Climate change conference 2021: Where does NZ stand?

With the opening of the UN climate change summit in Glasgow now just days away, Jamie Morton explains where New Zealand sits within the big show.

What are we bringing to the table?

Under the Paris Agreement, New Zealand’s “nationally determined contribution” (NDC) pledged to lower its emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels, and 11 per cent below 1990 levels, before 2030.

As the Climate Change Commission made clear this year, those commitments fall well short of the aspirational Paris target of holding global warming within 1.5C above the pre-industrial average.

At Glasgow – or the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) – New Zealand and all other Paris signatories will lay down their updated NDCs.

The need for bolder pledges couldn’t have been made more urgent by the UN’s latest major climate change stocktake, which found that even the central Paris target of 2C would soon slip beyond reach without “immediate, rapid and large-scale” emissions cuts.

Separately, New Zealand has already introduced its cornerstone Zero Carbon Act, and is due to unveil its 15-year Emissions Reductions Plan in May.

Earlier this month, the Government committed another $1.3 billion to support countries most vulnerable to climate impacts, with around half going to the Pacific.

The fourfold funding increase meant New Zealand’s contribution to global climate funding matched on a per-person basis that of the UK.

How do we stack up against other countries?

On paper, not too well.

New Zealand is one of the few industrialised nations whose gross emissions have increased between 1990 and 2019 – by 26 per cent – and we also have one of the highest rates of emissions per capita.

But it’s important to point out that our emissions profile is somewhat of a global outlier, making international comparisons tricky.

Around 84 per cent of our electricity is already produced from renewable sources, we have a large amount of land suitable for forestry, and nearly half of our emissions come from agriculture – much of that methane, which some scientists argue is incorrectly accounted for.

If we use global indexes of developed countries as a measure, we sit around the middle of the pack.

The 2021 Climate Change Performance Index, for instance, gives New Zealand a “medium” rating, a score of 51.30 and a ranking of 28th among 61 nations – up nine spots from last year.

This index, evaluating countries by indicators like greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, energy use and climate policy, puts Sweden, the UK, Denmark, Morocco and Norway in the top five respectively, and Taiwan, Canada, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US at the bottom.

KPMG’s 2021 Net Zero Readiness Index, comparing the progress of 32 countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, ranked New Zealand in ninth place.

The report noted New Zealand’s recent policy moves, like legislating a 2050 target, adopting emissions budgets, and becoming the world’s first country to introduce laws that force financial firms to report on the effects of climate change.

The Climate Action Tracker, however, gives New Zealand an overall rating of “highly insufficient” – as it did most Governments – using its updated, 1.5C-focused criteria.

“New Zealand is one of the few countries to have a net zero emissions by 2050 goal enshrined in law, its Zero Carbon Act, but short-term policies cannot yet keep up with that ambition,” its latest scorecard states.

“New Zealand is increasingly relying on the mitigation potential of the land use and forestry sector to meet its target rather than focusing efforts on reducing emissions from high emitting sectors.”

Can we go harder?

We’ll simply have to, if we want to honour our commitments at home and abroad.

The Climate Change Commission has told us that all greenhouse gas levels in New Zealand effectively need to drop by around a third by 2035.

To get there, it has recommended aggressive measures like a halt on petrol car imports after 2032, slashing livestock numbers by 15 per cent by 2030, and planting 380,000 hectares of new exotic forestry.

This month, the Government floated its own raft of policies, such as banning new gas connections, getting people to cut their car use by a fifth, paying people to scrap their dirty cars and capturing gases emitted by landfills.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw certainly saw scope for New Zealand to make a greater contribution to the global effort.

So what did a fair share look like in 2021?

When the commission compared unusual our greenhouse gas profile against a 2018 UN recommendation for every country to slash net emissions by 45 per cent below 2010 levels this decade, our equivalent target came out at around 36 per cent.

“But [the commission] then said, of course, that as a developed country, we’re obliged to do more than the average,” he said.

“Their advice at that point got somewhat fuzzier because they didn’t actually say what the numbers should be, from a decision-making perspective – but that was still a useful insight into what a fair share ought to be.”

This month, Victoria University climate expert Dr Adrian Macey told the Herald it was favourable for New Zealand to keep pushing a “split-gas” approach separating carbon dioxide from methane, as it provided a more accurate picture of true warming impacts of gases.

Macey, who has previously represented the country as a climate change ambassador, said New Zealand was actually doing more in a global sense to reduce warming than the UK.

“It is not about announcing dramatic goals but more what we are doing domestically, and that is where New Zealand has not been brilliant, especially in terms of cutting emissions in transport.”

Other commentators however argue that New Zealand needs to go harder on driving down all gases.

“New Zealand is not being held back by our high proportion of biogenic methane emissions, but by successive Governments’ complete failure to implement meaningful policies to cut agricultural emissions,” climate campaigner David Tong said.

“The IPCC made it clear in 2018 that achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting warming to 1.5C will require an unprecedented global economic transformation, and all sectors must play a part – including agriculture.”

While New Zealand had “led the world” with its 2018 ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration, Tong was worried it was lagging behind again.

“At COP26, Denmark and Costa Rica will launch the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, a diplomatic network of nations that have ended all new oil and gas exploration,” he said.

“New Zealand could take our place amongst this leading group of countries if our Government committed to ending all new onshore oil and gas exploration – particularly in Taranaki.”

He felt that if New Zealand didn’t lock in a new Paris target for 2030 that involved anything less than halving our emissions in real terms this decade, it would be hard to hold our heads high on the world stage.

“Per person, we are one of the 30 worst countries when it comes to carbon pollution,” he said.

“Key negotiating partners are seeing the gap between our ballooning emissions and our Government’s rhetoric.”

What does NZ hope to achieve at Glasgow?

At the landmark Paris summit in 2015, New Zealand’s two big goals were gaining certainty to give it unrestricted access to global carbon markets, and getting better guidance around its land and activity-based approach to emissions accounting.

This time, clearing up disagreements between nations around a new international carbon market would still be a big focus.

Despite the Government effectively building its Zero Carbon Act around domestic action, Shaw saw a functional carbon market as a necessity that New Zealand would have to lean on to reach its 2030 targets.

“Because our starting point is so terrible because we’ve basically done nothing for the last 30 years, in order to make any kind of critical contribution to the global effort, we’re going to have to rely on working with other countries to achieve that.”

His other big priority was getting more transparency around how countries were meeting their targets.

“It’s really important for us all to evolve into a situation where we do have common standards for what time periods we’re reporting against, what methodology we’re using for accounting … all that kind of stuff.”

Canterbury University political scientist and climate researcher Professor Bronwyn Hayward didn’t expect to see much traction here – and remained concerned nations were continuing to trust in market tools to meet obligations.

But she was encouraged that Shaw had begun signalling that our Emissions Trading Scheme wasn’t our only lever for achieving emissions reductions, but “one tool”.

Where can NZ have influence

Tong pointed out that New Zealand played a big role in negotiations around international carbon markets at the last two UN summits, particularly with Shaw helping steer negotiations under the Paris Agreement article that deals with them.

“Under the previous Kyoto Protocol, there were many examples of international carbon trading schemes driving indigenous people from their homes and lands,” he said.

“New Zealand must use its considerable influence in these negotiations to make sure this doesn’t happen again under Paris.”

Hayward said New Zealand could be an important advocate for its Pacific neighbours, by pushing issues around climate finance, adaptation funding and ocean protection.

“But until we really commit to an effective, all-gases approach, we are increasingly isolated in our wider position, and we have yet to show progress towards the Paris Agreement.”

New Zealand could also serve as a small “state broker” to overcome difficult tensions between major players like Europe, the US and China.

“The Glasgow conference is already struggling with a lack of focus, and the strain of running a massive diplomatic event face-to-face as new reported Covid-19 cases climb into the 50,000s each day is showing,” she said.

“There’s been little concerted, co-ordinated effort among key nations like the EU, Italy and the UK undertaking pre-meeting lobbying and preparation.”

Hopefully, she said, the summit would result in some “significant pledges”.

Was Glasgow really the world’s last chance to spare future generations the worst consequences of climate change, as some have described it?

Victoria University climate researcher Dr Luke Harrington thought such framing was unhelpful.

“Success will not be seen in one sudden flourish but rather through the accumulation of successive and increasingly ambitious efforts,” he said.

“Every year that we continue to delay action will only add to the misery of future generations.

“This misery will be felt most in countries where climate-related challenges already exist, but rarely feature on the six o’clock news.”

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