With Donald Trump indicating the US will not play a part in the fight against global warming, James Shaw is heading to the country he now expects to take up the leadership role. Shane Cowlishaw talks to the Climate Change Minister about the role China may play.

On the website climateactiontracker.org, plug in China and the country receives a ‘highly insufficient’ rating for its efforts to tackle global warming.

The result is perhaps unsurprising. The most populous country on earth is also the greatest emitter, with its rapid economic development spurred on largely through coal-belching manufacturing.

But look up New Zealand on the same website and you may be shocked.

Despite our clean, green image, our current commitments earn us an ‘insufficient’ rating, just one notch above China, and one that would see temperatures rise well above that set by the Paris Agreement.

The person in charge of shaping our legislation to meet our new targets, and get the country to a zero carbon economy by 2050, is James Shaw.

After becoming the Minister for Climate Change, one of his first steps was to set up an interim committee to consider what changes are needed achieve the goal.

The target is a bold one and while Shaw wants us to be an example for other countries to look to, he knows it will be some of the big players who lead the way in the climate change fight.

This weekend Shaw departs for Beijing for a rare trip that won’t be about trade between the two countries, but the environment.

During the four-day trip he will meet with his counterpart Li Ganjie, with the extension of the climate change cooperation agreement signed in 2014 on the agenda.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw says New Zealand can learn a lot from China. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The agreement is essentially a technical exchange between the two countries, and Shaw expects to share much of New Zealand’s expertise around forming an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

China has been experimenting with regional emissions trading schemes and is now planning to merge them into a national scheme, albeit one that covers its energy sector.

“We’ve had one for about ten years, which obviously hasn’t worked quite as well as we’d like so we’re upgrading it, but there’s been quite a lot that we’ve learned so we’ve been sharing that with them,” Shaw says.

Despite the cooperation, the idea of a bilateral or global ETS exchange is not something Shaw predicts.

The old Kyoto agreement was technically a worldwide ETS, he says, and didn’t work, but there is no harm in the two countries swapping notes.

To try and shift its energy mix, China has invested hugely in renewable energy, particularly solar, and has also thrown its weight behind electric vehicles.

Shaw believes this will go a long way to reduce the costs of such technology even further and says New Zealand can learn a lot from what the Asian giant is doing.

“They’re chucking a lot at this at the moment, particularly in the energy area, phasing out coal use over an extended period of time.

“They’ve got a massive uptake of electric vehicles, Shenzhen has 16,000 electric buses on the road, Auckland and Wellington just got their first two.”

Trump’s move ‘disappointing’

China may be pushing forward on the path to renewables, but it’s by no means an angel of the environment.

The country is both the largest producer and user of coal, with consumption rising last year for the first time since 2013.

Its smog-riddled skylines are well-known, but Shaw says it’s unfair to bash China without the full context.

Per capita, its emissions are far less than many countries, including the United States, while New Zealand is the fifth biggest emitter by this measure.

China has a big job ahead of it, unquestionably. But so does every other country in the world, he says.

“The rest of the world is moving, at different speeds, I’ll admit, and in one particular case backwards, but for the most part it’s moving.”

China still has a lot of work to do to meet its emissions targets. Photo: Climatechangetracker.org

That little dig is aimed at the United States, whose president Donald Trump signalled the country would likely withdraw from its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

Shaw was disappointed when Trump pulled out but is still hopeful it won’t happen: “He’s clearly demonstrated a willingness to change his mind about things”.

Regardless, it had opened up a door for China to play a larger role.

As a large emitter with significant influence, China could set a strong example by making the bold changes necessary to reach its target of a 60-65 percent reduction of carbon intensity levels by 2030.

For Shaw, New Zealand and China can learn a lot from each other in their attempts to change course.

We are “running up against the boundaries” of how we can treat our environment and resources, he says.

Commitments from farming leaders to the zero-emissions target are hugely important to prepare for the future, but Shaw is a realist – even if we stopped all emissions tomorrow it could still be a rough ride ahead he says.

“I’m actually more confident than I was that New Zealand is going to be able to hit that net zero target by 2050.

“I think it’s challenging, a massive hurdle … globally I think I’ve got increasing confidence that the world will move to reduce emissions. I’m still not sure how much that will affect the outcome.”

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