Ireland’s 2050 climate target: too little, too late

3 November 2020

Language of
“degrees” and “targets” often alienates people from the climate crisis.

Yet, while they
might seem abstract, boring, or wonkish, these figures in represent a global
struggle for power and justice.

Debates about
Ireland’s role in this struggle are currently underway, as Ireland’s 2020
Climate Bill undergoes pre-legislative scrutiny before the Oireachtas Committee
on Climate Action.

The headline goal
of this Bill, known as the National Climate Objective, commits the Irish
government to pursuing a “transition to a
climate resilient and climate neutral economy by the end of the year 2050

But when it comes
to the reality of climate justice, this target is nowhere near enough.

“Climate neutral”

A ‘climate neutral
economy’ is defined within the Bill as “a
sustainable economy, where greenhouse gas emissions are balanced or exceeded
by the removal of greenhouse gases”
(emphasis added).

Climate neutral,
more commonly known as “net-zero”, refers to the balancing of greenhouse gas
emissions through the absorption or removal of equivalent emissions.

Notably, this
target does not specify how much Ireland’s emissions are expected to be reduced. Rather it looks at how much our
emissions are expected to be “balanced/removed.” This balancing act can, in
theory, occur through natural or technological measures.

Natural measures
include ‘carbon sinks’ (i.e. a reservoir which captures more carbon than it
releases – note that forestry in Ireland has in recent years become a source of emissions, rather than a sink).

measures refer to “Negative Emissions Technologies” including Bioenergy with
Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), one of the IPCC’s most popular methods.

However, West
Offaly Peat and Biomass station was recently refused planning permission on the grounds
that Ireland does not have indigenous sources of biomass, and importing biomass
would be unsustainable and a breach of EU and national policy.

There is currently
no realistic or safe method of balancing or removing Ireland’s current level of

When it comes to technological
measures, they do not exist at scale and the unintended consequences of
deploying them remain uncertain.

In the absence of
viable technologies, Ireland has no alternative but to reduce its emissions
rapidly and deeply. So, how soon does this need to happen?

A 2050 target

In order to achieve
what the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change terms a “reasonable chance”
(66%) of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C, we must remain within a global
emissions budget of 420 gigatonnes of CO2.

If global emissions
fail to decrease, this emissions budget could be exhausted as early as

A 66% chance of
remaining within 1.5°C does not exactly represent good odds. This emissions budget
furthermore excludes feedback loops, non-linear tipping points, or additional
warming hidden by air pollution.

In short, our
chances of remaining within a 1.5°C world are increasingly uncertain.

It is worth
pointing out here that 1.5°C is not a ‘safe’ level of global warming. With 1.5°C of warming, five hundred million people will
be exposed and vulnerable to water stress, 36 million people could see lower
crop yields, and up to 4.5 billion people could be exposed to heat waves.

This is not to
portray the climate crisis as a future problem. There is no safe level of
global warming and the impacts of the climate crisis at 1°C have already been
devastating, particularly in countries and communities that have contributed
least to the problem.

The 2050 target
included in Ireland’s 2020 Climate Bill, however, does not represent any effort
to remain within even a 1.5°C target, not to mention Ireland’s fair share of the rapidly
depleting 1.5°C
global emissions budget.

The United Nations
Environment Programme’s 2016 Emissions Gap Report noted that “all
available scenarios consistent with the 1.5°C goal imply that global greenhouse
gas emissions peak before 2020.”

Ireland has already
missed the safest decarbonisation target – 2020 at the latest – and instead,
continued to contribute disproportionately to the climate crisis.

Our emissions
soared by 10% between 1990-2020, despite the Irish government’s repeated
acceptance that they should be reduced 25-40%.

Irish academics now
estimate that Ireland will enter into carbon debt as early as 2024.

The Climate Equity
Reference Project estimates that, based on equity (fairness), Ireland’s
emissions should be reduced 243% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Reductions based on
equity would essentially commit Ireland to achieving complete decarbonization
by 2030 at the very latest.

This would include
natural measures, compatible with biodiversity, to draw carbon back into the
soil, as well as paying reparations in the form of financing emissions
reductions efforts overseas.

Ireland’s emissions reductions must include aviation and shipping, sectors
which to date have continued to lobby outside of the Paris Agreement.

This is
particularly pertinent given that Ireland is a hub for aircraft leasing and financing.

Not too small to count: a human rights perspective

In the context of
global mitigation efforts, you might find yourself asking: what part can a
small nation like Ireland really play?

Developed countries
like Ireland should not shirk its responsibility on the grounds that our
emissions are relatively small on a global scale, that they do not have much
impact or that other countries are not doing their fair share either.

In the landmark Urgenda
judgment, the Dutch Supreme Court cogently argued based on Article 2 and 8 of
the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) that partial fault for climate
change also justifies partial responsibility.

Another rights-based climate case recently
filed by a group of youth plaintiffs in Germany is alleging that a 55%
reduction in emissions by 2030 compared with 1990 levels amounts to a violation
of German basic law and Article 2 and 8 of the ECHR.

Given that German
emissions decreased 36% from 1990-2020, while Ireland’s exponentially
increased, there is a strong case to be made on human rights grounds that
Ireland needs to do significantly more to make up for decades of delayed
climate action.

A complaint has
been filed with the European Court of Human Rights against Ireland and 32 other
countries alleging that by failing to sufficiently reduce emissions these
countries are violating a group of Portuguese youth plaintiffs’ rights under
Article 2, 8 and 14 of the ECHR.

What is more,
although the Irish Supreme Court did not directly address the issue in Climate
Case Ireland, it did leave the doors open for future rights-based climate

What the burgeoning
area of rights-based climate litigation teaches us is that weak mitigation policies and climate framework
legislation cannot be immunised from legal challenge on constitutional and
human rights grounds.

A better option is
and sustained
” real emission reductions and this can be achieved
through the Climate Bill 2020.

So, what can be done?

It is not enough
for legislators to make incremental improvements on a terribly weak 2015
Climate Act.

A net-zero by 2050
target puts the current “ambition” of Ireland’s 2020 Climate Bill in league
with climate commitments of the wealthiest oil companies in the world: BP, Shell, Total,
and Repsol.

This Bill does not
represent science or climate justice and may still run into legal difficulties
from a fundamental rights perspective.

As Dr. Andrew
Jackson pointed out during his presentation to the Oireachtas Committee on Climate
, Ireland’s 2020 Climate Bill should be considered
“second-generation climate legislation.”

Legislators should
have learned from the grave mistakes made within Ireland’s 2015 Climate Act. At
a time when Irish citizens have never been more attuned to how science informs
legislation and policy, we urgently need a Climate Bill that aligns with
science and climate justice.

To this end, the
National Climate Objective should be entirely revised.

Rather than an
ambiguous and unjust target of carbon neutrality by 2050, Ireland’s 2020
Climate Bill should instead enshrine a solemn commitment to complete
decarbonisation by 2030 at the latest, and to making an equitable and scientifically-sound contribution
to keeping within 1.5°

Successive Irish
governments have to date marched past every scientific warning and threshold
with impunity. It is now critical that a 1.5°C temperature limit alongside
climate justice and a just transition are explicitly recognised as the central
organising principles of this new piece of climate legislation.

Clodagh Daly is the campaign coordinator of Climate Case
Ireland and a research assistant on the Effective Nature Law project at UCD
Sutherland School of Law. Orla Kelleher is a PhD student in the UCD Sutherland
School of Law working on rights-based climate litigation.

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