President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement last week does not spell the end of the climate accord by any means, but it is significant.

Unlike 2001 when the US failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the global community is now far more unified on climate action. Countries like China and India are stepping up with significant leadership and the stakes today are much higher in reputational terms than they were in the 1990s. They are also higher as slow movers on climate policy fall behind in their technological and infrastructural development.

The blowback to this latest act by the US has been widespread condemnation as an abdication of moral responsibility. While far from a magic bullet for solving the climate crisis, the Paris Agreement was one piece of the larger global puzzle. Cities in the US and across the world responded by reaffirming their commitment to the agreed targets even in the face of national implementation failures. In Wellington on Tuesday climate action protesters greeted US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with protest signs calling for citizens to ‘resist’ climate policy rollbacks and get serious about emissions reductions.

While climate change was largely ignored in the 2016 presidential campaign, this policy reversal highlights the importance of leadership changes to policy outputs. International events like the US announcement are especially important in election years. They focus public attention more intensely on particular issues, providing extra space for re-evaluation and debate. 

New Zealanders have a just few short months until they head to the polls and despite its clean, green branding, New Zealand’s climate policy and emissions record to date leaves much to be desired.

New Zealanders are in the top 10 of GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions per capita. Under the Paris Agreement, climate commitments are voluntary and nationally determined. New Zealand has set a target of 11 percent reductions to 1990 by 2030. 

The latest data from the Ministry for the Environment’s GHG inventory report paints a disappointing picture, with large increases from 1990. Gross emissions are up 24 percent, with net emissions—which include land use changes and deforestation—up 64 percent.  Road transport emissions from fuel combustion increased 78 percent since 1990. 

Policy action on climate change in New Zealand has, even in the government’s own words, been to focus on ‘fast following’ versus ambitious leadership. We have an Emissions Trading Scheme in place which, uniquely, covers a range of gasses, but the price of units has varied widely and emitters can purchase cheap and sometimes fraudulent overseas units. Research on the ETS from a wide range of sources shows it is insufficient to meet even the relatively weak Paris target, despite multiple reviews and re-calibrations. Furthermore, agriculture, which makes up half of New Zealand’s emissions, is not included.

It is tempting to focus all attention on Trump’s decision, but this can make us overlook unpleasant realities right here at home.

A recent report by the High Level Commission on Carbon Prices shows that carbon taxes of US$40 to US$80 a tonne by 2020 and US$100 a tonne by 2030 will be needed to avoid catastrophic global warming. A unit in the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme is currently worth about $16, with a government cap of $25 until at least 2021. Incidentally, between 2011 and 2013 the unit price plunged to around $2. 

A strong emissions pricing system is just a start. Many countries have invested heavily in transport infrastructure and provision of greener, distributed and more efficient heat and power solutions. These initiatives were the result of government policy leadership with the creation of new regulations, funding and, in some cases, direct provision. India, for example, has just committed to run its 12 public ports with solar and wind power, and electrify its new vehicle fleet by 2030 in a bid to reduce air pollution and emissions.

Business-as-usual policies that support fossil fuel exploration, consumption and investments are also problematic. The latest calculations from the Carbon Budget tracker show that 62 percent of fossil fuels overall and 88 percent of coal needs to be left in the ground, at current consumption rates, to even have a 50/50 chance of staying within the two degrees warming target.

With an increasing population, New Zealand is going to have to find more efficient ways than petrol and diesel vehicles to move goods and people, and more future proof industries to nurture. We lag far behind in policy action for large-scale mass transport development, transport electrification, energy efficiency in housing and heat provision. 

Research on climate policy mitigation also shows that new initiatives can’t just target those who can afford to buy a private electric vehicle, or a million dollar custom-built home, they need to be accessible to the working poor as well as early-adopters and technophiles.

In an election year the government’s focus can narrow to short term “lollies”, usually in the form of tax breaks, to get re-elected. 

However, the consequences of further delays or restricting change to small symbolic steps are significant for current and future generations and go much further than an extra $20 a week in tax savings. What’s at stake includes billions in future costs to taxpayers for disaster relief, climate related health impacts, purchase of emissions credits and economic losses from stranded assets of unviable industries. 

President Trump had a choice and, for good or ill, he and his advisors made it. Climate policy action will continue with the leadership of US states like California, countries like Germany, Denmark and, increasingly, China and India. 

It is tempting to focus all attention on President Trump’s decision last week, but this can make us overlook unpleasant realities right here at home. 

New Zealand must tackle those increasing emissions and start to lead. The climate policy changes needed to do this require commitment long past this election cycle and across party lines. 

New Zealanders have an enviable level of renewable electricity, significant geothermal reserves and a long history of environmental protection and activism. From the integrated planning of the Resource Management Act to the personhood status of the Whanganui River, New Zealand has been fairly radical in the past on a range of fronts. It’s time to reconnect with those roots.

Dr Julie MacArthur is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations in the University of Auckland's Faculty of Arts. She specialises in environmental politics and energy policy.

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