Young lobbyists write CO₂ shrink law

Youth climate lobbyists Generation Zero want parties to adopt a law binding New Zealand to going carbon neutral, but they've carved out an ongoing allowance for cow burps, reports Eloise Gibson

Fed up with unenforceable climate targets, youth organisation Generation Zero has drafted a law that would commit New Zealand to being carbon neutral by 2050.

The group will talk to all political parties before the election in the hope of winning cross-party support for its Zero Carbon Act, which is modelled on the United Kingdom 2008 Climate Change Act.

As well as enshrining New Zealand’s climate goals in legislation, it would require the Government to come up with five-yearly carbon budgets and credible plans to meet them.

In a proposed shift that may hearten farmers, the suggested law treats Co₂ emissions differently from shorter-lived agricultural greenhouse gases such as methane, recognising that methane clears from the atmosphere much faster. Methane from cow burps and other sources currently makes up about 1/3 of New Zealand’s emissions tally. It is a highly potent greenhouse warmer but disappears within a decade or two, while Co₂ sticks around basically forever. 

Generation Zero’s proposal envisages a future where net Co₂ emissions fall to nothing, while shorter-lived gases shrink but carry on at a lower rate indefinitely. That’s a change from the UK law on which the concept is modelled, which also provides for a series of binding five-yearly “budgets” based on the latest science, economic factors and other things. Farming’s other main climate impact — nitrous oxide emissions from fertiliser and animal urine — would fall into the long-lived gases camp, meaning those emissions would need to fall to net zero, though, like Co₂, they could be offset with forests and other sinks. 

Another departure from the UK model is what Generation Zero calls the “firewall principle”. The firewall means targets would have to be met within our borders and we couldn’t rely on cheaper international credits (though people could still buy credits). 

Nations have agreed to keep average global warming under 2C and make serious efforts to stay under a less-risky cap of 1.5C. That most likely requires countries like New Zealand to be carbon neutral by 2050. 

But Climate Action Tracker, a joint benchmarking effort between four independent European climate research organisations, says national pledges made so far would likely result in about 2.8C warming, and hotter in many places. Even those pledges are not being energetically pursued by most countries. Actual policies in place to date have the world on track for about 3.6C warming, says Climate Action Tracker.

New Zealand’s efforts so far are rated inadequate to help the world to stay under 2C, putting us in the same category as Australia, Canada, Russia, Japan and Saudi Arabia. Better-ranked, “medium”-effort countries include nations in the European Union, China, India, Brazil, Mexico and the United States, although the United States looks set to fall to “inadequate” under President Trump’s policies. 

Generation Zero’s bid to put New Zealand on a binding track to meet its Paris Agreement pledge includes establishing an independent group of experts who would report on progress and make recommendations about how the county could achieve its targets.
The same independent commission would help prepare five-yearly climate risk assessments outlining the dangers to New Zealand, and the Government would need to come up with plans to adapt to the risks. The Government would also need to report on how New Zealand was using international carbon markets, and how we were helping people from low-lying Pacific islands relocate to higher ground here or elsewhere in the Pacific. 

The proposed law’s UK counterpart created the independent Committee on Climate Change, which recently reported that the five-yearly action plans had cut household electricity bills in real terms by making people more efficient, while also reducing greenhouse gases. Less positively, the UK government was criticised by green businesses this year for failing to produce promised details of how it would ensure reductions happened in the next few years. However, the UK government told the Independent it still planned to come up with the detailed plans. By 2050 the UK wants to have cut its emissions by 80 percent from 1990, or more.

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