For emissions targets to work, they need to be a catalyst for action

Covering Climate Now: We need to broaden our measures of success if we want to have any chance of reaching blunt targets for reducing emissions, writes Catherine Leining.


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Since 1992, multiple rounds of greenhouse gas emission targets have failed to reduce absolute emissions globally or in Aotearoa in line with preventing dangerous climate change. One definition of insanity is repeating the same action and expecting different results. Whether it is insanity or courage, we are trying again.

New Zealand’s economy is emissions intensive and vulnerable to climate change impacts. When it is so clear that we have a serious problem, why are emission targets so hard? Here are a few reasons:

  • They impose near-term costs on us while the benefits will accrue globally and across generations.
  • They create win/lose competition for economic growth rights within a shrinking cap on emissions.
  • They are interdependent with other environmental, economic and social targets.
  • They are hard to allocate equitably across sectors and translate into practical actions.
  • They raise risks our production and emissions will be displaced offshore.
  • They incentivise manipulative behaviour, as we saw with buying low-quality offshore emission units in the first Kyoto commitment period.

It seems logical to start by agreeing on a science-based emission target and then create policy later to manage those other issues. The hitch is that reaching a science-based target requires transforming our economy, and a target of X tonnes in year Y says nothing about how we will get there or what will happen to people and ecosystems in the process. We compare different greenhouse gases using their global warming potential. But what about the wellbeing potential of gases from different sources?

We can envisage a low-emission future for our stationary energy and transport sectors. This becomes harder for the future of livestock production under the constraints of climate change, water quality, technology, commodity markets, and consumer preferences. Industrial production bound by the laws of chemistry also faces a challenging transition. The easiest fix – an overrun of rapid-growth pine plantations – only buys us time, impacts on our rural communities and biodiversity, and could interfere with our progress everywhere else. For all sectors, the pace of change could strand valuable assets.

When people can’t see a positive goal and feasible transition pathway, an emission target feels like an existential threat. In reality, climate change is the existential threat and the emission target should be a catalyst for transformation.

A target is not the same as motivation. A target can be inspirational or punitive, an opportunity or a threat, embraced or imposed. Is a target the cruel hand of government depriving us of our economic freedom? Or is it a social contract to safeguard our future and prepare our economy for the inevitable demands that lie ahead?

Our targeted outcome is not as simple as X tonnes of emissions in year Y. It is ultra-low-emission wellbeing: meeting the fundamental needs of present and future generations and safeguarding our ecosystems within the limits of a stable climate system.

Targets might work better if we broadened our measures of success beyond X tonnes of emissions in year Y and embedded our commitment to wellbeing in the transition. For example, a 2050 target of zero greenhouse gas emissions from transport does not guide trade-offs with ensuring that mobility meets economic and social needs while minimising resource extraction and negative impacts on air and water quality.

Thinking is advancing in this area. The OECD is preparing wellbeing indicators for climate change mitigation. A 2019 Circle Economy report released in Davos proposed a mass-value-carbon framework for guiding economic development to meet social needs. The UK Committee on Climate Change is monitoring 24 progress indicators aligned with the UK’s emission target. Statistics New Zealand is working on wellbeing indicators, but it’s not clear how interdependencies will be addressed.

A more holistic approach which brings practical meaning and wellbeing safeguards to a blunt long-term emission target could lower the perceived risks of higher mitigation ambition.

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We are not alone in this struggle. Strengthening climate change targets is a hot issue globally. Current pledges under the Paris Agreement would deliver about 3oC of warming. On 23 September, the UN Secretary-General will host the 2019 Climate Action Summit in New York to light a fire of ambition under leaders from government, business, civil society, and international organisations. In line with the 1.5oC goal, he is calling for “concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.” The summit will fall in the middle of the youth-inspired Global Climate Strike from 20-27 September.

Ultimately, actions speak louder than targets. What matters is what we actually do. Targets will be helpful only if they direct political will, regulation, resources and action toward ambitious low-emission pathways that work for Aotearoa.

Catherine Leining is policy fellow at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, an independent charitable research organisation. The views are the author’s own.


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