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Legislating a Net-Zero Carbon Future in New Zealand

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Isabelle Smith

Law Clerk

“We’re a long way off, to tell you the honest truth.” A candid statement from New Zealand Climate Change Minister James Shaw, made days out from the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference—COP24 Katowice—on the possibility of New Zealand meeting its emission reduction commitment under the Paris Agreement. 

New Zealand

Courtesy of Isabelle Smith

Although New Zealand’s contribution to global gross greenhouse emissions is small (less than one percent), greenhouse gas emissions per person are the fifth-highest level in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development and have continued to rise since 1990. While New Zealand has played an important role in calling for high ambition during climate talks on the international stage, the realities of the emissions profile at home differs starkly.

But is a solution in sight? In 2017, the newly elected coalition government, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, opened consultation on the Zero Carbon Bill. Modelled on the U.K. Climate Change Act 2008, the proposed Zero Carbon Bill is designed to support a transition to a low emissions economy. It will put in place a legally binding target to achieve (at least) carbon neutrality by 2050. The government is seeking cross-party support and widespread public buy-in for the bill to ensure a strong and enduring target that is in line with the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals. This collaborative and inclusive approach is crucial given the long-term nature of the challenges and transition.

Key elements of the bill include:

  • A binding long-term emissions reduction target;
  • Five-yearly “emission budget” requirements to reach this target;
  • Establishment of an independent Climate Commission to advise on and monitor progress toward emissions reduction goals—holding successive governments to account; and
  • Adaptation measures

Three options for the 2050 target have been proposed:

  • Net zero carbon;
  • Net zero long-lived gases and stabilized short-lived gases; and
  • Net zero emissions

The Ministry for the Environment received more than 15,000 submissions during the public consultation period (see infographic). The vast majority (91%) of these supported a “net zero” emissions target covering all greenhouse gas emissions, not just carbon. This is an important factor given agriculture not only plays a significant role in New Zealand’s economy, but is also New Zealand’s largest emissions sector, due largely to methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Despite there being differences in the characteristics of these greenhouse gases (for example, with carbon dioxide remaining in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and methane having a comparatively short-life cycle of about 12 years), a 2050 target solely focused on carbon would ignore almost one-half of New Zealand’s gross greenhouse emissions. If New Zealand is to make a meaningful contribution to the Paris Agreement, coverage of both long-lived and short-lived gases is required. Negotiating this while maintaining cross-party and industry support is likely to prove challenging but not impossible. With sectoral and community differences in mind, setting out a pathway to achieve net zero emissions across all greenhouse gases will need careful management to ensure a transition that is fair and sustainable.

The call to act has been accelerated by the latest IPCC Special Report, which highlighted the urgent need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to reduce critical risks and impacts. Given a ”rapid and far-reaching” transition will require action well beyond swift emissions mitigation, the inclusion of effective adaptation measures will be vital not only to the Zero Carbon Bill’s success, but to New Zealand’s ability to cope with the realities of a different climate. Currently, New Zealand is in the early stages of adaptation planning but lacks any form of a National Adaptation Plan. The scale of systematic change required supports a Zero Carbon Bill approach that integrates comprehensive and prioritized adaptation measures across all industries, sectors, and government planning.

A future low-emission and climate-resilient economy by 2050 cannot be achieved by goals and ambition alone. Actions matter. The Zero Carbon Bill validates New Zealand’s commitment to the global and domestic response to climate change and will provide the framework of laws and institutions to support the path forward. With the public consultation period now closed, the government is currently considering responses and policy approaches before a final version is drafted. The Zero Carbon Bill (or what may be more appropriately named in the future “the Net Zero Emissions Bill”) must then pass through the various stages of New Zealand’s legislative process, including a select committee review and potential amendments, before passing into law.

Ultimately, every New Zealander is a stakeholder in the government’s climate change response. With a mandate for climate action, New Zealand may lead a response to the IPCC Special Report and wave of recent energy in the climate movement, with an ambitious Zero Carbon Bill that is comprehensive, inclusive, and effective.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Georgetown Environmental Law Review Online blog on February 21, 2019, at https://www.law.georgetown.edu/environmental-law-review/blog/legislating-a-net-zero-emissions-future/ and is reprinted with permission.