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‘Toothless’ or ‘alarming’ - reaction to the Zero Carbon Bill

Reactions to the net zero carbon emissions legislation released yesterday range from Greenpeace attacking it as "toothless" and "miserly" to Federated Farmers calling it "frustratingly cruel".

Two key issues are at the heart of those assessments. The government's decision not to give the independent Climate Change Commission statutory powers to require action on climate change angered the environmental lobby group. Pastoral agriculture lobbyists are alarmed at what they consider as an unachievably steep rate of reduction in emissions of methane, a short-lived greenhouse gas that is to be treated separately under the new regime.

"There is nothing I can do on my farm today that will give me confidence I can ever achieve these targets," Federated Farmers vice-president and climate change spokesperson Andrew Hoggard said.

But Greenpeace NZ executive director Russel Norman, who passed co-leadership of the Green Party to Climate Change Minister James Shaw in 2015, attacked his successor's work.

He described it as "a reasonably ambitious piece of legislation that's then had the teeth ripped out of it. There's bark, but there's no bite."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Shaw released decisions on the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill this morning, after months of political negotiations aimed at gaining cross-parliamentary support for a climate policy framework capable of surviving changes of government.

The bill establishes a Climate Change Commission as an independent advisory and monitoring body to recommend climate change policies to future governments and to review progress towards the country's commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, on a five-yearly cycle.

The bill also treats methane differently from other greenhouse gases, setting a target for a 10 percent reduction in biological methane emissions by 2030, and targeting reductions ranging from 24 percent to 47 percent by 2050 compared to 2017 levels.

Agricultural sector groups' reactions varied from broadly supportive to alarmed, but all were united in their view that an achievable reduction for methane by 2050 is in the 10-to-22 percent range. The bill is scheduled to pass into law by the end of the year, with submissions to select committee hearings in June. 

Dairy NZ chief executive Tim Mackle said the dairy sector was committed to playing its part to reduce GHG emissions. But he said the range for methane, "combined with reducing nitrous oxide to net zero, goes beyond expert scientific evidence for what is necessary in New Zealand."

Beef + Lamb New Zealand went further, claiming that the rate of methane reduction proposed amounted to the government asking the sector to contribute to cooling the planet. It claimed that methane emissions would not be allowed to be offset by tree-planting, which will be a key source of carbon emissions offset for GHGs generally.

It was unclear immediately whether this is accurate, as decisions on the exact rules covering the role of forests in offsetting carbon emissions are pending. A range of other decisions not covered by the legislation are also required before the shape of the government's full policy response to climate change is in place.

Among those are whether and how to include agriculture in the emissions trading scheme, lifting the $25 cap on the price of New Zealand carbon units, and the commitment to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035. 

Decisions on the role of agriculture in the ETS and the renewable electricity target are expected by the end of the month following advice from the Interim Climate Change Committee.

The committee has previously spoken out against the cost of the 100 percent target. In February it told iwi leaders that accountability for livestock emissions should ultimately lie with each farm. But it suggested pricing emissions through a levy, given that simple, user-friendly ways to measure and report emissions will not be feasible near-term.

Yesterday's announcements say there will be only "very limited" opportunities to use international carbon credits to offset New Zealand emissions, in an effort to ensure New Zealand makes serious local efforts to reduce its emissions. However, detail on that element of the policy is lacking.

In its statement, government partner New Zealand First highlighted that it had ensured the Climate Change Commission was "not granted statutory independence in the manner of the Reserve Bank".

Greenpeace's Norman said that means there is "no remedy or relief for failure to meet the 2050 target."

He described the target of reducing methane emissions 10 percent by 2030 as "miserly", while Federated Farmers' Hoggard argued that "New Zealand farmers are already playing their part in tackling global warming, and are willing to do more".

The 10 percent methane reduction target by 2030 "gives us a deadline for going beyond net zero more than 20 years earlier than for any other sector of New Zealand. It is unheard of anywhere else on the planet," he said.

Ardern and Shaw made much of the fact the bill will be one of the first of any country to enshrine a carbon reduction target in law, although Shaw agreed the high end of the methane reduction range was "aspirational".

National Party leader Simon Bridges welcomed the proposals as "a positive step" towards establishing the Climate Change Commission. But he expressed "serious reservations" about the proposed rate of reduction for methane despite finding "common ground on the commission's form and function, the net-zero target for long-lived gases and the separate treatment of methane."

"National remains committed to finding a bi-partisan approach to climate change that delivers the best outcomes for New Zealand."

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