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Still a chance for consensus on climate change

Still a chance for consensus on climate change despite National being shut out

First published in Energy and Environment on May 9, 2019.

There still appears to be a chance of a long-lasting, broad based political consensus around climate challenge policy framework, despite the Government turning its back on National at the final stages of negotiations around enabling legislation.

The Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill introduced to Parliament sets in law an emissions reduction target for all greenhouse gases, except methane, to net zero by 2050. The target for methane is a 10% reduction in methane emissions by 2030, and a provisional reduction between 24% to 47% by 2050. This will be reviewed by the Climate Change Commission, to be established under the Bill, is described in more detail elsewhere.

What has become clear is that in March, Climate Change Minister James Shaw and senior Labour Ministers decided to put their political efforts into getting NZ First over the line and froze National out of negotiations. This was to ensure the numbers to get the Bill into the House and into law.

It was a risky political judgment for a framework meant to last for 30 years covering contentious and complex policy. Any real chance of survival needs commitment from the two major parties – Labour and National – to last.

In other stories in Energy and Environment this week there is a common theme about how many investment decisions by business are on hold because they have still not worked out how to deal with the potential loss of gas supply and believe a change in government will bring a change in policy on oil and gas exploration. Policy uncertainty and churn is a real threat to climate change policy and business decisions as well.

Labour and the Greens may believe no future government would dare dismantle the framework in the Bill, but the reality is the hardest politically testing times on climate change policy are yet to come. It is going to take a lot of political capital and courage to stick with it as the reality of what emissions reductions will mean for many parts of the economy and people’s lives becomes clearer.

National’s Todd Muller is being diplomatic about what he called the halt to good faith negotiations saying the issue is too important and long term to descend into political bickering. Shaw has apologised for “some of the background process here, which has not gone as I would have liked—nor, in fact, was what I had intended”. Shaw has said he hoped to resume talks through the select committee process.

Despite this, National supports the Climate Change Commission model and many principles of the Bill as well as the approach to adaptation. It also supports the split gas approach.

National does not support the quantum of the methane reduction target and says this should have been left to the Climate Change Commission. This shows how much the debate has moved on in the past decade. Neither National nor most of the farming sector are arguing against the need for biological reductions, they are debating about how much and when.

The Government has not addressed if animal emissions will be in the Emissions Trading Scheme or how it proposes to measure and reduce emissions. It has still not released the Interim Climate Change Committee’s advice on the issue, which will no doubt point out some of the practical difficulties.

Shaw says the targets are based on the science of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. He said estimates by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and others that methane needs to only reduce at roughly 0.3% a year in order to stabilise were based on modelling that would exceed this rate of warming. This is why there is a range which the Climate Change Commission would look at.

Farmers will take issue with the front loading of methane emissions reductions and this is likely to be a focus in the next few months with the prospect of reductions in cow numbers and what that means debated.

That debate will be hard enough, but it will be repeated across the transport, industrial and energy sectors in the coming years. Muller said, “A tough transition awaits this country”.

First published in Energy and Environment on May 9, 2019.

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