The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 (No. 23 of 2021), which was recently enacted, and which amends the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 (No. 46 of 2015), supports Ireland’s transition to a Net Zero economy and identifies a framework for achieving a climate-neutral economy by no later than 2050.
The objective of the Act is to provide a legal framework that will enable Ireland to achieve its ‘national climate objective’. This objective is Ireland’s long-term emissions reduction target that would see Ireland transition to a climate-resilient, biodiversity-rich and climate-neutral economy by no later than the end of 2050. A climate-neutral economy has been defined in the Act as a ‘sustainable economy and society where greenhouse gas emissions are balanced or exceeded by the removal of greenhouse gases. The ‘climate neutral’ objective is consistent with EU climate ambition and international obligations under the Paris Agreement to pursue a net-zero target for all greenhouse gases.
The national climate objective will be achieved through the introduction of:
- Three 5-year rolling carbon budgets and associated sectoral emission ceilings.
- Climate Action Plans which are to be renewed annually and which commence in 2021. Annual revisions to the Climate Action Plan will focus on the near- and medium-term perspectives, be consistent with the adopted carbon budget programme, and provide a roadmap of actions, including sectoral actions, that are needed to comply with the carbon budgets and sectoral emission ceilings.
- A National Long Term Climate Action Strategy which is to be reviewed every 5 years and which will outline, over a minimum 30-year period, the range of opportunities and transition pathways towards the national climate objective. This climate action strategy also meets an EU requirement to produce a long-term strategy every 10 years.
- A National Adaptation Framework, which is an existing provision under Section 5 of the 2015 Act and which must be prepared once every five years. The Framework specifies the national strategy for the application of adaptation measures in different sectors to reduce the vulnerability of the State to the negative effects of climate change. The first Framework was published in January 2018 and a second National Adaptation Framework will be due for publication in early 2023.
- Sectoral Adaptation Plans, which is an existing provision under Section 6 of the 2015 Act. Sectoral adaptation plans specify the adaptation policy measures proposed for a relevant sector, having regard to the approved National Adaptation Framework.
Ireland is now on a legally binding path to net-Zero emissions no later than 2050, and to a 51% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this decade. The Act provides the framework for Ireland to meet its international and EU climate commitments and to become a leader in addressing climate change.
The next stage of the process will be the preparation of regulations on carbon accounting, in consultation with the Climate Change Advisory Council (which has been elevated to statutory level), and consistent with the Paris Agreement and Ireland’s other international obligations.
This will be followed by the production of carbon budgets by the Climate Change Advisory Council. These 5-year carbon budgets, which will be established on a rolling 15-year basis will be presented to the Oireachtas and approved by Government. The Government will then set sectoral emissions ceilings determining how each sector of the economy will contribute to the achievement of the budgets. The carbon targets, which are in effect ceilings that must not be exceeded, include all greenhouse gases including biogenic methane i.e., methane produced by livestock.
The aim of the first two carbon budgets is to provide for a reduction of 51% in the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions by 31 December 2030 as against the amount reported for the year ending 31 December 2018. Government Ministers will be responsible for achieving these legally binding targets for their sectors. Ministers will be required to address the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change and account for their performance on an annual basis.
If at the end of a budget period a sector has a surplus, this surplus can be carried forward to the new budgetary period. If, however, a ceiling has been exceeded, all exceeded emissions will be carried forward and the target set in the next budget will be reduced accordingly.
The Climate Action Plan 2021 will be published in early autumn. This will set out the measures to be taken to reach our targets in each sector of the economy.
The Minister for the Environment, Climate, and Communications must request, within 18 months of the enactment of the Act, that each local authority prepare, within 12 months, individual Climate Action Plans to include both mitigation and adaptation measures, and these plans must be updated not less than once every five years. The local authority Climate Action Plans will be developed, in so far as practicable, to be consistent with the national Climate Action Plan and National Adaptation Framework and have regard to other relevant climate policies. The Minister may issue guidelines to support the preparation of the plans. Local authorities will be required to consult with the Public Participation Networks and also liaise with neighbouring authorities.
The Planning and Development Act 2000, which requires development plans to include objectives in respect of climate action, will also be amended to provide that the approved local authority Climate Action Plan is taken into account in the preparation of any future development plan. This will ensure appropriate alignment between the local authority’s Climate Action Plan and its development plan.
Other public bodies will have a general obligation to perform their functions, in so far as practicable, in a manner consistent with the requirements of the various plans and strategies under the legislation, and with a view to furthering the achievement of the national climate objective.
Key principles such as just transition, climate justice and protection and restoration of biodiversity are matters that the Minister and Government must have regard to when preparing the Sectoral Emission Ceilings, the Climate Action Plan, the National Long Term Climate Action Strategy, the National Adaptation Framework, and Sectoral Adaptation Plans. Application of these principles will ensure that the transformation to decarbonise our economy is a fair and just transition, which leaves no one behind.
Section 9 of the Act establishes a system of carbon budgeting with three 5-year economy-wide budgets included in each carbon budget programme. Each carbon budget represents the total amount of greenhouse gases that may be emitted in the State during each 5-year period, measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. The carbon budgets will be consistent with furthering the achievement of the national climate objective and include all greenhouse gases. The first carbon budget programme will comprise carbon budgets for the following periods:
The first three 5-year carbon budgets and sectoral emissions ceilings will be adopted during the course of 2021. From the adopted carbon budgets, the sectoral emissions ceilings, and the policies and measures to achieve these targets, will be developed and set out in the 2021 Climate Action Plan.
A sectoral emissions ceiling is the maximum amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are permitted in a sector of the economy during each 5-year carbon budget. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, in consultation with other relevant Ministers, will develop a sectoral emissions ceiling for each relevant sector within each 5-year budget, once the overall carbon budget has been adopted.
The Climate Change Advisory Council will propose a programme of three successive 5-year carbon budgets to the Minister. The Advisory Council must take account of the following factors when proposing its budgets:
- The most recent national greenhouse gas emissions inventory and future greenhouse gas emissions projections, which are prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Relevant scientific advice, including with regard to biogenic methane.
- International best practice on the reporting of greenhouse gas emissions and removal.
- In so far as practicable, the need to maximise employment, the attractiveness of the State for investment and the long-term competitiveness of the economy.
When carrying out its functions the Council must also have regard to climate justice and must carry out its functions in a manner consistent with the ultimate objective of stabilising ‘greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’, as required by Article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992.
On 15 September each year the Council will publish a report following which, Ministers will be required to give an account to the Oireachtas Committee on their adherence to the prescribed carbon budget.
The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications will, within four months, consider the budgets proposed, consult with other relevant Ministers and with the public, amend the proposed carbon budget if appropriate, and present the budgets to the Government.
Once approved by Government, the Minister will propose a motion in both Houses of the Oireachtas for approval of the carbon budget. The carbon budget will have effect on and from the date on which a motion approving the carbon budget has been passed by both Houses.
After the carbon budget has been approved, the Minister will prepare sectoral emissions ceilings for each relevant sector in consultation with other Ministers. The Minister will be responsible for setting the emissions ceiling for 40 different sectors for the five-year period within the limits of the carbon budget. These sectoral emissions ceilings must also be approved by the Government. The sectors of the economy to which each sectoral emissions ceiling will apply will be determined by the Government. It will build on the approach established in the preparation of the 2019 Climate Action Plan and align with international best practice on accounting and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions and removals.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) annual greenhouse gas inventory and projection reports and the Climate Change Advisory Council annual report will inform monitoring of compliance with national and sectoral progress towards each carbon budget and sectoral emissions ceiling.
If sectoral targets and carbon budgets are not achieved, corrective or additional measures may be introduced to ensure targets are achieved. However, at the end of a 5-year carbon budget period, any excess emissions will be carried forward to the next budget period, which will be reduced accordingly. In addition to the provisions of the Act, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform proposes will consult in 2021 on how individual sectors could bear any compliance costs for the State arising from failure to reach sectoral targets as provided for under the Act.
The ‘limitation of liability’ clause (section 4 of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021) seeks to limit punitive financial compensation being sought which would limit the State’s ability to fund climate action. All other remedies are still available, and the obligations imposed by the 2015 Act remain justiciable before the Courts (as confirmed by the Friends of the Irish Environment 2020 Supreme Court case). If the Government or any public body fails to deliver on their required obligations the courts may be asked to compel them to act.
The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 will have a significant impact on certain sectors such as transport, energy, the built environment, and agriculture.
Ireland is now on a legally binding path to net-Zero emissions no later than 2050, and to a 51% reduction in emissions by the end of this decade. Ireland’s 51% carbon reduction target represents a mammoth undertaking. The scale and nature of this reduction is brought into sharp focus by the fact that the unprecedented collapse in economic activity as a result of the COVID-related restrictions only resulted in a 6% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. It is therefore inevitable that the effects of the climate action regime associated with the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 will be felt across the entire Irish economy and society and will strongly influence legislation and government policy long into the future.