Friends of the Irish Environment

Eli Dolliver meets the Cork-based organisation

As we march into February, it’s been over four months since the Cork based organisation, , obtained permission from the High Court to proceed its lawsuit against the Government of Ireland. On what grounds, you might ask? The answer is simple. The Government of Ireland has failed to act against climate change.

The Cork based NGO’s legal challenge is founded on the inadequacy of the government to meet the targets they subscribed to in the Paris Agreement. The government has acknowledged the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25%-40% by 2020, but our emissions are set to increase by 7%-10%. With our emissions being the third highest per capita in the EU, the government’s failure to act on their promises is particularly disturbing.

The FiE is holding the government accountable for their promises, and demands that the governments newest plan- the National Mitigation Plan- be sent back to the state to meet the requirements of the Climate Act of 2015, which calls for quick responses to climate issues.

The National Mitigation Plan suggests no manners or policies by which the goal of the 20% reduction might be achieved. The Climate Change advisory council, whose recommendations ought to have been consulted in penning the Mitigation Plan, were not given adequate opportunity to give those recommendations, and what they were able to give wasn’t taken into account.

I spoke to Tony Lowes of the FiE, and he informed me of a victory that gives the organisation cause for hope. Last November, a small group of citizens took a case trying to stop the construction of a third runway in Dublin Airport, which they believed would exacerbate our already alarming emissions. They lost the case, but won something incredible. In his decision on November 21, High Court Justice Max Barrett wrote that:

“A constitutional right to an environment that is consistent with the human dignity and wellbeing of citizens at large is an essential condition for the fulfilment of all human rights.”

Barrett made it clear that he intends his ruling to have a long-lasting impact, and added that recognizing the constitutional right to a livable environment “is not so utopian a right that it can never be enforced”.

This victory means the government is violating not just the Climate Act, but also the constitutional and human rights of Irish citizens, and could prove an invaluable tool in forcing them to take effective action to meet their goals. It sets a precedent recognising the rights of citizens to a safe environment, so that our children, and our children’s children, have a right to live in a world that is not polluted beyond all hope of safety, dignity, and health.

When asked what they hope to gain from the trial, Mr. Lowes referred to the Dutch case of 2015. Because despite the remarkable nature of the FiE’s case, Ireland is not acting alone. We are following the lead of citizens the world over literally taking their governments to court to force them to protect their citizens and combat the ever-growing threat posed by climate change.

In 2015, 900 Dutch citizens aided by the Urgenda Foundation filed a case against their government for failing to protect them from climate change. The Hague ruled that the Dutch government must reduce their carbon emissions by 25% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. The legal representation of the Urgenda Foundation expects the Irish courts will reach the same decision “given Ireland’s seriously inadequate climate policies and growing emissions”, adding:

“Governments all over the world, including in the US, Belgium, Switzerland, and New Zealand, are being held legally accountable for their inaction on climate change, and all eyes will now be on what unfolds in Ireland”

“States are meant to protect their citizens, and if politicians will not do this of their own accord, then the courts are there to help,” says Urgenda director Marjan Minnesma.

Juliana v. United States 2015 saw 21 young people aged 10-20 take a constitutional lawsuit against the US government, asserting that the governments actions causing climate change have “violated the youngest generations rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources”.

I asked Tony what our government could, and should, be doing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions:

There’s a very clear path for what they call Deep Decarbonisation. The generation of power is at the root of much of what we’re looking at. All of that first has to be properly reconstructed. No power lost, turn your lights off, all that kind of stuff. That’s the first pillar. The second pillar is that all electricity will be generated by renewable sources; solar, wind. And the third pillar is that all our systems will be converted to use electric; so electric cars, electric trains, electric everything.”

Lowes believes one of the reasons Ireland is so poor in terms of climate change is ‘silo thinking’- a lack of communication and collaboration between government departments. He gives the example of the ESB, who have stopped researching electric cars, because they’re seen as the responsibility of transport authorities. Also key is regulating emissions by enforcing carbon tax, particularly when it comes to big industry.

Most importantly, we need to better invest in our renewable energies. Lowes is particularly encouraged by developments in wind, solar, and the production of artificial fuel. An excess of solar or wind energy can be used to create artificial hydrogen fuels, which can be transported using existing gas pipelines. Lowes is not discouragement by our rainy irish weather, because as he points out, Germany is one of the leaders in solar power, and “Germany is not the Sahara”.

There is also great economic potential in renewable energies for Ireland. Lowes recollects an interview with leaders in solar energy in Texas who are driven not by environmentalism, but by business: “You think we’re environmentally good people. We’re not. We’re business people.” Businesses can sign a 20 year solar energy contract without fears of crashes or bubbles. It means long term security.

But what chance does the FiE have of winning this case? Neither Lowes, nor any of the FiE, can guess what the outcome will be. Their next step is investigating legal aid for environmental cases, because these cases can cost “into the thousands, sometimes into the tens of thousands”.  The massive legal costs prove “a real barrier to people wanting to take action in a court setting”, and complicate citizens’ access to justice. The organisation has poured every last penny of their resources into the case in the hopes of seeing the government take responsibility for their inaction, driven by “the support we’re getting, and the awareness we’re raising”.

I asked Mr. Lowes what he might say to the student population in cork, young Irish people who want to help their environment, and he replied:

there’s a huge train coming straight down at you. This is going to happen much faster, and get a lot worse. The more people that come to terms with it now, that find out now what’s going on.. you know it’s going to get quicker. And in ten years time it’s going to be really bad, in 20 years time- it’s going to be a changed world.”

Learn more at http://friendsoftheirishenvironment.org/climate-case, or on the Friends of the Irish Environment Facebook page.