This week saw Climate Case Ireland take to the Supreme Court to bring their case against the Irish Government for its failure to take climate action. The central challenge of Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), a voluntary network of citizens bringing forward the Climate Case on behalf of the people of Ireland (https://www.climatecaseireland.ie/), revolves around the 2017 National Mitigation Plan, which represents the Government’s attempts to lift Ireland from its carbon-intensive society on to a more decarbonised pathway.
FIE is arguing that Ireland, a developed and wealthy nation, is shirking its responsibilities in terms of reducing our emissions by our fair share. They contend that the creation of a National Mitigation Plan which permits an increase in Ireland’s emissions is a breach of human rights. The summary of FIE’s argument can be read here.
Day two of the court case saw the State defend. While the full argument against can be found here, there are two particular points that I would like to discuss: 1) Ireland’s emissions are too small to make a difference and 2) that the targets we agreed to reduce emissions by were not viable because they were not cost-effective.
The idea that Ireland’s emissions are too small to make a difference on the global scale is widespread, consequently hearing this argument in the court should not be surprising. It is, however, highly disappointing and disingenuous. This argument fails at the first hurdle, in that anyone can use it. This widespread ‘whataboutery’ is scalable with communities to whole continents able to utilise it to deflect blame allowing no-one to take responsibility. Europe can say, while our emissions may be high at least we are still in the Paris Agreement, unlike America. America in turn could say, at least we are not as bad as China. China, in its defence could argue that their emissions are just catching up with developed countries’ historic emissions.
The argument is not realistic, and is morally questionable. Pope Francis recognised that climate change does not impact people equally but that “its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries over the coming decades… Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that same sense of responsibilities for our fellow men and women.” Ireland as a developed, wealthy country has one of the highest per capita GHG emissions in the EU, we need to accept this responsibility, lower our emissions and grasp the opportunities that exist in transforming our economy into a low-carbon one.
The argument also fails when we consider our recent appointment into the United Nations Security Council. According to Ireland’s Ambassador to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason, the seat will change the perception of Ireland on the international stage. “Of course, it gives us an elevated profile. It really reinforces Ireland’s reputation internationally… It also helps us to influence and shape decisions, I think that is the key issue we should look to here”. We pride ourselves on punching above our weight in terms of global influence and yet the state is asking us to believe that if we decide to take responsibility and implement strong policies to lower our emissions, we could not leverage this to exert pressure in Europe and internationally to strive for more ambitious emissions reductions globally. If this is the case, we need to choose one side or the other – are we a globally influential country with the capability to influence international relations and policies or are we weak in the face of global crises. Because we cannot be both.
The false ideology of cost effectiveness
On Tuesday the State argued that that “The EU target for Ireland to achieve a 20% reduction in non-ETS emissions by 2020 (compared to 2005 levels) was misinformed, as the target wasn’t calculated or informed by cost-effectiveness”. Unfortunately, the state’s inclination to use cost-effectiveness as a means of calculating emissions reduction creates externalities which we will eventually need to recon with. Some of these are easy to identify – missed the emission targets (which we agreed to) will result in fines. Others are less tangible, delays in investing in public and active transport means we have a huge road network compared to an unreliable public transport and unsafe active transport infrastructure, all of which has increased our reliance on private vehicles.
Viewing these issues only in terms of cost and emissions has ensured that the State has missed the bigger picture. The actions needed to reduce emissions would result in better air quality, less traffic congestion, improved biodiversity, water and soil quality. Failing to view these issues and the solutions to them through an integral ecology lens has resulted in policies like the National Mitigation Plan, that leaves Ireland at a standstill in the race to prevent the most destructive consequences of climate change.
Since the publication of the NMP Ireland has published the 2019 Climate Action Plan. Having learned from the previous mistakes of being relatively ambitious in terms of emission cuts, this plan aims for 2% annual reductions which is far short of the 7.6% needed.
The Climate Action Plan is wholly based on cost-benefit analysis and cost effectiveness which unfortunately resulted in a short-sighted lack of ambition that “completely ignores the fact that we need to adapt to climate breakdown now, not at some undefined future date”. The Irish State has proven itself, time and again, to be recalcitrant to any major move towards strong climate action.
Climate justice in Ireland
Climate Justice is a multifaceted and complex thing which exists both at a national and international scale. It involves not only how much we reduce our emissions but also how we do it and how we support other countries in facing the consequences of climate change. The Climate Case and the excellent work of Friends of the Irish Environment is part of wider environmental and climate justice movement in Ireland.
In our most recent Working Notes issue – Laudato Si: Five years on? Orla Kelleher’s essay, A reflection on the experience of climate justice in Ireland describes the importance of this case and tracks the lack of ambition in climate action by the Government. Kelleher argues that strong climate laws will be a vital component of Ireland’s climate justice movement, echoing Pope Francis’ teachings that “the establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable.”