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a target on fire against native forest
Image: Alice Webb-Liddall

OPINIONPoliticsMarch 4, 2021

Enough with the focus on ‘targets’. We need real climate action – right now

a target on fire against native forest
Image: Alice Webb-Liddall

In prioritising economic cost and setting far-off targets, the Climate Change Commission has shown a spectacular lack of ambition, argues Adam Currie. 

“What matters in the end is not targets, which have been set in the past and never met, but the policies to achieve them.”

The late Jeanette Fitzsimons wrote this in an email to me in 2019, and after weeks of interaction with the Climate Change Commission and their recent report, it’s never felt more true.

The commission’s advice has been criticised on many fronts, most notably for a lack of ambition and its focus on the economic feasibility of climate action. This goes against communications research that shows focusing on economics is ineffective and keeps finance at the forefront of the discussion, instead of a positive vision of how climate justice would create a cleaner, fairer world for us all to live in. 

Politicians and the public aren’t going to usher in the transformational policy we need while economic cost continues to dominate the narrative. A wide-reaching report like this needs to activate people’s intrinsic values and focus on the kind of future we want to live in. Not only is this approach ineffective from a communications standpoint, recommending anything less than what we need to do to meet our climate obligations as a wealthy country with historically high emissions is dangerous and risks setting an artificially low bar for climate action. 

Even if the government followed every piece of advice and met the commission’s “carbon budgets”, New Zealand still wouldn’t even meet its existing target under the Paris Agreement – a target the commission itself found was too weak. Furthermore, the commission refused to recommend what a new Paris target should look like, noting only that a commitment to “much more” than the existing target is needed. This is particularly embarrassing for climate minister James Shaw, who has long maintained the commission would come up with a target, claiming in press releases that the commission will provide recommendations on how best to align our international targets with the Paris temperature goal”.

Climate change minister James Shaw (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Not only does the commission fail to set a specific target, it also provides few specific recommendations of what the government actually needs to do on climate change. It’s similar to saying that you want to be a competitive surfer next year, but then not bothering to actually buy a surfboard or book lessons. So all we’re left with is emissions budgets that we know aren’t ambitious enough and a cop-out from the commission that gives no analysis of what the new Paris target should look like. Worse still, the government’s response to the commission’s advice isn’t due until November. While we spend a year arguing about targets, the climate crisis accelerates.

But this should be no surprise. The history of climate policy is a history of weak, missed or misleading targets – either by neglect or by design – that have delayed implementation of the urgent policy interventions we know are needed. The Kyoto Protocol achieved, practically, nothing; in the 20 years since, despite all of our climate advocacy and legislation, we have produced more emissions than in the 20 years before. Debate about targets is dominated by arguments about convoluted carbon trading or offsetting schemes, distracting us from the simple climate solutions – keeping the carbon in the ground and supporting communities to transition away from fossil fuels.

The spectacular lack of ambition and specific policy recommendations in the commission’s draft advice begs the question: does the real problem lie with the very notion of focusing on targets when the science clearly tells us we need to do everything in our power to equitably reduce emissions? Even the Paris Agreement acknowledges this characteristic of climate change, requiring governments to implement “the highest possible ambition”. Every single increment of carbon that we spew into the atmosphere causes a bit more sea level rise, and slightly more severe/frequent extreme weather events. Every “bit” of climate action means something.

So if we need to utilise every policy lever possible as soon as equitably possible, what’s the place of targets at all? Politicians and policymakers can hide behind targets, manipulate them, discredit them, or give up on them. Half the time they’re out of office by the time targets come up for review. But nobody can shimmy around the clear tenet of doing everything we possibly can while delivering a just transition for impacted communities.

If the government’s actions are judged off actual emissions reductions and their implemented policies, suddenly the very notion of incremental change becomes untenable. We can argue about whether or not incremental change will meet targets, but if we need to do everything we can, then by very definition taking slow, incremental actions is not doing everything we can, and certainly isn’t ushering in mass mobilisation to fundamentally change the systems in our society that drive emissions up and marginalise the vulnerable communities that have contributed the least to the climate crisis. This mindset shows us of the need to go the whole hog; protect the communities most impacted and look after workers whose industries will be disrupted by offering clean, living-wage jobs to all who want one.

We need to pull every lever we have, hard. In transport, it means mass construction of low-carbon public transport and active transport infrastructure and making it free and accessible, and decarbonising the private cars that are still used – and that’s just in transport.

The rest of that email from Jeanette Fitzsimons reads as follows:

“We need to focus now on the specific policies that will bring down emissions. The peak of commitment to the neo-liberal view ‘leave it to the market’ is passing, with more and more people turning away from it. We need caps on cows, no new permits for dairy, bans on imports of twin cab utes, a phase-out plan for Fonterra’s coal boilers over a short timetable, new building standards, a cap on major roads, and all the rest. The latest science reports give us a mandate to demand this.”

We know the solutions to climate change. Halting airport expansions. Phasing out nitrogen phosphate fertiliser. Stopping new coal mines and winding down existing ones. Giving workers decent options for work in clean industries. And ultimately, resourcing and giving land back to hapū and iwi, who have lived in climate harmony for centuries and have effective solutions to the climate crisis.

Policies like these should be our focus, not far-off targets that have distracted our efforts away from hard-and-fast cuts to emissions while polluting corporates push our climate to tipping point by burning fossil fuels, building roads we don’t need and marginalising vulnerable communities. Targets have proved ineffective in delivering hard-and-fast cuts to emissions; we need a new paradigm that focuses first and foremost on delivering the policy action our planet so desperately needs.

Keep going!