What does July’s Supreme Court Climate Ruling Mean for Climate Targets?

Aug 7, 2020

Policy and Research Executive Michaela Reilly  provides an overview of the recent ruling by the Supreme Court in favour of Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) against the Government over the lack of specificity of the National Mitigation Plan to meet its climate goals.  

Background to the case

Ireland is obliged to cut its emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels, under its Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015. In 2017 it published a National Mitigation Plan explaining how it intended to meet that goal.

However, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), which brought the legal case dubbed “Climate Case Ireland”, argued that the 2017 plan was not “fit for purpose” because it was not designed to achieve substantial emissions reductions in either the short or medium term. Citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the NGO said developed countries like Ireland should be cutting emissions 25-40% from 1990 levels by 2020.

The ruling itself

Following an appeal by FIE last September, the Supreme Court has overturned the Government’s “excessively vague and aspirations” plan to combat climate change citing that the plan lacks specificity.

The Court also found that the plan does not comply with Ireland’s obligations under the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, in particular section 4, to give sufficient detail about achieving the national transition objective of a low carbon economy by the end of 2050.

The broad underlying scientific evidence as to the causes of, and problems created by, climate change, was not in dispute and the case centred on the measures that FIE argued the Government is legally required to take to alleviate climate change.

Chief Justice, Mr Frank Clarke, ruled that the Government is obliged to give “some realistic level of detail” about how objectives laid out in the 2015 legislation were going to be met by 2050.

This was decided on the grounds that a reasonable and interested person could make a judgement both as to whether the plan in question was realistic and as to whether they agree with the policy options. It was ruled that this standard for specificity was currently not met.

What happens next?

The National Mitigation Plan, adopted in 2017, was required to be a 33 year plan, albeit one likely to be adjusted every five years to take developments into account.

The overriding requirement of a compliant National Mitigation Plan is that it must, in accordance with section 4.2, “specify the manner in which it is proposed to achieve the national transition objective”.  While section 4 requires a new plan at least every fifth year, that did not mean a series of five-year plans but rather a series of “rolling plans”, each designed to specify, in general terms and on a sectoral basis, how it is proposed the national transition objective be achieved.

While the Government argued a more recent plan – the 2019 Climate Action Plan – was an example of how policy was evolving, and had identified measures first envisaged in the 2015 plan aimed at partially closing the carbon gap, the 2019 plan is not a plan in the sense that the term is used in the 2015 Act. The Court found that the 2019 plan had not, for example, been through a public consultation process as mandated by the 2015 Act.

Whatever level of clarity is required by the Act about Government policy to achieve the objective by 2050, it must be provided in a formal plan adopted in accordance with the public participation measures identified in the 2015 Act.

The new coalition Government has committed to an average 7% per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions form 2021-2013, equivalent to a 51% reduction over the decade and to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

The Government must now redraw the plan with more specificity to meet the 2015 Act’s requirements, taking into account the court’s findings.

Climate Action and Competitiveness – the Chambers Ireland View

Climate change and its associated risks is one of the major threats to the sustainability of Ireland as a whole. From the increased likelihood of adverse weather to changes in how we generate our energy to how and what we consume, a sustainable transition to a low carbon economy will be critical to our future competitiveness.

Chambers Ireland has committed to leading the charge on facilitating the business transition to a low carbon economy to support the climate action goals of the nation.

In doing so, on the 4th anniversary of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2019, all affiliated Chambers across Ireland announced that they had signed a pledge giving their commitment to supporting the UN SDGs by initially supporting 5 out of the 17 goals. (Goal 13: Climate Action is one of the 5 goals that Chambers are committed to).

In addition to this, Chambers Ireland have established a Low Carbon Economy Taskforce to develop positions on how the Chamber network can contribute to climate action and create a sustainable future for Ireland.

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