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Lisa Owen interviews Climate Change Minister Tim Groser

Lisa Owen interviews Climate Change Minister Tim Groser


NZ Government won’t settle on new emissions targets until the middle of next year, but “we will certainly push forward the envelope”

Groser describes climate change negotiations to date as a “shambles”, but says he is now more optimistic about a deal in Paris next year.

Says the NZ proposal for countries to set emissions targets that are not legally binding has been described by the US as the “only game in town”

“I think it's a black and white situation. This deal will be based on the underlying concepts of the New Zealand proposal or there won't be a deal.”

Says China is never going to commit to meeting a target where it would be legally accountable if it failed, but it is doing serious stuff

NZ is on track to meet the -5% target for emissions by 2020.

While NZ is “absolutely doing our fair share” now, he acknowledges “New Zealand is going to have to do more in this space over the next 30 years”

Doesn’t believe there will be “the deal” in Lima, but there will be serious incremental progress towards a deal in 2015

Lisa Owen: This is The Nation... and things are heating up. 2014 is set to be the hottest year on record. A leading weather organisation said this week "there is no standstill in global warming". International negotiations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions have, of course, been at a standstill for years. And climate scientists are calling a new round of talks kicking off in Peru 'the last real chance to stave off dangerous and irreversible climate change'. So I spoke to Climate Change Minister Tim Groser before he boarded a plane for Lima and asked if he agreed the talks were that critical.

Tim Groser: Absolutely. I mean, well, last chance. It's not going to come into effect, even if we succeed in Paris at the end of next year, until 2020. But something serious has got to be done on a global and comprehensive basis, and this is the first stop. So, it's regarded as a way-station to Paris. So you won't see even the best of results coming out of Lima in about a week's time. You're not going to see 'the deal'. It's a step towards the deal in Paris.

This is a problem, though, in terms of its enormity. It's going to cost us trillions of dollars to fix, according to the UN. It's huge, isn't it?

It is huge, but some very important steps are being taken now by the players that must take that, which is the major emitters. I really believe that the announcement made by President Obama and President Xi only two or three weeks ago in Beijing is a game-changer. But, actually, these two countries are 40% of global emissions. The deal will have to be now structured around that accord. So I'm allowing just a little bit of optimism to creep into my view, because, frankly, this has been a shambles, this negotiation. My first experience of climate change was— Well, I had one or two meetings before then. ...was Copenhagen, where they went in with a completely unrealistic negotiating scenario.

Minister, you say you're allowing a little bit of optimism there. I mean, what guarantee are there that this meeting won't fail like, say, so many others have over the past 20 years?

Uh, there are no guarantees in international negotiations. So there is no guarantee. I'm allowing a little optimism in the sense that I think, however, we're now more likely to be able to build on this. But there will be a lot of resistance to this.

OK. Well, New Zealand has an important role here, don't they, because we've come up with this plan that would mean that countries have to set emissions targets, but they wouldn't be legally bound to meet those targets? Now, how likely do you think that that's a deal that will be taken up?

Well, my personal view is that— I mean, the United States Administration is serious about climate change. This is crystal clear. Obama and his team are serious about this. We have a different problem with the Congress. The United States Administration has described New Zealand's proposal, essentially, as the only game in town, and it's based on exactly that concept that you've said. So the problem here is this. China, which is now the world's largest emitter, although doing very serious things now in this space, is never going to commit to meeting a target and if it fails, be accountable legally for failing to do this. They will, however, do serious stuff. Therefore the United States, given the Congress, will never agree to a different legal structure to China. So my view, and it's a real hard-line view here, I think it's a black and white situation. This deal will be based on the underlying concepts of the New Zealand proposal or there won't be a deal.

So you're saying there may be a necessity for pragmatism here? That if you want a deal, there has to be compromise. This deal is the compromise position.

Because you cannot get through a US Congress or any conceivable US Congress in the future a deal which has different structure for the United States than China.

I want to look at our current targets. 5% reduction in emissions by 2020; 50% by 2050. When we talked to the Prime Minister on this show and he was at the G20, he said the Government is going to come up with new improved targets for this round of talks. Have you settled on those targets?

No, we don't have to settle on those targets until the middle of next year. It's going to be a challenge for New Zealand. There's no doubt about that. But we're doing the analysis now, and we'll come up with a credible position.

Can you say whether those targets will be tougher? They'll definitely be tougher than what we've got at the moment?

Well, we'll wait and see what decisions Cabinet make. They will be different, because the structure of the long-term agreement is going to be different from the Kyoto model we've been using up till now. But we will certainly push forward the envelope.

Can you at least guarantee that these are going to be more ambitious targets?

The key is to get more countries to do stuff. For the emerging economies, to get them to commit a low-carbon development strategy. That's the significance of what China's done. That is absolutely crucial. What is not going to fix this problem is just continuously calling on a small group of developed countries to do more ambition. We need more coverage and ambition.

But in order to encourage others to do that, don't we need to be setting a better example?

This is the theory behind Kyoto — that the developed countries will take a step forward and the other countries would be so impressed with this that they'd follow suit. Exactly the opposite has happened. What they've done is put all the moral and political pressure of climate change on essentially the European Union plus a few countries like New Zealand, which joined the Kyoto Protocol. No, the absolute essence of this is to capture far more countries in the new long-term agreement.

But David Tong, who's a New Zealand observer, who's going to be in Lima, has told us that even the EU and China are lining up to criticise New Zealand over that 5% target that we have, saying it's too weak.

Well, the minus-5% target, first of all, we've said we're prepared to do more if certain conditions are met. But minus-5 compares with Australia at minus-4, the United States at about minus-3, Japan plus-3 or 4, and Canada in the same space. So I think in terms of developed countries of our 'type' we're doing exactly what we would be expected to do.

So are we actually on track to reach that target, minus-5%?

Yes, we are.

But your own ministry says that our net emissions are going up. In fact, in a briefing paper to you, they said that urgent collective action was required around this, and net emissions are up 20% under National.

Look, there are many different types of benchmarks and statistics. The ones that we are bound to meet are the ones within the Kyoto framework and the ones that we've copied and pasted into our next period, which is 2013 to 2020. But there's all sorts of other projections out there. But the thing is we're going to do what we said we would do.

So you're happy with that? You're happy that your own ministry is raising concerns about your level— our level of emissions? You're happy with that? Up 20% under your watch?

Oh, listen, New Zealand is going to have to do more in this space over the next 30 years. This is absolutely clear. But what is also certain is that we must do in the context of more collective action.

What about over the next five years, Minister?

I'm more concerned about the next 25 years. What is absolutely crucial in this is that we have got more objectives than just climate change. We also have got jobs and enterprises—

Doesn't that show a lack of commitment, then, if you're not worried about this five years. Aren't you making it someone else's problem...

No, no, no.

...when it's an opportunity for you and New Zealand to lead?

Only 7% of global emissions are covered by any type of price on carbon, whether it's a cap in trade, an ETS scheme like ours or a carbon tax. We're absolutely doing our fair share. And the key point is this — with 0.15% of emissions, as Sir Peter Gluckman, leading a team of climate change scientists pointed out, the real point of New Zealand doing something is simply its political economy contribution. So we want to be sure that we're not crippling our economy until we can see more effective global action. Then we will increase the pace.

Minister, what do you think the most likely outcome is going to be this century? We're trying to keep temperature rises below 2 degrees. Do you agree now that we're not going to meet that target? What's likely to happen, in your view?

I think the science is clear that under any plausible set of assumptions, even the most optimistic assumptions that you can have about future actions by governments over the next, literally, 90 years, that the planet is going to warm and we have to adapt to it.

So what will that look like? Experts are telling us— Jim Salinger, even Jan Wright back this up — higher insurance premiums, more regular floods, climate refugees, endangered species. Is that what it's going to look like?

All of those consequences— I mean, the extent of this is debateable. But the negative consequences of climate change are absolutely real. They will happen, even if the world does get in place a comprehensive agreement. The thing is to try and minimise the damage.

Very briefly, what do you need to achieve in Peru to make sure that we're on track for Paris?

Well, we will not get 'the deal' in Lima. What I hope to see, and I'm sorry to sound like a diplomat or a negotiator, is serious incremental progress towards a deal that we can cap off in Paris in 2015.

All right. Thank you so much for joining me this morning, Minister. Good luck in Peru.

Thanks a lot.

Thank you.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz


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