Friends of the Irish Environment head to a hearing on their climate caseSupporters of the Climate Case Ireland headed to court last week in Dublin for a hearing in the country's High Court. Photo credit: Friends of the Irish Environment
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By Isabella Kaminski

DUBLIN—Representatives of the Irish government appeared in Ireland’s High Court last week to defend against a lawsuit that claims the government it is not doing enough to tackle climate change.

The high-profile national case, brought by advocacy group Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), argues the country’s National Mitigation Plan will not reduce emissions fast enough to protect its people from the impacts of climate change and seeks to have it replaced with a more ambitious strategy.

In court, Niamh Hyland and Rory Mulcahy, senior counsel for the Irish government, countered that the state is not obliged to respond to climate change in any particular way and warned that if courts forced even a 25 percent reduction in emissions by 2020 there would be an “extreme alteration” to Irish society. They also argued that FIE should not be allowed to speak for Irish citizens in challenging national policy.

Eoin McCullough, senior counsel for what has been dubbed Climate Case Ireland, began by laying out the urgency of tackling climate change. Citing reports from Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency and Climate Change Advisory Council, he showed that Irish greenhouse gas emissions are rising and said the country is already “completely off course” to meet its national emission targets for 2020 and 2030.

Ireland has one of the highest levels of per capita emissions in the European Union, largely due to its agricultural industry. A ranking by Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe found it the second-worst performing country in the EU on climate change.

FIE argued in court that Ireland’s current National Mitigation Plan, which sets out plans to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050 compared to 1990 levels, is not “fit for purpose” because it is not designed to achieve substantial emissions reductions in the next few decades.

It said this violates Ireland’s own Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 and claimed the government’s approval of the plan in 2017 was a “flagrant breach” of its citizens’ constitutional rights to life, bodily integrity, and an environment consistent with the human dignity and well-being of citizens. It also claimed the plan violates the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly the right to life, and the right to private and family life.

FIE asked the court to quash the plan and order the government to write a new one. It pointed out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended developed countries should cut their national carbon emissions by 25-40 percent by 2020, and that the Irish government has endorsed the science behind this.

The argument had a similar structure to the historic Urgenda case in the Netherlands. Like the Dutch government, the Irish state has not denied the importance of tackling climate change. Earlier in January, Ireland Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said government action on climate action would be the “next big progressive cause.”

In court, however, the government lawyers downplayed Ireland’s obligations. To claim their rights had been breached by the National Mitigation Plan, the plaintiffs must detail an  “identification of imminent risk,” said government lawyers. Mulcahy said that in this case the claimant had only identified global risks presented by climate change and there was no suggestion that the plan creates that risk.

The state argued that action on climate change requires a global effort and courts cannot require Ireland to take unilateral action. And it questioned Friends of the Irish Environment’s right to bring a case on behalf of all Irish citizens, saying the organisation was trying to intervene in the national policy process.

In his closing remarks, FIE senior counsel Brian Kennedy said the National Emissions Plan has resulted in a “disturbing state of affairs” where emissions are rising rather than decreasing with a “bright line between where we are and where the state needs to be.”

The court’s judgment is expected in the next few months.