Comment

A turning point 20 years in the making

Let’s pause to celebrate Parliament’s passing of the Zero Carbon Bill before we get down to the hard task of using it to play our role in tackling the global climate crisis, writes Rod Oram.

We’ve taken 20 years to achieve a coherent legislative framework on climate.

Along the way some have denied there is a crisis, while the rest of us have said there is but we couldn’t agree on what to do about it. When we finally settled on the Emissions Trading Scheme as the key mechanism to drive down emissions, a change of government rendered the ETS worse than useless for a decade and our emissions kept rising.

In such debates, denials and derelictions of duties we have been a microcosm of the global community, though thankfully not as extreme as many other countries.

The core understanding of the climate changing function of greenhouses gases is more than a century old; the rapid acceleration in emissions began 60 years ago; the first world climate conference was held in Geneva 40 years ago, sponsored by the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation; the first comprehensive commitment by almost all nations to reduce their emissions was agreed in Paris four years ago.

But global emissions are still rising. We have only 10 years left to reduce emissions by 30 percent if we want to keep the global increase in temperature to 1.5c. Even then we will do further damage to the ecosystems on which all life on the planet depends. We and many - but not all - other species could cope, whereas any greater increase in temperature causes disproportionally more damage. At plus 3c life would be grim for all species, including humans.

Now, though, seems to be a tentative turning point in many countries. The harsh reality of the climate crisis is sinking in ever deeper. More people are pushing with greater intensity for action.

Understandably, there is anxiety and fear. But there are also positive social, political, economic and technological responses. They are starting to chip away at emissions, to lay out pathways for big cuts in coming years and to offer some hope.

To cite just three examples here in New Zealand:

On June 30, 2016, Generation Zero launched its campaign for a Zero Carbon Bill. They are an excellent example of a new style of young activists around the world. They are highly articulate on issues, wise and creative in crafting solutions, effective in building broad support for those and deeply committed to making them happen. Less than 18 months later, Labour made such a bill one of its election pledges.

On September 20 this year, 170,000 people joined school strike climate marches around the country. It was the second largest day of protest so far in our history.

On Tuesday, the Climate Leaders Coalition called for cross-party support for the Zero Carbon Bill. More than100 companies have signed up to the coalition and have pledged to reduce their emissions. They generate about one-third of private sector GDP and two-thirds of emissions. The Coalition, initiated by the Sustainable Business Council, is one of the biggest, broadest such national alliances pushing for corporate climate action and the legislation to guide it. The Coalition said the bill “is needed to provide a framework to develop and implement clear and stable climate change policies and drive a productive, sustainable and climate-resilient economy. Members need certainty and predictability on the direction of travel, and no backwards steps. Because of this, a bipartisan approach on this Bill is essential to ensure it can endure over the long-term.

On Thursday, Parliament approved the bill by unanimous voice vote. For the record, though, ACT said it was opposed.

The legislation brings us into line with more than 20 other jurisdictions, national and regional around the world. These have set similar long term climate goals, and established independent climate commissions to oversee the carbon budgets and policy appraisals essential for achieving them. Above all, such systems give business and all other actors the required long term certainty of the policy settings driving change.

The UK pioneered such a system in 2008. Since then it has guided the country in significantly reducing its emissions while enjoying one of the faster economic growth rates among G7 countries. Along the way its achievements include removing almost all coal from electricity generation, reducing the cost of offshore windpower by two-thirds and recently increasing its ambition to net zero emissions by 2050.

Now we have such a legislative framework we can achieve equally significant goals, and ones relevant to our economy such as reducing transport and agricultural emissions.

Success in getting the bill through Parliament is due in large measure to the leadership of Climate Change Minister James Shaw, co-leader of the Green Party. Since the Labour-led coalition took office two years ago, he has patiently and painstakingly built the broadest possible consensus on the elements of it. The three most difficult parties to reach agreement with were New Zealand First, the primary sector and the National Party.

As long as National is mired in that negative mindset, it remains a deep threat to our efforts to rise to the challenges and opportunities of the climate crisis.

Some people argue the compromises he made and the Labour-led coalition government agreed were too great, or at least of yet-to-be proved effectiveness. For example, the primary sector will need to demonstrate its commitment to the climate accord it has just signed with the Government by devising a pricing mechanisms for its emissions then actually reducing them, as I discussed in this recent column.

The biggest threat to progress, though, is National. In the end it voted for the bill but said when it next formed a government it would amend the legislation to give effect to its seven bottom lines it failed to persuade the coalition Government to incorporate. As listed in its minority report on the select committee’s report back to Parliament on the bill these are:

1. That the target for biological methane reduction be recommended by the independent Climate Change Commission.
2. That the Bill make clear the stated aim of the Paris Agreement is for greenhouse gas reduction to occur in a manner that does not threaten food
production. Currently the Bill cherry-picks from the Agreement.
3. Strengthen provisions that consider the level of action being taken by other countries and allow targets to be adjusted to ensure we remain in step with the international community.
4. That the Bill ensure the Commission consider economic impacts when providing advice on targets and emissions reductions.
5. That the Bill ensure the Commission consider the appropriate use of forestry offsets, and have regard for the carbon sink represented by tree crops, riparian planting, and other farm biomass.
6. That emissions budgets be split between biogenic methane and carbon dioxide as recommended by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.
7. That the Bill include a greater commitment to investment in innovation and research and development to find new solutions for reducing emissions.

A few of these have some merits which could be introduced into our climate framework in an orderly way over the next few years. But others reveal how National still sees tackling the climate crisis as a negative for business as usual rather than the huge positive it is for ensuring our better, sustainable future.

As long as National is mired in that negative mindset, it remains a deep threat to our efforts to rise to the challenges and opportunities of the climate crisis.

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