Comment

Oram: Time to shout for a better climate law

We need brave political leaders who will push to deliver climate legislation that really works to tackle the climate emergency. And if they won't do it, the people need to rise up and demand it, says Rod Oram.

There are many good reasons to welcome the Government’s Zero Carbon Bill announced on Wednesday – although there’s plenty of work yet to do on it.

Above all, citizens of all ages must push politicians to make the bill robust, fit for purpose and enforceable. In other words, worthy of becoming law.

After all, this is no ordinary bill. Given how rapidly the global climate catastrophe is escalating, a few countries have already declared a climate emergency. This bill will determine how survivable we make our future. It is by far the most important Act our Parliament will ever pass.

Here are just some of the many benefits that would flow if public and politicians do their work to pass the Act we need by the end of this year. These benefits, and many others, will guide our transformation to a low emissions, wealthier, more sustainable and more resilient country by 2050.

New Zealand will make a legally binding commitment to play its full role in limiting the global rise in temperature to no more than 1.5c. That’s an utterly crucial threshold, as a United Nations’ report identified last October. Even a 2c rise would be far harder for ecosystems and humans to adjust to. Worse, even that rise carries grave risks of calamitous tipping points and runaway climate changes.

Seeking to meet the 1.5c goal, emission reductions will have a two-basket approach. That’s far from ideal because it cuts off synergies between them and is at odds with the global consensus for one basket. But it will work more or less if all gases and all emitters play their fair and right role by shifting quickly to new practices and technologies to sharply reduce their emissions.

In one basket, long-lived gases, predominantly carbon dioxide, will be cut to net zero by 2050. This is a vast improvement on the existing goal of a 50 percent reduction by 2050 from 1990 levels, set in 2011 by the then National-led government.

In the other basket, emissions of methane (a short-lived but extremely potent climate changing gas) will be cut by between 22 and 47 percent by 2050, depending on how aggressively other countries act on it. This is consistent with the UN’s call in October for a 35 percent cut in methane by 2050.

The Act will establish an independent Climate Change Commission to recommend rolling five-year carbon budgets, monitor progress of Government policies and society’s response in meeting the goals, and advise government and the nation on any necessary changes to the long term targets.

But political parties have ensured in this Bill that Parliament retains the right to approve or not the Commission’s proposals, and to make changes MPs see fit. Thus, the Bill needs to be amended to include strong safeguards, such as 80 percent majority votes on changes. Otherwise, a narrow majority of parties could push through self-serving, short term changes that would massively undercut the effectiveness of the Act.

The Bill creates a legal obligation on the Government to plan for how it will support our towns and cities, businesses, farmers and iwi to adapt to the current and worsening realities of climate change, such as severe storms, floods, droughts and fires.

Once it is enacted, the legislation will serve as the framework that enables Government and citizens to devise policies, programmes, strategies and other actions to begin the real work of the transition to a low emissions, sustainable nation.

The regulatory impact statement accompanying the Bill estimates its provisions would reduce GDP by 0.07-0.18 percent from the status quo. But that would be only by $12-15 billion by 2020-2050.

That’s peanuts but irrelevant anyway. It fails to account for action being an economy-enhancing investment in our future. The analysis doesn’t measure the cost of failure to act on climate change, nor the benefits from doing so. The statement notes, however, there would be considerable co-benefits from acting such as improved human and environmental health.

Lessons from the UK

The UK’s long experience on the benefits of acting early are revealing. Its independent Committee on Climate Change has just recommended a substantial improvement in the UK’s 2050 commitment. Its new goal is net zero for all gases in aggregate, whereas our bill is net zero only for long-lived gases, leaving a substantial quantity of methane.

The UK Committee noted: “This is the continuation of an important journey in the UK. In 2003, the UK pursued a target to reduce CO2 emissions by 60 percent from 1990 levels on the understanding it would carry a cost of 0.5- 2.0 percent of GDP in 2050. In 2008, on the advice of this Committee, Parliament moved to an 80 percent target for all greenhouse gases, accepting that the costs were between 1-2 percent of GDP in 2050. Now, our analysis demonstrates that we can adopt an even more ambitious target, within the same cost envelope as before.”

In thrall to the recalcitrant farmers

Yet despite all the good things in our Bill, its methane goals were angrily attacked by the dairy and red meat sectors. The comments of Andrew Hoggard, Federated Farmers’ climate change spokesman were very telling: "This decision is frustratingly cruel, because there is nothing I can do on my farm today that will give me confidence I can ever achieve these targets.”

That’s plain wrong. Many farmers around the country have been slowly reducing their emissions for some years, and have set themselves big ambitions to cut more, as this column reported in April. For example, in 2015 Landcorp, our largest farmer, set itself the goal of being a carbon-neutral farmer by 2025.

And doubly wrong. The Bill would commit us to targets in 2030 and 2050. We are far from sure how we will achieve them. But by setting the goals we will invest in, work on and achieve these goals – goals we have to achieve if we are to respond effectively to the climate crisis.

In particular, our farmers are highly innovative. We and the world need them to play their role as humankind rises to the enormous challenge of transforming food and farming systems so we can have healthy people and a healthy planet. For a summary of this, please read this column about the EAT-Lancet Commission’s report.

All parties are vulnerable to climate-disillusioned voters turning away from them, although National and New Zealand First will suffer the biggest losses.

Our political leaders have fallen into the same trap of near-termism. They say this is the best legislation they could achieve with the current political consensus on the issues. But this consensus won’t deliver the Climate Act we have to have.

Two parties are responsible for this blindness. New Zealand First and National are in the thrall of those of their farmer-supporters who believe the rest of the country is picking on them while shirking their own responsibilities on climate change.

That’s dead wrong. There are plenty of rural and urban Kiwis who urgently want to respond constructively to climate issues. To do so, they need brave political leaders who will significantly improve this bill so Parliament can deliver effective climate legislation.

But if farmers shirk their responsibilities in emissions reductions, the burden on households will increase in three ways: they will have to make larger reductions in emissions; pay more to subsidise the free allocation of emission credits to farmers; and experience greater climate change.

Some of our households will notice. On average, 25 percent of their emissions come from transport, 25 percent from housing and utilities, 11 percent from other sources – and 40 percent from food. The more conscious they become of the impact of food production on climate, the quicker they will move away from dairy and red meat if they believe those farmers are not playing their role.

All parties are vulnerable to climate-disillusioned voters turning away from them, although National and New Zealand First will suffer the biggest losses.

Given the way we rush legislation through Parliament, time is very short to get a very direct message to all parties: a significant number of voters want a far more effective Climate Act than this Bill offers.

If that means taking to the streets, let’s do it.

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