Unless the government acts “urgently and significantly” to reduce rising greenhouse gas emissions, there will be “catastrophic” consequences for life, health and the environment, a seven judge Supreme Court has been told.
A 2017 government plan to tackle climate change will not reduce rising emissions and breaches rights under the Constitution and European Convention on Human Rights, including to life, bodily integrity, and to a healthy environment consistent with human dignity, Eoin McCullough SC said.
The failure in the National Mitigation Plan (NMP) to set out "concrete" measures to substantially reduce carbon emissions in the short term also breaches the State’s national and international obligations, he said.
Climate change “is the most important issue we face, we have reached a pivotal moment”, he urged. Unless significant measures are taken urgently, “we are at risk of runaway climate change.”
Counsel was opening an appeal by Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) over the High Court’s rejection of its challenge to the NMP.
The appeal, being heard by a court presided over by Chief Justice Frank Clarke and comprising four female and three male judges, represents the first physical hearing of the Supreme Court in 102 days since the Covid-19 lockdown, although the court has held remote hearings and delivered electronic judgments.
The appeal is being heard in the King’s Inns dining hall which, unlike the Supreme Court building in the Four Courts, is large enough to meet social distancing guidelines.
Published in July 2017, the NMP set out measures described as the first steps on a path designed to transition Ireland to a low carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050.
In its proceedings against the Government, Ireland and Attorney General, FIE wants the court to quash the NMP and to direct the government to produce a plan that will properly tackle the risks posed by global warming.
The respondents contend the plan is not justiciable, meaning its adequacy or otherwise could not be decided on by a court.
The appeal will explore the availability of judicial challenge to the legality of the plan; the standard of such review if adoption of the plan is justiciable as a matter of law; and broader environmental rights asserted by FIE under the Constitution, European Convention on Human Rights and/or from Ireland's international obligations.
'Risks to life and health from altered weather events'
In submissions, Mr McCullough said there is no dispute between FIE and the government about the facts concerning climate change, the impact of emissions and the consequences of rising global temperatures.
Ireland has very high per capita emissions which are rising, not falling, and has consistently failed to meet targets to reduce emissions but the government has not engaged in the NMP with the consequences of its inaction for this country and its people, he argued.
Those include risks to life and health from altered weather events, including large parts of the country being susceptible to flooding because of rising sea levels.
The Environmental Protection Agency has projected Ireland’s emissions will continue to rise, they will be some 35 per cent above the target Ireland should have reached by this year and there will be no substantial reduction by 2030, counsel said. The Climate Change Advisory Council has also expressed strong concerns about rising emissions.
While the government maintains it is entitled to produce any plan it wishes and the court cannot intervene, that is not the case, Mr McCullough submitted.
A statutory plan must comply with the Constitution and the NMP does not do so, he said. The plan “forms a threat” to the rights to life, bodily integrity and to the environment.
The court has a duty to intervene where rights are being failed and this is not an area of government activity that is immune from judicial scrutiny, counsel argued.
FIE has the necessary legal standing and bona fide interest to assert the rights at issue, he said.
The hearing is listed to run for two days.