By Kendall Hutt in Auckland
Concerns have emerged New Zealand may not meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement if a law on emissions is not enacted and soon.
This is the view of New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, which was revealed in her final report ‘Stepping stones to Paris and beyond: Climate change, progress, and predictability’ released this week.
“There is no direct link between New Zealand climate policy and reaching the Paris target,” she says.
“My chief concern in this report is not the level of our targets, but the lack of a process for achieving them.”
Dr Wright therefore believes the government should take a note out of the UK’s book and implement a climate change act which puts emissions targets in legislation and sets up a process for reaching them.
This is because between 1990 and 2015 New Zealand’s emissions have risen by 64 per cent, while the UK’s have fallen by 38 per cent in the same period.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, New Zealand’s emissions should be 11 per cent below those of 1990 levels by 2030.
Paris target unreachable
But if the concerns raised in Dr Wright’s report are anything to go by, that target may not be reached.
Dr Wright herself acknowledges our 2030 greenhouse gas target may not be “ambitious enough” so charting a pathway to that target and beyond is the “bigger issue”.
So what would such a pathway look like?
Firstly, New Zealand’s emission targets would become law, with “carbon budgets” approximately every five years ensuring these targets are met.
An expert body would also be established to provide successive governments objective analysis and advice about how their targets are tracking and what steps could be taken to improve.
But Dr Wright warns this legislation must transcend the current government.
“Support across political parties is vital. Climate change is the ultimate inter-generational issue, and governments change.”
Climate ‘transcends governments’
As a result, Dr Wright sees the implementation of this act being via a “apolitical long-term approach”, which means businesses largely pick up the baton from government.
“Climate change transcends governments and our approach must do the same,” she says.
However, New Zealand currently has no strong policy on emissions or mitigating and adapting to climate change, Dr Wright says.
“Currently, New Zealand has no climate change target in law.”
This is also something climate change minister Paula Bennet herself has acknowledged.
She told The AM Show: “We’re just not quite there. I don’t think the time is right for us to be doing the legislation.”
New Zealand’s climate change policy is seen by some as ad hoc, so much so that a 26-year-old law student took the government to court in June over its climate policy “failure”.
Government ‘shirked responsibilities’
“So far the New Zealand government has shirked its responsibilities, set unambitious and irrational targets, and justified it all by saying we’re too small to make a difference,” Sarah Thomson told Asia Pacific Report.
“I’m young and I’m terrified of a time when I might have to look my kids in the eye and explain to them how we let this happen.”
Currently, the Emissions Trading Scheme is New Zealand’s main policy for making the much-needed transition to a low carbon-economy.
However, with no restrictions on the number of carbon units New Zealand purchases from other countries, New Zealand’s emissions can appear more rosy than they actually are.
13 years shy of reaching its Paris target, the “clean energy revolution” taking place across the globe does not appear to have reached New Zealand’s shores yet, but it could.
A 2013 report by Greenpeace New Zealand ‘The future is here: New jobs, new prosperity and a new clean economy’ reveals New Zealand could have an economy based entirely on renewables by 2050.
New Zealand is already a world leader in geothermal energy, but if the country invested more in smart electricity and smart transport over 25,000 jobs would be created while New Zealand’s carbon footprint would reduce to 1.8 million tonnes.
Clean, green reputation
Currently, 50 per cent of the country’s jobs rely on New Zealand’s “clean, green reputation” while 70 per cent of its exports rely on that same reputation.
If New Zealand makes the switch and invests more in renewable sources, those percentages are sure to climb.
Already, 70 per cent of New Zealand’s electricity needs are met by renewable sources.
“Only a small proportion of New Zealand’s electricity is generated by burning coal and gas,” Dr Wright acknowledges.
Along with the Asian Development Bank, she has recognised the opportunities for more renewable energy in the region.
“New Zealand is rich in geothermal energy, and with the best wind in the world, we have a great opportunity for decarbonising transport.”
In a July 2017 report, the Asian Development Bank note: “The rapidly decreasing costs of wind and solar power generated clearly indicates that consumption and production of the future could be driven by renewable energy sources.”
Lack of policy
It is, however, difficult to pin down the “when and where” of this transition, they note.
This may be the case for New Zealand due to a lack of government policy, says Amanda Larsson, an energy campaigner with Greenpeace New Zealand.
“We in New Zealand are falling behind due to a lack of government leadership. Not only is our government doing next to nothing to incentivise clean energy, they have sat on their hands while energy companies have extended the life of coal-fired power at Huntly.
“They have stood by while lines companies have introduced unfair charges on solar customers that discourage the uptake of clean solar power. And they continue to spend millions of taxpayer dollars inviting the oil industry to look for more oil that we cannot afford to burn.”
If New Zealand continues down its current “business as usual” path, the outlook for the country and its neighbours in the Pacific is bleak.
“The scientific understanding, and our daily experience, is that climate change is happening at a faster rate than was appreciated at the time of the Paris Agreement,” the 13 nations of the Pacific Small Island Development States (PSIDS) said in a joint July statement.
Sea levels around the world are expected to rise between 75cm and 1.5 metres by the end of the century and none are more at risk than the low-lying coral atolls and islands of the Pacific.
Sea swallowing land
Already, the people of Kiribati are expected to relocate 200km away to Fiji by 2020 as stories across the Pacific region have emerged of the sea swallowing land.
In Palau, at its peak, high tide is 30cm higher than when the President of Palau, Tommy Remengesau, built his house in 1989.
In the Torres Strait, the cemetery on Boigu Island faces inundation while roads are being washed into the sea because the seawall is “already failing”.
For the people of Masig Island, there are fears they may have to abandon their ancestral home.
In Vanuatu, the islands of Nguna, Espiritu Santo and Tanna are facing water scarcity, food shortages, and an increase in natural disasters.
As Vilimaina Naqelevuki of the village of Narikoso on Ono Island in the Kadavu Group told the Bearing Witness project: “We’re going to lose our land, we’re going to lose our culture, our identity, if we don’t do anything about climate change at all.”
‘Survival of our people’
There are also concerns that even under the Paris Agreement, in which global warming is limited to 1.5 to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the Pacific will not survive.
“For Pacific Island countries, because of our vulnerable ecosystems, we can manage up to 1.5°C, but beyond that we’re going to start losing our ecosystems and livelihood, our resources, and then the survival of our people,” Dr Morgan Wairiu, an expert in food security and climate change with the University of the South Pacific’s Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (PaCE-SD), told Asia Pacific Report.
Many feel New Zealand’s lack of political leadership on climate change is a “real betrayal” of the Pacific.
“Our Government knows that fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal drive climate change. They know that climate change is threatening to put whole nations underwater.
“Our Pacific neighbours are in the middle of a climate emergency and there is no excuse for pursuing an energy policy that prioritises oil, coal and gas at the expense of clean renewables,” Larsson says.
However, it is important to remember Pacific Island countries are fighting.
As PSIDS themselves note: “Our solemn obligation and responsibility is to ensure that the international community takes immediate and decisive action to address the underlying causes of global climate change.”
Pacific’s ‘solemn obligation’
Perhaps the greatest evidence of this “solemn obligation” is Fiji’s presidency of COP23 in Bonn, Germany, in November this year.
But the importance of clean energy in New Zealand cannot be more clear, both for the country and the Pacific region.
As Dr Wright asks: “What will our responsibility be towards our neighbours who live on low-lying coral atolls?”