Climate change minister James Shaw with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

A weak climate law based on a feeble consensus is no ‘nuclear-free moment’

The Zero Carbon Bill is bland and ineffective. Don’t fall for the spin, argues Steve Abel of Greenpeace. 

It was hard to not be buoyed by our House of Representatives, seemingly aligned in their commitment to climate action, at last week’s passing of the Zero Carbon Act. Bold expositions of pride and parliament united across divides, as in wartime. Missives of hearty congratulations on the climate activist email lists.

But scepticism lurked. I sincerely hope we are on the right track. Here are my doubts.

For the last couple of years the climate movement has called for: 1) political consensus on a 2) strong and 3) binding climate law. What we got was one out of three. But without being strong and binding, consensus is meaningless. And, on the very day the act was passed, Simon Bridges committed to breaking that consensus by saying that, when next in government, National will weaken the methane target.

Last week’s climate pact is as strong as a pale piece of paper flapping in the hand of Neville Chamberlain. As meaningful as his declaration of “peace for our time” with Germany, only a year before going to war against them.

One of the tell-tales of the hollowness of the Zero Carbon Act is that the polluting industries are not crying foul. The reason is, the law barely touches them.

Green co-leader James Shaw’s comparison of the act to the winning of suffrage for women, or the ban on nuclear ships, is some pretty sweet spin. Those meaningful social changes in New Zealand’s political history, of which we are rightly proud, were not achieved by consensus – exactly because they were tough choices.

The winning of votes for women was a close run thing with vehement opposition, and required multiple attempts at passage through the all-male House. The legislative Council finally passed the bill in 1893 by the narrowest margin of 20 votes to 18. Consensus came later.

The same with the prohibition on nuclear ships. The issue was so fraught that it precipitated the fall of Robert Muldoon’s Government over Marilyn Waring’s rebellion, which led to the 1984 snap election won by Labour. New Prime Minister David Lange was then compelled to take the exceedingly bold step of refusing the visit of the USS Buchanan, causing significant diplomatic tensions with not only the US, but Britain and Australia also. The bipartisan consensus we enjoy on our current nuclear weapons free status was achieved some years later.

A similar story can be told of the 1986 Homosexual Law Reform (which inspired one of New Zealand’s biggest ever petitions opposing it), the creation of the welfare state, and even the ban on smacking.

We have parliamentary consensus on all of these now. But that was achieved through polarisation and contention and bold political leadership, not through sitting down at the table with the opposition and compromising at the outset.

My belief is that Jacinda and James and the movement itself invited the gutting of our framework climate law the moment they said they wanted consensus. National and New Zealand First had nothing to lose. They could force changes with the threat that they would otherwise not support it.

Shaw said that the Zero Carbon Act meant that climate change was no longer a political football.

In fact Labour, National, and New Zealand First have basically had consensus on climate inaction for 20 years now. Only the Greens have stood to one side demanding meaningful policy. With the ZCA, and the recent buckling to big dairy on the Emissions Trading Scheme these last two weeks, the Greens seem to have joined the consensus on inaction. And the entire House spun it as a victory for future generations. I fear with this sort of cowing self-delusion that it will in fact be a future, predicted by 11,000 scientists also this week, of “untold suffering”.

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Now that we have a bland and harmless Zero Carbon Act, what can be done? Abandon the notion of keeping on with consensus. Do as other leaders have before, pass strong legislation and leave it to the will of future politicians to undo what you have done. Be it on their heads to weaken the action.

As with the ban on new oil and gas exploration, let’s get on with enacting tangible policies that will actually transition our society and cut real world emissions, rather than merely “send messages to the market”. That means stopping new imports of gas guzzling SUVs, subsidising EVs, investing in public transport, backing a massive solar and battery installation programme across the country with a focus on lower income households, compelling the big utilities to build new wind generation, reducing cow numbers, banning synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and supporting willing farmers to switch to regenerative farming, reinstating the moratorium on new gas and coal generation, and making Fonterra switch to electricity for dehydration rather than burn coal.

None of this will be easy, but what transformational good ever was? We’re not here for feel-good sentiment. We’re here to avoid the collapse of Earth’s life sustaining systems and untold human suffering.

Steve Abel is Greenpeace’s senior campaign and political adviser


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