New Zealanders back climate change [Otago Daily Times, 14/12/20]

EDITORIAL: Action on climate change is now overwhelmingly supported by the New Zealand public, polls confirm. All that remains is to decide what to do.

A very big part of the answer will be supplied early next year when the Climate Change Commission reveals its carbon budget and policy advice proposals. It shapes as being a sobering moment. Climate Change Minister James Shaw has already said the emission reductions demanded from the country’s first carbon budgets are likely to be “shocking” and require hard choices.

The commission was established by the Zero Carbon Act and is a prodigiously well qualified team, led by the well-seasoned Dr Rod Carr. They will release their first advice on February 1 next year for a six-week consultation period.

It will include the size of the first three five-yearly emissions budgets through to 2035, aiming to put the country on track to meeting its 2030 and 2050 emission reduction targets. It will also update those targets, advise on the direction the Government should take in its emissions reduction plan and settings for the emissions trading scheme. So far, so relatively straightforward.

However, for all that we can expect the commission’s work to be based on good science, sound evidence and thorough analysis, it will leave questions to be settled. Questions such as how fast, how the burden of change should be apportioned and what is New Zealand’s fair share of the global effort to mitigate planetary heating.

The budgets themselves will provide the beginnings of an answer to some of these questions. They will cover the period through to 2025 and the two five-year periods beyond that. It is estimated that in order to meet our Paris Agreement reduction target we can afford to emit about 60 million tonnes of CO2 a year through the rest of this decade. We currently emit closer to 80 million tonnes.

Under the reformed emissions trading scheme there is a provisional budget to 2025 of 354 million tonnes, leaving just 250 million tonnes for the second budget period. But budgets close to those numbers will mean cutting huge quantities of carbon out of the economy in the run down to 2030. On the other hand, going harder in the early years risks pushback, or be cause for regret if emerging technologies later make the job easier.

There is more. New Zealand’s Paris commitment is considered insufficient if we are to keep warming to as close to 1.5degC as possible, the ambition we signed up to. The commission can be expected to call for greater emission reductions by 2030. Further, it can be argued that New Zealand should take on a bigger part of the global responsibility for reducing emissions, given our country’s outsized historical responsibility for them. This is a question of our “fair share”, in a country in which fairness has long been a central consideration.

Having settled on the quantum and pace of change, there will be decisions to be made on who is to bear the burden; the emitters, the consumers, the taxpayer, the wealthy. The commission has already suggested that emission-reducing changes to the economy should be made in a way that enhances wellbeing, hinting at “green new deal” type thinking.

Then, in reducing our emissions, will we be prepared to dam more rivers in pursuit of 100% renewable energy, or let hydro lake levels fall further in summer, consider nuclear power or the contribution genetic engineering might make to low-methane pasture? If none of these, then how do we feel about contracting out our responsibilities to other countries and buying their carbon offsets? What role should the market play?

We have the summer holidays to think about these things, so we are ready when the six-week consultation period begins on February 1.

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