Bogged down with a cold, Climate Change Minister James Shaw walked to the lectern at Pipitea Marae on Wednesday night to open a consultation hui on what might become his signature achievement: the Zero Carbon bill.
The bill, which will eventually set New Zealand’s emissions targets, has been a long time in the making — and the crowd knew it. Shaw paid tribute to the large contingent from youth activist group Generation Zero, which had given the Zero Carbon Act its name.
“In many ways, this bill and where we’ve gotten to with this bill is as a result of the work that Generation Zero has done,” Shaw said to applause.
Shaw has been up and down the country attending 12 hui where the public could give feedback on the bill.
Wellington was always going to be one of the easier stops on the tour and attendees, some of whom committed the public meeting sin of making comments rather than asking questions, tended to urge more drastic action rather than caution.
But amidst the hometown plaudits there was some serious politicking. Shaw thanked his fellow Government MPs Greg O’Connor, Chloe Swarbrick, and Grant Robertson for turning out, but also thanked National’s Nicola Willis who pointedly took her seat in the front row, close to Shaw.
He also name checked former Prime Minister John Key for his 2008 target of halving net emissions by 2020.
“It’s worth noting that the Paris Agreement was signed and ratified on behalf of New Zealand by a National Government,” Shaw said.
“It was former Climate Ministers Tim Groser and Paula Bennett who signed us up to the Paris Agreement target of becoming net-zero by the second half of this century,” he added.
Few Green MPs have stuck such a conciliatory tone.
But Shaw knows that for a future Zero Carbon Act to work, it will have to work without him or his fellow Greens in office. He said as much back in January when he delivered the Green Party’s annual state of the planet speech.
“This is a generational shift we’re talking about and we won’t be in Government for the entire transition,” Shaw said then.
“We have to beat swords into ploughshares and make friends of our enemies.”
A key feature of the Zero Carbon Act is the flexibility it gives to Governments of any colour to take their own route to meeting New Zealand’s emissions targets.
It establishes a politically independent Climate Change Commission which will help Governments set emissions targets and advise on policies to meet those targets.
It’s modelled on the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, which has operated under both Labour and Conservative Governments and has been instrumental on reducing per person emissions in the UK since it was created in 2008.
Swords into ploughshares
The best part of politics is speaking to the base — delivering rousing lines destined to get a cheer.
But change often comes from telling your base what it doesn’t want to hear. Shaw had to remind the Greens, fresh from their first victory, that true change would come by entrenching climate legislation for when they eventually lost.
Luckily for Shaw, his opposite number has shown similar tact.
In June, National leader Simon Bridges wrote to Shaw to advise him that he would work alongside the coalition Government to establish the Climate Change Commission. In an act of particular political courage, Bridges announced this to a crowd of farmers at Fieldays.
Bridges laid out his caveats, but left open the eventual possibility of agriculture eventually joining the ETS.
He confronted the most pernicious argument against New Zealand taking any action against climate change — that it is too small to make a difference.
“Despite our small individual profile of one-fifth of one per cent of global emissions, our size does not abdicate us from our responsibility,” Bridges said.
National polls consistently above Labour and since it was established in 1936 it has held office far more often than Labour. Its support is in the rural heartland, which inconveniently is also where most of New Zealand’s emissions come from: 49.2 percent of New Zealand’s 2016 emissions came from agriculture.
Shaw knows he needs the National Party and agricultural sector onboard if the Zero Carbon Act is to have any chance of success.