We punched above our weight at the just-completed talks. But we must walk the talk at home, writes environmental lawyer Natalie Jones
After a fortnight of meetings and a one-day extension, a deal was finalised yesterday at the UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland. The accord was hailed as delivering a set of strong, robust rules which will give the Paris Agreement the best chance of being effective and workable. Nations also responded to the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C of Global Warming.
New Zealand played a small yet important role in the talks, as a member of the High Ambition Coalition. Dubbed “the Justice League for global warming diplomacy”, this is a group of countries which pushed for a strong response to the IPCC Report and a robust rulebook. First formed at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015, and widely credited with the inclusion of the 1.5°C temperature goal in the Paris Agreement, the High Ambition Coalition made an impressive comeback in Katowice after oil-producing nations Saudi Arabia, the United States, Russia and Kuwait blocked agreement on how to respond to the IPCC Report.
It’s a small triumph in itself that New Zealand was included in the High Ambition Coalition. Back in Paris, New Zealand was not invited to be a member. We weren’t seen to be ambitious enough on climate change. That our international image has come so far is a credit to this government.
In the past year, the Jacinda Ardern led government has made great strides on climate policy, banning new offshore oil and gas exploration, launching a $100 million green investment fund, committing to plant one billion trees in the next decade, and holding a nationwide consultation on a Zero Carbon Act. Last week, the government announced it will put a cap on the Emissions Trading Scheme, and include permanent forests – making the scheme more predictable and fit for purpose. Here in Katowice, Climate Change Minister James Shaw ruled out carrying over surplus Kyoto Protocol emissions units to meet New Zealand’s 2030 target, which would have undermined real climate action.
These steps are all commendable and send a strong signal to markets. But we cannot rest on our laurels. New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions are still fifth highest in the OECD per capita, and continue to rise. Our pledge to reduce emissions under the Paris Agreement – known as our nationally determined contribution, or NDC – is currently set at 30% below 2005 levels (11% below 1990 levels) by 2030. This is inconsistent with holding warming below 2°C, let alone 1.5°C. Under current policies –not counting measures which have been announced but not yet implemented– we won’t even meet this target. New Zealand’s emissions are projected to increase by 15% above 1990 levels by 2030.
Just looking at the numbers, it’s clear that New Zealand must do much more. We must do everything within our reach, and then some. This starts with passing an effective Zero Carbon Act, with cross-party buy-in. One of the most significant findings of the IPCC Report was that all sectors have a role to play. We must ensure deep and lasting emissions reductions across all sectors, including transport, industry, cities, and agriculture. Significantly reducing methane emissions, as well as carbon, is crucial. We must implement the changes to the ETS – and supplement it with other regulations, because another implication of the IPCC Report is that putting a price on carbon is no longer enough.
We must revise our NDC in light of the latest science – aiming for at least a 50% emissions reduction below current levels by 2030. This is not radical: it’s the least stringent end of what would be our fair share of global effort. In September 2019, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will hold a climate summit in New York. This would be an ideal opportunity to announce our new, ambitious target on the global stage, and in so doing maintain international credibility.
All of this is especially true in light of the IPCC 1.5°C Report. Its messages are clear: to have a good chance of keeping warming to 1.5°C and limiting devastating climate impacts, we must halve emissions from current levels by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050. Doing this, according to the IPCC, will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. In short, the next 12 years will be an incredibly exciting period in human history, seeing unprecedented innovation and creativity. With our “can-do”, number-eight-wire mentality, Kiwis are well-positioned to be part of this economic opportunity.
More than anything, we, the public, must continue to give the Government a strong mandate for climate action. We can make a meaningful difference daily by eating less meat, flying less, and taking public transport or cycling, but we can achieve a lot more by collectively pushing effective policies at the national and local levels. This is not about bashing the government, but encouraging them to act. We still have a long way to go.
Declaring New Zealand to be “High Ambition” on the international stage shows courage and leadership. The government must ensure it lives up to the title at home, throughout the next 12 years and beyond.