What New Zealand does between now and 2030 to combat climate change is more important than what occurs after that, if the country is to have any hope of helping stop the world warming by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, Climate Change Minister James Shaw says.

“Everyone’s sweating about the 2050 target, and clearly that’s important,” he said, referring to the government’s target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

But he said it was the years between now and 2030, when New Zealand has committed to reducing its emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels under the 2015 Paris climate change accord, that were critical to achieving that goal.

“That’s when you bend the curve,” he told the Environmental Defence Society’s annual Business and Climate Change conference in Auckland.

The conference kicked off a day after the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change released a report underscoring the urgency of limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. It implied deep changes to the way people live, including how they eat, farm, travel and consume if the target is to be met.

“It’s the bending of the curve that’s the hard part,” Shaw said. ”Once you’ve got that curve pointing in a downward direction, whether you land at net zero or 75 percent below 1990 levels and what year you hit zero is actually kind of marginal. The hard part is getting, if you’ll pardon the expression, that supertanker to turn in the first place.”

That would make the first three emissions budgets from the proposed independent Climate Change Commission vital. The commission will be created by the Net Zero Carbon legislation that is scheduled to become law next year, and is likely to see the commission produce five yearly emissions budgets. These budgets will both guide and compel governments to make meaningful progress on climate change goals.

“The next 10 to 15 years is important and that puts a lot of pressure on the Climate Commission in those first three emissions budgets and how we manage that in the economy we’ve got because it introduces an element of time that we haven’t really addressed previously,” he said. “If you delay and then you get down to net zero, or whatever the target is, then the chances are you’ll overshoot 1.5 degrees.”

Shaw is now deep in negotiations with his own party, the Greens, both the government’s coalition partners – Labour and NZ First – and the National Party, in an attempt to secure an approach to climate change policy that will endure changes of government.

While he hoped to introduce legislation to Parliament before the end of the year, he signalled potential delay into the new year to get political dialogue completed, with the law coming into force later next year.

The conference heard much about the challenge of moving swiftly without leaving the public behind.

Vicky Robertson, chief executive of the Ministry for the Environment, criticised the approach taken by the Labour government Finance Minister from 1984-88, Roger Douglas. He argued against getting public buy-in for medium-term policy change, which he argued was impossible within the time it took to put major reforms in place.

Robertson said it was important that the first steps in the new government’s agenda be “significant and they do have to lock-in foundations.” She warned against moving at “breakneck speed and hope like hell that people get it”.

She noted a major shift in the willingness to tackle climate change since the change of government a year ago.

National Party environment spokesman Scott Simpson, standing in for the party’s climate change spokesman, Todd Muller, told the conference that National was committed to finding a durable framework for climate change action. Spending extra time on that now was better than setting up conditions for political disruption later, he said.

Shaw said that, despite the scale of the climate change challenge, he drew hope from rapidly shifting attitudes in the farming sector to tackling climate change and the constructive path being taken by National.

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