The report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action marks a sea-change in Irish policy making and signals nothing less than a revolution in Ireland’s development model. Though, as virtually all approaches to climate action are, it is structured around the sectoral challenges of reducing emissions in agriculture, transport, energy, buildings, yet the document is effectively an initial effort to map what a low-carbon development model would require.
More than the various measures proposed to reduce emissions – many of them long overdue but still with weaknesses and omissions – by far the most significant recommendations are the precise, ambitious and detailed governance structures outlined. This report redresses the weak institutional infrastructure established in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, a legacy of Alan Kelly’s time as Minister for the Environment that illustrated so well the failure of Ireland’s political class to understand, much less respond to, the challenges of climate change.
If the recommendations of this report are implemented, we will have a robust set of mechanisms to hold government to account and to draw in stakeholders, including the community sector, to the governance of our climate action as has been long overdue. Some of the recommendations were expected, such as a permanent Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (called a Standing Committee here) and giving the ‘coordination and oversight performance role’ to the Department of the Taoiseach. The Standing Committee will hold Ministers and all public bodies to account for their climate actions and report annually to the Oireachas on the performance. All of this has been badly needed.
What is very welcome is the additional recommendation to establish a Climate Action Council to supersede the Climate Change Advisory Council, with responsibility for drawing up five-year carbon budgets consistent with the emissions reduction pathways for 2030 and 2050 targets with the latter target set at net zero emissions. Furthermore the recommendation to strengthen ‘the statutory obligation on public bodies to require that they perform their functions in a manner consistent with the 2050 target and interim targets’ could, if robustly implemented, transform the public sector’s climate action.
As if this wasn’t enough, a Just Transition Task Force is recommended made up of ‘workers and their unions, employers, communities, farmers, Government and civil society to plan the detail of delivering security and opportunity for workers’. It is ‘to proactively consider the likely upcoming challenges of the forthcoming rapid transition to a low carbon economy’ and should have an independent Steering Committee and Chair and adequate resources to carry out its task. This is an excellent proposal which, if well constituted, could furnish creative ways of ensuring Ireland’s transition will be equitable and inclusive, and improve the quality of life for all citizens.
While much focus of comment has inevitably been on the recommendations on carbon tax, agriculture, transport and energy, these detailed proposals to establish a robust and representative institutional infrastructure to keep up the pressure on the whole public sector mark a revolution in Irish governance. Furthermore, the JOCCA report is full of timelines for reports and actions which are remarkably ambitious, signaling a serious intent to galvanise a whole-of-government and immediate surge of action. It is to be hoped that it succeeds.
The potential revolution this move towards a low-carbon development model will require comes through more in a series of passing references rather than being a focus of attention in the report. Mentions of the move towards a circular economy and references of the need to keep Irish money in the economy (in discussing energy) point to a radical break with the intense integration of the Irish economy into global flows of investment and trade what has underpinned the Irish development model since the 1960s.
And, perhaps most remarkable of all is the challenge to the free-market assumptions which have informed Irish public policy over this period: ‘Market forces are driving higher rates of consumption and pollution and therefore the market economy itself must be transformed to give people real, low-carbon choices such as affordable public transport and sustainable livelihoods, whether they live in urban or rural environments, and facilitate community-led, non-market based solutions (par. 6.6.2).’
Overall, there is a remarkable honesty in this report, rare in Irish policy-making. For it acknowledges without any caveats or excuses that Ireland is way off target to meet its international obligations and that policies in place are not sufficient to change this. Indeed, it recognises that even the many proposals it makes would not be sufficient. As such, it acknowledges that it is making a start but that much more will be needed. If followed, the recommendations in this report have the potential to begin turning the Irish economy and society around, laying the foundations for a low-carbon development model. It may mark the final test of whether Irish governance is up to the challenge.