or, the best laid plans . . . need a big stick

Aoife Ní Lochlainn11/11/2011

Aoife Ní Lochlainn: Minister Phil Hogan has responded to claims that he “has no intention of introducing legislation to set out Ireland’s stall on how we are going to tackle the fundamental challenge of climate change.” Dismissing concerns over the delay of legislation, he argues that “policy development to underpin deeper mitigation is the most urgent issue and must therefore be the immediate priority. This is an entirely sensible approach”.

As argued by many commentators over the past week, this “sensible approach”, is at completely odds with the approach taken not only by the last Government, but also by the opposition, of which he was a member.

The previous Government introduced the Climate Change Response Bill in December 2010, following the publication of a framework document in 2009. During 2010, the Department of the Environment engaged in a public consultation on the bill, which was concluded in January 2011.

Running concurrently with the Government legislative process, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security produced its own all-party proposals for legislation and a Private Members Bill was introduced by the opposition in December 2010. Between these two processes, the objectives and design of possible climate change legislation had plenty of airing and consultation over the past three years.

At the dawn of 2011, therefore, one could perhaps have been forgiven for thinking that there was a level of political consensus on this issue and that we would see the passing of a climate change bill in the following twelve months or so. The Minister, however, has changed his mind.

The Minister defends his decision by arguing that it is more important to develop policy to underpin legislation, than to develop the legislation itself. There is, however, no barrier to policy development in parallel with the creation and enacting of legislation and a great many issues can be worked out through the legislative process. Here, the debate may seem like it is descending into the pedantic discussions of the policy wonk, but with regards to climate change, where time is genuinely of the essence, such discussions take on great importance.

Aside from the setting of targets (which evolve at the international level), climate change legislation has the value of ensuring that Government, at all levels can be obligated to plan for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The idea of the obligation to plan is of great importance. Targets may change, but it is our ability to direct the machinery of Government towards climate change actions over the next decade or so which will ultimately ensure that we are in a position to meet those targets, whatever they may be. The abandonment of sectoral targets, points to a level of proposed ministerial responsibility which will be far below what is required to meet those targets that we already have.

Eminent economist James K. Galbraith, who spoke recently at the TASC Annual Conference, tackles the issue of planning for climate change mitigation and adaptation in his 2008 work, the Predatory State. He argues: “either the problem of climate change will be planned out, by a public authority acting with public power, or it will be planned away by private corporations whose priorities lie in selling coal, oil and gas-burning cars. If the latter happens, then within a century or two, the industrial or developed world as we have come to know it, may no longer be around. Nor will many of the people whose lives that world has showed itself, uniquely, capable of supporting. The transition will inevitably be ugly.”

In one way we are well used to planning. From the development of T.J. Whitakers Programme for Economic Recovery to the current four year plans, we seem to churn out plans on an almost annual basis. We've had our fair share of national plans, sectoral plans, spatial plans and indeed climate change plans. These plans did little to stop a rise in emissions, unsustainable development and economic collapse. Our current four year plan is designed to provide international funders and the public alike with confidence in the direction of the Irish economy. But what gives us the confidence that Ireland will adhere to this four year plan? The big stick that is the IMF/EU/ECB. Legislation could provide a similar big stick for climate change policy development and implementation.

So why is it important to act now on legislation? Well, first it provides a signal that Ireland is serious about tackling climate change. This signal is important at a national and international level, it shows the international diplomatic community that Ireland will make every effort to reduce emissions and it shows the international business community that Ireland is a good place in which to invest if your business is green or has a strong corporate social and environmental agenda.

The second important reason why this should not be delayed is that we are at a critical juncture in our economic development. Budget 2012 will make some important decisions on spending and tax. In particular, decisions which have an impact on our ability to reduce our emissions, such as those on public transport infrastructure. There have been suggestions, for example, that public transport subsidies will be cut, further eroding our public transport services. What level of carbon tax are we likely to see and how will the proposed sale of the ESB impact on our ambitious renewables targets and plans? Will the Government introduce further measures to support the development of a green economy through support for research and development and through tax policy?

Yesterday saw the launch of the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Plan 2012-16. As had been widely anticipated, the Government has decided to delay (or drop) key public transport investment, such as Metro North, the DART Underground, and sections of the Western Rail Corridor. Investment in public transport infrastructure will decrease from 15% of the capital envelope to 8% of the capital envelope. Investment in roads, on the other hand will increase from 16% of the capital envelope to 17% of the capital envelope.

You may or may not have been a cheerleader for every proposed public transport project, however, you cannot but agree that the Government has prioritised roads over public transport. Arguing that the spend on roads is old and the spend on public transport is new is classic obfuscation. Clearly, the choices that were made on capital expenditure were not made with climate change in mind.

If we had a decision-making structure which included the obligation to plan on a national and sectoral basis, those decisions could be made subject to evaluation on the basis of their climate change impacts and then maybe we would be making different decisions. The obligation to report annually on climate change measures and establishment of an expert advisory body or commission (a feature in both bills) which in turn would publish reports would greatly enhance both the quality of debate on climate change and the transparency of decision-making.

It will be interesting to see what measures Minister Hogan will introduce in his upcoming carbon budget statement: if he chooses to give one, the lack of climate change legislation means that he is not obligated to.

Even within the straitjacket of the EU/IMF/ ECB programme, there are choices that the Government can make, issues it can prioritise. It can choose to prioritise climate change. Not having the structures in place means that the Government will not be obligated (other than through existing international targets) to consider climate change impacts when making decisions. The Minister has abolished Comhar, the Council for Sustainable Development and shifted its responsibilities to NESC. While this is a new area of work for NESC, it has been mandated by the Minister to undertake a “study to inform the policy development process”.

The Minister hopes that this review will be completed by the end of 2012. It is highly unlikely that the study will be completed and possible legislation enacted before preparations for Budget 2013. Therefore, we are looking at two years of budgetary actions before a climate change framework is in place. Budgets 2012 and 2013 will see overall cuts to capital spending of approximately €1.3bn and cuts in current spending of €3.15bn. There will also be new €2bn raised in new tax measures.

This is one of the many reasons to be dismayed at the Minister’s about turn on climate change legislation.

It need not be so; two climate change bills have already been produced and are ready for debate in the Oireachtas. One of them will have undergone extensive discussions by senior officials at the inter-departmental level and consultation with the public. The other has been debated in an open forum at the cross party level in the Oireachtas. It should not be beyond the ability of Government to introduce one of the bills and guide it through the houses, amending it to its desired specifications, while at the same time conducting new policy development.

Yesterday the International Energy Agency warned that the world is headed for irreversible climate change in five years. The world will “build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be ‘lost forever’.” The message is clear, we cannot afford to postpone climate change measures, we must take action now and that means ensuring that decisions taken at the highest and lowest level of Government are taken with climate change in mind.

Posted in: EconomicsEnvironmentInvestment

Tagged with: TransportclimatechangeBudget

Dr Aoife Ní Lochlainn

Ni Lochlainn, Aoife

Aoife Ni Lochlainn was a policy analyst with TASC. She holds a doctorate in economic history from the European University Institute in Florence.


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