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Boris Johnson has done more for the climate than Jacinda Ardern

Opinion: Slick rhetoric and the inherent opacity of climate policy means most New Zealanders have no clue how poorly we're doing on emissions reductions, Marc Daalder argues

A politician takes over as head of one of the major parties of a small island nation, replacing a predecessor who had become increasingly unpopular, jeopardising the party's chances at the upcoming election.

Then, as Prime Minister after the election, the politician surrounds themselves with climate activists and scientists and begins, in response to massive protests and a clear mandate from the electorate for action on reducing emissions, rolling out evidence-based climate policy.

That includes an ambitious plan to totally decarbonise transport, the banning of the import of fossil fuel vehicles by 2035, investment for electric vehicle charging statements, continuing the transition to renewable energy, requiring big companies to list their climate-related risk, requirements to upgrade the energy efficiency of commercially-rented buildings and millions of dollars to research reducing industrial emissions.

Although, at first glance, the above story seems reminiscent of Jacinda Ardern's rise to power, the politician in question is actually Boris Johnson and the small island nation is the United Kingdom. The key difference is in that last sentence, where the politician actually implemented policies that would significantly reduce emissions.

Little action to meaningfully reduce emissions

As newly-minted Labour leader prior to the 2017 election, Ardern pledged to treat climate change as her generation's nuclear-free moment. Yet, despite having three years to make a difference in Government - and $20 billion in surplus stimulus to spend while her popularity remains sky-high - Ardern has done little to pass legislation that would on its own reduce emissions.

The Zero Carbon Act creates an admirable framework for emissions reductions, under which the Climate Change Commission will task governments with implementing non-binding emissions budgets over five-year periods. Likewise, the strengthened Emissions Trading Scheme could see increasing pressure brought to bear on emitters through an increased price on carbon.

The vast majority of big emitters, however, will continue to receive a steadily-decreasing exemption for at least the next 30 years, meaning that by 2050, companies like NZ Steel could still count on a 30 percent discount on their carbon emissions. Agriculture - the country's largest source of emissions - is still only slated to join the ETS in 2025, and even then at a 95 percent discount which isn't set to decrease like the industrial allocation.

That gets to the heart of the issue: With three years in power, the coalition Government has done little to tackle the country's largest emitters, cows and cars.

Much of the inaction could be laid at the feet of the inconvenient arrangement between the radical-on-climate Greens, Ardern's cautious Labour and the action-averse New Zealand First. But Ardern enjoys one of the largest mandates for action on climate change that any New Zealand politician has had on any issue in modern times and has struggled to push even milquetoast climate action through the NZ First policy grinder.

But if the buffoonish Boris Johnson can marshal the British Tories to support a ban on fossil fuel vehicles, reduction of dairy emissions and a green recovery from Covid-19, surely Jacinda Ardern could too?

Forget a ban on fossil fuel vehicles by 2035 like that passed by Johnson, which NZ's Cabinet dismissed out of hand - Ardern couldn't even muster the political capital to pass a feebate scheme or implement a vehicle emissions standard - leaving NZ in the company of Australia and Russia as the only two other OECD nations without such a regulatory mechanism.

Even promises enshrined in the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement have been scrapped by an obstinate Winston Peters. A pledge to render the Government's vehicle fleet emissions-free by mid-2025 is a laughable dream. The policy was scrapped in August but the Government now implausibly insists it will indeed accomplish that goal.

This chart from MBIE shows how far the Government is from meeting its own target on EV purchases.

In order to do so, it must immediately cease the purchase of any fossil fuel vehicle and begin rotating 262 electric vehicles into the fleet every month for the next five years. That's double the total number of electric vehicles in the fleet right now, after three years of "progress". Over the past year, for each electric vehicle purchased, the Government has bought 26 petrol cars or trucks.

The Government's struggle to electrify its own fleet is emblematic of its difficulties in tackling the nation's emissions writ large. In order to make even a modest attempt at meeting our 2030 Paris target, let alone the 2050 net zero target, New Zealand's emissions need to fall off a cliff.

This chart, based on data from the Government's fourth biennial report on climate change, shows emissions need to fall off a cliff in the next three decades.

For the next decade, our annual net emissions must average out to around 58.29 million tonnes of CO2 and equivalent greenhouse gases (Mt CO2e). At the moment, they are forecast to average out at 67.68 Mt CO2e per year, even counting things like the strengthened ETS and the Zero Carbon Act.

That means over the next decade we need to find 102.31 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent to cut out to meet our targets - more than the entire country's gross annual emissions. Even if we took every car in Auckland off the road for the entirety of the next decade, that would only close the gap by 35 Mt CO2e.

This chart, based on data from the Ministry for the Environment, shows the distance still to go in meeting our Paris target.

The scale of change needed is immense. And that's only to meet our Paris target which, as Newsroom has previously reported, is not a commitment to reduce net emissions but to instead cap net emissions over the next decade to a 7 percent increase over 2005 levels.

While, for example, the United Kingdom has reduced net emissions by 42 percent since 1990, New Zealand's net emissions over the same period have almost doubled. There's also little indication that will change any time soon - the farthest projections, for 2035, show net emissions in New Zealand will still be 52 percent above 1990 levels.

New Zealand is letting Ardern get away with it

So how has a supposedly transformational Government led by a Prime Minister who has pledged to treat climate change as her prime focus failed to meaningfully implement emissions-reducing policies? How can Jacinda Ardern promise to treat emissions as her generation's nuclear-free moment without consequence?

Simple: New Zealand is letting her get away with it.

New Zealanders are extremely concerned about climate change. A recent Ipsos survey found 65 percent of the population believes, in the long term, that climate change is as serious a crisis as Covid-19. Four in 10 Kiwis said climate change was one of the top three most important environmental issues, above the global average of 37 percent.

Almost two thirds of New Zealanders told Ipsos that if the Government does not act now, it will be failing the people of New Zealand. More than half said they would be put off voting for a party that didn't take climate change seriously.

Despite that concern, however, New Zealanders have been fooled into thinking the Government is acting now. Climate Catalyst, a survey of five English-speaking nations, found Kiwis have the greatest satisfaction with their Government's response to climate change.

Some 56 percent of those polled told surveyors they were satisfied - despite emissions in New Zealand increasing over the last three decades - while just 40 percent of Brits said the same thing about their government, which has actually managed to reduce emissions. New Zealanders were also least likely among those polled to say their Government needed to do more to combat the threat of climate change.

The Ipsos survey found a similar reticence among Kiwis to take meaningful personal action on climate change. Replacing car travel with walking or cycling was opposed by 37 percent of New Zealanders, compared with a global average of 23 percent. Reducing beef and dairy consumption was similarly opposed by 46 and 59 percent of the Kiwis polled, respectively, while just 39 and 49 percent of the global population disagreed with these measures, respectively.

Despite an avowed interest in tackling climate change, New Zealand is unwilling to change practices where it counts: cows and cars. Given this, it's understandable that many would find solace in ambitious but empty words from the Prime Minister. 

Climate policy is complex and opaque. Pulling the wool over the eyes of the population with nice rhetoric about a nuclear-free moment and a transformational Government is all too easy on this one issue. But the atmosphere and the greenhouse effect don't care about what Ardern has to say. The only thing that matters in actually fighting climate change is demonstrable emissions reductions - and New Zealand needs to effect major changes if it is going to stay above water in this regard.

Yes, ambitious change is difficult to implement, particularly with Winston's arm resting on the handbrake.

But if the buffoonish Boris Johnson can marshal the British Tories to support a ban on fossil fuel vehicles, reduction of dairy emissions and a green recovery from Covid-19, surely Jacinda Ardern could too?

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