By Isabella Kaminski
Ireland’s High Court ruled on Thursday that the country’s current National Mitigation Plan is consistent with both Irish and European law, rejecting claims from an environmental organization that the Irish government must take more aggressive action on climate change.
Campaign group Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) had argued in January that the plan, which was agreed upon in 2017, is not “fit for purpose” because it is not designed to achieve substantial emissions reductions in either the short or medium term. The case, dubbed Climate Case Ireland, had a similar structure to Urgenda’s historic case in the Netherlands—and like the Dutch government, Ireland did not deny the importance of tackling climate change.
But the case was lost on all three grounds: that the plan violated Ireland’s own Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015; that it breached the constitutional rights of Irish citizens; and that it violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
Announcing the decision in court, Justice Michael MacGrath described it as a “very complex case involving different issues of law and science.” He said the main difference between the parties was their sense of immediacy.
In his full written judgment, he said the mitigation plan is consistent with the climate act, and therefore cannot be attacked on freestanding constitutional or human rights grounds. He said the act itself gives government broad discretion in how to draw up its plans.
Even if this is incorrect, he wrote, the plan itself is not what would potentially breach any rights.
The judge also raised concerns about the separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive, saying that even if the plan can be challenged, the government has to be given wide discretion in meeting its requirements.
The judge said he could not draw parallels to the Urgenda case, because the court “knows little of the duty of care under Dutch tort law or how that is assessed.” However, the final decision in Urgenda is likely to rest on a human rights argument, rather than tort law, and the extent to which domestic courts can make determinations on international human rights treaties.
However, the judge did find that FIE had legal standing to bring such a case, a point the government had questioned. It also agreed with the claimants that Ireland’s constitution has an “unenumerated right” to an environment consistent with human dignity, which had been established in an earlier case brought by FIE.
A spokesperson for the Irish government’s Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment said the government was focused on implementing its Climate Action Plan, which sets out the actions every department and sector needs to take to achieve its climate target.
It was “regrettable” that citizens had to turn to the courts to try to compel the government to act, said Clodagh Daly, a spokesperson for Climate Case Ireland.
“We refuse to accept an unthinkably bleak future without a fight. We’ll now be looking at our options very closely with our legal team in terms of an appeal,” Daly said, adding that the case had started a national conversation about climate justice.
Tessa Khan, a lawyer with the Urgenda Foundation, which is waiting for the Dutch Supreme Court to make a final decision in its case, congratulated Climate Case Ireland for its “courageous contribution to shifting the Irish government’s climate policy.”
Along with other Irish environmental groups, activists and young people, FIE took its fight for bolder climate action to the streets on Friday as part of a global climate strike.