How much did they listen? Here’s what just happened to the Zero Carbon Bill

With over 15,000 public submissions on the bill, the Environment Select Committee had a lot to think about. Here’s everything they did – and didn’t – seek to change about the Zero Carbon Bill.

Please do not print it out, but let it be known that the Environment Select Committee has published its report on the Zero Carbon Bill. A historic piece of legislation for New Zealand, the bill is modelled after the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act, which has seen a decrease of more than 44% in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions when compared to 1990 levels.

The bill is intended to help New Zealand do its bit to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. The bill will ask New Zealand to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions (except methane) to a net zero by the year 2050.

What will happen if we don’t? Already the increase in global temperatures is killing people. The deaths by heatwave are on-the-nose, but our changing climate is also robbing inland communities of water sources and literally ripping towns apart. The climate doesn’t respect borders; any problem overseas is our problem, too.

The Zero Carbon Bill outlines things New Zealand can do to help prevent further death and destruction. The select committee, chaired by Christchurch Central Labour MP Duncan Webb, has been travelling the country receiving submissions. The committee then drew up a list of recommended amendments based on submissions.

We’ve read both the submissions and the committee report. Here’s how they match up.

All “amendments” listed here are recommendations and aren’t set in stone. The bill must go through its second and third readings before it becomes enshrined in law. Obviously, it needs also to gain majority support in the house. If it’s to be cemented into law in the longer term, the minister responsible, James Shaw, knows it would be much better to win support from across parliament.

What you wanted: more or less methane

Submissions demanded a reduction in the biogenic methane emissions targets. Or they demanded an increase in the biogenic methane targets. It was a hotly contested subject.

What you got:

The methane targets are unchanged. The committee has not suggested amending the introduced target:

“Gross emissions of biogenic methane to be reduced to 10% below 2017 levels by 2030, and gross emissions of biogenic methane to be reduced to at least between 24% and 47% below 2017 levels by 2050.”

What you wanted: legal deterrents to failure

Many of the public were concerned the law would not be binding, and businesses and government departments could essentially ignore it without any sanction.

What you got:

Section 5ZJ remains the same, sorry. 

“No remedy or relief is available for failure to meet the 2050 target or an emissions budget, and the 2050 target and emissions budgets are not enforceable in a court of law, except as set out in this section. If the 2050 target or an emissions budget is not met, a court may make a declaration to that effect, together with an award of costs.” 

What you wanted: to know everything

Many people wanted the privacy clause (or “secrecy clause”, according to some submissions) to be amended. It looked like the bill would prevent the public (and journalists) from seeking all information pertaining to the bill. Some information would not be accessible via the Official Information Act.

What you got:

The committee actually recommends strengthening the protection of “commercially sensitive information” by inserting amendments into section 5ZK to provide protection, ie some information cannot be OIAd.

What you wanted: zero carbon now, not then

Lots of people wanted to increase the urgency of the emissions target: to bring the zero emissions date forward.

What you got:

It stayed the same.

What you wanted: no more oil

A common submission was a request that the government divest from oil and gas exploration.

What you got:

This wasn’t mentioned as it’s not really the bill’s role; but seeking out renewable energy is an implied method of achieving the zero carbon goal.

However, the committee did recommend the removal of a section (5ZE(3)(a)) that required consultation with “relevant sector representatives and affected communities”. The committee suggests removing this as it would be overly constraining and and “inconsistent with other provisions in the bill”. It looks like this recommendation has been made to keep oil and gas companies and farming conglomerates from stopping the commission in its tracks. 

What you wanted: tighter regulation of offshore mitigation

There was concern that using international carbon offsetting would stop any action being taken here in New Zealand.

What you got:

They listened! The committee recommends offshore mitigation – the process of purchasing emissions credits from outside New Zealand and counting them towards our emissions budgets – be constrained. 

It suggests amending Clause 8 to make it clear that offshore mitigation “should only be used where a change of circumstances has affected the feasibility of reducing emissions domestically”.

It also suggests an amendment that would require emissions budgets to be set in a way that allows them to be met with action here in New Zealand.

It also recommends removing the reference to offshore mitigation in a section on budget recommendations, because allowing the commission to advise on how much of the budget should be offshore mitigation works against the goal of not using it at all.

What you wanted: tighter regulation of carbon offsetting

Many rural communities are concerned about farmland being bought up and planted with forestry – often non-native – that is used to produce carbon credits for investors.

What you got:

They kind of listened. The committee recommends inserting a requirement for the commission and the minister to “have regard to” the effects of land use change. It’s not explicit, but this “land use change” is likely to refer to new carbon sink forests where agricultural land once was. 

The committee apparently received advice from the ministry for the environment that the bill already contains adequate constraints on the use of forestry. This isn’t much, but the requirement for the commission to at least think about how land use change will affect communities might be of some comfort.

What you wanted: Māori interests represented

Better representation of Māori and Māori interests in the bill and on the commission. 

What you got:

While there’s no reference to the make-up of the commission, the committee has recommended including te ao Māori, the Crown-Māori relationship, and specific effects on iwi in the existing list of factors the commission should consider when performing its functions and duties.

“We consider it important for the Commission to have regard to Māori when performing its functions and duties, and exercising its powers to assist the Crown to give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.”

What you wanted: no gaming the system

The concept of “banking and borrowing” was concerning to many submitters. The idea is that excess emissions reductions in one budget period could count toward the next. Similarly, an underachievement could “borrow” 1% of the emissions reductions from another budget period.

What you got:

This has not been changed, but the committee recommends making it explicit that borrowing will have negative impacts on future budgets. Please don’t do it.

What you wanted: an independent commission

Many were concerned the commission would be under the minister’s thumb, and the minister would be under the ruling government’s thumb, and so the bill would be subject to the whims of whichever party was in power. 

What you got:

They haven’t made it independent, but they have addressed that successive governments playing havoc with the climate du jour might be problematic. There are a few ways they’ve proposed dealing with this.

The first is that the minister will need to provide written responses to each report the commission issues. If the minister chooses to act against the commission’s recommendations, they will need to include reasons for this in their response. The kicker: for reports that offer specific recommendations, the minister’s response will be made publicly available 10 days after it’s sent to the commission.

The minister’s work isn’t over yet. The committee recommends the minister be required to publish a plan for meeting targets with policy and strategy a year before the budget period starts. This is intended to prevent the minister from taking a short-term approach and only caring about their budget period, not the next. It will also enable businesses, the government, and other invested parties to plan ahead.

Finally, the committee noted that the bill didn’t describe emissions budgets as legal instruments. It recommends viewing the bill as a policy document and subjecting it to scrutiny by parliament. It believes this would be an effective means for parliament to hold the government accountable.

What you wanted: to be rich

Many submitted on behalf of the Kiwi economy, believing the climate bill would shackle our prosperity. 

What you got:

The committee’s recommendations include the National Party’s review of the bill, which generally recommends the bill be amended to prevent “negative impacts on the Kiwi economy”. It is concerned that GDP growth will be affected. GDP growth will, long-term, be more severely impacted by extreme climate change.

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