Climate Resilience Post-COVID: Government’s Legislative Programme Points Towards Shake-Up in Climate Policy

Ireland’s Coalition Government of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party this week published its second Legislative Programme since entering office.

With 32 pieces of legislation marked as priority for publication, and a further 87 pieces of legislation being developed across Government Departments, the programme points towards a busy legislative session for an Oireachtas curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions.

While the Government’s foremost priority in recent months has been the public health and economic response to the pandemic, careful planning for a post-COVID world has been in the offing. Most notably, the Legislative Programme provides an ambitious agenda of climate action policies.

The programme includes a Bill to legally tie Ireland into reducing greenhouse gas emissions; a Bill to give legal powers to the Government to tax and ban products disrupting the circular economy; and a Bill overhauling the planning permission process for the construction of off-shore windfarms.

These environmental policies are being driven by the Green Party Leader and Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Eamon Ryan, as well as the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Govern, Darragh O’Brien.

Given the arithmetic of the current Dáil, with Government commanding a majority, early engagement and consultation with relevant Departments is key to ensure that the legislation being developed will realise the ambitions of policymakers, once implemented.

A Low Carbon Future

Perhaps the most ambitious piece of legislation contained within the Programme is the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2020. The Bill will amend the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act of 2015, in line with governance proposals in the Climate Action Plan 2019 and legislative commitments in the Programme for Government.

It has been given priority status by the Government and will legally commit Ireland to moving towards a low-carbon economy by:

  • Establishing a 2050 emissions target;
  • Introducing a system of successive 5-year, economy-wide carbon budgets starting in 2021;
  • Strengthening the role of the Climate Change Advisory Council in proposing carbon budgets;
  • Introducing a requirement to annually revise the Climate Action Plan and prepare a National Long Term Climate Action Strategy at least every decade;
  • Introducing a requirement for all Local Authorities to prepare individual Climate Action Plans which will include both mitigation and adaptation measures; and
  • Giving a stronger oversight role for the Oireachtas through an Oireachtas Committee.

The ‘Heads’ or ‘General Scheme’[1] of the Bill were approved by Cabinet initially in December 2019, with revised Heads approved by the new Cabinet in September 2020. Pre-Legislative Scrutiny[2] has just been finalised by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, with the Committee concluding that the Bill “represents a step forward in the legal framework within which Climate Policy will be developed in the years ahead” and making 78 recommendations to the Department.

The Committee’s Pre-Legislative findings will now be sent back to the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications for consideration, before the full legal text is published. This means that there remains an opportunity for interested organisations to review and feed into the legislative process before it becomes law.

Closing the Loop on Waste

The Government has also committed to developing a Waste Management (Circular Economy) Bill, with the drafting the Bill’s Heads already in preparation.

Under the Single Use Plastics Directive 2019, the European Commission banned a wide range of plastic consumer products and brought in requirements for consumption reduction of plastics. In Article 4 of the Directive, the Commission mandated that Member States must produce “national consumption reduction targets” for plastic items, with “economic instruments”[3] available as an option to achieve this.

According to the Directive, Member States may also “impose marketing restrictions”[4] for the purposes of preventing such products from becoming litter and in order to ensure that they are substituted with alternatives that are re-usable or do not contain plastic.

Clearly, to impose such measures on consumer products, Government will need a solid legal basis. The Waste Management (Circular Economy) Bill aims to provide this basis, as well as a set of governance criteria under which the provisions of the Act can be used.

The Waste Framework Directive 2018 likewise requires Government to “encourage the development, production, marketing and use of products suitable for multiple use that contain recycled materials, suitable for re-use and recycling”. The provisions within the Waste Management (Circular Economy) Bill may also give Government additional powers to support this work.

The Waste Management (Circular Economy) Bill is listed on the Legislative Programme under All Other Legislation, meaning that it is unlikely to be ready for publication this term, but preparation and consultation work is ongoing. Early engagement will be key to ensure that the intentions of the legislation are realised post-enactment.

Harnessing the Potential of Wind Energy

The Legislative Programme also points toward wholescale reform of Ireland’s off-shore planning permission framework. While this most obviously relates to off-shore wind energy, it will also provide for a new planning process for off-shore gas storage and energy interconnectors.

The Marine Planning and Development Management Bill will replace the Foreshore Acts of 1933-2011. The Bill will provide for a new marine planning process, underpinned by a statutory Marine Planning Policy Statement. This new system will be guided by the National Marine Planning Framework – a requirement under the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive – providing a development management regime for Ireland’s off-shore territory.

The Bill aims to streamline the planning application process through a new single consent principle, meaning that the State, as the owner of the land being developed upon, will be the sole regulator of the area.

The single consent principle is designed to remove unnecessary duplication, save administrative time and thus allow Ireland harness the potential of its offshore renewable energy resources. Under this principle, the relevant Minister must grant a “Planning Interest” to the prospective developer, which involves an assessment of whether the developer has the means of completing the project. If this consent is granted, the developer can move to the next stage of the application process and seek permission from An Bord Pleanála.

The Bill has been listed as Priority Legislation, with the Heads of the Bill approved by Cabinet in December 2019. While the Heads of the Bill have been complete for over a year, Pre-Legislative Scrutiny has not yet taken place, meaning that the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government has yet to review it in detail.

All Committees are currently working on their programmes for the coming parliamentary term and as this legislation is listed as Priority, we can expect time to be allotted by the Committee in the coming term.

Time for Action

Described by Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers as “an ambitious and exciting agenda of work for the forthcoming Oireachtas session”, the Legislative Programme for the Spring term presents some of the most significant changes to Ireland’s climate policy framework in recent years.

The aforementioned policies will move Ireland towards a 7% annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and carbon neutrality; they will give powers to change the price and potentially the range of consumer products we can buy in our shops; and they will help facilitate a new, climate resilient energy market in Ireland, just off our coasts.

These seminal pieces of legislation remain at an early stage of development, with consultation between interested organisations, parliamentary committees and the general public ongoing. Timely engagement is key to ensuring that your voice is heard in these important policy debates.

For enquiries on these pieces of legislation contact Eamonn.Lawler@humebrophy.com

[1] Document setting out the general principles and policies of the legislation.

[2] Process which takes place prior to formal legal drafting and gives parliament the opportunity for early input to the legislation.

[3] Taxes / levies

[4] Product bans