Victoria University of Wellington is heartened by the ambition and intent being proposed in the Zero Carbon Bill, writes Professor Wendy Larner. 

Along with more than 14,000 other New Zealand individuals and organisations, Victoria University of Wellington made a submission as part of the consultation process for the Government’s proposed Zero Carbon Bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

‘Enhancing the resilience and sustainability of our natural heritage’ is one of the University’s areas of academic strength and we have many researchers charting the course of climate change and seeking ways to mitigate and adapt to its impacts.

The University has experts in climate science, public policy, behaviour change, sustainable energy systems, building technology and design, Māori resource management, environmental economics and law, to name just a few disciplines.

As an organisation, we are reducing our own emissions. Over the past 11 years our greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 20 percent and we have ambitions to do much more. We are currently exploring pathways to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.

The University commends the Government for its commitment to driving policy action to address climate change. The direction and principles it proposes present a very positive step forward for New Zealand.

Beyond the obligations we have to future generations, an effective response to climate change also provides opportunities to enhance New Zealand’s international reputation, to develop new areas of economic growth, to address pressing adaptation needs and to bring communities together and improve the health of our natural environment.

The Government needs to be ambitious in setting New Zealand’s emissions reduction targets. Our current and future student body, the leaders of tomorrow, will be the ones to inherit the predicament if the leaders of today are not ambitious enough.

Targets need to be based not only on the science, but also on ethical and other social and economic considerations. From a scientific perspective, the University’s climate scientists consider New Zealand should be aiming for net-zero emissions for long-lived gases by 2050, because of their cumulative impact. However, our methane emissions from biogenic sources are short-lived and thus do not have the same cumulative effects, so the focus should be on incentivising the moderate reduction of the shorter-lived emissions in proportion to their warming impact.

New Zealand is a prosperous and innovative country and the growing threat of climate change has critical ethical, social and economic dimensions. In addition, emissions already in train will have significant impacts on New Zealand’s ability to adapt. Accordingly, New Zealand should commit to mitigation path targets that are significantly more ambitious than the overall global transition path needed to meet the Paris climate change agreement target of “well below 2oC”. The detail of New Zealand’s international commitments should be calibrated and strengthened accordingly.

Achieving the net-zero target for long-lived gases should be driven by substantially lowering gross emissions. There should be an explicit target for gross emissions reductions so New Zealand’s dependence on forestry sequestration or imported units is limited. Such dependence creates policy uncertainty domestically for forest management, as it intersects with adaptation policy for climate change impacts. We have also learnt since the Kyoto climate change agreement in 1997 that New Zealand is unlikely to face up to gross emissions reductions without a clear time-bound commitment to mitigation action. Acquiring emission reduction units may, within limits, be a practical necessity, but is not a long-term solution. Ensuring a high level of integrity of acquired units is of fundamental importance. The source of those units is less important and could be guided by an independent cost-benefit analysis.

Over the next 30 years, we can expect significant changes in our understanding of climate science, in technological development, in social dynamics, in international negotiations, in the impacts we experience from climate change and our ability to adapt to them.

Any target set now should be able to be revised in response to such changes; however, the mechanism for doing so must ensure the targets remain ambitious and consistency of government action and direction is maintained. The proposed Climate Commission provides a robust governance arrangement for maintaining that ambition and direction.

The evidence from the UK suggests interim emissions budgets are worthwhile in incentivising continual action, particularly for long-lived gases. While a clear target for 2050 is needed, we cannot leave it all until 2049 to make changes, because of the cumulative impact of the emissions and the risk that hasty decisions at the wire will be inefficient and create uncertainty across society and the economy.

We need to be working steadily towards an ambitious end target by managing our emissions until that point, to stay within an allowable cumulative budget. A planned approach will create the certainty needed within the New Zealand community.

Again, the evidence from the United Kingdom suggests the establishment of an independent Climate Commission is worthwhile in holding the Government to account for both mitigation and adaptation, which have synergies and potential risks if not managed together.

Victoria University of Wellington does not have a view on the specific responsibilities and authority the Commission should have; however, it is important it is structured in a manner that ensures it is sheltered from ideological changes in government and can recommend and monitor consistent and clear long-term policy direction.

New Zealanders are already feeling the impacts of climate change, particularly through severe weather events, coastal erosion and inundation from sea level rise and rising ground water. The impacts are going to intensify. Mitigation and adaptation responses affect each other and both need to be independently assessed periodically for progress and effectiveness, preferably using the same monitoring and review approaches.

A Government commitment to progressing adaptation planning and action is required urgently, due to decisions being taken now having a lock-in effect long term that should be avoided.

The opportunity to set up a parallel monitoring and review arrangement for adaptation planning, alongside mitigation, has great efficiency benefits, can avoid policy inconsistency between mitigation and adaptation, and can provide a level of certainty for those addressing climate change impacts and adaptation.

Victoria University of Wellington is heartened by the ambition and intent being proposed in the Zero Carbon Bill. Taking effective action to minimise the impacts of climate change is both an inter-generational responsibility and an opportunity. The Bill recognises that and we, along with so many other New Zealanders, want to help make it happen.

Victoria University of Wellington Professors Jonathan Boston, Dave Frame, James Renwick and Timothy Naish, Associate Professor Ralph Chapman, Dr Judy Lawrence and Sustainability Director Andrew Wilks made valuable contributions to the University’s Zero Carbon Bill submission and this article.

Professor Wendy Larner is Provost of Victoria University of Wellington.

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