Judgment to be ‘beacon for further cases’
Lip service, box-ticking and waffle are not up there with the most grievous of crimes to come before the courts but no lesser body than the Supreme Court has ruled their perpetration is not to be tolerated.
That's the effect of the unanimous judgment delivered by seven judges of the country's highest court that the State failed to provide an adequate plan to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
The National Mitigation Plan 2017, our only statutory climate action plan, is not even to be left on the shelf like so many other half-hearted climate initiatives. It is to be taken down and tossed in the bin.
The plan was produced on foot of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 which required government to come up with a strategy to drive the country's "transition to a low carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050", our national transition objective (NTO).
It was a masterclass in waffle, vague in intent and lacking practical steps to realise its undemanding ambitions.
Justice Clarke pulled out a prime example: "We are endeavouring to improve our understanding of the drivers of emissions from these activities with a view to developing policies and measures to reducing the source of these emissions."
He was not impressed. From the start of these proceedings in 2017, through the application for a judicial review, the unsuccessful High Court hearing early last year and the appeal in June, the terrifying prospect of a world ravaged by climate breakdown provided the unsettling backdrop.
The need for greenhouse gas emissions to be urgently reduced to keep global warming, already at 1.1C, as much below 2C as possible, was agreed by all.
And yet here was the State's response, defending a plan that saw action as pondering what might need to be done.
Justice Clarke's response was rather sharper. "The public are entitled to know how it is that the government of the day intends to meet the NTO," he said. "The public are entitled to judge whether they think a plan is realistic or whether they think the policy measures adopted in a plan represent a fair balance as to where the benefits and burdens associated with meeting the NTO are likely to fall. If the public are unhappy with a plan then, assuming that it is considered a sufficiently important issue, the public are entitled to vote accordingly and elect a government which might produce a plan involving policies more in accord with what the public wish.
"But the key point is that the public are entitled, under the legislation, to know what the plan is with some reasonable degree of specificity."
He concluded: "In my judgment the plan falls a long way short of the sort of specificity which the statute requires."
Dr Áine Ryall, co-director, Centre for Law and the Environment at University College Cork (UCC), said the ruling was of enormous significance.
"It is a massive boost for climate action," she said. "The judgment will be welcomed around the world and will be a beacon for further climate litigation."
She's right. Climate Case Ireland, the grouping that took the case, led by Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) and backed by 20,000 signed supporters, took their inspiration from the Urgenda case in The Netherlands.
Other groups around the world with similar actions pending against their own governments are watching.
Friends of the Earth director Oisín Coghlan tweeted that he was crying at the traffic lights on hearing the judgment.
"The Government already had a scientific, political and moral obligation to step up its efforts to cut climate-polluting emissions. Now the Supreme Court has ruled it has a legal obligation as well," he said.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the ruling would be studied. "There will be lessons to be learned," he said.
Climate Action Minister Eamon Ryan said: "We must use this judgment to raise ambition, to empower action and to ensure that our shared future delivers a better quality of life for all."
The judgment suits him, not only because it aligns with his beliefs, but because he has the 2019 Climate Action Plan left over from the last government which was meant to supersede the National Mitigation Plan and which is a big improvement but is not statutory and not sufficient. He needs something stronger.
He also has new climate legislation to be drawn up and enacted to make State climate actions transparent and measurable.
He needs co-operation from all parties to get this through without delay.
Clodagh Daly of Climate Case Ireland emphasised this. "Exciting as the legal win may be, the real work now lies in the creation of a transformed National Mitigation Plan, one that guarantees the rapid and dramatic reduction of Ireland's emissions," she said.
So more box ticking, lip service or waffle. Or, as youth climate activist Beth Doherty (17) put it best: "The Irish government can no longer make promises it will not fulfil."