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Climate Change: The Hague and Beyond - Speech

Hon. Pete Hodgson
Monday, 19 February 2001 Speech Notes
7.00pm , Connolly Hall, Guilford Tce, Wellington.

Climate Change: The Hague and Beyond

(Address to the AGM of the United Nations Association of New Zealand)

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you this evening.

You've asked me to talk about the Kyoto Protocol and the World Conference on Climate Change at The Hague last year.

Climate change is one of the biggest items on the global political and environmental agenda. It isn't going to go away. It is going to influence human development and behaviour, forever.

Recently I was lucky enough to visit Antarctica. At a windswept spot above Scott Base called Arrival Heights I visited an observatory where atmospheric researchers monitor, amongst other things, the ozone layer.

After years of frustration with people confusing ozone depletion with the greenhouse effect, those scientists are now studying how those two phenomena interact. Briefly, it involves a warmer atmosphere creating a colder stratosphere, where ice crystals form and provide a catalytic surface for the chemistry of ozone destruction.

It's yet another lesson about the interconnectedness of natural systems. But it also made me think about how humans are capable of recognising their harmful impacts on the environment and acting on that realisation.

Around the world now, we are phasing out our use of ozone-depleting substances. Easing up on our addiction to fossil fuels will be much, much harder. But not impossible. Countering the causes of climate change is not something to be dismissed as "too hard".

I think people are waking up to the significance and the reality of climate change. The sceptics are still around, still getting space in the newspapers, but they are increasingly isolated. The weight of evidence is against them.

Some of you may have noticed recent reports of another recent visitor to Antarctica, Sir Peter Blake. He has sailed into uncharted Antarctic waters – uncharted because until lately they have always been frozen solid. Similar stories have emerged from the Arctic.

The scientific assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are sobering stuff. This is a group of 150 leading scientists, five of them from New Zealand, from about 100 different countries. They have been working since 1988 to assess the science, the impacts and the economics of climate change.

These are careful people. They don’t seek headlines, they don’t jump to quick conclusions. They analyse the growing array of data, they crunch the numbers and they debate the outcomes of their findings.

Their latest assessment of the evidence, released in Shanghai last month, further reinforces the case for action on greenhouse gas emissions. The panel advised that climate change is moving faster than expected. Time is not on our side if we are to limit the impact.

An impact assessment from the panel is due to be released tonight, New Zealand time, in Geneva. This report is the culmination of more than two years of work to assess the scientific literature on vulnerability to climate change and its potential impacts. While those impacts will be mixed, their sum will be negative. Our increasing knowledge about climate change is making the case for action more certain, not letting us off the hook.

The international community, through the United nations, is certainly taking climate change seriously. Negotiations have been going on since the late 1980s, first on what became the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and since 1995 on a Protocol to that Framework Convention – the Kyoto Protocol.

New Zealand has been very active in all those negotiations. We have officials and scientists who are internationally recognised for the expertise they contribute. We will be fully engaged at ministerial level when last year's suspended talks resume in June or July. If you'll forgive me using a rather overworn phrase, this is one arena where New Zealand genuinely does punch above its weight.

We give high priority to international negotiations on this issue for the simple reason that only by international action will New Zealand be able to achieve its national objectives in the area of climate change.

Let’s be perfectly frank here. We are a very small player on the global scene. What we do on our own often has little impact.

Certainly New Zealand is a very small contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto protocol records New Zealand’s 1990 carbon dioxide emissions as 0.2 percent of all developed country CO2 emissions. Compare that with the United States at 36 percent, the Russian federation at 17 percent and Australia at 2.1 percent and you have an idea of where we stand.

Admittedly carbon dioxide is not our largest greenhouse gas. Uniquely amongst developed nations, our CO2 emissions are dwarfed by emissions of methane, largely from our livestock herds. Our CO2 emissions, meanwhile, are climbing steadily.

Clearly we are going to have to find our own solutions to reducing methane emissions. No other developed nation has our problem with methane, so no other developed nation is going to do that work for us. And we also have to find ways to turn the trend around on CO2.

I hope you get an idea of the scale of the challenge we face here.

Although, like many other countries, New Zealand is not a major greenhouse gas producer on a global scale, we are nevertheless on the receiving end. Climate change is not a phenomenon that recognises political borders. So we have a major stake in getting action by all countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

We have some very clear national needs which must be protected as well.

I don’t need to tell you that international negotiations are often far from perfect. What suits some, or even many, may be very difficult for others to accept. The negotiations on climate change are no exception.

We are finding that the approach some very large, powerful countries or blocs are wanting to take doesn’t fit with the realities as we view them from here. We all know what happens when a "one size fits all" approach is promoted. All too often we find that the fit is much better for some than for others.

Take the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy and the havoc it has caused for many years. We are determined that we won’t be saddled with a similar type of solution in the climate change negotiations.

Let me try to paint the picture.

In December 1997 in Kyoto, in a very difficult and politically fraught negotiation, agreement was finally reached on the emission reduction targets for 39 countries.

New Zealand agreed to a target of 100 percent of 1990 emissions during the period 2008-2012. The 15 members of the European Union agreed to an 8 percent reduction on 1990 levels. The United States has a target of a seven percent reduction. Australia, rather extraordinarily, negotiated a target of an 8 percent increase on 1990.

Overall the commitments totalled a reduction in developed country emissions of just over 5 percent. It doesn’t sound very much but the real significance is the fact that such commitments were accepted at all – especially given the trend for increasing emissions if we follow "business as usual".

For the first time in an environment agreement countries agreed to be legally bound to take specific action in response to an accepted environmental problem.

Three years have passed since that agreement, the Kyoto Protocol. More than 50 countries have ratified it, but no developed country.

Why not? The simple reason is that the rules by which countries will be able to prove they are meeting their commitments have not yet been finalised.

The aim of the meeting in The Hague last November - the sixth Conference of Parties, or COP6 - was to finalise those rules. Achieving that is the next crucial step on the way to ratification.

As everyone knows by now, The Hague conference did not succeed. We didn’t get agreement on all the final details and we still have an incomplete set of rules.

I left that conference very disappointed. John Prescott, the British Deputy Prime Minister said he was "gutted". It was an exhausting experience and I know exactly why he used that word.

There was a fair degree of blame allocation from all quarters, some more justified than others. But there was still a clear determination to get a result. There was still an significant amount of goodwill and commitment to the process.

Jan Pronk, the Dutch Environment Minister and chairman of the conference, announced last week that the talks would resume for two weeks within mid-June to late July. The exact dates are yet to be set. I share his view that they may yet succeed.

Why is it proving so difficult to get agreement on these rules? The basic reason is that the Kyoto Protocol is not only an environmental negotiation. It is also a very significant economic negotiation.

The protocol requires significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by developed countries. Those emissions are largely the result of economic activity. They relate intimately to what we produce and consume – to the very stuff of life.

So it stands to reason that all countries need to look very carefully at the impact of particular proposals. We in New Zealand certainly do and our negotiators have been very diligent, making sure that our needs and interests are well protected.

We need recognition of our unique greenhouse gas profile, with methane as our largest gas. We need recognition of the reality that our planted forests are a real and quantifiable sink for carbon. We need flexibility to apply the Protocol’s rules in the ways that best suit our situation.

In short we need to be allowed to get on with meeting our commitment by whatever means we choose. We do not want to be obliged to follow a specific course of action that has been tailored for somebody else's circumstances.

We will meet our commitments and we will be able to prove we have met them. That is what New Zealanders always do, I am proud to say.

Our priority in pursuing this is to ensure that the final package rules has environmental integrity as well as economic viability. It must work for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It must be economically sustainable, or few if any developed countries will ratify it.

People talk about finding the right balance between the demands of environmental integrity and economic viability. They are wrong. They ignorethe prospect of economic gain from environmental progress.

Energy efficiency is an obvious example. Energy inefficiency has nothing going for it, economically or environmentally. Similarly methane reduction in ruminants will improve food conversion efficiency and therefore farm productivity. And switching to petrol-electric motor vehicles as they become more widely available will reduce the running costs of cars as well as reducing emissions from the fastest-growing source in the economy.

In her speech at the opening of Parliament last week, the Prime Minister restated the Government’s intention to ratify the Protocol by mid 2002. We are continuing the domestic policy development that goal demands, as well as the necessary preparation for international negotiation.

I have tried to make that policy process as transparent as possible. I have released the relevant Cabinet papers routinely, as soon as possible after decisions have been made. A new bunch of them will be out shortly.

If you have questions about this work, or our approach to international negotiations, now is the time to ask.

Thank you for your attention.


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