New Zealand takes lashing on climate change at home and from abroad

by Rebecca Macfie / 17 July, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Climate change

Sarah Thomson. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Already facing High Court scrutiny over its greenhouse gas target, the Government is also taking criticism from the UK’s leading climate authority.

Law student Sarah Thomson and Lord Deben could scarcely be more different. She’s a 26-year-old law student from Hamilton; he’s a 77-year-old member of the House of Lords. But they share common ground in pressuring the New Zealand Government to take tougher action on climate change.

Thomson took Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett to the High Court last month, alleging the Government, in setting a soft greenhouse gas reduction target, had failed to comply with the law. As chairman of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, Lord Deben – aka former Conservative MP John Gummer – has challenged the centrepiece of our Government’s climate change policy as “dangerous” and “short-sighted”.

Before the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, the Government set a goal of reducing emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 – equivalent to an 11% reduction below 1990 levels. The target was condemned by some international commentators as falling far short of the overall contribution needed for holding the global temperature increase to less than 2°C – considered the “guardrail” beyond which calamitous climate change is inevitable. Bennett and her predecessor, Tim Groser, have routinely defended the goal as “ambitious”.

But the Government is mainly relying on buying international carbon credits to meet the target, rather than introducing domestic policies designed to drive down emissions. These credits theoretically represent carbon-reduction efforts in other countries. The rationale is that if another country can reduce emissions more cheaply than New Zealand, we should buy the benefit of that carbon reduction from it, rather than make domestic cuts that may be more expensive and disruptive to the New Zealand economy.

The Government’s reasoning is that because half of New Zealand’s emissions are methane and nitrous oxide from agriculture and because our electricity supply is from predominantly renewable sources, emission cuts are costly and difficult and it therefore makes economic sense to buy overseas credits.

This is despite advice from the Ministry for the Environment late last year that buying international credits represents a “significant transfer of wealth overseas” and is likely to have a $14.2 billion impact on the economy over the next 10 years if the carbon price rises to $50 a tonne.

Lord Deben.

“Risky” overseas credits

Lord Deben, who was recently interviewed by the Listener in his London office, describes the Government’s reliance on buying overseas credits as “fiscally risky”.

“International credits are extremely dangerous in terms of cost,” he says. “They will get more expensive and more difficult to get, unless you are buying hot air, of course” – a reference to bogus carbon credits issued by countries such as Russia and Ukraine.

New Zealand’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) was flooded with Russian and Ukrainian credits from 2011 until 2015, causing the price of carbon to collapse and the scheme to become discredited. These “hot air” credits were used by companies to meet their ETS obligations until they were finally blocked in May 2015.

Lord Deben says the Paris agreement will see countries’ carbon-reduction targets progressively tightened in coming years. “It is very short-sighted to base your policy on buying international credits, because what Paris means is that every nation on Earth [bar Nicaragua and Syria, which did not sign the deal, and the US, which is pulling out] has agreed to solve these problems, and that means that the availability of international credits will be lessening … because everyone will be looking for them, and the very people who used to be able to provide them won’t be doing so because they will be busy doing something about it.”

He says buying credits can be a legitimate part of a climate strategy if they are used to manage a short-term problem that disrupts efforts to reduce emissions – for instance, a severe weather event – or if a country is making deep industry changes that will take a long time to produce emission reductions.

“Otherwise, international credits have a huge danger, and that is that they allow a rich country to avoid the challenge, which is that rich countries have to become carbon-neutral.”

Lord Deben says he expressed this view to politicians on a visit to New Zealand earlier this year.

Along with former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Lord Deben – then a member of her Cabinet – became convinced about human-caused climate change in the 1980s. He says it was a “terribly rare” viewpoint for high-ranking politicians to hold back then. With Thatcher’s backing, one of his early Cabinet successes was in 1988 when he enforced an increase in the height of sea walls to defend against rising sea levels.

He later earned wide respect as Secretary of State for the Environment in the Government of Conservative Prime Minister John Major. He has been chairman of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change since 2012.

Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food John Gummer (now Lord Deben) and British PM Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Photo/Getty Images

A model for New Zealand?

Set up under the 2008 Climate Change Act, the committee is charged with developing five-year carbon budgets to guide emission-reduction policy. The most recent budget, passed by the British Parliament last year, covers the period from 2028 to 2032 and requires a 57% cut in emissions compared with 1990 levels. The long-term UK target is to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.

Many New Zealand climate policy experts see the committee as a model for this country. Its founding legislation requires it to develop the carbon budget based on the latest scientific and economic evidence, and the budgetary cycle is set deliberately beyond the electoral cycle. Both the Act and the committee have cross-party political support.

Lord Deben believes the model has worked well for the UK, where emissions have dropped 45% since 2008. Once voted on by Parliament, the carbon budget can’t be changed unless the committee agrees that the evidence on which it was founded has changed.

“That’s crucial, because the whole idea of making decisions long term would be undermined if you could then change it when it was inconvenient,” he says.

Some in the energy sector argue the UK is currently falling short of its long-term emission-reduction target as a result of lacklustre policy and uncertainty caused by the Brexit process. But Lord Deben believes the model is readily transferable to New Zealand.

“New Zealand starts off with a huge advantage, because you have largely carbon-free electricity. It has a terrible hang-up, which really annoys one, which is immediately you talk about emissions and climate change, you get on to cows … So look at the other things first. There are a whole lot of other things you can do. For instance, the idea … that you should replace the one bit of electric line with diesel [trains] is just sort of barmy. There is no reason at all why decisions could not be taken to, for example, replace [ageing] trolley buses with electric hybrid vehicles. There is a whole range of things you could do to show you are improving, not making worse, your situation.”

As far as emissions from ruminating cows and sheep are concerned, “New Zealand ought to be seen as the leader on that, not moaning on about how difficult it is. It is difficult, but that may mean, and does mean, you have to do other things first … but admit that it actually has got to be solved,” he says.

“The message I like to get over to people is that if you bite on this bullet, it is much easier. If you try to do it year by year with immediate actions, it’s very hard, but if you have an independent body making budgets that are far enough away for people to take them objectively, you just make life easier for the Government. It excuses action.”

Action of the sort that might make Thomson feel more confident about the future. As her lawyers and expert witnesses told the High Court, a warming world will be characterised by rising seas, disrupted political and economic systems, extreme droughts and storms, and millions of climate refugees displaced from their homes.

Thomson and her partner would like to have children, but knowledge of the environmental, political and social instability that will be wrought by a warming planet makes them doubt whether starting a family is the right thing to do. “The world has always been in turmoil one way or another, and as humans we have always continued to do what humans do. But this looks really bad,” says Thomson.

“The best thing you can do is not to lose hope but to keep acting to try to create change.”

This article was first published in the July 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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