Envirologue by Dave Hansford


The Least We Can Do – New Zealand’s Cringeworthy Climate Target

In December, the world will meet in Paris to decide what is to be done about climate change. There’s a heavy expectation that nations will bring with them meaningful, binding emissions reductions targets, and be able to articulate the policies to make them happen. These pledges are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC).

The EU announced back in March that it would reduce domestic EU greenhouse gas emissions by “at least 40 per cent” by 2030, against a 1990 baseline.

Last month China, the world’s sootiest nation, told Paris officials it means to reduce its carbon emissions by between 60 and 65 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Barack Obama, meanwhile, has pledged to cut US emissions to between 26 and 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025.

So Tim Groser’s announcement yesterday – that New Zealand would agree to haul emissions back to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 – would seem to put us somewhere amid the play. “This is a significant increase on our current target of five per cent below 1990 emission levels by 2020,” claimed the Minister for Climate Change Issues. 

It’s nothing of the sort, as Prof. James Renwick of Victoria University quickly pointed out; “This target ... translates to about an 11 per cent reduction compared to 1990. This is in line with the previous target of five per cent by 2020, and 50 per cent by 2050, so there is no ‘strengthening’ of New Zealand’s position. This new target is as weak as previously-announced ones, and does not come close to what is required if New Zealand is serious about keeping warming to less than two degrees (as the Government have said we are).”

In fact, New Zealand had already floated a conditional target of between 10 and 20 per cent reductions by 2020. Against that, our pledge to Paris looks negligible.

Commentators have learned to pay close attention to Groser’s language, because in his asides and qualifications lie important clues to the policy position Cabinet has already decided upon, sham consultations notwithstanding. We knew a weak target was coming, telegraphed by these lines from him back in May: “Increasing our commitment after 2020 will be a big challenge ... The easy gains have already been made...”

This is the sort of apologist talk we’ve come to recognise as a reliable precursor to bathos, and it lurked in yesterday’s announcement too: “I think in 5-10 years we’ll be in a good position to reduce our emissions in both agriculture and transport.”

Using this ruse, Groser sets us up to expect nothing from this Government, despite a very clear and pressing need for urgent action. Groser talks as if Whanganui isn’t only now drying out after its worst flood on record. As though the weather didn’t cost New Zealand insurers $20m in May alone. As though farmers don’t have to contend with drought across much of the country, most summers and autumns. As if the sea isn’t starting to surge through Wellington. As though Cheviot didn’t experience 21.7ºC on June 1st (and Tara Hills didn’t get minus that on June 24th).

Said Groser yesterday; “...we are keen to make a fair and ambitious contribution to the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the most harmful effects of climate change.”

But as Renwick points out, the international science community has long understood that if we’re to stand any chance of averting the chaos of a two-degree increase in mean global temperatures; “...we need about a 40 per cent reduction by 2030, 90 per cent by 2050 (New Zealand’s 2050 target is 50 per cent), and 100 per cent by 2060 – and then negative emissions (removal of CO2 from the atmosphere) for the rest of the century.” 

Eleven per cent, then, doesn’t begin to come close. And five to 10 years’ time is far too late. “If all countries followed New Zealand’s lead, we would be in for very significant climate change impacts and catastrophic damage to the New Zealand and global economy,” concludes Renwick.

Motu’s Catherine Leining points out that the Government hasn’t even released an emissions budget to account for how we might achieve the cuts it proposes, much less any firm policy to decarbonise New Zealand sufficient to stop short of that two-degree limit.

Instead, the Government’s INDC hints at unquantified cuts supposedly won from conjectural advances sometime in the future: “Transformation of the transport and agriculture sectors will take longer than the 2021-2030 period covered by this INDC. New Zealand’s long-term emission pathway anticipates accelerated emission reductions post-2030, once agricultural mitigation technology becomes more widely applied and uptake of low-emission transport technology increases.”

It’s difficult to understand just how any cuts can be “anticipated” when there are woefully few policies or mechanisms in place to prepare any ground for them, but Groser insists the necessary steps will be taken. This is going to get interesting because for now, all we have is a $48m programme to reduce livestock emissions, a moribund emissions trading scheme, and airy predictions from Groser about electric and hybrid car uptake.

The Government continues to frame climate change as something we really must get round to in the coming decades. Talk of ‘transitions’, ‘innovation’, ‘long-term trajectories’, all are carefully contrived subliminal undertones calculated to convince people that there’s no need to rush – that we shouldn’t expect too much too soon.

The Ministry for the Environment declares that New Zealand’s 2020 climate target will be achieved with “no change to existing policy settings” and with “no additional costs on households, businesses or government.”

By this, they mean we’ll probably weasel out of our obligations by buying up “hot air” carbon credits and banking pine trees that have yet to be planted. In the past, hot air credits have been cheap as chips, but Treasury warned the Government last year that prices have since skyrocketed: should it try the same ploy again come 2030, the bill could run to $52b. That is a decidedly additional cost.

And as last month’s devastating floods showed us, as the damage from Mt Maunganui’s tornado graphically illustrates, as the Wellington storms proved, our shamefully cynical target will be met (or missed; it’s so inconsequential that it doesn’t really matter) at crippling cost.

 To the planet. To everybody.

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