Clodagh Daly, a spokesperson for Irish environmental group Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), describes the scene when her organization took Ireland’s government to court in January 2019. “It was a four-day hearing, and it was absolutely packed. There were people from all walks of life. Artists, engineers, delivery drivers. There were grandparents with their grandkids.”
The climate case first brought by FIE early last year was both highly publicized and massive in scope. In what came to be known as “Climate Case Ireland,” the NGO argued that Ireland’s governmental bodies had failed to meet their responsibility to protect citizens from climate change. Specifically, FIE stated that the government’s 2017 National Mitigation Plan contradicted the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act enacted in 2015 and didn’t deliver meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions. While the Irish high court ruled against FIE at the time, due to confusion over the organization’s legal standing to bring such a case, the option of appeal to a higher court remained open.
This summer, in a far more sparsely attended setting (mandated by Covid-19 regulations), FIE’s appeal was successful. Determining that the Ireland’s National Mitigation Plan was unjust, a seven-judge Supreme Court (the highest court in Ireland) effectively nullified its own government’s strategic plan for reducing Ireland’s carbon emissions. Following careful analysis of the 2017 plans, the judges concluded that it fell “well short” of the level of detail stipulated by the 2015 Act. A new plan now needs to be produced.
Forcing the Irish government to clarify how it will achieve its goal of a low-carbon and climate-resilient society is a hugely positive result. Accordingly, and in line with the Supreme Court’s recommendations, the recently published Climate Action (Amendment) Bill 2020 now outlines a far more exact path for the Irish Government to reduce its carbon emissions. Under this new legislation, the Irish state is committed to achieving carbon neutrality within the next 30 years. While this bill has been criticized by some groups, including the FEI as being too weak, if passed by the Irish legislature it will commit Ireland to producing, and maintaining, a long term climate action plan that has to take effect from 2021 onwards.
In addition to its impact on Irish climate policy, Climate Case Ireland’s outcome also resonates far beyond the Emerald Isle. For the second time in history, a nation’s highest court ruled that there is no legal justification for political inaction on climate change. The first was a successful action taken by another NGO, Urgenda, against the Dutch Government in 2019. Supporters claim that both cases now create a precedent for national governments to do more than pay lip service to long term goals when it comes to CO2 emissions.
“Essentially what this judgment means is that governments are compelled to work towards their Paris agreement commitments while also detailing how they will achieve reductions in emissions within the short term,” Daly says of the Irish case. With courts likely to rule based on scientific evidence rather than political expediency, cases like Climate Case Ireland reduce the space available for recalcitrant governments to hide in.
However, as Dr. Thomas Muinzer of Aberdeen Law School in Scotland, describes it, the outcome “is not all good news.” He argues that while the judgment is indeed monumental in its impact, it might also lead to potential rowing back, at least in the Irish context, on a constitutional right to a healthy environment.
His remarks are based on the failure of another aspect of the FIE’s case, which sought to present climate change as an infringement of Irish citizens’ constitutional rights. Before Climate Case Ireland, legal recognition of climate change as a rights-based issue looked likely. In 2017, in a separate case brought by FIE against a local Irish government department, the High Court had recognized an inferred constitutional right to a healthy environment for the first time.
As part of FIE’s argument, Climate Case Ireland put this right before the Supreme Court. However, in its judgment, the court did not determine that such a right could be “derived” from the Constitution. Dr. Munzier argues that this judgment now sets back the struggle for constitutional recognition of environmental rights. The “so-called “unenumerated right to an environment consistent with human dignity” had been cemented by the trial judge in the previous case, who had accepted it, he says. Munzier also adds that “the Supreme Court promptly set its efforts to rowing it back.”
Nevertheless, Daly sees the silver lining in this aspect of the judgment. She says that “it’s actually a positive thing that we have clarification from the courts on this. Referring to the potential for a future case focused on this aspect to be successful, Daly is also hopeful, staying that “While it was difficult for the court in this instance to see the right to an environment and see what it added when we already have a right to life, that isn’t to say that in future cases, it couldn’t.”
While its legal implications showcase some of the challenges that climate-related court actions face, Climate Case Ireland still stands as a global wake up call. It reminds governments and their citizens that inaction on climate change is indeed legally actionable. The case’s successful outcome also paves the way for further actions against negligent governments and culpable corporate bodies. Often focusing on the infringement of the rights that climate change creates, climate change litigation is an increasingly broad front. From US municipal bodies taking corporations to court, to young people legally arguing for their right to a future free from extreme weather in Portugal, dozens of climate centered court cases are currently in progress globally.
As nations renege on their commitments under the Paris Agreement, climate change litigation is likely to become an increasingly important tool for bringing polluters to account. According to one assessment, over 1,440 climate-related court cases have been filed to date.
For Ireland, a history of gross inaction regarding climate change shows a reality far removed from the country’s green image. According to a recent report by Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an independent body responsible for environmental research and regulatory enforcement, Ireland’s performance on addressing climate change has been “very poor.” Looking at Ireland’s efforts to date, the report notes that Irish emissions have increased by 10 percent over 1990 levels. Unless Ireland adopts a more stringent plan, the EPA predicts that emissions are unlikely to decrease by more than 6 percent over the next decade — far below the country’s Paris Agreement commitments.
In a country where more than 90 percent of energy use comes from fossil fuels, Climate Case Ireland sets a precedent for all future climate governance. By requiring the Irish state to revisit its Climate Action Plan, the outcome might pay dividends for generations yet to come.
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