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How governance should ensure progress of the Climate Action Plan

 - The people charged with implementing the Climate Action Plan to move Ireland from worst-in-class for climate action measures

By Dr Áine Ryall, ERI, Centre for Law and the Environment, UCC School of Law

Opinion: the plan comes with welcome and overdue proposals for a new governance framework to ensure oversight and accountability

The success or otherwise of the Government's Climate Action Plan 2019: To Tackle Climate Breakdown depends on how it is implemented in practice. The plan is strong on specific proposals for a new governance framework for climate action in Ireland, which is welcome and long overdue, as the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 is very weak in this regard.

The plan includes details of the intended mechanisms for oversight and accountability to support delivery of the 183 actions proposed. The Annex of Actions sets out the "steps necessary for delivery", a timeline for delivery (by quarter) and the "lead" department for each specific action. This approach provides a clear benchmark by which to track and measure progress – or any lack of progress, as the case may be. It should provide an important spur to departments to get on with implementation of the Plan in a timely manner.

But capacity within departments, and the necessary resources to deliver on what is promised, will be essential for success. The scale of many of the actions identified in the plan will require a significant increase in capacity across departments and public bodies. This extra capacity needs to be put in place quickly in order to underpin the ambition articulated in the plan and to ensure a strong start.

As regards the specifics of the governance framework, we are told that a Climate Action Delivery Board will be established in the Department of the Taoiseach with the objective of holding each department and public body accountable. The plan commits to ensuring that all Government memoranda and major investment decisions are "carbon-proofed" and are subject to "a carbon impact and mitigation evaluation".

A new Climate Action Council will be established to supersede the existing Climate Change Advisory Council. A Standing Committee of both House of the Oireachtas on Climate Action will be established to hold ministers and public bodies to account for their actions to deliver climate targets. A Climate Action Office will be established within the Oireachtas (similar to the existing Parliamentary Budget Office), to provide advice and evidence to the Standing Committee as regards the impact of particular policy decisions on decarbonisation and climate action objectives.

Carbon budgets

New legislation in the form of the Climate Action (Amendment) Bill will introduce a requirement on Government to propose carbon budgets for three five-year periods (i.e. 2021-2025, 2026-2030 and 2031-2035) with specific sectoral targets. The plan envisages that the Government will begin this new system of carbon budgeting in advance of the proposed new climate legislation becoming law.

The proposed carbon budgets are a fundamental element of the new climate governance architecture. The new Climate Action Council will play a key role here in advising Government on the appropriate carbon budgets. Where Government does not follow the Council’s advice, then the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment must make a written statement to both Houses of the Oireachtas explaining the reasons why the advice is not being followed.

Oversight and accountability

A strong oversight role is envisaged for the Oireachtas and the new Climate Action Council. The minister with responsibility for each sector must report to the Oireachtas on an annual basis indicating the change in emissions in their sector (based on EPA data) and providing an update on the implementation of the actions in the plan regarding their particular sector. Any significant deviation from planned actions and target range must be identified, as must any future mitigation measures necessary for the sector to achieve its target.

This proposal goes far beyond the current requirement for an Annual Transition Statement under the 2015 Act. It should underpin greater visibility of, and accountability for, a particular department’s success or failure in delivering actions and meeting targets.

In the event of a deviation from the carbon budgets or a sectoral target and following a report from the EPA, the responsible minister must report to the Oireachtas Climate Action Committee. The minister must provide an explanation, set out the measures planned to rectify the shortfall and respond to any recommendations made by the Committee within three months.

This particular reporting mechanism will put any deviations from target firmly in the spotlight and should create strong political pressure to deliver on commitments made. More significantly, the plan proposes that where a sector causes significant cost to the Exchequer due to the necessity to purchase emissions allowances, the cost of purchasing those allowances will be shown in the relevant department’s budget.

New climate legislation

A new Climate Action Act is promised, with Quarter 1 2020 flagged as the timeframe for publication of the Climate Action (Amendment) Bill. This will provide for such measures as the adoption of carbon budgets; the setting of a decarbonisation target range for each sector; the establishment of a new Climate Action Council; a requirement that the Climate Action Plan be updated annually; the establishment of a long-term Climate Strategy (intended as a successor to the current National Mitigation Plan adopted in 2017) and a 2050 target.

It is important not to underestimate the significant challenges involved in meeting our 2030 targets and the powerful vested interests at play here

Success or failure?

Will this plan succeed where other plans have failed in moving Ireland from being a laggard in climate action measures to a position of leadership in responding to climate disruption? The fresh emphasis on governance structures is very welcome. The proposed carbon budgets, more robust climate legislation and significantly enhanced oversight and accountability mechanisms are a new departure for climate policy in Ireland. If implemented, the proposed new governance framework could go a considerable way towards ensuring that we see truly transformative and rapid change across the economy and society.

However, it is important not to underestimate the significant challenges involved in meeting our 2030 targets and the powerful vested interests at play here. It will be a long, hard road to 2030 and beyond, but any further delay in taking the necessary action will only lead to greater costs and missed opportunities. Strong and persistent political leadership and unswerving buy-in from the public will be required to bring about the transformational change necessary to tackle climate disruption.