‘Environmental law is a moving target – it evolves at lightning speed’

15 May 2019

Dr Áine Ryall (centre) speaking as a member of the Citizens’ Assembly. Image: Maxwell Photography

Dr Áine Ryall, an environmental lawyer at UCC, writes about her work to promote and enforce more ambitious and urgent climate action.

One of the country’s leading figures in the fight to raise more awareness of climate change among the Government is Dr Áine Ryall, an environmental lawyer at the Centre for Law and the Environment and the Environmental Research Institute at University College Cork (UCC).

She was on the Expert Advisory Group to the Citizens’ Assembly working on a climate change module for its work between 2017 and 2018.

At the international level, Ryall was appointed a member of the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee in 2015 and elected vice-chair in 2017.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I studied law at UCC before qualifying as a barrister at King’s Inns in Dublin. While training in Dublin to qualify as a barrister, I worked as in-house counsel for an NGO that advocated for housing rights and provided free expert advice to people seeking to enforce their housing rights.

This work exposed me to the importance of public interest law and the power of informed advocacy and strategic litigation at an early stage of my career. It also confirmed for me the vital importance of access to justice so that people can enforce their rights in an affordable and timely manner before the courts, where necessary.

It was my postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics that sparked my interest in environmental law, and especially in EU environmental law. My subsequent doctoral work at the European University Institute in Florence concentrated on the enforcement of EU environmental law with a strong focus on environmental assessment law and access to justice.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Public interest in climate change continues to rise. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events makes the consequences of global warming more compelling and more visible.

Calls for more ambitious and urgent climate action are louder and more dramatic than ever before, with regular climate demonstrations and school climate strikes. The mainstream media is finally giving climate change the attention it deserves, thereby stoking further public interest and informed debate, and intensifying the calls for urgent action.

It is now beyond doubt that the public expects an appropriate and timely response from governments to meet the climate challenge.

My research focuses on a very practical question: what can be done when the normal political processes fail to deliver the necessary leadership and action from governments on climate?

My work therefore explores the specific role and potential of law in promoting and enforcing more ambitious and urgent climate action, including climate litigation. It also considers important and evolving intersections between human rights law and climate change.

Delivering effective access to justice so that the public, NGOs and community groups can enforce the law, including the specific climate obligations undertaken by governments, is the overarching theme in my research.

At UCC, I teach and research environmental law, including climate law and EU law. It is a privilege to teach the environmental lawyers and researchers of the future. We have outstanding students at UCC Law. I am always impressed by their enthusiasm to learn how to use the law in novel ways to protect the environment and to critique and challenge conventional views.

I am co-director of the Centre for Law and the Environment at UCC where we work at the cutting edge of environmental law research that impacts directly on key societal challenges, including climate change.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

My research and advocacy work in the field of environmental law has led to some exciting and very rewarding high-level public service appointments. These appointments have given me an important role in the development of law and policy and, at times, the opportunity to influence new and emerging developments into the future by informing my current research.

I served on the Expert Advisory Group to the Citizens’ Assembly for the climate change module of its work between 2017 and 2018. The assembly was tasked by the Oireachtas to examine and report on “how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change”. The Assembly’s final report, including its detailed recommendations on climate action, was presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas in April 2018.

Subsequently, a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action was established to consider the report and recommendations produced by the Citizens’ Assembly. The Committee on Climate Action issued a groundbreaking report on 28 March 2019, setting out 42 priority recommendations in the area of climate action. This report, which is a very welcome and robust response to the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly, provides a strong political mandate for Government to act urgently and ambitiously to meet the climate challenge. In particular, the report proposes a new framework for climate governance in Ireland.

It is an exciting time for climate law and governance in Ireland right now. The recent report of the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action adds a new political momentum that will be difficult, if not impossible, for Government to ignore. On the legal front, judgement is pending from the High Court of Ireland in Climate Case Ireland heard over four days in January 2019.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Environmental law is a moving target – it evolves at lightning speed. Therefore, one of the many challenges as an international environmental law scholar is keeping up to date with new developments in law, policy and jurisprudence.

But the constantly evolving nature of this field – and climate law and policy in particular – is what makes this area of research so exciting and so worthwhile. After all, the cutting edge of research is where you want to be as a researcher committed to addressing societal challenges.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.