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Why cross-party support on climate change is vital for New Zealand

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Our new environmental watchdog backs getting cross-party support for greenhouse-gas targets. 

The case for a UK-style independent commission to guide climate policy over coming decades received a boost this month, when the new Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, strongly backed the concept.

Upton, who spent seven years as environmental director for the OECD in Paris, says this model stands out as the one that’s most likely to create a stable long-term path to lower emissions.

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By throwing his weight behind the idea of a climate commission to provide expert advice on long-term carbon budgets to the government and elevate climate policy above party politics, he has upped the pressure on National to work alongside the Labour-led Government on its plans for a New Zealand version of the system.

The Government plans to bring in a Zero Carbon Bill by the end of this year, which will commit the country to net zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, and it wants to have an independent Climate Change Commission in place by mid-2019.

In December, Climate Change Minister James Shaw announced plans for wide-ranging consultation before the introduction of a bill in October. He made it clear he wants cross-party support. In the meantime, an interim climate committee will be set up to begin research and analysis on climate issues.

National’s climate change spokesman, Todd Muller, has so far offered muted support, on one hand accusing the Government of “rhetoric” on climate issues and on the other saying National is “up for” a conversation about the transition to a lower-emissions economy, but that change must be carried out carefully “so as not to shock established sectors”.

Upton’s report – his first in the role since he took over from former commissioner Jan Wright late last year – says our climate policy must break out of the “stop-go, on-again off-again approach to tackling such a pressing long-term problem”.

Simon Upton: “Most countries have underperformed pretty significantly.”

Long on talk, short on action

A former National Government Environment Minister, who enacted the 1991 Resource Management Act, Upton depicts this country’s performance on climate policy as long on talk and short on action. “New Zealand’s policy record on climate change reads very much as one of developing sophisticated policy tools but not being prepared to deploy them in a way that will bite.”

Although successive governments agreed on an emissions trading scheme, it was watered down soon after it was introduced in 2008, leading to “muted” price signals and having little effect on emissions. Agriculture was left out, and there was “excessive” reliance on buying offshore carbon credits – many of which were cheap “hot air” units with no environmental integrity – to meet international commitments.

New Zealand climate policy has been “dialled back, waiting for the rest of the world to move”, Upton says. Meanwhile, there has been very little attention to domestic greenhouse-gas emissions, which have risen by 64% since 1990, with a 68% increase in the transport sector. Per capita, New Zealand’s emissions are the fifth-highest in the OECD.

Despite the tough criticism, Upton told the Listener he doesn’t consider New Zealand’s record on climate policy to be any worse than other countries’. “Most countries have underperformed pretty significantly.”

But he is convinced – as was Wright – that the UK model provides a powerful template to overcome the vagaries of the three-year election cycle, by setting long-term targets that provide investors and industry with the certainty that’s needed to make the transition to a low-emission economy.

“Underwriting a long-term reorientation of the economy away from fossil-fuel dependence requires policy stability decoupled from the short-term ebb and flow of politics.”

The UK system is underpinned by the Climate Change Act, introduced by David Cameron’s opposition Conservative Party in 2008 and passed with a massive cross-party vote of 463 MPs in favour and only three against. It set up an expert climate committee, which develops five-year carbon budgets set 12 years in advance.

These budgets stipulate the total volume of greenhouse gases that can be emitted by the UK in that period. The Government adopts the budgets and is then required to come up with policies that ensure emissions stay within them. The UK is now up to its fifth carbon budget, which requires a 57% cut in emissions from 1990 levels by 2032. The long-term target is for an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.

The UK easily met the first three of its carbon budgets, although Government policies have so far not been strong enough to meet the fourth and its strategy for meeting the fifth budget also falls short.

New Zealand likely to find it hard

Upton warns that New Zealand is unlikely to have any “easy” budgets. The UK was already undergoing a shift away from coal towards lower-emitting natural gas by the time the Climate Change Act was introduced; here emissions are continuing to climb. “It’s easier to continue on a declining trajectory than to arrest a rising one.”

Also, the UK was able to focus on carbon dioxide emissions, whereas New Zealand has to deal with three significant greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, and methane and nitrous oxide from farming, which together account for half our emissions. This adds significant complexity – there are no proven solutions to emissions from livestock and biological processes, and the gases have different characteristics. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas but is short-lived in the atmosphere, whereas nitrous oxide is potent and, like carbon dioxide, accumulates in the atmosphere.

Upton points out that all three gases are increasing. “This cannot continue. All sectors will need to play their part to reverse these upward trends.” Because of the different characteristics of the three gases, he thinks we should look at having different long-term targets for each.

It’s all about a long game

In moving to a UK-style approach of binding targets and rolling carbon budgets, Upton says it’s important that New Zealand doesn’t get hung up about the size of reductions called for in the early budgets. “This is all about playing a long game. It’s not what’s in the first and second budget periods that counts. If this becomes a debate about what’s in the first and second budgets, then we are back to square one.”

The first couple of budgets – he suggests they cover six-year periods – need to be ambitious enough to “arrest” the upward trend of emissions and begin a structural adjustment of the economy. But it’s the budgets that are set for the 2030s that “really count”.

“That’s where you need to be laying out some real ambition, based on some big shifts in the structure of the economy, which will require policies that will really start to move where long-term investment goes. The 2030s are going to be the decade where we make the big gains, if we are going to make them. But we need to be setting them up now. These are things that take time.”

He says it’s crucial that this is not seen as a party-political issue. “It’s a long-run challenge and it requires a long-run approach, so you need the widest possible consensus … It’s worth going the extra mile here to get a sound basis that is going to endure.”

This article was first published in the March 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.