ScienceMade possible by

I’m sorry, activists – but NZ’s climate target is actually fine

The issue is not the government’s target to reduce emissions, but how we will achieve it, argues Dave Frame of the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute

The verdict on New Zealand’s climate targets is in. The judge dismissed the case. This is not always clear in media reports – some of them focusing on details of the judgment that appear to support the plaintiff, which seems a bit like writing about the 2015 Rugby World Cup final with a focus on the two late and thrilling tries scored by Australia.

Plaintiff Sarah Thomson’s own opinion on The Spinoff is that she won the case, kind of, because Justice Mallon claimed that following the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) in 2009, “the Minister was required to turn her mind to whether there had been any material change as between the AR4 and the AR5 that was relevant to the 2050 gazetted target, and… this did not occur”. Yet as the United Kingdom Committee on Climate Change wrote, “The overall message [of AR5] … remains remarkably similar to that in AR4.”

Ms Thomson celebrates this part of the judge’s verdict: “Widening the scope for climate change decisions to be reviewed by the New Zealand courts is a win.” This might be a little peremptory. Perhaps the most likely future plaintiffs are deep-pocketed fossil fuel and dairy interests; and unless the Crown can clearly show how it revised its decision in light of successive documents that were “remarkably similar”, it may have to go back to the drawing board. It’s a win for lawyers, for sure. For citizens, perhaps not.

But this win, kind of, for Ms Thomson’s lawyers is like those Australian tries in the Rugby World Cup final. The bottom line in the verdict is that New Zealand does not have to undertake an expensive and time-consuming process to choose new targets. Fundamentally, this is because the current targets are actually pretty reasonable. This may come as a surprise to those who have gained the impression that New Zealand is a long way off the play in terms of its climate targets, so let me explain.

National climate targets could be assessed in a range of ways – there is no single perfect measure. Ultimately, Mother Nature cares about cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide, plus a little bit besides, but exactly what we use at the national level to evaluate relative national efforts is a fairly open question. Two obvious (but not perfect) ways of comparing international climate targets are 1) to compare among countries and 2) to look at what would happen if the whole world adopted the target. On both these measures, New Zealand’s targets are reasonable.

A protest against climate change policy outside the Trump Tower in New York. Photo: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

Firstly, our 2030 target – a -30% reduction on 2005 emissions – is similar to, or more stringent than, those of Australia (-26–28%), the United States (-26–28% by 2025), Canada (-30%) and Japan (-25.4%). Our target is roughly halfway between the European Union’s and Japan’s. So we have plenty of company in terms of our target, and these targets are generally at the strong end of the spectrum, as is expected from the world’s richer countries.

Secondly, if the rest of the world matched New Zealand’s climate change commitment out to 2050, then the world would be on course to meet its goal of warming by less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. In AR5, which remains its most recent Assessment Report, the IPCC said that by 2050 global emissions need to be somewhere between -35% and -55% compared with 1990 levels. New Zealand’s 2050 target is -50% compared with 1990, which is clearly within range, and is in fact toward the more stringent end. Our 2030 target is slightly less ambitious but still broadly consistent with the IPCC’s 2°C-compatible emissions range.

Neither of these points was contested by the plaintiff’s experts. So either way, compared with our peers or compared with what the world as a whole needs to do, New Zealand’s targets seem okay. They are certainly not, as Ms Thomson originally alleged, “unreasonable and irrational”.

Perhaps the best way to put the issues of climate targets to bed would be to use an index-based approach to set targets automatically. That would provide a transparent, rational, evidence-based way of setting targets that would take account of a range of factors, such as efforts elsewhere, scientific developments, and the political preferences of the government of the day. Long-term issues – monetary policy, pensions, benefit adjustments – often make at least partial use of indices, and the idea seems worth thinking about in a climate change context, too.

So if the targets are reasonable, why the fuss about “inadequacy”? The answer is that climate activists – such as the cursory but influential Climate Action Tracker website – make these accusations about every developed country, including the EU. The result is a profusion of fairly puritanical assessments that are not useful for real governments. These assessments are a “view from nowhere” in the sense they are made by people who do not have to consider the trade-offs necessary for decarbonisation to take place. They do not need to worry about economic performance, social cohesion and the other things that actually form the main parts of what we expect from governments in liberal democracies.

The related view that developed countries should be doing more to eliminate emissions of greenhouse gases is a value judgement, not a scientific one. There are arguments to be made for and against a range of positions on these issues, and all I would want to note is that New Zealand’s interests – domestic and international – are just as legitimate as anyone else’s.

The real issue for New Zealand is not the targets, but achieving the targets. It is not ambition we lack, but action. Current policy will not get us to the targets we have set. This is also the case in other developed countries. The answer is to work on the policy, not to fiddle with the targets. We are like a boxer trying to drop a few kilos before a weigh-in who discovers his weight is increasing. Rational advice would suggest we focus on diet and exercise (policy), not on choosing a still more ambitious weight class (target). We need to eat less and get into the gym, not make new and more demanding promises.

In the climate policy case, the process of building policy is earthy, practical, slow and full of conversations about regulatory settings and marginal abatement costs. The emissions trading scheme on its own is insufficient to get us there. It needs regulatory support, and it needs complex social systems like transport to be thought about in a coherent, holistic and low carbon way.

Maybe this stuff is not as interesting or as inspiring as soap-box moments about global justice. But if we are sincere about being part of a global transition to a low carbon world, we need to work more on the bits that actually build it. I am pleased the judge agrees there is no need to revisit the promises we have already made. We have a more important job than making promises, and that’s delivering on them.

Correction: This story originally implied the US 26–28% emissions reduction target on 2005 levels, was to be achieved by 2030, it is in fact a 2025 target. 

Professor Dave Frame is Director of the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington, and wrote an affidavit in support of the Crown in Thomson vs the Minister of Climate Change.

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.