New Zealand’s environmental laws need to be reviewed if we are to use crucial carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to address climate change, a Victoria University law expert says. 

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide before it is emitted, and injecting it deep underground. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this technology will be essential for dealing with climate change, although it is yet to be trialled in New Zealand.

Greg Severinsen, who has just graduated from Victoria University of Wellington with a PhD in Law, says before we reach that stage, we need to think about whether the current legal framework is up to the job.

“One of the main barriers to New Zealand adopting CCS technology is the way the stored carbon dioxide would be viewed under our environmental laws.

“Under legislation like the current Resource Management Act (RMA), it would be treated as a contaminant, and anyone trying to capture it and then store it under the seabed would be held responsible for illegal dumping.

“It’s a classic case of the law not keeping up with new technologies, with the RMA and other statutes drafted long before anyone even considered CCS,” he says.

To set up a more effective legislative framework for CCS, Severinsen argues, we need a combination of new laws and regulations and more detailed, up-to-date guidance for decision-makers applying existing laws.

In Severinsen’s view, New Zealand currently has a perfect window of opportunity to deal proactively with these legislative barriers and gaps.

“Globally, CCS is really significant and the IPCC has said this technology will be crucial over the next few decades for the world to achieve climate stability. No one is deploying this technology in New Zealand yet, which means we have a chance to get the law right in advance.

“That means not only setting up the required rules and processes, but also helping shape New Zealand’s thinking around CCS. Rather than viewing CCS as a form of dumping, a more refined legislative framework might help us see this sort of technology in a more positive light, and actively encourage the adoption of this form of climate change mitigation.”

Severinsen first came across CCS when he was a summer clerk at a law firm, where one of the firm’s partners asked him to research the legal implications of CCS. “I had never heard of it before and it sounded like something out of a science fiction movie,” Severinsen says.  

That research assignment was Severinsen’s first exposure to an area of environmental law he has quickly made his own. Before his PhD thesis, there were only three other New Zealand studies of the legal implications of CCS, two of which Severinsen had either authored or co-authored.

“When I started working in this area, I was surprised no one had done anything on it in New Zealand. It seemed high time someone had a look at it all.”

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