The Climate Action Plan 2023 (CAP23) published this week, while including a variety of positive steps and indications, fails to focus on the extreme urgency now required to meet Ireland’s initial carbon budget and its constituent sectoral emission ceilings for 2021–2025. Already, 40% of that period has expired, and it is likely that close to 50% of the budget will have been exhausted in that time.

In that scenario, the framing of this new plan should have been to deliver double-digit emission cuts every year for the next three years - to stay within the carbon budget, this is an undeniable mathematical reality. Ireland has never even gotten close to this level of greenhouse gas mitigation in any year in the past, and the CAP23 published this week shows no sign of the ambition needed to stay within the law, as set by the Oireachtas last year. 

No progress has been made to address the two gaping holes in the two five-year carbon budgets to 2030: the massive “overspend” of up to 60 million tonnes CO2eq in the Land Use sector indicated by current EPA projections has been obscured by defining its ceiling as “XXX”; and the fictional “unallocated” sector of 26 million tonnes CO2 eq is dependent on as yet unidentified “emerging technologies”. The credibility of this nationwide effort is in question until these anomalies are addressed.

The public is being told that climate action is being taken, yet the sectoral ceilings will very likely overshoot the carbon budgets, and finalising them is being delayed by questionable appeals to the inventively vague “as soon as may be” wording in the Climate Act. The EPA projections indicate that all major economic sectors are likely to exceed even their  easier first budget ceilings, to 2025, and, in total, Ireland’s emissions are on track to exceed the combined ten-year carbon budget by 23% to 36%.  

Agriculture has greatly increased its methane and nitrous oxide emissions over the past decade. Now reducing its methane emissions is particularly important to align climate action with a fair share of meeting the Paris Agreement temperature goal. Concerningly, the CAP23 fails to set out any substantive policy to achieve methane reduction. It is important to repeat that improved efficiencies have not, and most likely will not, equate to absolute emission reductions unless limits are set on nutrient inputs or on milk and meat production.

We have already seen that increases in livestock output have more than offset the emission reductions through claimed improved efficiencies. Increased reduction targets for total chemical nitrogen inputs as of 2025 and 2030 is the most encouraging sign of committing to lowering agricultural emissions and pollution, though this is likely in large part due to much increased fertiliser costs.

Land use emissions from forestry are now projected to be far higher than shown in modelled carbon budget scenarios, partly due to revised science finding increased forest organic soil emissions, but mostly due to a ramping up of the harvesting rate. However, CAP23’s projected large rise in the afforestation rate is unlikely to increase carbon removal substantially. Instead, the long-forecast “carbon cliff” in forestry that is undermining the carbon budgets needs to be addressed directly by limiting harvest up to 2035 on Coillte and industry forest area, to limit net forest carbon loss. Likewise, peat exports and imports need to be ended, and environmental protection for boglands needs to be enforced to limit emissions and protect wetland ecology.  

With regard to transport, CAP23 appears to be a synthesis of many already-announced government commitments in the sustainable transport domain. However, it is welcome that CAP23 targets have been revised to meet the higher level of ambition (compared to CAP21), including a 20% reduction in total vehicle kilometres, a reduction in fuel usage, and significant increases to sustainable transport trips and modal share. This is significant in that the assumption underpinning pretty much all transport modelling conducted in Ireland over recent decades was that vehicle kilometres would continue to grow (and therefore, as the argument went, road capacity would need to increase). 

There is also a recognition within the CAP23 of the OECD report’s findings that the Irish transport system embeds car-dependency and increased emissions by design, and we welcome the statement that a “net-zero decarbonisation pathway for transport must seek to reduce demand, through mechanisms that lessen or avoid the need for unnecessary travel by unsustainable means.” 

CAP23 puts additional emphasis on the need to engage the public on climate action and sustainable mobility. This systematic engagement has been largely missing from government action in relation to, for example, conveying the many benefits of reallocating road space to public transport and active travel users and away from private individualised motorised transport. 

Any measure identified in CAP23 which is not being enacted is merely flying metaphorical kites. Any action which cannot be verified and measured at this point cannot deliver emission cuts now and cumulatively into the future. No Government to date has sought to truly address the general public on the scale of change needed even though surveys have increasingly shown public eagerness for significant climate action. We cannot continue to consume well beyond our fair share of resources. Our way of living has to change. Because of decades of political inaction, technological advances cannot deliver the urgently needed emission cuts.

Carbon budgeting, overwhelmingly approved by the Oireachtas, was conceived to ensure that each current Government would do what is necessary to make the urgent changes required to achieve the legally binding carbon budgets. But this new Climate Action Plan is yet another exercise in political denial of scientific and ecological realities. Immediate emission mitigation is once again being neglected, making achievement of the carbon budgets ever more impossible. It is inexcusable that the annex of actions, used to prepare the budget, has not been published with the plan itself. Until it is, it is difficult to say if there has been any consideration of the impact on the first carbon budget of each action.

Now is the time to be clear with the public that Ireland is already well off track for doing its fair share of climate action, effectively borrowing from future carbon budgets. Those in positions of power and influence must exercise their responsibility before meeting carbon budgets and sectoral ceilings becomes impossible. At this point, we know that we will need strong and persuasive leadership at national, local and community levels to nurture public understanding of and support for the many measures that, cumulatively, will help to turn the ship in a sustainable direction. We need urgent action!

We look forward to closely examining the implementation maps for actions, including the timelines and responsible organisations, that will be set out in the accompanying and as yet unpublished annex of actions to the CAP23. The scale of policies and measures required to get back on track is already very challenging but it will rapidly become impossible unless the political focus on equitably reducing emissions becomes the primary factor in all decision-making.