Climate Case Ireland, a grouping of thousands of climate activists, have won their case against the State for failing to produce an adequate national plan to tackle carbon emissions and climate change. Here’s how it came about and what it means.
A. In 2015, the State, belatedly acknowledging the climate crisis, enacted the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act.
Its main purpose was to make government come up with a plan that would guide the country to “transition to a low carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050”.
The resulting plan, the National Mitigation Plan, was produced in 2017. Climate activists and scientists were underwhelmed.
A. It was vague and lacked ambition. It didn’t aim high enough and it didn’t spell out what society at large – business, industry, construction, transport agriculture, the public and the public sector – were to do to reduce emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases. In other words, it wasn’t going to do anything to reduce emissions.
A. The government more or less agreed – because they started work on the a new Climate Action Plan – the much more detailed plan published last year which is now the country’s blueprint for tackling climate change.
A. Climate activists weren’t convinced the government would come up with a better plan so they began legal proceedings in the High Court to try to get the National Mitigation Plan declared inadequate, in breach of the 2015 Act and in need of replacement with something much better.
The Climate Action Plan, which became its replacement while the proceedings were going on, is not a statutory document. The National Mitigation Plan was, until this morning, the only legally binding plan we had.
The activists were also keen to push the human rights element of the climate crisis, arguing that failure to provide an adequate response to climate change infringed rights to life and a healthy environment as set out under various domestic and international charters.
A. Despite indirectly accepting that the critics were right, the State’s main argument was that if the courts were to be allowed to quash its plan, that would amount to undue interference by the judiciary in the policy and workings of the legislature – the strong principle of separation of powers.
It also argued that the plan was only meant as an initial step towards the 2050 goals. And it said that Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), the main group behind the case, had no right to take the action because it could not show that any adverse effects would be caused to itself as a body.
A. It heard the case early last year and ruled at the end of the year, agreeing with the State.
A. FIE appealed to the Supreme Court and the seven judges heard the case over two days in June. Their unanimous judgement was delivered this morning. They agreed that the National Mitigation Plan lacked detail and specifics and said it was not possible to assess its impact against the goals it had set. It therefore was not in compliance with the 2015 Act and must be quashed. They rejected the idea of interference in government policy because they said the plan was a legal document, not policy.
A. It’s not a good look for the government that it fought climate activists on largely technical points when the future of the planet is at stake. Also, some of the argument presented by the State side during the appeal betrayed an alarming lack of conviction in the necessity for individual countries to do their utmost to tackle carbon emissions, even when they are small like Ireland.
A. Yet another Climate Act is being prepared in recognition that the Climate Action Plan needs a statutory footing. The new Climate Act will make all government departments and ministers and all the agencies and bodies under their remit work within ‘carbon budgets’ and will require specific actions to reduce emissions and detail assessments of how they’re performing – everything that the 2015 Act and 2017 Mitigation Plan should have done.
The Programme for Government promised the new legislation would be introduced within 100 days of government formation. This morning’s ruling increases the pressure to achieve that aim.
A. Sadly, no. The Climate Action Plan, if fully implemented, will only achieve a 3pc annual reduction in emissions. Climate scientists around the world, and the Programme for Government, accept we now need at least a 7pc annual reduction.
The goalposts have moved as climate breakdown has worsened.