The new carbon budget framework, on which the Oireachtas will vote this spring, offers an unprecedented opportunity for public accountability. What can we do in 2022 to make sure the government delivers on its climate action promises?
Last year was touted as the year the Irish government finally took climate action seriously. Alongside a much-needed new climate law, we now have five-year budgets, proposed by the Climate Change Advisory Council, for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within Ireland.
Each year, ministers will report on their ministry’s actual performance against defined sector boundaries and outline their policy measures to address underperformance. This new accounting and reporting framework means the public will be able to scrutinize exactly how a minister is proposing to reduce emissions in their sector and, more importantly, whether they are meeting their targets. Here’s what we need to watch out for once the process has officially begun.
First, follow the data. The endgame here is national GHG emissions, recorded through a process that is driven by Ireland’s commitments at EU level and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Each year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) produces two national data reports, which will be released in March/April 2022. The first, the GHG Inventory Report, will present total emissions and by sector for the year up to as of December 31, 2020. The second, the GHG Projections report, will show projected emissions from 2021 to 2040, based on existing policies and quantifiable additional actions the government has proposed to take. This detailed report on EPAs is essential, but its complexity inevitably means that policy responses and political accountability are delayed by one to two years. For example, we will not have an inventory report on 2021 emissions until March/April 2023.
Five-year carbon budgeting adds a new and necessary level of urgency to this process. If a sector is not on track to meet its carbon budgets, the responsible minister will need to know this quickly in order to implement a rapid policy response. We see the perfect illustration of timely data analysis and policy course correction in daily Covid data monitoring, National Public Health Emergency Team consultation and government responses .
The climate emergency demands a similar urgency. However, reports that the Climate Action Delivery Board of Department Heads – which holds every department and public agency accountable for delivering the actions set out in the Climate Action Plan – have only met once in past two years, do not inspire confidence.
The second step is to monitor policy responses. The new climate law requires the government to publish an annual climate action plan, with the most recent being published in November 2021. In a sense, this 2021 plan is a placeholder. Sectoral emission reduction ranges, which have been hotly debated, are wide. Actual sector budgets, including detailed emission trajectories and the policies to be put in place to meet them, will not be finalized until the second quarter of this year. Therefore, we can expect an exceptional edition of the Climate Action Plan in November 2022 or, ideally, earlier.
Making these reports public would quickly make any delays in policy response apparent, facilitating the public accountability we need.
Again, however, timing is a challenge. We need to know how effective the measures proposed in the plan are actually supposed to be in reducing emissions. However, the complexity of the current data categories and the broad nature of some of the measures are such that it is extremely difficult to integrate the policies of a climate action plan from November into a projections report in April (or even the EU reporting deadline of March 15).
A simpler and faster framework for monitoring data and correcting policy guidance is urgently needed to meet carbon budgets. The main drivers of major GHG emissions are the tonnage of: fossil fuel carbon burned (for heat, transport and electricity); nitrogen inputs, in fertilizers and food for agriculture; and terrestrial carbon losses due to logging.
Monthly reporting of data for these quantities, regularly compared to sectoral trajectories for five-year sectoral carbon budgets, would provide policymakers and ministry officials with near real-time indicators for rapid course correction. Even better, making these reports public would quickly make any delays in policy response apparent, facilitating the public accountability we need to ensure the government keeps its promises.
Ultimately, the five-year carbon budget framework will only be useful if there is a cycle of timely data reporting with prompt policy correction, if needed. When it comes to limiting climate change, every year, every week, every hour counts.